Culture Magazine

Yes, We’ve Made Progress, but Not Without Pain [Progress Studies]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Many humanists wince at the mere thought of progress studies because it conjures up ethnocentric and presentist visions of history in which the current era and current nation (of whoever is doing the thinking) is proposed, implicitly if not explicitly, as the best of all possible worlds and, as such, the logical terminus of historical development. As far as I can tell, no one involved in the push for progress studies actually believes such a thing – though there is certainly some technological boosterism here and there – but it is worth being reminded that progress has often cost us dearly. Thus I present two articles on that theme by the late David Hays.
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David G. Hays, On the Painfulness of Progress, Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 28 No. 4, November 1994, pp. 322-327.
Raoul Naroll planned to call a book on cultural evolution Painful Progress. The progressiveness of evolution is apparent in data on longevity, economic inequality, and so forth. What Naroll intended to say about pain cannot be known, but he opened and closed The Moral Order by mentioning the pain of incomprehension. The author argues that progress causes such pain during periods of transition but alleviates this and other kinds of pain over the long term.
David G. Hays, Relativism and Progress, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 18(1): 9-32, 1995.
From the introduction (p. 10):
Working apparently without knowledge of Naroll, Leonard Sagan (1987) examined the facts of life and death in human history and concluded that increase in human life expectancy cannot be explained by improvements in sanitation, nutrition, and medicine, because these improvements either came after increase in longevity or were ineffective. Instead, doubling of the human lifespan must be due to “the rise of hope and the decline of despair” in the modern world, following the French Enlightenment. Sagan describes his book as dense with unproved assertions, but to the extent that his conclusions are correct, they provide an alternative justification for Naroll’s core values. If longer, healthier lives on the average are not preferable to short, sickly ones, what significance remains for the act of valuing? (We have to say “on the average” to allow for extraordinary situations where illness or early death serves a great purpose.) And, more significantly, if shortness of life and bad health are due to hopelessness and despair, all relativistic questions about happiness and quality of life are gainsaid.
The body of the article examines worldwide statistics on health, wealth, and social life and an appendix gives 32 scatter plots depicting the data.

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