The limits of human progress

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Discussion by: Nunbeliever

When the Eagle landed on the moon in 1969 the world stood still. Although it was a part of a quite cynical cold war between the USA and the USSR, most people remember this event not as a victory only for the USA but for mankind as a whole. For one brief moment it seemed like humans were united in pride due to this tremendous achievement.

I can, at times, feel great envy towards the generations that lived to see the 50s and 60s. No, I'm not entirely deluded. These were times of great distress. The life expectancy in the western world was much lower than today. Women and ethnic minorities were largely discriminated against. They of course had very few of the conveniences that we today take for granted. Nonetheless, I envy the sense of optimism about the future that seemed to be prevailing in the western world at this period of time. This idea that, yes, they had their problems and the world was full of suffering. But, if we only do more research and science we can achieve anything we want. We can build a better world. Nothing is impossible. As a child I used to read my father's old magazines, and in almost every issue there were articles about the future and how awesome the world would be. There would be pictures of flying cars, space ships, and everything else a kid could possibly imagine. Most of all, people seemed really happy in this future world of ours … and the common belief seemed to be that all we needed to achieve all this was more science and more research. 

Fast forward half a century and the world has dramatically changed. During my 35 years on this earth I have witnessed unprecedented technological and scientific progress. Just the fact that I can write this article online and possibly reach thousands of people would have been unimaginable just thirty years ago. The world has undeniably changed for the better for countless people. Still, I feel something crucial is missing and this is the reason I want to discuss the limits of human progress.

I lack a sense of optimism and the idea that we as humans can achieve anything we want. In many ways we have achieved much of what earlier generations thought would solve the great problems humans have struggled with for all time. We have technology and the knowledge to feed every single human being on earth. We have the knowledge to prevent and cure most diseases. The ones we can't cure we usually can make much less painful and devastating. In fact, we have the means to make the lives of most human beings on this earth quite decent. If we really wanted to. 

This should be good news. This should give me hope of a better future. Interestingly enough, this realization actually makes me very sad and depressed. Why? It takes no genius to realize that this is not what the world looks like. Yes, statisticans like Hans Rosling show that the world is a better place today than fifty years ago. This is undeniably true and something we ought to appreciate. The reason why it makes me sad and depressed is because it also suggests that the limit of human progress really isn't about technological achievements or scientific progress. It really isn't even about intelligence and creativity. This suggests that the limit of human progress is really all about our limited ability to feel empathy and compassion. It's about the fact that most human beings are quite narrow-minded and reluctant to really invest time and energy in anything that is not related to our local environment. Or in other words, it does not matter how much more knowledge about the world we get. It does not matter how much scientific or technological progress we achieve. We will still have all the same problems as before. Some things will get better and that is very well worth mentioning. Lives that would have been lost fifty years ago can be saved today. Still, we could do so much more and solve so many problems. Despite all the progress that has been made and all the lives that have been saved, this is something that just can't be denied.

That's what's really different. For the first time in human history we could make life decent for most human beings. That is really remarkable if you think about it. From a technological point of view we have actually achieved the future earlier generations dreamt of. But, this future is still nothing like in the old magazines. Therein lies the depressing realization that the problem is a much deeper one. It's human nature. Technological progress is something we can strive for and achieve. But, how on earth do you change human nature?

I think this quote by Carl Sagan illustrates this problem quite well: "It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, more confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent."

So what do you think? Do you think we can solve the great problems of this world with more science and research? Or do we as human beings have traits that make it impossible for us to really make any significant progress as a species?

72 COMMENTS

  1. Didn´t read the OP it so carefully as I should, but the question put at the end of it
    immediately reminds me how Wittgenstein put it, while science will solve many problems over time, social problems will remain unsolved. He seemed pessimistic (and crazy in the words of the italian writer Umberto Eco), but I seem to agree with him.
    All “progress” can be revert in one day, I believe, and it seems to me that´s the best way I can imagine how Iranian people must feel after the islamic revolution.

    • In reply to #1 by maria melo:

      Didn´t read the OP it so carefully as I should, but the question put at the end of it
      immediately reminds me how Wittgenstein put it, while science will solve many problems over time, social problems will remain unsolved. He seemed pessimistic (and crazy in the words of the italian writer Umberto…

      I have to say a also sadly agree with Wittgenstein. I think USA is a good example of how technological achievements and economical growth don’t necessarily lead to a better society for the population as a whole.

  2. Ah Nunbeliever, your 35. I was fortunate to be able to watch the Apollo missions (I’m 50) and it was an inspiring time for me. I loved everything about science … but somehow as a female my interests faded at about 15. I quickly figured out “this is what guys do.” What a shame. As a child I toyed with the ideas of taking chemistry and physics in high school. I adored inventors even though men dominated the scene. The way their minds persevered, diverged, and adapted in order to find a solution were traits that I admired and I now realize that I too have some of those skills, but lack the knowledge in order to be innovated in an area outside of my interests and profession.

    The time in which you were born were years in which the ways of the older generation began to really fall apart – quickly. Social change was rapid and the technological changes were on the brink of exploding around the world. As a very aware child, I recognized how quickly attitudes shifted over a ten year period. As a borderline genXer I noticed how my generation was different from kids just a few years older and a few years younger. I didn’t know anything about generational groups, but I could clearly observe what was going on.

    The thing about the space mission is that it involved a lot of media. I recall sitting in front of the TV being yelled at to move back because I was blocking everyone else’s view. It involved families, entire classrooms and groups of people gathered together to experience the event together. What else today has that impact? Possibly sports or maybe a city experiencing severe weather or a blackout together. Everyone, years later says “Hey, you remember what you were doing during the blackout?” “Yeah, I was laying on the driveway. It was the first time I ever saw the Milky Way here.” “Geez, do you remember the blizzard of 1978?” “How about the move at the whatever, whatever yard line? I can’t believe he fumbled that pass.” (I know nothing about sports – so hence the bad example.) What science event includes masses of people gathered around the TV today?( We have the internet; we can pick and choose our focus of interest much more than ever before. As a side note: Some people are convinced certain movements are going on. No, it’s just because the internet allowed you to find a few hundred other people who are also interested in dressing up like woodland animals.)

    The fact is: We have had lots of medical breakthroughs in the past 35 years that you have been alive. They are occurring at a faster rate. Our understanding of the sciences has exploded massively. After a while, going to the moon became less novel and public interest subsided. I would argue that it’s the same with the sciences. But from a media standpoint, it’s like watching water boil. Science of the past was like “ta da!” Here it is….presenting….the polio vaccine. Rah rah rah, applause, woo hoo. Introducing… the birth control pill…..woo hoo… We are free! Introducing…birth control injections….hmm, well I’m not too sure….Introducing….the artificial heart…Oh my God that’s amazing…..Introducing….heart ablations without cutting open your chest….say what is that for? After a while, more and more innovations and advancements gets to be like eating pizza at first it’s totally new and exciting then you just keep adding a new topping every now and then. Nothing compares to the initial experience.

    I would add that many advancements today are collaborative efforts performed by Corporations that are protective of their pending patents, copyrights, research…Announcement are hush hush. Sharing means loss in revenue. The days of the lone innovator seem to be gone.

    Don’t worry, something really big is coming around the corner. We just don’t know it yet. I recall an art instructor making a negative comment about my generation. I replied that it was frustrating being my age and everything having been already been done. How can something new and innovative be created? That was about 1983. Being in graphic design. We did things really old school. Type was generated in antiquated ways. Little did I know that the Macintosh was brewing underneath it all and was getting ready for it’s “ta da” which has drastically changed everything, everything. ..and then the internet, OH MY GOD. Little did I know that I was in societal limbo. At this time, some of the animation that you see with Pixar were just getting started. I watched a presentation by an OSU grad student in mathematics presenting his thesis of a skeleton walking. He showed the entire structure of computer animation with textures, mapping, etc. that are used today. I started to get a glimpse of the future but had no immediate access to this technology. I asked when it would be available to the general public in some sort of personal computer. They said many years or decades. They were wrong. Some of the things that I am doing I could not have been imagined at the time. Some of the things I predicted came much sooner; some have even come and are gone.

    The issue with society and our progress seems to be dependent on the top 5% of our society making an advancement that will eventually trickle down to the masses. Social changes are made by a few tough, rugged individuals who make a stand at the expense of their own welfare knowing that change must happen at any costs. These may not be the most intelligent, but somehow they are on the fringes of society and their entire lives depend upon a change in their group’s favor. I was watching a documentary on the HIV movement within the gay community. Clearly certain names and personalities drove the movement to have more accessible drugs and research. Eventually the core leaders found people with skills and knowledge that benefited their cause.

    It really isn’t even about intelligence and creativity. This suggests that the limit of human progress is really all about our limited ability to feel empathy and compassion. It’s about the fact that most human beings are quite narrow-minded and reluctant to really invest time and energy in anything that is not related to our local environment.

    People living within a comfort zone have no reason to change. If we lived in a moderate environment for generations, there would be no need to make certain technological advancements. Hardships that occur to strong minded, innovative, individuals sparks creativity out of necessity. If the person is socially conscious and organized, then people will rally around them. What major problems do you foresee in the future? Whether it is social, global, climate, technological…big changes will occur around these issues.

    Be patient and keep your eyes open.

    • In reply to #2 by QuestioningKat:

      Ah Nunbeliever, your 35. I was fortunate to be able to watch the Apollo missions (I’m 50) and it was an inspiring time for me. I loved everything about science … but somehow as a female my interests faded at about 15. I quickly figured out “this is what guys do.” What a shame. As a child I toyed w…

      Thanks for your response. It’s interesting to read about your experience since you actually witnessed the moon landings. I think you make an important point when you say that living in the comfort zone might actually hinder progress. Perhaps is it only when confronted with hardship that humans can forget their own problems and truly work for the greater good. Modern Europe is a prime example of how something very good can come out of a terrible tragedy. Without the two world wars, we would most likely not be where we are today. Sadly, the dreams of a united Europe seems almost absurd today. Yes, we do not wage wars against each other. But, on the other hand it’s obvious that there’s really no such thing as a strong European identity. When the dust from the two world wars settled it seemed we found ourselves in our little tribes again. The rise of of xenophobia and right wing extremism in modern Europe seems to suggest we really have learnt little from our bloody past.

