Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Worldviews and Progress

I think there's a very strong correlation between one's religious and political outlook and one's perception of historical progress.

There's always room for improvement, but I don't think you'll find any reasonable metric by which man has failed to make progress on a per-capita basis. Wars are less deadly (even accounting for the Holocaust), torture is less common, health is better, psychiatric treatment is better, people are less likely to fly into a rage, people are less likely to approve of murder (or rape or torture) by their own tribe, there's less crime, a lower infant mortality, more opportunity, far better labor conditions... the list goes on and on. Quality of life is improving dramatically.

Consider a recent story I heard on the radio. Authorities are shocked that the U.S. rate of maternal death during childbirth spiked to 13 per 100,000. Tragic indeed. But at the start of the 20th century, the rate was about 1 in 100. It's almost 100 times better today than it was a century ago. And the rate is thought to be increasing because, among other reasons, women have the option to have children later.

There are certainly new dangers. We now have an ability to destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons. And, if nukes were in regular use, one might be justified in citing a lack of progress, but they haven't been used since their debut. They guaranteed the peace for decades.

And yet I have noted a cynicism on the part of right-wing and religious bloggers. In a recent comment here, someone suggested that the Dark Ages were no worse that the present age. What a bizarre statement.

How is it possible for an informed person to maintain the perception that we're not making progress?

Perhaps the detractors find the dynamics of modern society scarier than the world we leave behind (with its myriad of ills). Yet, this, too, would be a strange phenomenon. Would anyone truly be so disturbed by the modern world that they would be more comfortable living in a society where disease claimed 50% of children before adulthood? Is the freedom of their neighbor to watch pornography worse than slavery? Is their own freedom to watch pornography worse than the black death? One has to wonder.

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