Saturday, January 03, 2015

Book Review: A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright

A Short History of Progress [AmazonGoodreads] by Ronald Wright was published in 2004 alongside Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything [AmazonGoodreads]. Wright and Bryson were hardly the first to summarize human history in a few short pages and will certainly not be the last. They do seem to have been at the forefront of an explosion of such books in the last decade. That outpouring has included such bestsellers as A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage [AmazonGoodreads] in 2006 and A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor [AmazonGoodreads] in 2010. This year has brought A Short History of the World by Christopher Lascelles [AmazonGoodreads].
Most of these histories simply summarize the work of many others who have painstakingly wrested our past from the ground, from oral and written traditions, and from newer techniques like genetics and linguistics. Wright actually proposes a new theory of human cultural evolution. He analyses the very nature of our cultural progress from hunter-gatherer groups to our present global monoculture and comes to the conclusion that we are vulnerable for some very understandable reasons. He introduces his concept of a progress trap, in which an invention initially provides great benefits but its use at scale results in greater risk. "[W]hen the bang we can make can blow up our world, we have made rather too much progress." His analysis is strong and, in spite of several nits that are worth picking, his conclusions stand firm.
Wright has summarized his book in a short film called Surviving Progress , directed by Martin Scorsese, which is available on popular video sharing sites such as Netflix. Wright's Web site is at
Wright, like Winston Churchill ("The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see") believes that the scrutinization of our past can guide us in our future: "If we can see clearly what we are and what we have done, we can recognize human behavior that persists through many times and cultures. Knowing this can tell us what we are likely to do, where we are likely to go from here."
I both agree and disagree with that, Wright's central thesis. I think we can and should, indeed must, gain the insight to see clearly who we are as a species. Wright says that our cultural history to date has been like "sleepwalking" from crisis to invention to new crisis, and he is correct in that our trajectory has been more an emergent feature of many individual actions than a clear-eyed macroscopic set of policies. Even now we struggle to scale our actions to match the scope of our civilization. However, I do not believe that we dare apply our newfound knowledge to impact only culture. Our stone age brains are just not suited to solving the problems that our sleepwalking has led us to. We have been sleepwalking to the edge of a cliff and should really wake up before we step off. Says Wright,
Like all creatures, humans have made their way in the world by trial and error; unlike other creatures, we have a presence that is so colossal that error is a luxury we can no longer afford. The world has grown to small to afford us any big mistakes.
The problem is that, by Wright's own analysis, we are really very unlikely to operate efficiently for the first time in our history. We will need to upgrade our stone age brain for that to happen. We are now in a race to see which happens first, the end of our global culture or the application of our new-found scientific knowledge to change what we are as a species.
Let's reconsider a quote from Wright that I mentioned earlier: "[W]hen the bang we can make can blow up our world, we have made rather too much progress." That statement is true in at least two conditions. The first is when human decision making is such that someone might actually decide to blow up the world. That was the worry during the Cold War with its literally insane doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). It is a worry still that the nuclear arsenals of the Cold War not only exist but are being constantly maintained and even upgraded. The only thing that has changed is that the nuclear forces are not routinely at their highest levels of alertness. We have made too much progress when our stone age brains have not caught up with our ability to create a bigger bang. This applies to politicians as much as suicide bombers.
The second condition in which we should worry is when a big bang might go off accidentally. We often put more effort into building a big bang maker than in ensuring that it is a safe and maintainable technology. This was the case when the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia disintegrated in mid flight, and when the RMS Titanic sank beneath the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
As far as I can tell, Wright explored neither of these two conditions. He simply noted that too much progress could be made. He didn't explain why. That would be a useful topic for a later book. I suggest that changing one or both of those conditions will require a change to the human animal.
Wright notes that our present idea of progress is tightly tied to the Industrial Revolution and its Victorian idea of a "ladder" of progress. Like the idea of a ladder of evolution, the very idea is flawed and illustrates a very basic difference between our human intuition of the world and the truth of it. We were not destined to develop in the way that we did, either culturally or as a species. Evolution may solve any given problem in a variety of ways.