      This is what I fear. Humans can stand united for short periods of time. But, it seems to me our evolutionary heritage makes it impossible for us to truly progress as a species. The same traits that made it possible for our ancestors to survive on the Savannah ironically seem to be the same traits that hinder progress in modern times.

  3. Yes we can improve the world with science. The technology we get from science is not the most important thing we get from science. The most important thing we get from science is the scientific method and the viewpoint that what we know about the world comes from observing the real world, testing things in the real world, and applying them in the real world.

    People who live under bad government have bad lives. People who live under good government have good lives. Good government forms its policies using science! Yes! Science! Science can be applied to political theory and good government borrows those policies that work and discards the policies that do not work. Dogma of any sort is rejected by science. You wouldn’t have a rich 1st world nation without universal medical care if it wasn’t for “free market, capitalism, self reliance” dogma.

    Obviously there is no intrinsic trait that prevents people from improving themselves and their societies. Read a little history and you will see that we have made HUGE strides in justice, morality, and standard of living over the centuries.

    I expect these improvements to continue, with setbacks, into the future.

    • In reply to #3 by canadian_right:

      Obviously there is no intrinsic trait that prevents people from improving themselves and their societies. Read a little history and you will see that we have made HUGE strides in justice, morality, and standard of living over the centuries.

      I would beg to differ. I think there’s good evidence that human traits like tribalism, limited empathy and a wide range of primitive defense mechanisms are deeply embedded in our DNA. These traits were most likely absolutely crucial for the survival of our ancestors. At the same time, I think it’s also quite obvious that these same traits might very well hinder human progress in modern times. I mean, how much more scientific progress do we need in order to prevent people in the third world from starving or dying from easily curable diseases? How much more science or technology would USA need to provide all their citizens a chance to a decent life. The answer is none. Just imagine if USA would actually spend even a fraction of the costs of waging several wars simultaneously on well-fare. Or if the western world would redistribute even a small portion of our wealth to the third world. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that we have all the science and technology we need to make this world a quite decent place for the overwhelming majority of all humans. But, still countless people suffer and die due to our apathy and unwillingness to look out for people outside our immediate local environment. I can’t see how more science and technology would suddenly change all that. I’m not against science and technology. Of course not. My point is that there might be limits to human progress that are so deeply embedded in our DNA that it’s most likely impossible to change. Or, if we could change these traits would it even make sense to talk about humans anymore? Would it not perhaps be a completely new species?

      • In reply to #9 by Nunbeliever:

        In reply to #3 by canadianright:_

        Obviously there is no intrinsic trait that prevents people from improving themselves and their societies. Read a little history and you will see that we have made HUGE strides in justice, morality, and standard of living over the centuries….

        I would beg to differ. I think there’s good evidence that human traits like tribalism, limited empathy and a wide range of primitive defense mechanisms are deeply embedded in our DNA. These traits were most likely absolutely crucial for the survival of our ancestors. At the same time, I think it’s also quite obvious that these same traits might very well hinder human progress in modern times…

        Yes, these traits do exist in people, but the historical record clearly shows that many societies have overcome these traits using our human intellect to over ride our baser instincts to improve life for everyone. Laws and social norms that we respect and teach to our children are much more enlightened now than 100 years ago, and hugely improved from 500 years ago. In my own life time I’ve witnessed a marked decrease in bigotry in my society, particularly against gay people.

        There are setbacks, there are societies that are still primitive, but huge swaths of humanity now believe that all people should have equal rights regardless of accidents of birth. Almost no one believed this 300 years ago. This is an incredible improvement in a very short time. This progress is going to continue because societies that embrace these values flourish while societies that promote tribalism, bigotry, and inequality wither and waste because so much human potential is stolen or spent defending against evil.

        Do you take your kids to lynchings? How about bear baitings? Any executed criminals tarred heads on pikes lining the local bridges (for minor crimes like theft sometimes) where you live? Burned any witches lately? How are your slaves doing?

        All of these things were common in the past, and considered normal and moral. We have improved, and will continue to improve.

        • In reply to #10 by canadian_right:

          In reply to #9 by Nunbeliever:

          All of these things were common in the past, and considered normal and moral. We have improved, and will continue to improve.

          As you know, if you read the original text of this discussion, I don’t deny that we have made progress. In fact I explicitly said that we have made a lot of progress. I did not explicitly deal with values, but you are of course right that we have gotten rid of a lot of bigotry. Although we have a habit of finding new foes along the way. Just, look at how Americans view people from the Middle East. Despite all the education and alleged wisdom we have today all it took was a terror attack and people in general reacted with hatred and bigotry towards an entire group of people. This goes to show how deep these traits are embedded within us. Yes, with the help of social coercion we can to some extent manage to keep these traits under control. But, they are always hiding behind the facade ready to explode when you least expect it.

          The way you just claim that progress will continue as it was a self-evident fact suggests that you ironically don’t know your history. The age of reason (for lack of a better term) that we are fortunate to be a part of constitutes a very short period of human history. To self-evidently assume that it will go on and on into the future seems either ignorant or as an expression of pure wishful thinking to me. I of course hope that humanity will experience progress in the future, but to just assume this is the case without providing any real arguments seems irrational to me.

          • In reply to #11 by Nunbeliever:

            In reply to #10 by canadian_right:

            In reply to #9 by Nunbeliever:

            All of these things were common in the past, and considered normal and moral. We have improved, and will continue to improve.

            As you know, if you read the original text of this discussion, I don’t deny that we have made progress. I… To self-evidently assume that it will go on and on into the future seems either ignorant or as an expression of pure wishful thinking to me. I of course hope that humanity will experience progress in the future, but to just assume this is the case without providing any real arguments seems irrational to me.

            Have you read Pinker’s book “Our better Angels of Our Nature”? His book has pretty strong evidence that violence has been decreasing in human society over the centuries and that we can expect this trend to continue. We live in the most peaceful era of all of history. Could we back slide? Yes, and you can see it in pockets, bigger and smaller, in many parts of the world. But, overall violence is decreasing and morality is improving. I’m optimistic about the future.

          • In reply to #50 by canadian_right:

            In reply to #11 by Nunbeliever:
            Have you read Pinker’s book “Our better Angels of Our Nature”? His book has pretty strong evidence that violence has been decreasing in human society over the centuries and that we can expect this trend to continue.

            I actually have not read his book on this subject. But, I have read reviews and seen a few videos where Pinker explains what the book is about. Yes, I think he is right when he claims that violence has been decreasing in our societies the last centuries. Much like technological inventions has exploded since the Enlightenment. Still, I don’t think these facts refute my argument. For all the improvements in our societies there is no evidence to suggest that we are not the same primitive beings behind the civilized facade. I don’t think the fact that violence has been decreasing suggests we are more kind or considerate nowadays. We have social structures (at least in the western world) that seem to prevent the most extreme expressions of violence. But, these structures are also very fragile. As I pointed out it took only one single terrorist attack to transform Americans into paranoid, hateful irrational revenge seekers. Millions of lives were lost in other parts of the world as a direct result of this irrational behavior.

            I actually never said that things can’t get better in the future. My point was to discuss the limits of human progress. I think there is good evidence to suggest that our limits does not depend on technological progress but our limited abilities too feel empathy and cooperate. Hence, Pinker might be right that violence will be decreasing in the future as well… until we face the wall of human limits.

          • In reply to #55 by Nunbeliever:

            In reply to #50 by canadian_right:

            In reply to #11 by Nunbeliever:
            Have you read Pinker’s book “Our better Angels of Our Nature”? His book has pretty strong evidence that violence has been decreasing in human society over the centuries and that we can expect this trend to continue……

            I actually never said that things can’t get better in the future. My point was to discuss the limits of human progress. I think there is good evidence to suggest that our limits does not depend on technological progress but our limited abilities too feel empathy and cooperate. Hence, Pinker might be right that violence will be decreasing in the future as well… until we face the wall of human limits.

            Well so far we haven’t even come close to any limits. Are there limits? Yes, but they are due to the laws of nature and basic physics, not any limits to our intellects or basic traits. We have shown that thriving, peaceful societies can be formed, and the part of the world that is peaceful and thriving is increasing. It has been proved that humans can overcome their more “base instincts” through education, good government, and enlightened social norms. The information and skills required to do this are freely available, and being slowly adopted by more peoples.

            We are not limited by our natural traits, because the KEY natural trait that makes us thrive is our ability to use our intellect to override our “base instincts”. This ability is what allows us to live in large cities. This ability is why I have no fear of being the victim of a violent crime in my city of over 1.5 million people. Property crime is common, but even most of the criminals in my society abhor personal violence.

            People the world over can see that it is possible to live under good government, and they eventually demand it. Yes, I know there are countries run by religious fundamentalists and they will change very slowly, but they will change or be left behind.

          • In reply to #60 by canadian_right:

            Well, you make a quite convincing argument. I’ll have to give you that much credit… and I honestly hope you are right. I guess, we just have to wait and see.

      • In reply to #9 by Nunbeliever:

        In reply to #3 by canadianright:_

        I would beg to differ. I think there’s good evidence that human traits like tribalism, limited empathy and a wide range of primitive defense mechanisms are deeply embedded in our DNA.

        I think this is incomplete as a view. First empathy has a light and a dark side. It is high empathy that creates tribalism. In using the misfiring kin detector to create the extended kin set of your tribe, the reaction to those outside the tribe becomes more aggressive and defensive of the loved-as-if-kin folk around you.

        I have often remarked on the anti-social behaviours of high empathy types (they often misread harms and certainly the balance of harms and for quite spurious reasons), but conversely low empathy types can act very ethically. The Temple Grandin’s of this world can get to the virtue’s of empathic treatment of people (and animals!) through intellectual engagement and cool observation. Intellectual engagement in well-being is starting to drive political processes with pressure groups like the Equality Trust. The formal linking of our collective well being to our individual well-being, embedded in the mechanisms of society will do better than shoot from the hip personal emotions.

        The US need to drop their baseless political dogmas though and adopt the pragmas gaining traction elsewhere

        • In reply to #21 by phil rimmer:

          I think this is incomplete as a view. First empa…

          I hear you, and agree that tribalism of course requires a sense of empathy. But, I would not call this high empathy. In fact, I think people who express severe tribalism have a quite limited sense of empathy. They can only relate to people who look like them, act like them and pretty much agrees with them on all important issues.

