Mr. Mokyr writes in the Atlantic that progress isn’t natural, that humans invented it not too long ago. He gives many philosophical reasons for his thinking. Quotes some historians. They seem to agree that progress came about when people stopped caring about their ancestors.
This was a departure from the beliefs of most societies in the past, which were usually given to some measure of “ancestor worship”—the belief that all wisdom had been revealed to earlier sages and that to learn anything one should peruse their writings and find the answer in their pages. In the Islamic world, wisdom was found in the Koran and the Hadith (which consists of sayings and acts attributed to the prophet Muhammad); in the Jewish world it was the Torah, the Talmud, and the sayings of Chazal; in China, wisdom was contained in Sishu Jizhu, the four books of commentary on Confucius compiled in the 12th century. In late medieval Europe, wisdom was found in a limited number of ancient texts, above all those written by Aristotle.
Progress arose, not out of a desire to better ourselves or protect our children but from, “The increasing disrespect for ancient learning…” that made us forget about what had come before and focus on what came next.
One might think from reading the above that Mr. Mokyr is being anti-progress. I mean, to say progress isn’t natural is to say human beings aren’t natural. It seems to imply that we’re doing something that must therefore by default be “unnatural” which has a negative connotation. He builds on the ideas presented to show how this so-called disrespect for ancient knowledge actually allowed thinkers to aggregate rather than isolate the understanding of the ancients.
It was a turning point when intellectuals started to conceive of knowledge as cumulative. In the past this had been questionable: Much ancient knowledge, after all, had been lost when manuscripts were destroyed. But after 1500, the printing press and the proliferation of libraries made such losses increasingly unlikely. The moderns could know what the ancients did, but they continuously added to the stock of useful knowledge.
You see, we could take what they knew and what we learned and put it all together. The makings of broad learning. Though being an expert and having specialized knowledge is important I think that knowing a bit about a lot is also important.
I don’t agree that progress is new or unnatural at all. I think progress is in our nature. I think it brought us out of the cave. It was progress that drove us to make spear points, clothing, to hunt as groups, to domesticate animals, to farm, and to create great works of art and poetry. The same desire for progress that created the iPhone created the wheel. You see, I don’t actually think mankind has changed all that much. We think we are much better than our ancestors, and in that regard Mokyr is right, but the truth is we only know more things. What drives us is the same as what drove them, we call it progress but I think perhaps it is better explained as the inborn desire to be creators and masters. In some degree the desire for progress is the desire to be a god.
I suggest that perhaps this is why some find progress so offensive a thing. Not because they think man is trying to supplant God but rather they fancy themselves to be the ones in power and man’s progress threatens their own godhood. This does explain why they think they know better than anyone else, why they think they can control the climate, why they seek ever more control over people’s lives. The left and the right practice unrighteous dominion over their fellows and will even try to stop the inborn right of progress in order to accomplish it. Progress is change and change brings fear with it. Progress is often only accomplished by setting aside the norm. That’s what Mokry was pointing out. But that’s not disrespect. It’s understanding.
This is why the idea of man as an agent unto himself is so important to understand. You are your sovereign and your neighbor is his sovereign. Working together you can create incredible things and the progress of man is insured. Working to control each other will never work and only result in poverty and enslavement.
Progress is the most natural thing in the world.
Progress isn’t Natural – Humans invented it—and not that long ago.