The idea of progress has become a modern myth. "Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture's deepest values and aspirations...Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time." This is our stone age brain at work. We have a primitive need to establish myths as a tool to establish communities, and to promulgate those communities by living by the myths. The abstraction of reality by myth may be a useful technique for a limited brain, but we will need to see reality much more clearly than we currently do to navigate our immediate future with anything less than a societal collapse coupled with further mass extinctions and catastrophic global climate change. That is, of course, if we avoid both nuclear war and a complete ecological collapse.
Is the situation really that dire? We might like to think not. We might reasonably think that we can avoid catastrophe through continued technical advancement. This is the point made by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance [AmazonGoodreads]. Levitt and Dubner open the sequel to their best-selling Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything [AmazonGoodreads] by reminding us of the tragic state of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Large cities had reached a practical limit to their growth because horse excrement was created much faster than it could be removed. An amazing five million pounds of the stuff was generated by the equine bellies of New York every day. Levitt and Dubner paint a smelly picture:
In vacant lots, horse manure was piled as high as sixty feet. It lined city streets like banks of snow. In the summertime, it stank to the heavens; when the rains came, a soupy stream of horse manure flooded the crosswalks and seeped into people's basements. Today, when you admire old New York brownstones and their elegant stoops, rising from street level to the second-story parlor, keep in mind that this was a design necessity, allowing a home owner to rise above the sea of horse manure.
It was of course the automobile, and its distant cousin the electric streetcar, that removed the horse from the streets of New York. Levitt and Dubner trumpet our species' ability to solve every problem we face in a similar way. We can simply keep inventing. Wright, far from dismissing this idea, acknowledges it and also points to its built-in limitation: "A seductive trail of successes," says Wright, "may end in a trap." A progress trap. What will happen to our huge cities when we cannot solve the next challenge in time?
It has happened before. Ours is not the first society to face an existential crisis due to overusing resources. The others tell their stories only to archaeologists and historians. One instantly brings to mind Shelley's Ozymandias, written as an ode to the discovery in 1817 of a broken statue of Egyptian pharoah Ramesses II:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
As Wright notes, "Each time history repeats itself, the cost goes up."
We sometimes extrapolate poorly because we cannot see obvious solutions to the problems we have caused. We also sometimes look to the positive when we should not. This was likely the case when a group of climate scientists reported in 2012 that anthropogenic climate change would delay the next ice age. Much media coverage was given to the positive aspects of climate change. "It's an interesting philosophical discussion - 'would we better off in a warm [interglacial-type] world rather than a glaciation?' and probably we would,"said one of the authors, Dr. Luke Skinner of Cambridge University in a BBC interview, "But it's missing the point, because where we're going is not maintaining our currently warm climate but heating it much further, and adding CO2 to a warm climate is very different from adding it to a cold climate. The rate of change with CO2 is basically unprecedented, and there are huge consequences if we can't cope with that." Indeed.
Wright's initial and most powerful examples of progress traps are hunting ("Palaeolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt how to kill 200 - by driving a whole herd over a cliff - had made too much.") and farming. Along the way he returns often to the one that scares him most: The prehistoric control of fire that led all the way to nuclear weapons.
He does not touch on the one that scares me the most. The so-called Green Revolution has tied the production of our food supply to non-renewable petrochemicals for fertilizer and transportation. I might temporarily look past that if the end result were not a dangerous increase in the number of babies born. Our population has spiked to match our food supply, and quite ignores other minor annoyances such as fresh water, and the limitations of fish, wild animals and non-farm plants. Feeding all the babies we can make is made obscene by the refusal of the Catholic Church to permit the distribution of birth control measures in the poorest countries. It is by the much lauded Green Revolution that we hasten our collapse.
Wright attempts to view our species from the outside, as if he were the mythical anthropologist from another planet. His objective stance shows us for the violent ape that we are, and suggests that we are likely responsible for killing off other intelligent hominids. "[P]rehistory, like history, teaches us that the nice folk didn't win, that we are at best the heirs of many ruthless victories and at worst the heirs of genocide." We are what we are, it seems, and culture can only go so far to clean us up.
Wright notes that two civilizations were quite long-lived, the ancient Maya and the ancient Egyptians. Recent evidence suggests that the Mayan civilization collapsed due to climate change. It would seem that their population was built, as with others, to the limit of their available resources. Climate change has also been suggested as a possible culprit in the demise of the Egyptian New Kingdom. These new findings support Wright's conclusions in a way that he could not have known in 2004.