          I might be wrong, but it seems to me that you regard empathy (you talk about high empathy) as related to being overwhelmed with emotions and incapable of making rational decisions. I think this is a very simplistic view of empathy. Yes, we tend to get more emotional when bad things happen to someone close to us. We also tend to act quite irrational in these situations. Although it of course requires a certain amount of empathy to be able to feel loss and sorrow, I don’t think we are really talking about empathy per se in these situations. There are many other traits and emotional factors at hand. The fact, that many people seek revenge, become hateful or cynical when bad things happen to their loved ones goes to show that our ability to empathize is often very limited in these situations. We can only see our own sorrow and grief. Many people who are struck with grief isolate themselves and often neglect other loved ones in the process.

          Of course empathy is ultimately about emotions. But, my point is that being empathic does not mean that you are overwhelmed with emotions and unable to make rational decisions. Take for example Nelson Mandela. A person I think most people would regard as empathy personified. He was not impaired by emotional fatigue or incapable of making rational decisions. In fact, his almost super human level of empathy is what enabled him to do all the good things he is famous for. He did not become hateful or seek revenge. If that is not high empathy, I seriously don’t know what is.

          You claim that people who have a limited ability to feel empathy can do more good than people like Nelson Mandela. As said, I beg to strongly disagree. Yes, even a psychopath might do good things even though his motivation has nothing to do with helping others. Yes, compared to a person who is over-whelmed by emotions a callous person might be more rational and make better decisions. But, I think that comparison is a straw man. Yes, in certain extreme situations (for example when you are required to sacrifice lives in order to save more lives) a callous person might actually do the job better. But, these are in my opinion rare exceptions to the rule. I’m convinced empathic people make more ethical and rational decisions than callous people. and I think the evidence supports this statement.

          • In reply to #24 by Nunbeliever:

            In reply to #21 by phil rimmer:

            I think this is incomplete as a view. First empa…

            I hear you, and agree that tribalism of course requires a sense of empathy. But, I would not call this high empathy. In fact, I think people who express severe tribalism have a quite limited sense of empathy. They…

            Phil and Nunbeliever. I see nationalism as a modern expression of our evolutionary tribalism.

            “If I support my tribe, even non genetically related people, my genes have a better chance of being passed on.”

            I believe this is a very powerful instinctive drive. The person wouldn’t know they are making this scientific rational, but the result would be the same. The world has a long history of atrocities driven by nationalism. The current Crimean Peninsula conflict, resident ethnic Russians (Tribe) wanting to stay joined to their major tribe, Russia.

            So my question and worry is, given tribalism (nationalism) is hard wired into our brains, and most people do not have the intellectual will or equipment to override this instinct,. can we ever escape from the tribes and act as one world tribe, the necessary condition for the long term survival of a civilized world.

          • In reply to #26 by David R Allen:

            In reply to #24 by Nunbeliever:

            So my question and worry is, given tribalism (nationalism) is hard wired into our brains, and most people do not have the intellectual will or equipment to override this instinct,. can we ever escape from the tribes and act as one world tribe, the necessary condition for the long term survival of a civilized world.

            I think Phil Rimmer’s argument (excuse me for speaking on his behalf) was that intellectual reasoning can override certain primitive instincts. I of course agree. We do this all the time, although not necessarily for intellectual reasons. We have built societies with certain rules and values that we are taught to follow. We have also created judiciary systems to deal with people who fail to abide by these rules. I don’t make sexual advances every time I see a woman I find attractive. I don’t punch people in the face when they irritate me, even though I certainly feel the urge at times. Of course this is not a new phenomenon. Although one can make a good argument that modern societies are superior in comparison to more primitive societies when it comes to creating possibilities for people to live good lives. I want to stress that I don’t regard intellectual arguments and reasoning as trivial. Quite the opposite. Reasoning is what gave us our modern societies in first place. The fact, that we live in much larger societies than our ancestors, but still seem to get along quite fine is of course a positive sign. The modern tribe (or the nation as you call it) consists of millions of people, in comparison to the small villages and tribes our forefathers lived in. It seems like we can teach and educate people to get along and respect complete strangers as long as they are members of the same nation. Then, why would it not be possible to create a global society. If tribes has grown from having only a few members to large nations with hundreds of millions of citizens, then what prevents us from extending the tribe to encompass all humans on this earth?

            I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion about identity, but it’s obvious that these large collective identities are not without their problems. First, they tend to be quite superficial after all. Yes, they can be really strong in certain situations as we have seen in times of war. But, generally we don’t feel as connected to our countrymen as some like to think. In fact, one could argue that national identities has created a large identity vacuum where many people feel rootless and lost. Right-wing extremists try to compensate by inventing myths and folklore that bind them together. But, these attempts are quite futile at a large scale. Which is probably a good thing since this form of nationalism is usually very destructive. Second and more importantly, large collective identities are not immune to the concept of in-groups and out-groups. Some social scientists try to make the case that you could in theory create a collective identity where the out-group is based on an unfortunate past (for example an European identity that tries to avoid fascism at all cost). But, these tend to be theoretical concepts that has little or nothing to do with the collective identities in the real world. Hence, even the largest collective identities seem to require a foe or a counter-part to function. There are many other issues with collective identities. My point is merely to stress that some form of cosmopolitan collective identity tend to exist only in the minds of social or political philosophers.

            What I’m trying to say, is that I agree with you. Tribalism is most likely hard wired into our brains. It seems inevitable that humans think in terms of in-groups and out-groups. That seems to be an essential part of our identities, and I really can’t see how we could ever change that. Perhaps if we one day encountered aliens from outer space we could be united as a species… but, until that day I think all attempts to unite humanity as a whole are doomed to fail. Our abilities to feel empathy for complete strangers that we have never met or will never meet is way too limited. What I think Phil Rimmer is trying to say is that we don’t need to feel connected or empathy in order to get along and work together. It’s enough that we realize this is the best strategy to survive and flourish. To some extent that is certainly true. Still, I also think there are obvious limits. First, as you said, tribalism seems to be hardwired into our brains. I can’t see how any amount of intellectual reasoning could ever override this very strong and possibly fundamental instinct to divide people into friends and foes. Second, studies show that even when we’re dealing with a small group of people the temptation to break the rules in order to gain personal benefits is ever-present. Of course one could argue that if our modern nations can survive these temptations without turning into corrupt dysfunctional states, then surely a global society could as well.

          • In reply to #28 by Nunbeliever:

            In reply to #26 by David R Allen:

            What I think Phil Rimmer is trying to say is that we don’t need to feel connected or empathy in order to get along and work together.

            What I think Phil Rimmer is trying to say is that we don’t need to feel viscerally connected in order to get along and work together.

            And further-

            I claim my intellectual empathy can create a closeness that is considered yet emotionally satisfying. (There is great pleasure in intellectual synchrony.)

          • In reply to #26 by David R Allen:

            In reply to #24 by Nunbeliever:

            Phil and Nunbeliever. I see nationalism as a modern expression of our evolutionary tribalism.

            I have flip flopped on nations and nationalism.

            I followed my father’s views that a world state was the ideal. Now I do not. If nationalism is held lightly enough, then I see a world of nation states as stronger and more exciting than global homogeneity. Our adventure in time is also an experiment involving quite a lot of making it up as we go along. I love nations for their varieties. They prove time and again that there are other ways of doing things. We learn from each other and progress faster to better solutions with the plethora of evidence for success and failure.

            I was watching the 2012 Olympics. (I hate sport.) And I was overtaken with why nations should be proud of their countries achievements. How they were better able to facilitate and cultivate the talents of their people. Jamaica was awesome.

            I think we need difference and different ways of living and doing things.

            We do though need some joining at the top especially to manage common resources.

          • In reply to #24 by Nunbeliever:

            In reply to #21 by phil rimmer:

            What I was trying to evoke was the difference between a visceral empathy, what research scientists like Simon Baron Cohen study and which has ushered us through our early apehood and pre intellectual history, to an intellectual version of empathy when we can understand through talking the harms and hurts and feelings of others.

            In Zero Degrees of Empathy Simon Baron Cohen identifies ten neural aspects to the visceral (pre-intellectual) responses broadly classed as empathy. These are a layer cake of responses that feed our moral heuristics, our wired guts feels about how we treat people. Like all our visceral responses, there is nothing perfectly tuned about them at all. Psychologists show we can make less moral decisions because of them, causing more harm to many others to not directly harm the one near at hand. We are manufactured to a pretty broad tolerance in these things too. Yes there can be lower empathy people, like men and sociopaths and Aspies, whose empathies can take on a variety of different forms, with “deficiencies” in some details. But at the other end of the bell curve there are very highly visceral empaths. This end is no more use for making moral judgements and perhaps less, because those errors of feeling the hurt that is most immediate and neglecting the more distant. More often over-reading actual hurt and demonising the imagined hurter. This is why super-empaths like pro-lifers and animal rights activists will inflict harm.

            Intellectual empathy (the Golden Rule!) is how the most moral decision making is done. It is how sociopath business leaders come to realise the social setting of their own businesses and become caring about all the people touching it. Its how Temple Grandin devoid of any biological empathy is compassionate.

            I am arguing against your idea that we were doomed to be insufficiently empathic by virtue of our genetic inheritance. Our genetic inheritance showed us the way (give or take). It is our cultural inheritance that has rushed ahead and shown the steadiness of purpose and clear focus that our guts lacked. It is reason defeats the dark side of empathy.

          • In reply to #27 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #24 by Nunbeliever:

            Intellectual empathy (the Golden Rule!) is how the most moral decision making is done.

            I have great trouble with the Golden Rule. I don’t think it leads to the “most moral decision making”. Bertrand Russell wrote of the golden rule.

            “What if I don’t like what you are doing unto me.”

            Two examples of great harm being done under the banner of the golden rule. US evangelical fundamentalists infecting Africa and other third world countries with their brand of extreme religion. This includes their views on family planning. Result is the preventable genocide of AIDS, far worse than it needed to be. In particular, evangelical teachings in Nigeria are fermenting a serious break down of law an order as christian and muslim fundamentalists start bombing each other into the stone age, praise the lord and thanks be to allah. The Nigerians have had it Done Unto Them, and it has caused great harm.

