Cultural Evolution and Progress

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The concept of progress[edit | edit source]

Progress is defined as a gradual but predictable bettering of the human condition over time, that is, things are always getting better over time.

History of Progressivism[edit | edit source]

  • Progressivism has been one of the cornerstones of Western historical and philosophical thought since ancient Greek times.
  • For most of its history (from the Greek period to the 15th century), Progressivism was a purely philosophical or ideological doctrine: in the absence of any empirical evidence of improvement in the human condition, early progressivists devised imaginary scenarios of human history in which they pictured the gradual emergence of enlightened present-day institutions out of earlier and ruder institutions. The defining characteristics of any primitive society, thus conceived, were wholly negative: they were whatever civilization was not.
  • Starting in the late 15th century, ethnographic information about living "primitives," especially in the Americas, increased, providing the progressivists with empirical confirmation for their ideas. Living conditions of these "primitive peoples" conformed in a general way to the imagined early condition of humankind; they were therefore considered as "fossilized" survivals from ancient times, who had somehow failed to progress.
  • In the 19th century, archaeology also began to provide confirmation: evidence of early peoples who had indeed lived without metals, agriculture, or permanent dwellings, just as the progressivists had always imagined.
  • Out of the conjunction of progressivist theory with ethnographic and archaeological researches, the discipline of anthropology was born in the latter half of the 19th century. Early anthropologists arranged that evidence in orderly progression to provide seemingly irrefutable confirmation for what had long been only a philosophical doctrine. Progressivism was transformed into a science named anthropology; "Progress" was renamed "Social Evolution" or "Cultural Evolution." These ideas drew upon Darwinian evolution but incorrectly assigned a directionality and value to evolution. Where Darwinian evolution is not about progress, but rather adapting to a given environmental condition, social evolution was very much about progress, usually conceived in terms of military and economic power over other societies.

Characteristics[edit | edit source]

Progressivism flourished mainly in optimistic times, that is, times of scientific advances and expanding imaginations:

  • pre-Socratic Greece
  • the Enlightenment (18th century)
  • the Victorian age (19th century)
  • the generation following World War II

Progressivism has been the doctrine that legitimizes all scientific discoveries and labels them as "advances".

  • All progressivists agree, however, that their age is superior to those that preceded it.
  • Human history is perceived with a basic directionality, from worse to better.

What is better?[edit | edit source]

  • What constitutes "the better"? What causes it? How can it be measured?
  • Answers to these questions have changed in accordance with the ideological preoccupation of different eras, and different philosophies:
    • improved material circumstances
    • intellectual maturation
    • aesthetic achievements

Us vs. Them mentality[edit | edit source]

The problem with categorizing "progressive" judgments must be viewed in long-term perspective as a struggle between two basically incompatible cultural systems:

  • in the present, us and the others: states/civilizations vs. bands/tribes;
  • in paleoanthropology, us (Homo sapiens) and the others (other hominid species, e.g. Neandertals, Homo erectus).

Historical background of Western nations[edit | edit source]

Hunting and gathering was predominant as a way of life for about 7 million years, with agriculture and plant domestication beginning around 10,000 years ago, and life in cities or states has been around for only the past 5,000 years or so.

Changes, or progress, since the first appearance of urban life and state organization (5,000 yrs ago):

  • non-state tribal peoples persisted in a dynamic equilibrium or symbiotic relationship with states/civilizations
  • states/civilizations developed and remained within their own ecological boundaries
  • this situation lasted for thousands of years

This situation shifted 500 years ago:

  • In the 15th century, Europeans began to expand beyond their long-established frontiers.
  • For about 250 years (until 1750), the expansion was relatively slow, as non-state tribal peoples still seemed secure and successfully adapted to their economically "marginal" refuges.
  • In the mid-eighteenth century, the industrial revolution launched the developing Western nations on an explosive growth in population and consumption called "progress."

The Industrial Revolution[edit | edit source]

This period marks a major explosion at the scale of humankind:

  • phenomenal increase in population
  • increase in per capita consumption rates
  • totally unparalleled scope
  • these two critical correlates (population and consumption rates) of industrialization quickly led to overwhelming pressure on natural resources

Very quickly, industrial nations could no longer supply from within their own boundaries the resources needed to support further growth or even to maintain current consumption levels.