Wright may or may not have been right about Neanderthal genocide. He acknowledges that he is not certain. However, his point is well taken about the Neanderthal-Cro Magnon war being "so gradual that it may have ben barely perceptible - a fitful, inconclusive war with land lost and won at the rate of a few miles in a lifetime." We no longer have the luxury of living in the nearly timeless wars of our ancestors. We are suddenly asked to adjust several times in a lifetime to complete cultural shifts - and we are ill suited for it.
Wright and I almost parted ways in regard to his description of early agriculture. The Neolithic Revolution, as the advent of farming has been known since the archaeologist Gordon Childe coined the phrase, has fallen on hard times in the decade since I spent time studying it.  My generation was taught in school that the revolution was a single event that occurred in Mesopotamia's  Fertile Crescent, and something that happened quickly, in the span of a single generation. Modern scholarship has disabused both notions.
Agriculture was indeed the single most necessary condition for the rise of civilization. Agriculture infers settlements. Our diet today consists of the same basic cereals that were farmed first. Wright uses current scholarship to point out that the Neolithic Revolution could not have been an isolated innovation, that it could not have occurred in a particular location, and that it was more likely to have been a strategy of desperation.
Our Neolithic forebears, modern humans in every sense of the word save culture, had an intimate understanding of plant life. They carefully observed the passing of the seasons. They knew when and where individual plants passed through their life cycles. There was no single moment of innovation that translated that knowledge into a decision to control the process. Scholars have agreed with this view for some years, starting with the popularization of the concept by the biologist Colin Tudge in his short masterpiece Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began [AmazonGoodreads]. They have been split until recently on whether farming started in one place and spread (the "diffusion" theory) or whether it was independently invented in multiple locations (the "parallel development" theory). I was a staunch diffusionist until reading Wright's book and following through his bibliography.
I have long held diffusionist beliefs for the simple and insufficient reason that I thought it somehow more likely that such an important invention required a sole genius. I must now admit that I was wrong. New findings in the Americas and elsewhere support Wright's contention that farming was a reaction to the end of the last ice age in many places at times that corresponded with the movement of the ice. The diffusion theory seems to have died the death that it deserved. That tells us something fundamental about human inventiveness: It strongly suggests that individual invention is not nearly as important in the course of human affairs as the environmental conditions in which a larger group of people find themselves. This is not simply "geographical determinism", but a recognition of the importance of the impact of geography on the development of societies. It also speaks to the capability of people to respond to environmental changes in the absence of a generational genius.
Diffusion wasn't necessary because hunter-gatherer groups already knew how to farm. They simply chose not to. They had intimate knowledge of plants, their timings and their ranges. They probably also understood that they could eat better by gathering plants than by growing a few. It would have been beyond obvious to them that hunting would be seriously curtailed by having a fixed settlement.
So why did agriculture come to dominate? Agriculture is a meme, in the sense proposed by the person who devised the word, Richard Dawkins. A meme is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." (The Selfish Gene [AmazonGoodreads]). Dawkins had in mind a unit of cultural transmission that was parallel to, and in some ways similar to, a gene. A successful meme spreads so well that it comes to dominate a culture.
Agriculture came to dominate for a very simple reason: Farmers do not need to practice infanticide to control their population. Hunter-gatherers and herders always do. Farming populations, no matter how sickly and limited in nutrition, have a lot of babies and keep as many as they can manage. They outbreed hunter-gatherers in a few generations.
The hunter-gatherer practice of infanticide by exposure keeps their numbers balanced with their environment. We hear echoes of infanticide by exposure and its justification as religious sacrifice in the earliest Western literature. The Pentateuch includes several (such as Exodus 1:16 "When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.") and the the Iliad (Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to gain favorable winds to sail to Troy!). The nomadic herders and early farmers of the Pentateuch and the Iliad had more in common with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle than with modern farmers.
Tudge has suggested another important aspect to farming. He pointed out that farming changes the very nature of the predator-prey balance in an ecology:
Today, suburban domestic cats provide the perfect model. They are sustained by Kit-e-Kat and Whiskas, and remain thick on the ground even when the local song-birds and mice decline. Hence they remain a predatory force long after the prey species have become extremely rare. For prey animals in a state of nature rarity is a refuge. But when the predator has secure, independent food base, mere scarcity is no longer protective.