            The catholic church in Africa is an accessory before and after the fact in the biggest preventable genocide in human history because of their policies on birth control and condoms. 30,000,000 Africans dead and accelerating. Both the catholics and the US Taliban are “Doing Unto Others as They Would Have Them do Unto You and killing people. No morals to be found here.. (As an aside, I wonder how the American christian right would react if the US was flooded with fundamentalist muslims preachers. But I digress)

            The Golden Rule has some merit in making moral decisions, but I think the Golden Rule should be demoted to second place behind in essence, the Hippocratic Oath. “First, do no harm.” If you are doing harm. Stop. You have made a moral decision. If you are not doing harm, and it is a consenting adult, Do Unto Them.

          • In reply to #31 by David R Allen:

            In reply to #27 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #24 by Nunbeliever:

            Intellectual empathy (the Golden Rule!) is how the most moral decision making is done.

            I have great trouble with the Golden Rule. I don’t think it leads to the “most moral decision making”.

            Nor me. I Should have written the Silver Rule. Its late and I’m not doing my best thinking.

          • In reply to #27 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #24 by Nunbeliever:

            What I was trying to evoke was the difference between a visceral empathy, what research scientists like Simon Baron Cohen study and which has ushered us through our early apehood and pre intellectual history, to an intellectual versio…

            You make an interesting argument. I’m not really familiar with Simon Baron Cohen. I have to check him out. Although from what I have read about the “empathy-gap” I think there are obvious problems.

            As you say, visceral empathy can lead to harm and irrational behavior. Still, I think we should be careful what we are talking about. Yes, I definitely agree that people you call low empathy types can act ethically. In certain situations more so than people who are overwhelmed by emotions. But, I’m not quite sure we are really talking about empathy here. I find it strange to measure empathy as merely the result of how strong emotions you express when confronted with the suffering of others. Or in other words, you are a very empathic person only if you are overwhelmed by emotions when you witness other people suffering. To me, it sounds like we are discussing whether people can control their emotions or not. Emotional maturity, if you like. To me, acting out in anger or hatred seems to reflect a state of regression which is commonly described as a defense mechanism in psychology. Take for example two parents who find their child unconscious. The first parent checks the vital signs of the child and then calls for help. The other goes into complete shock and really isn’t of any help to the child. But, would it be rational to claim that the second parent is more empathic than the first one? I certainly do not think so. I think the second parent for some reason just could not cope with the immense stress of that situation.

            As I pointed out in a former comment, I think the people you describe as “super empaths” really seem to have a very limited form of empathy. They are of course not psychopaths. They have the ability to feel empathy, but only with people who look, act and think like them. You are probably right that this form of empathy (or tribalism as I would call it) is more natural to humans than what I would call deeper forms of empathy. That is in fact my whole point. These deeper forms of empathy seems to be the result of a learning process and not something you are born with. It might due to intellectual reasoning, meditation or just interacting with a lot of different people. On the other hand it seems equally obvious that not all people are able to learn deep empathy. But, to claim that you have to be emotionally detached in order to feel deep empathy seems absurd to me. I don’t regard Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela as emotionally detached, but they do strike me as very empathic people.

            So, what about people like Temple Grandin? She’s deeply concerned with the well-fare of not only humans but other animals as well. Still, her abilities to feel empathy are clearly limited. Does this mean that people can learn to, at least on an intellectual level, care about others even if they are emotionally detached? Can intellectual reasoning make people behave ethically, even if they feel no empathy for others? The answer is clearly yes to all the above questions. But, that does not necessarily mean that we could transform all people into ethical human beings. Even though psychologists like Kevin Dutton seem convinced that psychopaths can be a source of good, I think the evidence clearly show that most psychopaths are very destructive to a society. I think it’s obvious that most psychopaths even with the right education and motivation would not become champions of human rights or global cooperation. They might not feel empathy, but that does not mean that don’t they have primitive instincts and emotions like other people. I have seen no convincing evidence that psychopaths are prone to be generally more rational than others. In fact, evidence suggests most psychopaths are very impulsive and lack the abilities required to commit to long-term goals. A common misconception is that psychopaths are somehow less driven by emotions than other human beings. Then we of course have the autistic. But, they also have the same primitive traits as all others. They are of course much less prone to do harm than psychopaths. In fact, they often possess traits that make them very valuable members of the society under the right circumstances and with the right support and training. But again, the fact that some autistic people (like Temple Grandin) can be a source of good in the world does not mean that all people with autism have those abilities.

            My point is that traits like tribalism and other destructive instincts and emotions seem so embedded in all of us that I find it very unlikely that we can ever really override them, which I think would be necessary to really make true progress as a species. I of course hope I’m wrong and, as many (you included) have pointed out here, there are glimpses of hope. Every now and then I hear stories that somewhat restores my faith in humanity. Sadly, only to be destroyed the next moment by some other story that reveals what I think is the true nature of humanity. A species with traits that made it possible for our ancestors to survive on the Savannah, but these same traits seem to hinder progress in modern times.

          • In reply to #34 by Nunbeliever:

            Take for example two parents who find their child [having convulsions]. The first parent [puts the child on its side] and then calls for help. The other goes into complete shock and really isn’t of any help to the child. But, would it be rational to claim that the second parent is more empathic than the first one? I certainly do not think so.

            Your key complaint is you are worried about DNA thwarting us. Forget the way we use empathy as a word meaning “an attribute of kindness motivated by an experience of the others hurt” or some such. Empathy in its strict meaning does not require a good action only the co-experience of a hurt. I rephrased your example to show empathy as co-experiencing. Strictly an empathic person has similar experiences to another and may be motivated to remove a negative stimulus from another to remove that hurt from themselves. This co-experience can be had not at all at one end of the bell curve of empathy or to a debilitating excess at the other. This debilitating excess is still empathy, driven by the DNA.

            I suspect you rather mean sympathy and/or kindness to others. These are not primary genetic traits.

          • In reply to #36 by phil rimmer:

            Forget the way we use empathy as a word meaning “an attribute of kindness motivated by an experience of the others hurt” or some such. Empathy in its strict meaning does not require a good action only the co-experience of a hurt.

            I did not really say empathy as a theoretical concept requires sympathy or acts of kindness. As you pointed out empathy can also lead harm or disdain. But, I think that these are limited forms of empathy. In other words you are able to empathize with one person but not with someone else. There might be different reasons for this behavior. I mentioned regression and other forms of defense mechanisms as one explanation. Another could simply be that a person is born with limited abilities to feel empathy for people who look different, act differently or have unfamiliar thoughts and values.

            On the other hand I think empathy is crucial for people to be able to cooperate and get along with others. Yes, some people clearly get along with others even though their ability to feel empathy is clearly limited. Temple Grandin is a good example of this. But, these people tend to be quite rare exceptions. I think there’s good evidence that the general rule is that the people who get along with others and are kind and considerate are people who are empathic.

            Why do I think people like Temple Grandin are so rare? You describe empathy as:

            Strictly an empathic person has similar experiences to another and may be motivated to remove a negative stimulus from another to remove that hurt from themselves.

            But, this goes both ways. If a person is happy an empathic person can co-experience that happiness. My point is that empathic people are bound to be interested in others. Without empathy it’s impossible to really share experiences and bond with others. People without empathy are doomed to isolation. They have no motivation to interact and cooperate with others. You mention intellectual gratification as a motivation for people who don’t feel empathy to cooperate and interact with others. To some extent that is of course true. Still, I think it’s quite rare for people without empathy to develop a genuine interest in others. That’s why people like Temple Grandin are so rare. First, it requires advanced intellectual capabilities to be able to understand and get gratification from the immense complexity of social relations with others if you don’t feel empathy. That’s probably why so many autistic people tend to isolate themselves and focus on mathematics or other systems that are logical and not as chaotic. Second, even if a person possesses the intellectual faculties required for such a complex task it still requires that person to be emotionally stable enough to handle such a situation. Like I said before, autistic people have the same primitive instincts and emotions as others. I really understand why autistic people often are so afraid of others. If you don’t really feel empathy the world around you have to seem like chaos. I’m not saying people with autism can’t be productive members of the society. What I’m saying is that people like Temple Grandin are as rare as people like Nelson Mandela. Whether you feel empathy or not, you still have primitive instincts and emotions that makes it very hard for most people to get along and cooperate with people who are very different from you.

  4. By the way, I would add that one of the biggest problems facing society is undefined or unacknowledged ego-centrism. Neuroscience seems to be tapping into this topic more, but I think there are many subtle or indirect ways that we self focus that are not completely understood.

    • In reply to #4 by QuestioningKat:

      By the way, I would add that one of the biggest problems facing society is undefined or unacknowledged ego-centrism. Neuroscience seems to be tapping into this topic more, but I think there are many subtle or indirect ways that we self focus that are not completely understood.

      I definitely agree with you QuestioningKat that our ego-centrism is a major problem. But do we really have to wait for neuroscience to make a major discovery? Acknowledging that this is so should be the starting point. I believe that if we, as Viktor Frankl expounded, know the WHY (the meaning or our lives), the HOW (means) will follow. And discovering that the WHY is not all about Ourselves will surely pave the way for a brighter future.

  5. So what do you think? Do you think we can solve the great problems of this world with more science and research? Or do we as human beings have traits that make it impossible for us to really make any significant progress as a species?

    I think it’s possible, but only if we can all agree that humans have the potential to do so instead of being weighed down with the notion that humans are inherently flawed, sinful creatures who can only be saved through the grace of God. Even right now, there are plenty of people who feel that it’s hubris to even imagine that mankind could have negatively affected the climate, let alone that we can fix the problem. Or that scientists are meddling in the affairs of God and should stop what they are doing. Or that evolution can’t possibly be a fact because it contradicts the Bible. Or that there are things that man was just not meant to know.

    Sadly, I don’t see religion going away anytime soon…

    • In reply to #6 by godzillatemple:

      So what do you think? Do you think we can solve the great problems of this world with more science and research? Or do we as human beings have traits that make it impossible for us to really make any significant progress as a species?

