Is Progress Real?

03/10/2015 09:02 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015

"Since we have admitted no substantial change in man's nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends - the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars." So wrote Will and Ariel Durant near the start of their essay, the third and last I am featuring, "Is Progress Real?" It's a cracking read; I shall summarize the thesis, before adding my own gloss.

First, they start to say No

In good dialectical fashion, they start by putting the case against real progress. Technological progress - no big deal. Science - "one of the discouraging discoveries ... is that science is neutral: it will kill as readily as heal, and will destroy more readily than it can build." Speed - "we double, triple, centuple our speed, but we shatter our nerves in the process, and are the same trousered apes at 2,000 miles an hour as when we had legs." Media - "we have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village."

And so on. Has there been any progress in philosophy since Confucius, or in literature since Aeschylus? Is our music any more inspiring than Palestrina or the airs of the medieval Arabs? And if the essence of art and civilization is bringing order out of chaos, what does that say about contemporary painting, "the replacement of order with chaos"?

They admit, however, that "history is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion can be made by a selection of instances". So they ask us to define what progress means to us. "If it means increase in happiness its case is lost ... Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount ... we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable."

Instead, "we shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life." The issue, then, is whether the average person has greater control over the conditions of their life.

The Case for Progress

This is where they start turning the argument. Primitive tribes have greater infant mortality, greater incidence of disease, and much shorter lives. The prolongation of modern life indicates greater control of the environment. Famine has been eliminated in modern states. And now science and technology are not written off so blithely. "Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?"

But it is in the spread of education that the Durants see the glory of the modern age and the best evidence for progress. "If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing ... our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all ... we have raised the level and average level of knowledge beyond any age in history."

Parents will, if they are lucky, gather up as much as they can of their civilized heritage and pass it on to their children. With their dying breath the parents "will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life."

My Take on Progress

I agree. But I would go further.

Material progress in the past five or six centuries has been nothing short of astounding. About 200 years ago, rather suddenly in the long panorama of history, economic growth in the West became unstoppable. The history of humans up to that point had been one of modest or zero growth. Population and living standards were flattened remorselessly by nature, by hunger and disease. Between 1750 and 1820, England entered the machine age. Machines brought automatic growth; despite periodic recessions, growth has never since ceased. With the extension of free markets around the world, and levels of trade that continue to advance, prosperity has extended to more and more people. An unprecedented surge in income levels has coexisted with an unprecedented surge in population - previously the two indicators always moved in opposite directions.

The arrival of self-extending growth is the most important change in human history, making humanity a biological success. In 1820, the highest income per head in the world was in the UK - expressed in 2013 dollars it was $3,126. In 2013 the UK had dropped down the league table but the average income had soared to $41,787 (according to the World Bank/OECD), some 13 times higher. The second country in 1820 was the Netherlands, with average income in 2013 dollars of $2,779. In 2013 it was $50,793, more than 18 times higher. In 1820 Australia came third, with income of $2,720 - but in 2013 that had risen 25 times to $67,458. For the USA, $2,291 had turned into $53,042, 23 times higher. China - respectively $930 and $6,807.

This is not just a matter of money. Rising living standards have been accompanied by longer lives, a more comfortable existence, less pain and disease, and greater dignity for all. And psychologists have shown that, at least up to a level of $15,000 per head income, rising wealth is accompanied by rising levels of reported happiness.

In the political sphere, the numbers and proportions of people living in liberal democratic states have steadily increased over the past 250 years. Liberal society is the most successful formula yet devised - and probably that could ever be devised - for combining a vibrant and dynamic economy and society with the highest ideals of human worth and autonomy.

Liberalism is the theory and practice of freedom. Despite all our grumbles and myopia, the advances of liberalism in the past 50 years, especially in the West, have been magnificent. Freedom for women to live in broad equality with men, to pursue equivalent careers, and to be treated with similar regard, is something that would have seemed a pipe dream as late as the 1950s. Freedom for people of all races and equality in all regards is something the world has never seen before. Freedom for gay people to pursue their lives unhindered by prejudice and legal oppression is something that has only come about in my lifetime. Concern for animals and the environment has never been higher. These are not negligible advances; they follow on from earlier triumphs in the abolition of slavery, child labor, and cruel punishments. There is much more to do, and no room for complacency, but there should be room for historical perspective - the achievements of liberal society are amazing, a mark of extraordinary progress.

I am not arguing that we are more virtuous than previous generations - the Durants were right that human nature has not changed fundamentally. But economic growth provides the leeway for a more civilized society, one in which free education and leisure for ordinary people, and many other amenities, can be provided. Democracy ensures that government represents the opinions of the people, imperfectly and with the bias of the political class still evident, but far better than any other political system. Together, free markets and free politics lead to a much better society.

As Will and Ariel Durant said, progress means increasing control of our surroundings. Our mission is to rise above the horrid and pointless passage of nature, to bend the universe to human will, to improve our lives, that of other creatures, and to put the best type of humanity into effect. Progress means transforming life, making it more civilized, more human, more purposeful, more dignified, and full of love. By accidents of history and perhaps more than that, we have been given the chance to make the world something we can be proud of, something worthy of the best forces on heaven and on earth. There is a long way to go; but equally, we have already come a long way.

Is progress real? Yes, if we make it so.

I shall now be blogging fortnightly instead of weekly. The next blog will be Tuesday, March 24. If before then you are unfortunate enough to suffer "Koch Blog Anxiety", go to and read one of the archived blogs!