Emotional Health

The Arc of Progress: The Good, Bad, and Deadly

There are some people who believe that God created the world and all its creatures in seven days. There is even a Christian museum in Kentucky devoted to this idea, where its displays illustrate the co-existence of man and dinosaurs. What if man and dinosaurs lived at the same time? According to a history of our species and its impact on the rest of the world, we can say things would not have worked out well for the dinosaurs.

Is progress always good? Is it even desirable? Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harai’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014), studies our particular species of human, called Homo Sapiens from its earliest origins. Though human species lived before us, such as Homo Erectus, and sometimes alongside us, like the Neanderthals and the Denisovans (both of whom bred with Homo Sapiens), the earth has been populated by our current species for 350,000 years.

In that time, we have continued to evolve from primitive hunter-gatherers, to organized societies, to the ultra-complex technical age we live in today. Harari asks the questions 1. How did this happen? and 2. How are we doing?

There are four periods that marked seminal changes in the human world.

  1. The Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 BCE, when Sapiens evolved imagination).
  2. The Agricultural Revolution (c. 10,000 BCE, the development of agriculture).
  3. The Unification of Humankind (the gradual consolidation of human political organizations towards one global empire).
  4. The Scientific Revolution (c. 1500 CE, the emergence of objective science).

Living today under the threat of climate change, anticipating a possible self-inflicted collapse of our natural world, it does not surprise us to learn that the arc of progress has not always been good for us. While the cognitive revolution gave man the ability to invent language, make tools, and create art, a change that made others possible, other advances have not always benefited us.

The agricultural revolution, for example, was devastating. While hunter-gatherers could live into their 60s or 70s, once humans began farming many measures of prosperity declined. Nutrition was a major problem. By relying on just a few crops and animals rather than a broad, varied, mostly vegetarian diet, farmers’ health, including physical, dental, and mental, declined to the point that life expectancy fell into the 40s.

Because people were now required to live in one place, close to their fields, women now had more children. But starvation was an even bigger threat because of the expanded population, and because we now lived in crowded encampments with farm animals, disease was a problem. One out of three children died before age 20, and new germs were constantly evolving and passing from animals, insects, and other humans.

Culturally, progress was also a mixed blessing after these changes. In order to prepare for lean years, farmers worked tirelessly to accumulate and stockpile as much food as they could for the future. Unlike hunter-gatherers, who foraged for what they needed and moved on, farmers were on an endless treadmill of acquisition. And the work was backbreaking, literally. Slipped disks, arthritis, and other chronic problems of deterioration made their first appearance during these years.

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