      I think it’s possible, but only if we can all agree that humans…

      Once we come to the understanding that all human misery and dysfunction begins when we believe that it is up to the individual alone to decide what it right and wrong will there be any hope for mankind.

  6. I don’t expect us to be happier than we are now, well maybe a bit. I think our happiness requirements reset so that we sit in the middle of our experience range. I realised this as a teenager reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. After his grueling day of hard labour in subzero temperatures, terrible inadequate food, hateful people, the little successes, the little kindnesses lift him to the conclusion he had had a good day. If anything I rather fear any kind of sustained happiness as “passivating” and putting our collective-adventure-through-time at risk. If anything people tend to feel more alive and engaged at times of threat. (My parents could never stop talking about “their war”. Change and risk were licensed and reveled in.)

    In the (admittedly risky) ballooning of our population to 7billion I now see greatly enhanced global wealth and greatly enhanced ability to deal with global catastrophe. At least five countries are space capable now and our capacity for invention has never been higher. 40% of all new energy generation investment is for sustainable and this number is increasing rapidly. I see a growing interest in circular (sustainable) economies at governmental levels as this can lead to far greater economic stability, reducing manufacturing and waste and embedding value adding services in a far more local manner. Investment in much higher value infrastructures which is ongoing now should better guarantee returns for bankers than the phantom world of money (one hundred times bigger than global GDP). (This phantom world, the economic equivalent of trying to trick zero point energy out of quantum fluctuations, was a bigger global risk than America’s Religiothuglicans.)

    The very great achievements we have to look forward to may actually come across as spread out and a little prosaic compared to the singular Wow of a moon landing, but they will have been worked on by millions across continents. They will sustain our ongoing collective adventure until the next biggy.

    • In reply to #12 by phil rimmer:

      One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. After his grueling day of hard labour in subzero temperatures, terrible inadequate food, hateful people, the little successes, the little kindnesses lift him to the conclusion he had had a good day. If anything I rather fear any kind of sustained happiness as “passivating” and putting our collective-adventure-through-time at risk. If anything people tend to feel more alive and engaged at times of threat. (My parents could never stop talking about “their war”. Change and risk were licensed and reveled in.)

      I recall a film with a very similar theme to your reference. It was set in a prison camp in Siberia and, with the only bright spot in the day being the prospect of roasted rat, the protagonist commented on a beautiful sunrise. I think his words were “ain’t god wonderful!”

      That film has stayed with me for a long time ( not the god part, obviously ) as I thought how little it can take, to be happy. I have the bar set very low in the quest for happiness, though it helps to be in the secure position of a self-funded retiree.

      My parents often mentioned the war as a time when everyone stuck together, united in their common purpose. I would hate to test the bonds of solidarity in such a way ever again, nonetheless.

      I fear that I’ve drifted way off topic, and I’m not quite sure how to rein it in so that it has some relevance to the post. Sorry Nunbeliever.

      • In reply to #16 by Nitya:

        In reply to #12 by phil rimmer:

        Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel prize for literature particularly for that book and a film starring Tom Courtney was made.

        Sadly Solzhenitsyn turned out to be a mostly reactionary religious man, reducing the practical value of his later observations. His observations on human nature, though, seem absolutely on the money and they stopped me as a teen explicitly seeking happiness but rather seeking those things that kept me feeling vividly alive and engaged.

  7. “There are setbacks, there are societies that are still primitive”

    Would it be useful for you to acknowledge that all humanity went through the same historical time, and “primitives” was- and still- is a wrong notion (only that it became acceptable by its common innocent use, but anthropologists- those who were before better indicated to study “primitive societies”, turned to their own society, there´s no real difference.
    North american indians, obviously, thought others not to be as “civilised” as they thought.
    But let´s hope the whole humanity can go through some kind of global ontogenic colective” progress”, become wiser and learn with its own errors.

  8. Has no-one read “The Better Angels of our Nature”? According to Pinker, the trend is definitely going up. Of course our lives are extended and made more comfortable as a result of science and technology, but our moral outlook has improved greatly as well. Much of this has happened in my lifetime and I have witnessed the change directly. Of course I attribute these improvements on a better educated populous. The proportion of kids finishing school ( in the west) has risen greatly over the years, and it’s to this fact that I attribute our more humane/ less punitive behaviour.

  9. I share your sense of despair.

    Many great playwrights, authors, artists and directors have explore this characteristic of human nature, capable of amazing feats of achievement, but fatally flawed by selfish and destructive evolutionary traits. The tragic hero, homo sapien. I hope that our ability to do amazing feats will win over selfishness and destruction, but I am not optimistic. Divide the world’s population into those that can and do those amazing feats, and those who selfishness and destruction will dominate their decision making. I am of the view that the amazing feats people are vastly outnumbered by the selfish and destructive, who are basically still motivated by stone age evolutionary traits in the 21st century. Their view of time is only measure in minutes, hours, days, and occasionally a year. It is impossible for them to think about the decision they are about to make in terms of a thousand year consequence.

    To overturn acts of selfishness and destruction requires an act of strong intellectual will to overturn the stone age brain. “No, I won’t take more than I need from the commons.” “No, I won’t take a short term profit today when I should take a thousand year perspective.” For a human to be possessed of such qualities that they can reach a level of intellectual sophistication thatallows them to make such self sacrificing decisions would require all of humanity to vastly better educated than they are, with outstanding knowledge of the scientific method, evolutionary biology and a grasp of morality and ethics only seen in blogs of this nature.

    So folks, it ain’t gonna happen. If we all get to vote, the selfish and destructive will vastly outnumber the common sense intelligent version of our species. They will vote for instant gratification. Profit now. They can’t see over the horizon. They can’t see over their back fence. They have no concept of the limits of closed systems. Of sustainable population and resource usage rates. Civilization will collapse when 9-12 billion people start to feel thirsty and hungry, and unleash the stone age brain.

  10. First of all, although you mentioned some of the disadvantages or bad aspects of the time of the moon landing, you review it from the technological and scientific point of view very positive and somhow transfigured, which is normal by looking at the past. Many people imagine the time of the knights as somehow romantic but no one wants to live there and have problems with the teeth! I think we are making progress very rapidly – maybe so fast, that we are overwhelmed by it to perceive it in the right way.
    I watched a clip of Neil deGrsse Tyson, one of the series NOVA Science Now (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEi68CeE5eY&index=3&list=FLrHjT2vWgMS1hE4bX4vAb9A) where he asks at the begining if we could manage to become immortal. At the end of the clip I was thinking about how we could combine the technologies shown there to something that would enable us to travle to the stars. We all want to see progress like the moon landing in our lifetimes. But most of us will never see something like that. Voyager has left the heliosphere and by that the solar system. It is a small first step but others will follow (if we manage not to kill ourselves by will or accident!). I know it’s hard but we have to push the boarder AND be patint at the same time …

  11. I cannot say why, I am often frustrated to hell by society but every now and then I see rays of hope. Watching Ann Summers interviewing Tim Flannery this week gave me such hope (even though much of the interview dealt with how badly we are doing with climate change) I feel like we may be reaching a tipping point which would be nice to see in our lifetime – particularly in relation to reduced price of renewables.

    here

    Open source software gives me hope as well, as a teacher who does some Information Technology teaching in a fairly low socio-economic area (for Australia) I use almost exclusively open source software, things like Gimp, Audacity and Blender, in science Celestia, Stellarium for astronomy and others for almost any other need. All written by the crowd and getting better all the time, many of my students have become expert at using editing, modeling software which would otherwise cost them about thousands of dollars to buy commercial equivalents. I feel likewise about Creative Commons. This gives me hope, people are prepared to participate in society, other non- profits like the raspberry pi group and the hacker community that has risen up among it show that the world is full of geeks at least prepared to give to world. We just need to tap that into the physical world more although this happening in similar areas check out some of the outcomes of the onset of household 3d Printers

    here

    There is cause for the hope of a better future, or at least an interesting one and I’ll settle for that if I need to.

    • In reply to #18 by Reckless Monkey:

      I cannot say why, I am often frustrated to hell by society but every now and then I see rays of hope. Watching Ann Summers interviewing Tim Flannery this week gave me such hope (even though much of the interview dealt with how badly we are doing with climate change)

      Great interview! Tim Flannery put his case very well I thought.

  12. Here´s the site of someone that was not expecting to reach Alpha Centauri to improve, for instance are atheists in USA having more attention concerning their human rights than before? That´s not rocket science, but its something.

  13. IMO progress for humanity relies not on technology, but on the science of understanding where we are now, and how we got here. When people fully understand the private property world of capitalism, – that some 85 individuals have amassed as much wealth as half the world’s population, some 3.5 billion people, that at least will be a start. Human progress, and happiness, is held back by the constant search for profit.

    If the Earth’s resources were owned in common by the whole of humanity, the search for profit couldn’t exist. Only then could we use those resources for the benefit of all humanity, and not just to support a privileged owning class of parasites, whilst the rest of us have to labour to support them, with very little security in our lives.

    Now what was he body count today ? Only some 20,000 kids died of poverty related issues ? Hardly headline news for the Wall Street Journal.

  14. “My point is merely to stress that some form of cosmopolitan collective identity tend to exist only in the minds of social or political philosophers.”

    Not quite, would you be as surprised as me to find out how cultural traits were spread so surprisingly widely, even when there were no airplanes, no trains, how come that prehistoric depictions are so similar in distant places on the globe (when there were no technology of transportation?), that´s really a human trait to consider, its capability of spreading culture so widely.

    • In reply to #32 by maria melo:

      Not quite, would you be as surprised as me to find out how cultural traits were spread so surprisingly widely, even when there were no airplanes, no…

      You of course make a good point. We often think globalization is a new phenomenon, when it’s not. For example, Europe during the middle ages was to some extent a very “globalized” society. But, don’t you think these expressions of cosmopolitanism are quite superficial after all? They tend to be supported and upheld mostly by the elite. A top down form of identity, so to speak. In modern times Americanization is of course a good example of how cultures unite and start to resemble each other. Still, to me it seems all these phenomenons are quite superficial. I can’t really imagine people standing united fighting for Coca Cola or McDonald’s :D

      • In reply to #35 by Nunbeliever:

        In reply to #32 by maria melo:

        Not quite, would you be as surprised as me to find out how cultural traits were spread so surprisingly widely, even when there were no airplanes, no…

        You of course make a good point. We often think globalization is a new phenomenon, when it’s not. For example, Euro…

        Globalised or cosmopolitan, it seems you used the two meaning the same.

