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Notes on Ronald Wright's
A Short History of Progress
John Kurmann
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About 9 years ago, I read a short essay by novelist and historian Ronald Wright (Stolen Continents: The Americas Through Indian Eyes Since 1492) titled "Civilization is a pyramid scheme" (on the Sacred Lands website here). Wright went on to expand that essay's themes into a book titled A Short History of Progress, which was published about 5 years ago. I read Progress last year and want to share some of my thoughts about it.

As a long-time admirer of Daniel Quinn's books, I felt a great deal of resonance between Quinn's ideas and those in A Short History of Progress, though it's non-fiction and Quinn has usually worked in the novel form. As readers of Quinn's Ishmael know, he devoted much of that book to uncovering the mythology of our world-conquering culture. This passage comes from the first chapter of Progress:
Our practical faith in progress has ramified into an ideology - a secular religion which, like the religions that progress has challenged, is blind to certain flaws in its credentials. Progress, therefore, has become "myth" in the anthropological sense. By this I do not mean a belief that is flimsy or untrue. Successful myths are powerful and often partly true. As I've written elsewhere: "Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture's deepest values and aspirations...Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time." [pg. 4]

Another similarity between the books is that both authors compared the ruins of collapsed civilizations of the past to crashed airliners. Also from the first chapter:

Many of the great ruins that grace the jungles and deserts of the Earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations which fell victim to their own success. In the fates of such societies - once mighty, complex, and brilliant - lie the most instructive lessons for our own. Their ruins are shipwrecks that mark the shoals of progress. Or - to use a more modern analogy - they are fallen airliners whose black boxes can tell us what went wrong. In this book, I want to read some of these boxes in the hope we can avoid repeating past mistakes, of flight plan, crew selection, and design. Of course, our civilization's particulars differ from those of previous ones. But not as much as we like to think. All cultures, past and present, are dynamic. Even the most slow-moving were, in the long run, works in progress. While the facts of each case differ, the patterns through time are alarmingly - and encouragingly - similar. We should be alarmed by the predictability of our mistakes but encouraged that this very fact makes them useful for understanding what we face today. [pg. 8]

Whether you've read Ishmael or not, I think Wright has much of value to offer in Progress. His goal in the book was to answer three questions posed by French painter and writer Paul Gauguin in a painting in 1897 (translated from the French): Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

One of his central arguments in the book is that an innovation which appears to represent progress at the time it's developed can turn out to be a trap. The oldest progress trap he identifies is what he calls the perfection of hunting, which he thinks produced the first ongoing food surpluses - allowing the leisure-time necessary for a period of great cultural innovation among our Cro-Magnon ancestors - but then caused a wave of extinctions among the large species the Cro-Magnons preyed upon (though Wright notes that changes in the climate may have been a factor in the extinctions, too). Wright argues that these extinctions eventually took a heavy toll:

The archaeology of Western Europe during the final millenia of the Palaeolithic shows the grand lifestyle of the Cro-Magnons falling away. Their cave painting falters and stops. Sculptures and carvings become rare. The flint blades grow smaller, and smaller. Instead of killing mammoth they are shooting rabbits. [pgs. 39-40]

Wright argues that, in trying to escape the perfection of hunting trap, some of our ancestors started the Farming Revolution (though not in any conscious way), which has spread to encompass most of the world and has proven to be an even more dangerous trap:

As we domesticated plants, the plants domesticated us. Without us, they die; without them, so do we. There is no escape from agriculture except into mass starvation, and it has often led there anyway, with drought and blight. Most people, throughout most of time, have lived on the edge of hunger--and much of the world still does. [pg. 47]

The food surpluses of the Farming Revolution fueled population growth among the cultures that engaged in it, leading to a further intensification of food production, fueling more population growth, and on and on and on. This reinforcing feedback cycle ramped up dramatically as farmers began to use oil-powered machinery and natural gas-derived synthetic fertilizers to increase food production - another progress trap - and it continues to this very day.

Scientist and author Jared Diamond (his most recent book was Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) dubbed the Farming Revolution (though he didn't use that term) "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race" (Discover magazine, 5/1987):

There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (Today just three high-carbohydrate plants--wheat, rice, and corn--provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease. (Some archaeologists think it was crowding, rather than agriculture, that promoted disease, but this is a chicken-and-egg argument, because crowding encourages agriculture and vice versa.) Epidemics couldn't take hold when populations were scattered in small bands that constantly shifted camp. Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities.

