An Illustrated Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright Response

Reading An Illustrated Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright was informative, intriguing and entertaining. It was informative because it used important parts of human history to make a point. It was intriguing because the point the book sets out to prove is important and worth listening to, and finally it was entertaining because I like learning about this kind of stuff.

It starts off by explaining the origins of modern man and how our minds evolved to the point they are now and how after that essentially only culture was evolving. Modern man came to be what it is today by through a number of different steps. One of the steps Wright focuses on is the mysterious extinction of the Neanderthals. He raises some interesting questions regarding the issue. The common (possibly mis)perception of Neanderthals is that they died off due to the fact that humans were smarter and they simply didn’t survive. They didn’t survive in the survival of the fittest battle. Wright asks if something else happened. Could the Neanderthals have died as the result of a genocide with the humans on the side of the attackers? And could the Neanderthals and humans have existed side by side for quite some time? If so that would mean that we have some Neanderthal blood in us somewhere down the line. It might be a bit of a stretch, but he also talks about how some humans have Neanderthal-like traits such as a protruding eyebrow ridge. He has some fairly convincing evidence for his convictions. The presumption that Neanderthals died off because they weren’t as intelligent as humans seems kind of odd because the skulls of Neanderthals show that their brains were actually larger! The idea that a genocide killed off Neanderthals is interesting, and is only a taste of all the ideas raised in the book.

Wright then presents the idea that forms the basis for An Illustrated Short History of Progress. That idea is that we continually will get ourselves into progress traps, that is a point in the progress of something (whether it be weapons, hunting or anything else) where we have progressed and become so successful at whatever we’re doing that either Mother Nature simply can’t support us any longer or have gained the possibility to kill each other so effectively that we endanger the planet. Our very idea of progress is deceptive in itself. Usually without discernment or proper judgment we will always want the next best thing. Wright uses the examples of how car manufacturers will always be trying to push the next best model on you with its faster engine, or sleeker design or even more importantly they will push a new model with no real advantages over the old one. Our constant thirst for the new, the better, the faster and the stronger can end in progress traps when we simply have gone to far, or haven’t been paying attention to the consequences of our advancements.

He gives a few well-articulated examples. One of the first things he talks about is the evolution of weapons. The progression goes from the archaic Chinese revolving wheel explosive and to the development of nuclear weaponry. This is what Wright calls a progress trap because nuclear weaponry has the possibility of destroying the planet. We progress to a certain point, and don’t discern when a certain idea has reached the limit. Another example of a progress trap that he gives is the evolution of hunting. With early humans becoming so advanced with their hunting skills, they caused the extinction of animals such as the Giant Sloth and the Wooly Mammoth, sometimes needlessly so like when the Neanderthals would drive droves of mammoths off cliffs and eat only a small amount of the killings. With the large and nutrient rich animals gone because of overhunting, we suffered because of it. Both of these examples are progress traps. Wright argues that in fact one of the biggest progress traps is civilization itself, particularly global civilization because of its strain on the environment and other perils.

One main idea that persists throughout An Illustrated Short History of Progress is the various patterns that humanity and civilization repeat over and over again. He talks about how civilizations at times will experience momentous growth over a period of time and will then collapse like a house of cards. In fact, he brings up a ratio of population growth that has occurred in civilizations in the past which directly precedes a population collapse. This ratio is the same amount of growth that Western Civilization has experienced in the last 100 years. The prophetic voice of the past is scary indeed. Wright describes how the past can help us to understand the future in this excerpt:

The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about these past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo Sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.

Wright talks about Western Civilization right now experiencing a “200 year bubble of prosperity” propelled by dependence on fossil fuels and other discoveries. Unless we clean up our act our civilization might collapse just like so many others have since they were unwilling to change their destructive ways. Of the many examples Wright gives of past civilizations, the story of Rapanui (the inhabitants of Easter Island) is one of the most chilling. Basically, the story goes that the Polynesians who settled the originally tropical island prospered and taxed the environment so much that they couldn’t survive any more. The small island could not support the peak population of 10,000 people (which was supported in part by the destructive process of agriculture) and also the inhabitants continually built their stone statues honouring their ancestors until they had cut down the last tree on the island in doing so. The scary thought though is that the island is so small that when the last person cut down the last tree on the island, they could see that they did so. Their greed and unrestrained reproduction of the Rapanui eventually led to their stark demise. Wright uses this example as a prediction of what may happen to us in the future as he describes in this excerpt:

We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.

It was fun to read the book, even if a lot of it is quite dismal. It takes a critical look at how we live. Now there is a good possibility that we won’t be able to turn our habits around in time but in the meantime there is ample reason to live in joy. It doesn’t really help anyone to be despairing about the future although I think being aware of it in an objective fashion is important. I enjoyed reading the book because it is interesting to learn about the history of how we came to be and why we are the way we are right now. It is also humbling because it emphasizes the truth of how our current chaotic situation really isn’t that unique in many ways. I’m glad that I read the book and would recommend it to people who want to find out where we’ve come from and from that find out ideas of where we could be heading. Wright gives a reasonable set of instructions for the present in the end of the book:

There’s a saying in Argentina that each night God cleans up the mss the Argentines make by day. This seems to be what our leaders are counting on. But it won’t work. Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.

The whole story of humanity even with its huge flaws, selfishness and so on is still quite miraculous. Throughout it there is so much evidence of something else besides ourselves working. Occurrences such as cave paintings, the beauty of the world and Universe, the stories we’ve created and so on are all quite amazing. Reading a book like this can also help to disengage our anthropocentric paradigm that we tend to live out of. Who knows what else exists? With humanity existing in just the last second of the hour clock of the earth, and with Wright describing civilizations as small sparks around the globe constantly igniting and dying, maybe we are just a blip in time. It is a humbling thought, and most likely true.


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