        Within a few words a European deputy recentely explained:”cosmopolitan” means to take more in consideration the Whole, not that differences are denied.
        I can make an analogy with the definition of barbarian according to a german author Francis Wolff (quoted by a brasilian author):[barbarian] doesn´t mean that we don´t accept differences [barbarian] means those who neglect others and despise them from their very human condition, and the real barbarians, according to the author, are those who despise others from their human condition (sadly enough barbarism came from those who could read Kant in its native language, german, with nazism.)
        Globalization of human rights doesn´t mean, of course, that minorities don´t have rights.

  15. At the risk of politicizing this debate a bit I’d like to mention the elephant in the room: Capitalism! It seems clear to me that the failure to solve most of the problems mentioned in the OP despite us being technically capable of solving them is not due to inherent shortcomings in human nature but to systemic forces in capitalism.

    Most rich folks and even Wall Street bankers are not evil people. But imagine you are CEO of a multinational corporation, that, for example, purchased the drinking water supply in some underdeveloped region of a third world country. You are faced with two possible strategies: Do some superficial repairs and then raise the prices to milk them dry, increasing your companies revenue right now or do some heavy investments and keep the prices down so that the investments will pay off in 15 to 20 years and the company then starts to make a moderate profit. If you pursue the second strategy you’re going to be an ex-CEO very soon.

    Let me be clear, I think that capitalism has a role to play in our society and that there are areas of life and industry where capitalism and the forces of competition are a good thing, but there are definitely also areas where the fundamental assumptions of capitalism don’t apply. The easiest example would of course be medicine and healthcare. Most people simply lack the knowledge to be informed “customers” of their doctors. Another and quite huge example would be labor and wages. If the demand for labor is declining and the price is consequently sinking, the workers don’t have the option of reducing the supply.

    There are however quite a few new ideas on how to overcome some of these problems. New laws that would allow us to sue a domestic company if one of their contractor firms abroad violates international work standards, laws that would force the government – the single largest consumer in every country – to take social and ecological considerations into account when making a purchase, even total game changers like the unconditional basic income have been proposed.

    • In reply to #38 by foundationist:

      At the risk of politicizing this debate a bit I’d like to mention the elephant in the room: Capitalism! It seems clear to me that the failure to solve most of the problems mentioned in the OP despite us being technically capable of solving them is not due to inherent shortcomings in human nature but…

      I agree but I would refine what you said just a bit. I think criticizing “capitalism” in general is too broad. It’s like criticizing “money” or looking at things like nuclear weapons and criticizing “science”. It’s not capitalism that is the problem but the irrational worship of capitalism and the “free market” that has become essentially an unofficial religion in the US — and those in the US are trying to spread it to the whole world.

      Capitalism is a great model for generating wealth and encourasging innovation. But thinking that the free market is the solution to every problem is irrational. Healthcare is a good example. But I don’t think it’s just that humans lack the knowledge to make informed choices. It’s that the whole idea that you even can make an informed choice when it comes to healthcare is wrong. If you break a leg you don’t start evaluating which hospital has the best outcomes you want to get to the nearest hospital ASAP. Or if you get cancer or AIDS the last thing most people can do at times like that is shop around for the best health plan. Some services such as education, infrastructure, and healthcare just work better as a common public service that we all pay for and all use when we need it. And this isn’t from a wimpy liberal perspective, it’s from a hard nosed perspective evaluating outcomes and results vs cost data. The data we have overwhelmingly shows that quality goes down and cost goes up when we try to privatize these kinds of functions. The US spends far more then other industrialized nations on healthcare and we get far worse service in return compared to societies such as Canada and the UK where there is universal healthcare. And the data on other types of functions such as education and infrastructure are the same.

    • In reply to #38 by foundationist:

      At the risk of politicizing this debate a bit I’d like to mention the elephant in the room: Capitalism! It seems clear to me that the failure to solve most of the problems mentioned in the OP despite us being technically capable of solving them is not due to inherent shortcomings in human nature but…

      I agree with you with regard to the shortcomings of capitalism, especially crony capitalism. But, I would say this is merely a symptom of an underlying disease. All political systems so far has failed in some way or another. A good comparison would be the UN. Many people criticize the UN for being impotent and in most regards incapable of making a change. But, the UN can only be as good as it’s individual member states. In the same way our political and economic systems are only as good as we are…

      • In reply to #43 by Nunbeliever:

        But, I would say this is merely a symptom of an underlying disease. All political systems so far has failed in some way or another.

        If the only categories you allow for are “failure” or “success” you are oversimplifying reality. Various political systems have had tremendous success in improving different aspects of life, none more so than the capitalist societies, as you rightly stated in your OP. But it seems to me that the kind of obstacles you mentioned really can’t be overcome within the framework of capitalism. A good example are German politics regarding climate change and carbon dioxide emissions. All German politicians talk very big on climate change, this country used to pride itself in taking the vanguard of combating rampant emission of greenhouse gases. Yet, whenever the EU tries to introduce legislation that would limit the average emissions of all cars produced by any given car manufacturer – and I’ve lost count on how often this has been attempted over the last 15 years – the German government has to oppose it vehemently, no matter how green that government is. That’s the systemic force.

        That’s why I’m rather interested in the various ideas that would actually change the whole setting. As I’ve said before, the unconditional basic income might be such a plan. It’s being discussed in all seriousness by more and more experts and politicians, not just on the left. It would be a total game changer, since it does away with a fundamental axiom of both capitalism and socialism/communism: That you have to work to be able to have a half-decent life. I’m not enough of an expert to argue for it seriously, but the idea is fascinating. Any of you got any thoughts on that?

        • In reply to #44 by foundationist:

          If the only categories you allow for are “failure” or “success” you are oversimplifying reality. Various political systems have had tr…

          Well, I’m from Finland and quite familiar with social democracy and regulated forms of capitalism. The concept of a citizen salary is something that is proposed every so often by the left wing. So far it has not really fallen on fertile ground, although some countries like Switzerland have adopted this policy. I’m not quite sure what my opinion is on this subject. In principle I think it’s a good idea, although I would like to have more concrete evidence before I make up my mind. I don’t really see it as a game changer, since we would still live in a capitalist world. Wealth would still be generated the same way as before. Or, at least that’s my opinion. I might of course be wrong…

        • In reply to #44 by foundationist:

          That’s why I’m rather interested in the various ideas that would actually change the whole setting. As I’ve said before, the unconditional basic income might be such a plan. It’s being discussed in all seriousness by more and more experts and politicians, not just on the left. It would be a total game changer, since it does away with a fundamental axiom of both capitalism and socialism/communism: That you have to work to be able to have a half-decent life.

          Let’s say instead “That you have to work to be able to survive.”

          I think that the basis of morality is survival. In this sense, unconditional basic income is a coherent proposal.

    • In reply to #38 by foundationist:

      At the risk of politicizing this debate a bit I’d like to mention the elephant in the room: Capitalism! It seems clear to me that the failure to solve most of the problems mentioned in the OP despite us being technically capable of solving them is not due to inherent shortcomings in human nature but…

      Unfettered capitalism doesn’t exist anywhere, but corrupt governments that are willing to tolerate the sort of corruption you describe are too common. I agree that unregulated free market capitalism leads to inequality and injustice. The cure isn’t banning capitalism, the cure is proper government oversight and regulation – good government is needed.

  16. I am just old enough to rember the apollo missions and could look at the moon knowing there was someone up there. in the 70s and 80s I remember growing up with new technology that would change everyone’s life but I was far too naive to realise what was going to happen.

    technology has surpassed my expectations, even without my hover board, but the apes that buy it are for the large part, unworthy. technology is aimed at the lowest common denominator. mobile phones are capable of more than any sci-fi on board computer yet still someone out there is presumibly paying 5 a week to send text messages to find out if their new boyfriend is a love match by typing their name in, or subscribing to astrology apps.

    you can’t open the internet nowadays without new pictures taken from the ISS or Hubble, people EXPECT it then use this incredible global technology to argue that the moon landings, that required knowledge of newtonian physics and a shit load of explosive fuel, were FAKED!

    Somewhere towards the end of the 20th century something happened. as the berlin wall fell, a new age of stupidity took over. a belief that humans were INCAPABLE of building a rocket that went to the moon, or even sneaking into fields in the middle of the night to create elaborate crop-grafitti, but aliens were visiting en masse doing it. evading everything that humans had pointing into space only to get captured on camcorders in the last few hunderd feet of their multi-lightyear, physics-defying journey.

    During the cold war, we were vigilant. we had to be. we had to learn about war, politics, nuclear distruction, technology and helpless as we were individually we all cared about what we could do. then the stupid came. we became ashamed of our “western” knowledge so like cargo-cultists used these machines we didn’t understand to cast our horroscopes and spread religious hatred.

    wholefood shops popped up and suddenly medicine went out the window for the new health regime of chewing on magic twigs. multimple channels arrived on TV filled with grown men talking to ghosts.

    technology made life too easy. people stopped enjoying learning. with the arrival of google anyone who can manage to type a sentence that’s almost spelled correctly is some sort of expert in everything.

    Human progress is limited by its laziness. food is cheap and easy, more time for leasure? no more food sat on the sofa watching ancient aliens having your opinion formed while barely conscious. Info is free, why work for knowledge? no need even to defend your beliefs. Social networking is able to help you connect with somoene you thought you’d never see again, do you catch up and remember the old days and ask what happened to your dreams? or share a video of amusing cats?

    before you respond I should warn you. 1 like= 1 prayer

  17. As many might have predicted, I’m rooting for the many species we haven’t yet sent extinct. Language-apes have some logical, brilliant prime-movers, in terms of progress. It’s just that these are outnumbered a million to one.

    Recently wrote an essay entitled “Stop Breeding”. An economist during my time in the degree factory, The principle of “economic growth”, is the most accepted, most suicidal horror, killer and fallacy, present generations will be remembered by, by possible 22nd century “repairers”.

    Again, I’m not from the future. “repairers” was just a guess, forebears.