To describe the adoption of agriculture as a "mistake" suggests that those who became farmers could have easily made another choice, which may not have been the case. In his book Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, Colin Tudge speculated that the first farmers in the ancient Fertile Crescent (modern-day Iraq) were pushed toward that lifestyle by the consequences of a changing climate:

But as the Ice Age ended the sea flooded in, swollen by the melting mountains of ice on the continents of the north and the deep south. It came in quickly, furthermore, perhaps in just a few decades. The people, hordes of them, were obliged to move inland to what then was uplands. The population of what had been the coastal plain was already high, the product of a naturally generous environment, and boosted further by hobby farming. But now they all had to crowd into a much smaller space and were obliged to farm to support the augmented population, where before they had farmed just to exercise a little control, and smooth over the seasons.

Tudge also argued that agriculture in a variety of more rudimentary forms had been practiced long before the Farming Revolution began:

What we see in the Neolithic Revolution, then, is not the beginning of agriculture. It is the beginning of agriculture that was being practised on a large scale, in one place, for long periods; and it was already intensive enough to cause physical changes in the crop plants, and later in animals. It was, in short, the kind of agriculture that could promote the growth of cities and of all that goes with civilization.

While we can make educated guesses, we'll never be able to pinpoint the date at which people first began practicing agriculture, nor will we ever know for sure what motivated the people of the Fertile Crescent to develop a settled lifestyle based on farming. Moreover, the general consensus is that several human cultures around the world developed their own variations of this kind of agriculture independently.

Wright also argues that the success of the Farming Revolution was only possible because of special circumstances:

Why were no crops domesticated anywhere before the end of the last ice age? The people of 20,000 years ago were just as smart as those of 10,000 years ago; not all of them were glutted with game, and the ice did not hold sway in lower latitudes.

One possible answer to this question is a worry to us now. By studying ancient ice cores, which, like tree rings, leave a yearly record, climatologists have been able to track the average global temperature over a quarter million years. These studies show that the world's climate has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years - exactly the lifetime of agriculture and civilization. It seems we couldn't have developed farming earlier, even if we'd tried. The studies also show that the earth's climate has sometimes fluctuated wildly, breaking from an ice age - or plunging into one - not over centuries but in decades. [pgs. 51-2]

We might want to take that as a warning given how much we've already increased concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and how much higher those concentrations - and the global average temperature - are projected to rise if we keep doing what we've been doing.

The Farming Revolution also gave birth to the social organization known as civilization, which Wright describes as "a specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings." [pg. 33] Fundamental to civilization is a social hierarchy in which a small number of elite at the top of the pyramid live far better than the vast masses at the bottom. The development of this kind of hierarchy fundamentally changed social relationships among people over time:

In hunter-gatherer societies (barring a few special cases) the social structure was more or less egalitarian, with only slight differences in wealth and power between greatest and least. Leadership was either diffuse, a matter of consensus, or something earned by merit and example. The successful hunter did not sit down beside his kill and stuff himself on the spot; he shared the meat and thereby gained prestige. If a leader became overbearing, or a minority disliked a majority decision, people could leave. In an uncrowded world without fixed borders or belongings, it was easy to vote with one's feet.

The early towns and villages that sprang up in a dozen farming heartlands around the world after the last ice age seem to have continued these free-and-easy ways for a while. Most of them were small peasant communities in which everyone worked at similar tasks and had a comparable standard of living. Land was either communally owned or thought of as having no owner but the gods. Farmers whose effort and skill made them wealthier had an obligation to share with the needy, to whom they were bound by kinship.

Gradually, however, differences in wealth and power became entrenched. Freedom and social opportunity declined as populations rose and boundaries hardened between groups. This pattern first appears in the Neolithic villages of the Middle East, and it has recurred all over the world. [pg. 48]

Wright goes on to describe some of the horrors that civilizations in both the "Old" and "New" Worlds have inflicted on people. Despite all this, he doesn't see any alternative to civilization:

For all its cruelties, civilization is precious, an experiment worth continuing. It is also precarious: as we climbed the ladder of progress, we kicked out the rungs below. There is no going back without catastrophe. Those who don't like civilization, and can't wait for it to fall on its arrogant face, should keep in mind that there is no other way to support humanity in anything like our present numbers or estate. [pg. 34]

This is one major difference between Wright and and Quinn, who made the following argument in his 1999 non-fiction book Beyond Civilization: Humanity's Next Great Adventure:


If, having walked away from the pyramid, we can't melt into the jungle, what on earth can we do? Here's how the gorilla sage of Ishmael answered that question: "You pride yourselves on being inventive, don't you? Well, invent." Not surprisingly, his pupil shrugged this off as a nonanswer - and I'm sure most readers did the same. They did this because in our meme about civilization [Civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance] there's another meme that is implicit: Civilization is humanity's ULTIMATE invention and can never be surpassed. That's precisely why it must be carried forward at any cost, because there cannot possibly be any invention beyond it. If we were to abandon civilization (gulp!), then we'd be finished!