As a consequence:

  • Industrial revolution led to an unprecedented assault on the world's relatively stable non-Western tribal peoples and their resources.
  • Many of the "underdeveloped" resources controlled by the world's self-sufficient tribal peoples were quickly appropriated by outsiders to support their own industrial progress.
  • In the last 200 years, these tribal cultures have virtually disappeared or have been completely marginalized.

Increased rates of resource consumption, accompanying industrialization, have been even more critical than mere population increase:

  • Industrial civilization is a culture of consumption. In this respect, it differs most strikingly from tribal cultures.
  • Industrial economies are founded on the principle that consumption must be ever expanded.
  • Complex systems of mass marketing and advertising have been developed for that specific purpose.
  • Social stratification in industrial societies is based primarily on inequalities in material wealth and is both supported and reflected by differential access to resources.

Industrial ideological systems and prejudices:

  • place great stress on belief in
    • continual economic growth
    • progress
  • measure "standard of living" in terms of levels of material consumption.

Ethnocentrism[edit | edit source]

Ethnocentrism is the belief in the superiority of one's own culture. It is vital to the integrity of any culture, but it can be a threat to the well-being of other peoples when it becomes the basis for forcing Western standards upon non-Western tribal cultures.

The impact of modern civilization on tribal peoples is a dominant research theme in anthropology and social sciences.

Among economic development writers, the consensus is the clearly ethnocentric view that any contact with superior industrial culture causes non-Western tribal peoples to voluntarily reject their own cultures in order to obtain a better life.

In the past, anthropologists also often viewed this contact from the same ethnocentric premises accepted by government officials, developers, missionaries, and the general public. But in recent years, there has been considerable confusion in the enormous culture change literature regarding the basic question of why tribal cultures seem inevitably to be acculturated or modernized by industrial civilization.

  • There is therefore a problem to conceptualize the causes of the transformation process in simple nonethnocentric terms.
  • This apparent inability may be due to the fact that the analysts are members of the culture of consumption that today happens to be the dominant world culture type.
  • The most powerful cultures have always assumed a natural right to exploit the world's resources wherever they find them, regardless of the prior claims of indigenous populations.

Arguing for efficiency and survival of the fittest, old-fashioned colonialists elevated this "right" to the level of an ethical and legal principle that could be invoked to justify the elimination of any cultures that were not making "effective" use of their resources.

This viewpoint has found its way into modern theories of cultural evolution, expressed as the "Law of Cultural Dominance": any cultural system which exploits more effectively the energy resources of a given environment will tend to spread in that environment at the expense of other less effective (indigenous) systems.

  • These old attitudes of social Darwinism are deeply embedded in our ideological system.
  • They still occur in the professional literature on culture change.

While resource exploitation is clearly the basic cause of the destruction of tribal peoples, it is important to identify the underlying ethnocentric attitudes that are often used to justify what are actually exploitative policies.

Apart from the obvious ethical implications involved here, upon close inspection all of these theories expounding the greater adaptability, efficiency, and survival value of the dominant industrial culture prove to be quite misleading.

Of course, as a culture of consumption, industrial
civilization is uniquely capable of consuming resources at tremendous
rates, but this certainly does not make it a more effective culture than
low-energy tribal cultures, if stability or long-run ecological success is
taken as the criterion for "effectiveness."

Likewise, we should expect, almost by definition, that members of the culture of consumption would probably consider another culture's resources to be underexploited and to use this as a justification for appropriating them.

Among some writers, it is assumed that all people share our desire for what we define as material wealth, prosperity, and progress and that others have different cultures only because they have not yet been exposed to the superior technological alternatives offered by industrial civilization. Supporters of this view seem to minimize the difficulties of creating new wants in a culture and at the same time make the following highly questionable and clearly ethnocentric assumptions:

  1. The materialistic values of industrial civilization are cultural universals.
  2. Tribal cultures are unable to satisfy the material needs of their peoples.
  3. Industrial goods are, in fact, always superior to their handcrafted counterparts.

Assumption 1 - Unquestionably, tribal cultures represent a clear rejection of the materialistic values of industrial civilization, yet tribal individuals can indeed be made to reject their traditional values if outside interests create the necessary conditions for this rejection. The point is that far more is involved here than a mere demonstration of the superiority of industrial civilization.

Assumption 2 - The ethnocentrism of the second assumption is obvious. Clearly, tribal cultures could not have survived for millions of years if they did not do a reasonable job of satisfying basic human needs.

Assumption 3 - Regarding the third assumption, there is abundant evidence that many of the material accoutrements of industrial civilization may well not be worth their real costs regardless of how appealing they may seem in the short term.