  18. Re: Capitalism.

    Unfettered capitalism can cause runaway inequality. Monopolies need to be legislated against, so too a monopolisation of capital. Having it buys you the ability to more readily acquire it. Having money buys you cheaper money to gamble with and the advocacy to be more able to walk away when you loose. Further, ownership of shared resources like clean air and water need to be protected appropriately.

    Income inequality can be managed in societies by regressive taxation or simply by a more rational culture that doesn’t over-value individuals. This latter is based on the reasoning that these days all efforts are team efforts and cultivation of teams rather than individuals better secures consistent and profitable businesses.

    Here we can see a clear accumulation of nations with much better value for money services at the bottom of the inequality list.

    The countries at the bottom of the list are fully capitalist, but their use of capital is far more efficient, not least because of a steadier use of the stuff. Lending institutions in the likes of Germany and Sweden know their customers and understand their businesses. They know that loaned money will not be wasted or misspent and that sustained efforts to succeed will be undertaken. Supplies of capital can be relied upon as businesses develop. In the US I have seen hugely wasteful amounts spent on crazy schemes, set up in lieu of proper business ideas. Financial institutions and rich punters are scammed and scam in return. People trust the executive summary rather than doing the due diligence. Short termism drives an overheated investment behaviour acted out by lazy, impatient gamblers and their con artist clients.

    Real income in the US has plateaued since the seventies. All the extra hard work needed to stay still has gone into the pockets of the super rich.

    People need to see the data. The Equality Trust is a source of moral facts. OK…..facts with moral implications.

    EDIT: I count myself an unashamed capitalist.

    • In reply to #42 by phil rimmer:

      Re: Capitalism.

      Income inequality can be managed in societies by regressive taxation

      Wow, I’m more of a capitalist robber baron than I thought. I meant progressive taxation.

  19. Sorry to butt into this topic out of step. I was thinking about “Or do we as human beings have traits that make it impossible for us to really make any significant progress as a species?”

    I think this is probably somewhat true. There will always be someone who possesses more genius than even the top ten percent. They buck the status quo, think in ways that the average person cannot, and come up with innovative and original ideas that put current ways to shame. The problem is everyone else.

    Who is everyone else? They are the wetblankets and little people of the world who find faults with creative thinking by pointing out the lack of practicality and problems rather than seeing potential or offering encouragement. They are the ones who play it safe and figure that everyone else better do so also. “If I couldn’t do it, why does anyone else think that they can.” They are the ones who are comfortable with things being the way they are and resist change. They are the ones who bully everyone so that they can look like a big important person. They are the ones who put their fingers in their ears and say “la la la la la” so that they won’t hear anything that challenges their preconceived notions. They are the one who think that they are just great and deserve everything never mind real competence. They are the ones who stick to the tried and true because it raked in the money in the past. They are the ones who follow the rules because a clear and obvious road to success can be seen and followed. They are the ones that think everyone should be like _________. They are the ones that worry to the point of stifling you. They are the ones that think they are “too small” to matter. They are the one who elevate mediocrity and think it’s great. They are the ones that think they have good taste. They are you, me and even the genius who will make some sort of contribution that makes you step back and say “wow!” Somehow these individuals have put aside their issues and stepped up, took initiative and moved forward. The challenge today is that lone wolves rarely make a large impact today; a large backing or collaboration is needed.

    But yep, as long as half brains rule the world, we’re screwed. What if everyone had some sort of implant in their head and it calculated your intelligence, accuracy of perceptions etc. on a current basis? It would tell you “You are currently at the 63 percentile of intelligence compared to all others worldwide at this given moment.” “Your perception on this matter is flawed.” Someone needs to tell certain people to sit down and shut up and let people who can – do.

    • In reply to #52 by QuestioningKat:

      Sorry to butt into this topic out of step. I was thinking about “Or do we as human beings have traits that make it impossible for us to really make any significant progress as a species?”

      I think this is probably somewhat true. There will always be someone who possesses more genius than even the to…

      I concur and like your post. The “the wetblankets and little people” vastly outnumber the rational, and because all votes are equal, they will vote for the destruction of future civilization in favour of instant gratification today.

  20. I watched the Apollo 11 landing live. Sometimes I notice that it’s 2014 and I think “hey, I’m living in the future”, because there was so much talk about what life in the 21st century would be like. Well, here it is. And we’re not commuting to the moon or gliding to work in hovercars, as some seem to have expected. Nonetheless, human daily life is much the same as it ever was, and ever will be.

  21. It seems someone keeps asking if others have read the last book of Steven Pinker, well it seems that Red Dog has, for, I quote, Human rights, feminism, and other social structure- that not patriarchy- go against “our natural drives” (“our” as if women are not included?) It seems Robert Sapolky would be interesting to read, or a least to hear:

    Why hierarchy creates a destructive force within the human psyche

    I am reading the books which I have planned to read some years ago.

    • In reply to #56 by maria melo:

      It seems someone keeps asking if others have read the last book of Steven Pinker, well it seems that Red Dog has, for, I quote, Human rights, feminism, and other social structure- that not patriarchy- go against “our natural drives” (“our” as if women are not included?) It seems Robert Sapolky would…

      I’m having a Princess Bride moment You seem to be quoting something I said. I do not think I meant what you think. I actually think Pinker’s Better Angels book supports feminism and human rights. Although it’s possible to point out that humans have some innate drives that conflict with those things, saying that doesn’t mean you think those things aren’t good or that the innate drives shouldn’t be or can’t be overcome.

      But as for the idea that “hierarchy” is a “destructive force within the human psych” I think that is nonsense. You may as well say that breathing is a destructive force, which it is, try to have a fight without using lots of oxygen, that hardly means we should look at “less breathing” as a way to cut down on violence and in the same way it’s nonsensical to try and have “less hierarchy” or to see “hierarchy” per se as evil.

      In fact hierarchical organization is probably one of the most fundamental concepts we use to organize just about anything. We couldn’t have complex machines, and I’m not talking particle accelerators even simple machines, without hierarchical thinking and we couldn’t structure most long term projects without hierarchies for both the systems being built and the organizations and processes that build them.

      If you want to argue that too much hierarchy is bad or that certain kinds of hierarchical structures, e.g. those that give all power to one manager and don’t make that manager accountable, I would agree absolutely that those kinds of hierarchies could be considered a “destructive force within the human psych”.

  22. If you want to know where the current trend of a lack of empathy and a bloated trend of greed stems from, especially in the US and the UK, look no further that Thatcher and Reagan. the 80s were nothing more than Me, Me, Me & Me years.

  23. There is a type of starfish exploding in population, and stripping reefs bare of life, around Australia. An advantage (blissful ignorance cliché) Crown-of-Thorns Starfish have over some of us, is their inability to notice their exponential growth amidst finite resources. Another is their inability to linguistically communicate, because in our case, communication reveals the denial of the masses. I do not wish upon any star…fish, access to the thoughts; “stop, no, don’t breed again, don’t eat that, you shouldn’t do that….”. It’d be horrible watching your little reef be killed, knowing that this would mean the end of all the starfish on your little planet.. I mean, reef.

  24. Phil Rimmer #42

    Re: Capitalism.

    Unfettered capitalism can cause runaway inequality.

    As I pointed out earlier, some 85 individuals own as much wealth as half the world’s current population, some 3.5 billion people. It seems that “unfettered capitalism” has already achieved what you claim it might achieve. Individual capitalists would love to be “unfettered” without the poxy government interfering in their profit making enterprises. But as the various different capitalists have different interests and are invariably in competition with their rivals, to achieve these interests, they have to turn to the political machinery, the state, to enforce their particular agenda. Here endeth the “unfettered” capitalism. The state is the body that represents the capitalists. The state cares bugger all about the workers. OK it does what it as to, to stop the workers dying in the streets, and becoming non-productive, etc. It educates, or trains, might be better word, them, for a life of wages working on someone else’s behalf.

    The state is not there to “fetter” the profit motive, quite the opposite. It represents the property owners, not the workers.

  25. “But as for the idea that “hierarchy” is a “destructive force within the human psych” I think that is nonsense.”

    Well, it would be only a glimpse of a violent past that drove “our” natural drives, as analogy. Of course female would be in any case responsible for males´s violent behavior, just as in mithology: a woman was responsive for Troia´s war? (it seems more difficult the research in English) http://ofogareu.blogspot.pt/2011/06/o-pomo-da-discordia-ou-helena-de-troia.html

    O fogaréu

    • In reply to #63 by maria melo:

      “But as for the idea that “hierarchy” is a “destructive force within the human psych” I think that is nonsense.”

      Well, it would be only a glimpse of a violent past that drove “our” natural drives, as analogy. Of course female would be in any case responsible for males´s violent behavior, just as in mithology: a woman was responsive for Troia´s war? (it seems more difficult the research in English)

      I think this may just be a confusion of terminology. All I’m saying is that when people say that the whole concept of hierarchies, of having say an organization chart for a project, is evil, I’m saying that idea is nonsense. That no matter what your political leanings if you have a large team of people you need to define responsibilities, leaders, chain of command, etc.

      To me the critical thing is how you structure the team or organization. But saying, as I’ve heard academics often say, that the very notion of having any structure (to me structure is a synonym for hierarchy in this context) that is nonsense. But I very much would agree that having the wrong kind of structure is detrimental, both to efficiently completing projects and to more vague concepts about human well being.

      Actually, this is something I’ve spent a fair amount of time on in my work life. I’m a true believer in something called Agile Methods for software development. And one of the main ideas of agile methods is you redefine most of the traditional notions of hierarchy, In some ways the manager is one of the least powerful people on an agile team. She is just there to facilitate and if she is using the agile method appropriately the people doing the work are also making the most important decisions. And everyone works as a team the smallest unit on an agile team is not an individual but teams of two, everyone has a “partner” and they share tasks. Which sounds inefficient at first and lots of people (including me) are loathe at first to be tied to some other person who they view as cramping their style and slowing them down but it works amazingly well and a critical factor is that it redefines a lot of traditional ideas about hierarchies and team work.

      Well, I could go on at length about Agile Software Development but I’ve gone far enough off topic for one comment.

  26. In reply to #65 by Ospreywing:

    I suggest that absolute numbers of dead and wounded are in some ways a better measure of human violence. By this metric, the amount of violence actually increased and clearly peaked in the 20th century.