If there's going to be any future for us, our first invention must be a meme-killer. We must destroy in ourselves and in the people around us the meme proclaiming civilization to be an unsurpassable invention. It is, after all, just a meme - just a notion peculiar to our culture. It isn't a law of physics, it's just something we've been taught to believe that our parents were taught to believe - as were their parents and their parents and their parents and their parents all the way back to Giza and Ur and Mohenjo-Daro and Knossos and beyond.

Since there's no better meme-killer than another meme, try this one on for size:

Something BETTER than civilization is waiting for us.

Something much better - unless you're one of those rare individuals who just loves dragging stones. [pg. 54]

I agree with Quinn. Wright only seems to me to see two alternatives - carry civilization forward, despite its inherent flaws and many past and present atrocities, or "go back" to a hunter-gatherer way of life - while Quinn thinks we can evolve new forms of social organization that aren't hierarchical. While I don't know whether we will ever get to a way of life that's as egalitarian as life in a small hunter-gatherer band - that may be impossible without a far lower population - I am confident we have the capacity to become far less hierarchical than we are now.

Though the civilizations of the "New" World arose and developed independently of those in the "Old" World for thousands of years, they did inevitably collide, as we know. Wright marvels at how familiar the "New" World civilizations looked to their European invaders:

What took place in the early 1500s was truly exceptional, something that had never happened before and never will again. Two cultural experiments, running in isolation for 15,000 years or more, at last came face to face. Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognize the other's institutions. When Cortes landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth. [pg. 50-1]

That collision was devastating for the people of both the "New" World's civilizations and its tribal cultures. While some of that devastation certainly came from the swords and primitive guns of the invading Europeans, the vast majority of it was due to infectious diseases the Europeans carried with them (especially smallpox) that the people of the "New" World had little or no immunity to, diseases that are estimated to have killed off more than 90% of the indigenous population. Wright covers this issue in brief, but those who would like to know more should take a look at Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (be aware, though, that Wright says in an endnote that said book "is informative on germs but should not be relied on for archaeological and historical data or interpretation") and Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

This devastating die-off was crucial to the success of the European invasion. Without it, the people of the "New" World would have surely repelled the invaders, and the world would be a very different place now. Wright argues that it not only made possible the conquest of the civilizations we know as the Aztec and the Inca by relatively small Spanish armies but that it transformed the social structures of many North American cultures, too, making them less hierarchical than they were before contact:

It was, and still is, not well known that these native democracies were largely a post-Columbian development, blooming in the open spaces left by the great dying of the 1500s. Most of the eastern farming "tribes" were remnants of once-powerful chiefdoms. Had the English come to America before the demographic collapse, they would have found a more familiar social structure: lords who lived in great houses atop hundred-foot earthen pyramids, were carried about on litters, and were buried with slaves and concubines. The smallpox virus, having overthrown such societies along with the Aztec and Inca empires, therefore played a precursory role in the American Revolution. Most uprisings are sparked by want; the American rebels were inspired by plenty - by Indian land and Indian ideals. In more than one way, [Benjamin] Franklin's countrymen became, as he called them, "white savages." [pgs. 116-7]

There are so many rich passages in the book that it's hard to stop quoting Wright. Here's Wright's illustration of just how young civilization still is:

The greatest wonder of the ancient world is how recent it all is. No city or monument is much more than 5,000 years old. Only about seventy lifetimes, of seventy years, have been lived end to end since civilization began. Its entire run occupies a mere 0.2 percent of the two and a half million years since our first ancestor sharpened a stone. [pg. 55]

And another:

Picture the world during the heyday of Rome on the eve of the year 180, when Marcus Aurelius died and the long agony of decline began. In the two millennia that had gone by since the fall of Sumer, civilizations had flowered all around the earth. On a typical second-century day, the sun would rise on Han China, pass over the Buddhist stupas of Mauryan India, glare down on the brick ruins of the Indus and Euphrates valleys, and take more than two hours to traverse the Roman lake of the Mediterranean. By the time it was noon at Gibraltar, worshippers would be greeting the dawn from the tops of  pyramids in highland Mexico, the Guatemalan jungle, and the irrigated valleys of Peru. Only as the sun moved west across the Pacific would it shine on no cities or stone temples, but even here the planting and building had already begun - from Fiji to the Marquesas, the first Polynesian stepping stones across the ocean hemisphere. [pg. 85]

Wright covers much more fascinating ground while attempting to answer Gaugin's questions - the taming of fire, the fate of our relatives the Neanderthals, the collapses of the Roman, Mayan, and Easter Island civilizations, the birthplaces of farming, and more - but I'd better stop here. A Short History of Progress is chock-full of graceful, illuminating prose, and it really is short, just 132 pages of text not counting the notes and bibliography. It's a quick yet thought-provoking read, and one well worth your time, in my opinion. I've also now read Wright's latest book What is America? A Short History of the New World Order, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why America (the United States of) is the way it is.
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