It was farming that separated humans from the rest of nature. We have considered ourselves separate ever since.
Wright has leaned rather heavily on the works of Gordon Childe, especially his What Happened in History [AmazonGoodreads]. Childe, a lifelong atheist and dedicated Marxist, is rightly remembered for having placed archaeology on a purely materialistic basis. It was Childe's Marxism that led him to a material understanding of the past ahead of his peers. However, one might reasonably question his contention that human progress was essentially a class struggle from prehistoric times. It might have been better for Wright to have carefully read Childe's own 1951 treatise on human progress, Man Makes Himself [AmazonGoodreads].
Wright might very well be wrong about "most" humans being familiar with constant struggle and starvation. That has certainly been true since agriculture began but is unlikely to have been true for hunter-gatherers and has rapidly become less true since the Green Revolution according to the United Nation's World Food Program. Today's population is both the largest in history by far and the best fed since agriculture began, as dire as the situation is for tens of millions of people in poor countries.
If hunter-gatherers had leisure time, we need to chip away at another long held presumption about farming's influence. Perhaps it is not so much that farming's surpluses enabled cultural specialists as it allowed them to build faster on their own inventions. Any inventor's shop is littered with earlier models. Farmers benefit from specialized tools and, critically, can afford to store them when they are not being used. Nomadic hunter-gatherers are, by every aspect of our current understanding, just as capable of invention as farmers, but eschew carrying extra tools in the same way that they eschew carrying extra babies.
"The modern human animal - our physical being - is a generalist." Wright tell us. "We have no fangs, claws, or venom built into our bodies. Instead, we've devised tools and weapons - knives, spearheads, poisoned arrows... Our specialization is the brain." This separates us from over-specialized species like the panda or the koala, both of which suffer from over-specializing on single foodstuffs. We are still not able to escape the judgement of history. Nothing does. History is not over for us. Even if we survive, we seem to be taking down most other species with us.
So among the things that we need to know about ourselves is that the Upper Paleolithic period, which may well have begun in genocide, ended with an all-you-can-kill barbecue. The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game. Most of the great human migrations across the world at this time must have been driven by want, as we bankrupted the land with our moveable feasts.
Wright's "all-you-can-eat barbecue" is known to anthropologists as the Pleistocene Overkill.
He also does a fine job correcting the historical record where it has been munged by the xenophobes of our recent imperial past. Evidence for some small amount of continued communication between Polynesia and the Americas, for example, serves to illustrate a larger point that trade between "primitives" was often denied out of hand as impossible.
Wright makes a strong case that humans live beyond their means whenever the conditions enable them to do so. It is only when environmental conditions make human life marginal that humans are forced to live close to the Earth. Extant hunter-gatherers live that way because they are forced to. Wright uses two particular examples of this phenomenon to make his case. He analyzes the environmental degradation caused by early farming in the (previously) Fertile Crescent and the religiously driven degradation of Easter Island. 
 The example of Easter Island is particularly troubling because it shows that, at least in one place and time, religious beliefs encouraged a people to bring their civilization crashing down. It is amazing that any of them survived. That, at least, is a testament to the tenacity of our ability to survive if not to prosper. Wright rightly points out that, whether or not the Easter Islanders saw it coming, the person who chopped down the island's last tree certainly did know what he was doing. 
 Two other examples, not in Wright's history, serve to reinforce his point. The harbor of Athens, Piraeus, was originally an island separated from the city by a salty tidal plain. The name of the plain, Halipedon, means "salt field" - showing some societal memory of the event. Although modern classical scholars sometimes debate whether ancient Romans and Greeks understood the impact their activities were having on the environment, I cannot understand why this is so. Both Plato and Aristotle recorded complaints about harbor silt and blamed it on agricultural runoff. Perhaps the situation was more like our own in relation to anthropogenic climate change: The situation was obvious to a few educated elite, but the powers that be were inadequately motivated to change the basis of their wealth and power. The similarity with our current situation is not lost on me.
My favorite example of the degradation of farming is the desert of Libya, once known with Western Egypt as the "granary of Rome". It's fragile grasslands briefly supported bountiful grain harvests. The removal of its loosened topsoil by the ghibli winds ended that description.