    Why use “absolute numbers”? That is contrary to any methodology I’m aware of that deals with populations of subjects. Of course if you use absolute numbers and your population is growing exponentially then whatever you are measuring will grow exponentially as well.
    If you want to measure things like intelligence, violence, etc. in any meaningful way it seems to me you have to use percentage of population as the metric.

    Also, Pinker talks pretty convincingly about the other issues you bring up, the fact that numbers aren’t as reliable the further back we go, that ancient writers were just out right liars and can’t be trusted, etc. He talks about those kinds of things often when evaluating how strong his conclusions are and tempers them accordingly IMO. He was pretty clear that his theory was “just a theory” in the sense of an hypothesis he was putting forward not as something he was presenting as rigorously proven.

  27. A few points of the whole discussion that include notions such as tribalism, individuality, empathy, violence, hierarchy are in fact not new topics in the discussion for ethology and science, although I might not be a scientist, but having listen to some, I guess we are a species too much dependent on creativity (although the costs/benefits relation: it may even favour psychiatric disease?) as far as individuality and creativity may be crucial to some species, while “tribalism” would be more the nature of eusocial insects?
    Why are humans so uniform genetically (because they have strong “tribal” traits ?).Aren´t we much more a species dependent on creativity rather than being a species that punishes too much individuality?

  28. In reply to #62 by Mr DArcy:

    Phil Rimmer #42

    Re: Capitalism.

    Unfettered capitalism can cause runaway inequality.

    As I pointed out earlier, some 85 individuals own as much wealth as half the world’s current population, some 3.5 billion people. It seems that “unfettered capitalism” has already achieved what you claim it might.

    The state is not there to “fetter” the profit motive, quite the opposite. It represents the property owners, not the workers.

    Yes in the US. Not in Denmark, say.

    There is no innate way that states must develop. Nor do I believe this state phobic attitude is helpful. These problems are to be fixed.

    The US government was set up with good intentions, however it allowed advocacy to be purchased by multiple means, direct and indirect, and its fate was sealed. This was particularly ferocious in the US case I suspect because it was a land of extraordinary wealth of untapped resources and a burgeoning population with a mind to self improvement. Wealth accumulated rapidly and a good fraction could be set aside for advocacy. Economic growth masked the problem for long enough but now the trajectory has flattened (pretty much an own goal by the kleptocracy who played a little too hard there with our money), the theft and the inequality lie particularly exposed.

  29. I’m late for this discussion but I have appreciated many of the insights expressed here. I just have a few additional comments.

    Most neuroscientists would agree that the human brain has not changed significantly from its condition about 50,000 years ago when Homo sapiens first walked out of Africa. If such traits as in-group altruism and empathy, as well as hostility and aggression toward out-groups, were partly encoded in the brain, those traits are still with us today. But innate behavioral tendencies do not constitute biological or behavioral destiny.

    Human behavior can be greatly modified by experience – exposure to cultural values and practices, formal education, religion, and so on. Clearly, the environment shapes behavior through learning and conditioning. Consequently, the values and norms of human civilization can change for the better, if conditions are favorable.

    Science and technology are responsible for the material progress of human civilization. But they have contributed much less to the ethical improvement of humans. More important are factors such as greater human interaction and understanding, empathy and compassion, combined with reason and moral teachings. On the other hand, the old traits of egoism, selfishness, and aggression have persisted and taken their toll. Human nature may always be torn between in-group cooperation and out-group hostility.

    So what is the evidence for ethical progress in human behavior? Pinker argues that civilization has made considerable progress in decreasing the amount of human violence over time. His analysis is based on the percentage of violent deaths relative to the size of the human population in a particular time and place. Such measures are appropriate for estimating the probability that any one person in society will meet a violent end. They are also helpful in comparing death rates during different historical periods.

    But there are problems with this kind of analysis. First, how accurate and reliable are the data when comparing death rates over several millennia? Casualty rates in the modern period are much more accurate than estimates of violent deaths in the Middle Ages and earlier. Population growth could account for much of the decrease in relative death rates of the modern period. Also, the development of modern medicine ensures the survival of many wounded individuals who would have died in the past. This suggests that all casualties should be counted in the statistics, not only the dead. Another complication could be the population numbers that are used in calculating relative death rates.

    In fact, casualty figures show that the amount of violence actually increased and clearly peaked in the 20th century. That century endured two disastrous world wars, which caused nearly 100 million deaths, untold injury, massive physical destruction never seen before, and millions of homeless refugees. And, unlike other wars, these two conflicts basically involved the entire world. The last century also gave us the Russian Civil War, the Congo War, the Nigerian Civil War, American wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as genocides in Europe, Russia, China, Rwanda, Armenia, Greece, and Bangladesh. It is impossible to give accurate numbers for all these tragedies, but it could hardly have been worse. And the final cut was the dropping of nuclear bombs in 1945 on two Japanese cities, incinerating about 100,000 people in a few seconds. The evidence is not consistent with the idea that the last century was one of the most peaceful periods of human history.

    It is ironic that the 20th century was the most violent and destructive period in history and, at the same time, was also the most creative and inventive. Civilization experienced revolutionary changes from the horse and buggy to automobiles, powered flight, television, manned space flights, deep space exploration, electrical gadgets of all kinds, atomic energy for peace (and unfortunately, for war), computers, the internet, and so on. In my view, political changes for the good included establishing the United Nations and European Union, the fall of the USSR, the civil rights movement, the fall of apartheid, and the end of colonialism. In addition, science made enormous breakthroughs in many areas, including relativity theory, quantum mechanics, cosmology, molecular biology, genetics, neuroscience, medicine, and so forth.

    The mixture of destruction and achievement in the 20th century was no coincidence because many new scientific and technological principles could be adapted for war as well as peace. This is a powerful reminder that the good and evil aspects of human nature are still with us.

    Hence, it is difficult to predict how much ethical progress civilization can make in the future. I agree with those who think the outlook is rather bleak – over-population, economic and ecological crises, climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism, ethnic and political conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and the failure of governments and corporations to act on behalf of human welfare. In addition, the United States still seems to be committed to the aggressive policy of gaining military, economic, and political hegemony over the world. (America currently has from 700 to 1000 military bases spread across the globe).

    Nonetheless, it is possible that people and governments will ultimately reject aggression, and begin a process of coexistence within a new in-group — the peaceful international community. We hope that the ”better angels of our nature” will somehow prevail, and world catastrophe will be avoided.

  30. “Science and technology are responsible for the material progress of human civilization. But they have contributed much less to the ethical improvement of humans.”
    Ratzinger would have the same line of thought, I know a politician who would have him too much in consideration because he had a formal education in philosophy (besides he was german for another person whom I know, very “civilised”, he plays piano besides).
    For someone with a “formal education” Ion social sciences and familiar with the philosophy of the XX century- that is unacceptable, sense a unified epistemology is the basis of those sciences, that is coincident with it´s ethics.
    It is of course besides alienation of the “spiritual part”, that belongs of course to “religion”.

  31. I believe I completely understand your concern. I just stumbled upon this site, but wanted to comment as I was just having a conversation with an acquaintance about this. I think that I am a person who can feel great empathy for others, as individuals. I haven’t totally polished my theory of everything, but from what I have figured out about the world, I think each of us just does what we have to do. Free will may very well be a complete illusion, consciousness too, maybe. But since I happen to be under the illusion that I am conscious and do have free will, I’m going to act accordingly. As some of the other comments mentioned, we are very self absorbed. As human nature is just that way. Ultimately, we always act selfishly. We may do nice things for other people, but there is still a selfish motivation behind that. Because of this, it’s not in our nature to plan for so far into the future, because we’ll be dead. So at the expense of our grandchildren, we make our lives the best that we can, and put the guilt out of sight and mind and never think about the consequences again. It’s easy to fall into this. Sure many of us try to make subtle differences, but the reality is… each of us still thinks, “I’m just one person.. I can’t do much about the corruption of society and mitigate everyone’s greed, etc.” People experience emotions like greed, jealousy, hate, shame — for all sorts of reasons. One person’s motivations for being greedy, might be entirely different than someone else’s. Also, someone seemingly doing the same thing in life, might be doing so out of greed, or perhaps just desperation… everything comes down to the fact that we all live in our own very self absorbed world. To truly change the world, and do what is right for humankind, and not just our immediate future (and our grandkids’ future)…. that would take a kind of selflessness that just isn’t in our nature.

    It is admittedly a very bleak, perhaps even lazy notion, but I believe that’s how it is. One thing that is different, about me though (and the reason why I DO feel motivated to change peoples beliefs and open their eyes to the truth all around them that they are ignoring) is that I happen to be of the belief that technology will perhaps in my lifetime, enable me to achieve immortality… well.. on some level. Before you attack that statement let me just say that, it isn’t really relevant why I believe this, but simply the fact that I do. But just because I’m excited about it I’ll briefly explain the logic. I think that there is a pattern in nature that has repeated itself several times now, and that is the path of least resistance, usually through attraction and symbiotic relationships. This happens on the molecular level, like a salt dissolving in water, sharing electrons, meeting opposing forces and taking the easiest path… this happened again, on the cellular level, life now exists as multicellular communities… in fact most of what we would call life is this way… each human being, is really a huge community of lives, working together. (duh) — but let that sink in, and consider that we humans have now begun this same transformation… I also don’t consider evolution to be limited to natural selection. If we create artificial intelligence, or if we slowly merge ourselves into some kind of cyborg entity, we could easily make copies of ourselves, command multiple bodies with one mind, or take many minds and share memories… I could go on but… if you have that perspective on the world… well then some of today’s big problems seem a hell of a lot more relevant. Because selfishly.. you need to address them… they affect YOU now.. So for whatever reason, selfish or not, I think these changes will happen, as long as we can preserve the world and not screw up the equilibrium we have which is already pretty messed up. So no I don’t think it’s impossible for us to progress, but I definitely believe that our whole paradigm or perspective on the world… and the meaning of life… will need to be dramatically transformed. So here I am, doing my part, spreading my message. I wish I could do more, but for the moment this is all I’ve got. Maybe some day I’ll change the world in more profound ways. Already got some things in the works. ;)

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