Is Mankind Really Progressing?

The year is 2020. One that will forever be recorded as the year of tragedy to humanity. From the onset, it has been one wild event after another, from the wild Australian fires to the desert locusts of Africa to the global flooding occurrences in global waters from Venice to Lake Victoria and to crown it all the revelation of the novel Corona Virus. The rapid succession of tragedies in just four months has peaked in a looming global economic crisis, terribly high death tolls, and almost the whole world hiding behind closed doors in a bid to stay alive. As houses are washed down in floods and deaths of loved ones become mere statistics, and we live in fear, panic, and distress, we cannot help but ask ourselves if humanity has progressed or are we another civilization waiting to crush. It’s high time we explored what progress really is and if we are progressing as a race or just stuck in another cycle of rise and fall.

Firstly, is it only the vain boast that we are the ‘modern generation’. The dwellers of the centuries gone by faced similar problems and yet still we have no answers. Are we any better than the 16th if plaques and pandemics are still a major problem? If we have no substantial change in man’s nature during this half a millennium, do we then write off all technological advances as merely new means of achieving old ends? The ends have always been the acquisition of goods and wealth, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars, haven’t they? If not, why then have we mastered the science of weapons but to this day cannot collaborate as a global unit.

Economic Misfit
An illustration of the 16th-century bubonic plague also known as the Black Death that wiped out millions in medieval Europe.

One of the discouraging discoveries of our time is that science is neutral: it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy us more readily than it can build. Our comforts and conveniences may have weakened our physical stamina and our moral fiber. We have immensely developed our means of locomotion, but some of us use them to facilitate crime and to kill our fellow men or ourselves. We applaud the cures of modern medicine if they bring no side effects worse than the gradual liver corrosion. 

We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village, are we then really progressing? We have laudably bettered the conditions of life for skilled workers and the middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums?

In frolic and movement towards our emancipation from theology and religion, have we developed a natural ethic, a moral code independent of religion strong enough to keep our instincts of acquisition, pugnacity, and sex from debasing our civilization into a mire of greed, crime, and promiscuity? In the same vein, have we outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological, or racial hostilities and bigoted movements? Are we not nearing such moral and social disorder that frightened parents will run back to Mother Church and beg her to discipline their children, at whatever cost to intellectual liberty? What the hell are 99 genders recognized to-day!

We often award ourselves the golden medal of architecture and engineering, but does our contemporary architecture bold, original, and impressive as it is compared with the temples of ancient Egypt or Greece that stand to-date?

Economic Misfit Egypt
The ancient Egyptian pyramids still stand to-date. Modern architecture has up to now failed to replicate these incredible ancient works.

Yes, it is 2020 and not 1789, but is mankind really progressing or just caught up in another civilizational peak doomed to fall like all those prior.

But perhaps we should first define what progress means to us. If it means an increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight. We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life and by through this paradigm, we see that in the debate between ancients and moderns it is not at all clear that the ancients carry off the prize.

A study of surviving primitive tribes reveals their high rate of infantile mortality, their short tenure of life, their lesser stamina and speed, their greater susceptibility to disease. If the prolongation of life indicates better control of the environment. Shall we count it a trivial achievement that famine has been almost eliminated today, and that one country, with proper governance, can now grow enough food to overfeed itself and yet send hundreds of thousands of tons to other countries? Would we prefer the ancient Lukiiko under Kabaka ruthless Mukabya to the modern Ugandan Parliament? What about the modern constitutions that give us habeas corpus, trial by jury, religious and intellectual freedom, and the emancipation of women?

There’s an old Latin saying die non omnis moritur meaning civilization does not die entirely. Some precious achievements have survived all the fortunes of rising and falling states: the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools; language, writing, art, and song; agriculture, the family, and parental care; social organization, morality, and charity; and the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race. These are the elements of civilization that we’ve inherited. Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life. If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing. Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again. So our finest contemporary achievement is our insistence on universal education for all. Once colleges were luxuries, designed for the male half of the leisure class; today universities are so numerous that he who runs the race may become a Ph.D.”

Through education, we pass down facts, formulas, and knowledge but most importantly we pass down civilizations to the next generation.

The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of the fallen greats, from Da Vinci to Oscar Wilde or even Omukama Kabalega, under whom the Kitara Empire mastered the art of caesarian birth. Our generation is richer because it combines the works of them all.

Therefore, let it be our pride that we may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath, he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life. I, therefore, conclude that despite our many flaws as late as 2020, as a race, humanity has and will continue to progress.

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