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The Good Life –
Hugh McKay
The Brain That
Changes Itself –
Norman Doidge
Requiem for a
Species –
Clive Hamilton
Reasons to
Stay Alive –
Matt Haige
A short History
of Progress –
Ronald Wright
Emotional Intelligence:
why it can matter

more than IQ -
Daniel Goleman
The Idiot Brain -
Dean Burnett

A Short History of Progress

by Ronald Wright

The Text Publishing Company – 2004 – ISBN 1920885 79 X

 This is an extraordinary book based on the 2004 Massey lectures presented by Wright to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. It encompasses a brief review of some of the major events in human time on earth.

 The theme of the book is indicated by a poem written by the Roman poet, Ovid, about 10 BC. This is inserted as a frontal piece: 

Long ago….
No one tore the ground with ploughshares
or parcelled out the land
or swept the sea with dipping oars –
the shore was the world’s end.
Clever human nature, victim of your inventions,
disastrously creative,
why cordon cities with towered walls?
Why arm for war?

 The material of the book is wrapped around three basic questions that the French artist and writer, Paul Gauguin, posed in the title to a painting, after he suffered illness and depression following the loss of his favourite child. In English these questions are: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

 The author points out that despite catastrophic events that have occurred in the past most people in the Western cultural tradition still believe in the Victorian ideal of progress – i.e. towards continuous improvement. By quoting examples of development of weapons from the simple spear to TNT and on to the atomic bomb, the book illustrates how technological progress may threaten the end of the human race. Other examples are quoted so that the continuous improvement concept is shown to be a myth. A myth that has not always been understood and has led to the disappearance of formally prosperous societies.

 The one big thing that has set the human species apart from other creatures was the power of the human word. This enabled people to work together and to pass ideas from one generation to the next; a power that has enabled humans to develop complex tools, weapons and deliberately planned behaviours or cultures. As Ronald Wright points out even simple developments have had enormous consequences – basic clothing and built shelter has enabled mankind to live in all parts of the globe.

 The book points out the extraordinary acceleration in human technological progress. The original, Palaeolithic, Stone Age lasted nearly 3 million years (over 99.5% of human existence) until the melting of the last ice age, about 12,000 years ago. Since then new developments have come at an ever increasing rate. 12,000 years ago people would not have noticed any major cultural change during their lifetime. Nowadays skills and attitudes to life become completely outdated by the time a person reaches 30 years of age.

Until the 1860s when Darwin published his book ‘Origin of Species‘ and Lyle published ‘Geological Evidence of the Antiquities of Man‘ it was widely accepted in the main writings of the Western world that the earth was around 6000 years old and that man had always existed as the ‘central being of the universe who had been created in God’s image’.

 At the start of the 20th century Madame Curie and others showed that radioactive elements break down at a measurable rate, so that the historical development of the earth, animals (including man) and indeed the universe can be clearly established. The first chapter concludes by stating that there is no room for rational doubt that we are apes and regardless of our exact route through time we come ultimately from Africa.

 Agriculture became an organised activity about 10,000 years ago with planting of crops in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East and also, independently, in other parts of the world including Mexico and sections of Asia. Crops were planted and irrigation systems developed. Gradually animals were domesticated with horses and donkeys being tamed about 6000 years ago. However, civilisations rose and fell usually driven by the policies adopted by the people.

 The book discusses the rise of civilisations and the cultures within these. The author considers civilisations as human communes having a basic culture that gives rise to towns, cities, governments, social classes and specialised professions. The first civilisation is generally agreed to be that of the Sumerians living in Sumer (southern Mesopotamia) or what is now Iraq, emerging about 3000 BC. 1000 BC civilisations ringed the world – India, China, Mexico, Peru and parts of Europe. Civilisations have been thought to be places of better behaviour – ahead of the so-called savages. However the reality has been something different as in the Roman circuses, the Aztec sacrifices, the Inquisition bonfires the Nazi death camps and many other examples.

 Sumer is a classic example of a civilisation that arose and set a model for others to follow, but had the seeds for its own failure built into the organisation. Initially it seems that the Fertile Crescent had plants and animals in abundance – perhaps this was the ‘Garden of Eden’. Overgrazing and early use of irrigation turned the area into a devastated salt plain - Perhaps the origin of people being driven from the Garden of Eden. The Samaritans headed down to the Persian Gulf and by hard work drained the swamps and developed a new civilisation. Writing was developed and we are now able to decipher the many tablets giving an indication of their style of life. It is clear that a priesthood class grew wealthy and greedy. We find a rise of first racketeers with a large division between the wealthy and the slave class. Eventually a breakdown in the organisation occurred, together with floods in the low-lying land, leading to a collapse of the Sumerian civilisation around 2000 BC.

 The book also covers the collapse of Easter Island where priests developed a religion demanding the construction of gigantic stone images of the gods. This required lots of timber for movement and erection of the statues, so that eventually the island became completely treeless, crops failed, the people fought amongst themselves and the civilisation disappeared.

 The rise and fall of the Roman and the Maya civilisations are discussed. Both were relatively large. Maya was a collection of city states with population between 5 and 7 million, while Rome at its height ruled some 50 million people – a quarter of the human race at the time.

 There was no connection between the Maya and the Romans yet they both grew and declined in a similar fashion. Wright suggests that civilisations often behave like ‘pyramid’ sales. They thrive while they grow; gathering wealth and power to the centre from an expanding periphery. Eventually resources run out, land is eroded, crops fail, famine spreads, diseases increase and the social fabric breaks down. The ruler’s relationship to God is exposed as a delusion or a lie. The civilisation collapses.

In his final chapter Ronald Wright discusses how the history of the past seems to be having little effect on the policies of the present. He notes a piece of graffiti that he saw: “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up”. He goes on to point out that the Sumerian collapse affected about half a million people, the fall of Rome involved tens of millions and if our civilisation fails it will bring catastrophe to billions.

From the Victorian era onwards many writers have asked the questions ‘Where are we going and are we going too fast?’ Our incredible agricultural and medical achievements have enabled accelerating rates of population growth and, in turn, accelerating rates of consumption of resources and production of pollutants. Many experts in a range of fields have been warning of the potential consequences for several decades, but most policymakers have chosen to ignore these. They have adopted the common human tendency to focus on immediate things that are easily seen. Thus we have seen great attention focused on ‘terrorism’, since the attacks in New York in September 2001. Ronald Wright notes that while just on 3000 died in the attacks that day, there are around 25,000 people who die every day around the world from contaminated water alone.

 Our present behaviour is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance. We talk of the free market, when we mean monopolies, cartels and government contracts, that we hope will fix our future difficulties.

 Hitler once remarked ‘What luck for the rulers that the people do not think’.

 We are now at this stage the Easter Islanders reached when they could have saved their society by stopping the senseless cutting of trees and carving of statues. We have the means and the tools to share resources, clean-up pollution, bring in effective birth control, and set economic limits in line with natural ones.

The book concludes: ‘Now is our last chance to get the future right’.

 This is a well written short history of the human world with a clear message. Now more than 10 years since it was published, it is still very relevant.

 RH Brown
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