Friday, April 23, 2010

Doing better than we think (Sunday Reflections for April 25, 2010)

"We have made remarkable progress in our scientific knowledge and technological expertise. We have not done anywhere near as well in the advancement of human relationships."

This quote from anthropologist Herbert C. Taylor was posted recently by a Facebook friend as a "thought for the day" (which I enjoy). It’s the kind of quote that will cause many to nod slowly and grimly. “Sad but true.” It sounds wise and somewhat profound. I’ve heard similar ideas before. I think it’s baloney.

We’re all aware of the dramatic improvements in quality of life brought by science and technology, though we often take them for granted. We also forget how recent most of these developments have been. We tend to think about whiz-bang electronic devices but advancements much more basic really show how our world has changed.

Steam and gas engines and electric motors made possible activities no human or animal strength could accomplish. Electric light illuminated better and more safely countless dim interiors as well as nighttime exteriors. Electric wired and wireless communication brought people together in ways previously unimaginable. High speed transportation did the same, fulfilling the dreams of generations. Antibiotics conquered diseases, modern agriculture dramatically reduced the resources needed to feed the world, birth control gave people and especially women new freedom and control over their lives, as did a host of household appliances. Man-made materials like steel, aluminum and plastics resulted in safer, cheaper and more efficient products of all kinds. And let’s not forget indoor plumbing.

All this and more have improved the quality of life of people around the world. These improvements continue to spread and continue to grow in number and quality. We do not exaggerate in describing these changes in industry, agriculture, transportation, and communication as “revolutionary.” Professor Taylor’s quote above implies, however, that human relations have somehow lagged behind. Yet just a little reflection shows that the changes in human relationships have similarly upended our world.

Here again we take so much for granted. Our historical myopia has caused us to forget how people in the past treated and related to one another. Part of this may be the fault of Hollywood which is often our primary window into the past. Being entertainment, it’s not surprising that much of that past is highly romanticized. Movies and TV also get most of their material from the lives of history’s “rich and famous” while ordinary people get little screen time.

The simple reality is that for much of Western history, at least, only one category of people had anything approaching the rights and freedoms we now take for granted: free, skilled or property-owning males. Often this group was a very small percentage of the population. In many ancient civilizations, slaves accounted for up to a third of the population. Many who were free nonetheless still lived in poverty or close to it, often as tenant farmers indebted to rich land owners. Women were often viewed and treated literally as only partially human, since their gender was thought to be an incomplete version of the male norm. Children were simply potential humans, mouths to feed until they could perform useful work.

In his book Leviathan (1651), the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described human existence as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ point, however, was that this was “the life of man” in the absence of civilization and just government. From his Enlightenment era forward, the world has been on an unrelenting quest to establish and extending human rights for all. We forget how revolutionary was Thomas Jefferson’s simple assertion in the Declaration of Independence, memorized by school children the world over: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….”

In 1776, many would certainly not have seen human equality as “self-evident.” Yet less than two centuries later this principle was enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and thus officially recognized by all the nations of the world. Of course, its implementation is still highly flawed but we cannot underestimate how far civilization has come in establishing this rule as the norm by which individual and societal behavior is to be judged.

The notion that every human life is uniquely and inherently valuable would have been laughed at in most periods of human history. Today it is one of the primary standards for judging human relations. The story of how we came to this point is important and fascinating and needs to be told often. With seeds from the Bible, ancient Greece and elsewhere, the idea began to take hold in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Its origins involve theologians, philosophers, painters, writers, composers, politicians, merchants, and scientists. Crucial events include the Magna Carta, the Reformation, the American and French Revolutions, and the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Unfavorably comparing our technological progress with that of human relations is not only misleading. It also misses their vital interrelationship, for the two have developed in tandem. Science and technology grew in parallel with a belief in the value and dignity of human beings. Further, the spread of human rights became possible as the basic necessities of human life became more easily attainable by ever larger portions of humanity. Today new and expanding global communication networks make oppression ever more difficult (as most recently with the use of Twitter by Iranian protesters).

There is no question that modern life is much more complicated and the modern world more dangerous in ways our ancient ancestors could not have imagined. That is the price of freedom and equality and the consequence of being on a journey still far from completion. Recognizing that, however, should not diminish our awareness of how primitive was our beginnings or our appreciation of how far human civilization has come. In short, we need to remember that the past was not all that great and the present is a whole lot better than we often realize.

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