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:

Infant_mortality.png

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

Infant_mortality_recent.png

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.

What are we celebrating today?

JDN 2457208 EDT 13:35 (July 4, 2015)

As all my American readers will know (and unsurprisingly 79% of my reader trackbacks come from the United States), today is Independence Day. I’m curious how my British readers feel about this day (and the United Kingdom is my second-largest source of reader trackbacks); we are in a sense celebrating the fact that we’re no longer ruled by you.

Every nation has some notion of patriotism; in the simplest sense we could say that patriotism is simply nationalism, yet another reflection of our innate tribal nature. As Obama said when asked about American exceptionalism, the British also believe in British exceptionalism. If that is all we are dealing with, then there is no particular reason to celebrate; Saudi Arabia or China could celebrate just as well (and very likely does). Independence Day then becomes something parochial, something that is at best a reflection of local community and culture, and at worst a reaffirmation of nationalistic divisiveness.

But in fact I think we are celebrating something more than that. The United States of America is not just any country. It is not just a richer Brazil or a more militaristic United Kingdom. There really is something exceptional about the United States, and it really did begin on July 4, 1776.

In fact we should probably celebrate June 21, 1789 and December 15, 1791, the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights respectively. But neither of these would have been possible without that Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. (In fact, even that date isn’t as clear-cut as commonly imagined.)

What makes the United States unique?

From the dawn of civilization around 5000 BC up to the mid-18th century AD, there were basically two ways to found a nation. The most common was to grow the nation organically, formulate an ethnic identity over untold generations and then make up an appealing backstory later. The second way, and not entirely mutually exclusive, was for a particular leader, usually a psychopathic king, to gather a superior army, conquer territory, and annex the people there, making them part of his nation whether they wanted it or not. Variations on these two themes were what happened in Rome, in Greece, in India, in China; they were done by the Sumerians, by the Egyptians, by the Aztecs, by the Maya. All the ancient civilizations have founding myths that are distorted so far from the real history that the real history has become basically unknowable. All the more recent powers were formed by warlords and usually ruled with iron fists.

The United States of America started with a war, make no mistake; and George Washington really was more a charismatic warlord than he ever was a competent statesman. But Washington was not a psychopath, and refused to rule with an iron fist. Instead he was instrumental in establishing a fundamentally new approach to the building of nations.
This is literally what happened—myths have grown around it, but it itself documented history. Washington and his compatriots gathered a group of some of the most intelligent and wise individuals they could find, sat them down in a room, and tasked them with answering the basic question: “What is the best possible country?” They argued and debated, considering absolutely the most cutting-edge economics (The Wealth of Nations was released in 1776) and political philosophy (Thomas Paine’s Common Sense also came out in 1776). And then, when they had reached some kind of consensus on what the best sort of country would be—they created that country. They were conscious of building a new tradition, of being the founders of the first nation built as part of the Enlightenment. Previously nations were built from immemorial tradition or the whims of warlords—the United States of America was the first nation in the world that was built on principle.

It would not be the last; in fact, with a terrible interlude that we call Napoleon, France would soon become the second nation of the Enlightenment. A slower process of reform would eventually bring the United Kingdom itself to a similar state (though the UK is still a monarchy and has no formal constitution, only an ever-growing mountain of common law). As the centuries passed and the United States became more and more powerful, its system of government attained global influence, with now almost every nation in the world nominally a “democracy” and about half actually recognizable as such. We now see it as unexceptional to have a democratically-elected government bound by a constitution, and even think of the United States as a relatively poor example compared to, say, Sweden or Norway (because #Scandinaviaisbetter), and this assessment is not entirely wrong; but it’s important to keep in mind that this was not always the case, and on July 4, 1776 the Founding Fathers truly were building something fundamentally new.

Of course, the Founding Fathers were not the demigods they are often imagined to be; Washington himself was a slaveholder, and not just any slaveholder, but in fact almost a billionaire in today’s terms—the wealthiest man in America by far and actually a rival to the King of England. Thomas Jefferson somehow managed to read Thomas Paine and write “all men are created equal” without thinking that this obligated him to release his own slaves. Benjamin Franklin was a misogynist and womanizer. James Madison’s concept of formalizing armed rebellion bordered on insanity (and ultimately resulted in our worst amendment, the Second). The system that they built disenfranchised women, enshrined the slavery of Black people into law, and consisted of dozens of awkward compromises (like the Senate) that would prove disastrous in the future. The Founding Fathers were human beings with human flaws and human hypocrisy, and they did many things wrong.

But they also did one thing very, very right: They created a new model for how nations should be built. In a very real sense they redefined what it means to be a nation. That is what we celebrate on Independence Day.

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