There are surely some who are working hard to balance our planet's environment. We are a distributed species, each of us taking our own actions. Some of us, for moral, ethical, philosophical, or religious reasons, would rather maintain our biosphere instead of using it up. They attempt to balance those more self-centered individuals who are out for number one. Unfortunately, the latter have wrested power since the halcyon days of Sumer. It is not by coincidence that environmental activists like Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), are considered to be radical and even dangerous by business and political leaders. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, was blasted in 2013 for using material prepared by Greenpeace and the WWF. In a fight between advocacy groups, businesses, and governments, one cannot reasonably expect advocacy groups to win.
There have been some significant environmental victories, most notably the US the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the 1970s. Unfortunately, there have been significant attempts to roll back that legislation by the Republican Party from 2002 to the present, including a bill passed in the US House of Representatives recently with an impressive, and depressing, majority of 262-152. Economics, it is said, is the science of incentives. Business interests will return to dominate whenever ecology is in anything less than absolute crisis.
Wright seems to have missed mentioning, and seeing the importance of, the Baldwin Effect. Evolution, that "universal acid" as philosopher Daniel Dennett called it, is the mechanism that created us, and the Baldwin Effect is the evolutionary means by which we acquired an ability to learn. The psychologist James Baldwin proposed the effect an 1896 paper. Learning, the type of learning gifted to us by evolution, is the single most important mechanism of cultural extension to future generations. It is the Baldwin Effect that allows culture to build upon itself. Wright notes the powerful ratcheting of culture without mentioning the key aspect of evolutionary theory that predicts it. Critically, once a child is born that has an advanced ability to learn, it can learn from its parents. This one fact is sufficient, in the extreme form taken by the human race, to create progress, and Wright's progress traps.
Yuval Noah Harari, in his 2014 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind [AmazonGoodreads], blames our dangerous situation squarely, if indirectly, on the limitations of the Baldwin Effect. Wright, if he has read Harari, will curse the timing of his publication. "We tell each other stories", Harari said in a recent interview  following the book's release. "It does not matter whether they are true." Therein lies our greatest strength and our greatest failure.
Religions well illustrate how people act in the face of direction. Harari notes that Christianity became "the world's most successful religion" while being simultaneously "a complete fiction". Our ability to cooperate was greatly enhanced by the development of language, and language enabled us to pass down hard won lessons from generation to generation. Unfortunately, we cannot tell when someone is lying to us. We also have a difficult time passing down metaphor, which is often taken as literal truth by recipients and becomes religion. Our stories can thus lead us astray and become maladaptive. It is our belief in these stories, our culture, that can slow our reactions to new threats such as environmental degradation. Our stories and other aspects of group cohesion compete with our intellect to sustain a civilization. When the intellect is right and the stories wrong, we can find ourselves on the path to hell.
We really do sleepwalk through our lives. Modern neuroscience suggests that this should be no surprise, since we are not nearly as conscious as we think we are (c.f. The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity by Bruce Hood [AmazonGoodreads]). We are conscious enough, though, to see that we are stepping off of a very high cliff. As Wright says, we have kicked out the rungs under us as we have climbed the ladder of progress. Our failure will kill billions. This now seems to be nearly inevitable - exactly the kind of bad news story that does not sell. Like the Sumerians, whose rulers died or moved when sediment salted their farmland, we flirt with total collapse. Like the Easter Islanders, we have nowhere left to run.
Wright correctly notes the large-scale similarities of civilizations worldwide. His depiction of the development of kingship, with its attendant supposition that some people's lives are more valuable than others, is intentionally and eerily reminiscent of extant governments, regardless of style, philosophies, or record of human rights abuses. His point that all post-agricultural societies share this concept, and all hunter-gatherer societies reject it, is well taken. It is odd, then, that he fails to contrast the daily life of a notional slave with an agricultural serf or the persistent underclasses of today's urbanity. He is too willing to suggest that legal slavery belongs to the past when recognizable forms are institutionalized in most modern states. For all of Wright's dire warnings, he is perhaps not as pessimistic as he should be.
The astronomer Carl Sagan once said, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself". He very carefully did not say the way. It really is up to us whether we choose to continue to sleepwalk through our daily lives while we allow vast historical cycles to knock us back to the stone age, or whether, like Hamlet, we dare take arms against the sea of our troubles. That sea is all the more deep for being buried deep within what we are as a species.

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