What is progress? How far have we really come?

JDN 2457534

It is a controversy that has lasted throughout the ages: Is the world getting better? Is it getting worse? Or is it more or less staying the same, changing in ways that don’t really constitute improvements or detriments?

The most obvious and indisputable change in human society over the course of history has been the advancement of technology. At one extreme there are techno-utopians, who believe that technology will solve all the world’s problems and bring about a glorious future; at the other extreme are anarcho-primitivists, who maintain that civilization, technology, and industrialization were all grave mistakes, removing us from our natural state of peace and harmony.

I am not a techno-utopian—I do not believe that technology will solve all our problems—but I am much closer to that end of the scale. Technology has solved a lot of our problems, and will continue to solve a lot more. My aim in this post is to convince you that progress is real, that things really are, on the whole, getting better.

One of the more baffling arguments against progress comes from none other than Jared Diamond, the social scientist most famous for Guns, Germs and Steel (which oddly enough is mainly about horses and goats). About seven months before I was born, Diamond wrote an essay for Discover magazine arguing quite literally that agriculture—and by extension, civilization—was a mistake.

Diamond fortunately avoids the usual argument based solely on modern hunter-gatherers, which is a selection bias if ever I heard one. Instead his main argument seems to be that paleontological evidence shows an overall decrease in health around the same time as agriculture emerged. But that’s still an endogeneity problem, albeit a subtler one. Maybe agriculture emerged as a response to famine and disease. Or maybe they were both triggered by rising populations; higher populations increase disease risk, and are also basically impossible to sustain without agriculture.

I am similarly dubious of the claim that hunter-gatherers are always peaceful and egalitarian. It does seem to be the case that herders are more violent than other cultures, as they tend to form honor cultures that punish all sleights with overwhelming violence. Even after the Industrial Revolution there were herder honor cultures—the Wild West. Yet as Steven Pinker keeps trying to tell people, the death rates due to homicide in all human cultures appear to have steadily declined for thousands of years.

I read an article just a few days ago on the Scientific American blog which included the following claim so astonishingly nonsensical it makes me wonder if the authors can even do arithmetic or read statistical tables correctly:

I keep reminding readers (see Further Reading), the evidence is overwhelming that war is a relatively recent cultural invention. War emerged toward the end of the Paleolithic era, and then only sporadically. A new study by Japanese researchers published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters corroborates this view.

Six Japanese scholars led by Hisashi Nakao examined the remains of 2,582 hunter-gatherers who lived 12,000 to 2,800 years ago, during Japan’s so-called Jomon Period. The researchers found bashed-in skulls and other marks consistent with violent death on 23 skeletons, for a mortality rate of 0.89 percent.

That is supposed to be evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers were peaceful? The global homicide rate today is 62 homicides per million people per year. Using the worldwide life expectancy of 71 years (which is biasing against modern civilization because our life expectancy is longer), that means that the worldwide lifetime homicide rate is 4,400 homicides per million people, or 0.44%—that’s less than half the homicide rate of these “peaceful” hunter-gatherers. If you compare just against First World countries, the difference is even starker; let’s use the US, which has the highest homicide rate in the First World. Our homicide rate is 38 homicides per million people per year, which at our life expectancy of 79 years is 3,000 homicides per million people, or an overall homicide rate of 0.3%, slightly more than a third of this “peaceful” ancient culture. The most peaceful societies today—notably Japan, where these remains were found—have homicide rates as low as 3 per million people per year, which is a lifetime homicide rate of 0.02%, forty times smaller than their supposedly utopian ancestors. (Yes, all of Japan has fewer total homicides than Chicago. I’m sure it has nothing to do with their extremely strict gun control laws.) Indeed, to get a modern homicide rate as high as these hunter-gatherers, you need to go to a country like Congo, Myanmar, or the Central African Republic. To get a substantially higher homicide rate, you essentially have to be in Latin America. Honduras, the murder capital of the world, has a lifetime homicide rate of about 6.7%.

Again, how did I figure these things out? By reading basic information from publicly-available statistical tables and then doing some simple arithmetic. Apparently these paleoanthropologists couldn’t be bothered to do that, or didn’t know how to do it correctly, before they started proclaiming that human nature is peaceful and civilization is the source of violence. After an oversight as egregious as that, it feels almost petty to note that a sample size of a few thousand people from one particular region and culture isn’t sufficient data to draw such sweeping judgments or speak of “overwhelming” evidence.

Of course, in order to decide whether progress is a real phenomenon, we need a clearer idea of what we mean by progress. It would be presumptuous to use per-capita GDP, though there can be absolutely no doubt that technology and capitalism do in fact raise per-capita GDP. If we measure by inequality, modern society clearly fares much worse (our top 1% share and Gini coefficient may be higher than Classical Rome!), but that is clearly biased in the opposite direction, because the main way we have raised inequality is by raising the ceiling, not lowering the floor. Most of our really good measures (like the Human Development Index) only exist for the last few decades and can barely even be extrapolated back through the 20th century.

How about babies not dying? This is my preferred measure of a society’s value. It seems like something that should be totally uncontroversial: Babies dying is bad. All other things equal, a society is better if fewer babies die.

I suppose it doesn’t immediately follow that all things considered a society is better if fewer babies die; maybe the dying babies could be offset by some greater good. Perhaps a totalitarian society where no babies die is in fact worse than a free society in which a few babies die, or perhaps we should be prepared to accept some small amount of babies dying in order to save adults from poverty, or something like that. But without some really powerful overriding reason, babies not dying probably means your society is doing something right. (And since most ancient societies were in a state of universal poverty and quite frequently tyranny, these exceptions would only strengthen my case.)

Well, get ready for some high-yield truth bombs about infant mortality rates.

It’s hard to get good data for prehistoric cultures, but the best data we have says that infant mortality in ancient hunter-gatherer cultures was about 20-50%, with a best estimate around 30%. This is statistically indistinguishable from early agricultural societies.

Indeed, 30% seems to be the figure humanity had for most of history. Just shy of a third of all babies died for most of history.

In Medieval times, infant mortality was about 30%.

This same rate (fluctuating based on various plagues) persisted into the Enlightenment—Sweden has the best records, and their infant mortality rate in 1750 was about 30%.

The decline in infant mortality began slowly: During the Industrial Era, infant mortality was about 15% in isolated villages, but still as high as 40% in major cities due to high population densities with poor sanitation.

Even as recently as 1900, there were US cities with infant mortality rates as high as 30%, though the overall rate was more like 10%.

Most of the decline was recent and rapid: Just within the US since WW2, infant mortality fell from about 5.5% to 0.7%, though there remains a substantial disparity between White and Black people.

Globally, the infant mortality rate fell from 6.3% to 3.2% within my lifetime, and in Africa today, the region where it is worst, it is about 5.5%—or what it was in the US in the 1940s.

This precipitous decline in babies dying is the main reason ancient societies have such low life expectancies; actually once they reached adulthood they lived to be about 70 years old, not much worse than we do today. So my multiplying everything by 71 actually isn’t too far off even for ancient societies.

Let me make a graph for you here, of the approximate rate of babies dying over time from 10,000 BC to today:


Let’s zoom in on the last 250 years, where the data is much more solid:


I think you may notice something in these graphs. There is quite literally a turning point for humanity, a kink in the curve where we suddenly begin a rapid decline from an otherwise constant mortality rate.

That point occurs around or shortly before 1800—that is, it occurs at industrial capitalism. Adam Smith (not to mention Thomas Jefferson) was writing at just about the point in time when humanity made a sudden and unprecedented shift toward saving the lives of millions of babies.

So now, think about that the next time you are tempted to say that capitalism is an evil system that destroys the world; the evidence points to capitalism quite literally saving babies from dying.

How would it do so? Well, there’s that rising per-capita GDP we previously ignored, for one thing. But more important seems to be the way that industrialization and free markets support technological innovation, and in this case especially medical innovation—antibiotics and vaccines. Our higher rates of literacy and better communication, also a result of raised standard of living and improved technology, surely didn’t hurt. I’m not often in agreement with the Cato Institute, but they’re right about this one: Industrial capitalism is the chief source of human progress.

Billions of babies would have died but we saved them. So yes, I’m going to call that progress. Civilization, and in particular industrialization and free markets, have dramatically improved human life over the last few hundred years.

In a future post I’ll address one of the common retorts to this basically indisputable fact: “You’re making excuses for colonialism and imperialism!” No, I’m not. Saying that modern capitalism is a better system (not least because it saves babies) is not at all the same thing as saying that our ancestors were justified in using murder, slavery, and tyranny to force people into it.


4 thoughts on “What is progress? How far have we really come?

  1. […] In a post last week I presented some of the overwhelming evidence that society has been getting better over time, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution. I focused mainly on infant mortality rates—babies not dying—but there are lots of other measures you could use as well. Despite popular belief, poverty is rapidly declining, and is now the lowest it’s ever been. War is rapidly declining. Crime is rapidly declining in First World countries, and to the best of our knowledge crime rates are stable worldwide. Public health is rapidly improving. Lifespans are getting longer. And so on, and so on. It’s not quite true to say that every indicator of human progress is on an upward trend, but the vast majority of really important indicators are. […]


  2. Thanks for this blog. Thats all I can say. You most delefitiny have made this weblog into something thats eye opening and important. You clearly know so much concerning the topic, youve lined so many bases. Great stuff from this part of the internet. Again, thanks for this blog.


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