March 10th 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Family home in cities soaring further out of reach

EDITORIAL Australia: sleepwalking towards the precipice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Population debate needs development debate

NATIONAL AFFAIRS We need a development bank and a higher population

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Russians were spoilers: U.S. election rap sheet

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Bob Santamaria and free trade agreements

LAW AND FREEDOM Exemptions are far cry from protection of religious freedom

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS China v Professor Brady: intimidation or coincidence?

POLITICS AND SOCIETY Defending biological man and woman from transgenderism

SOUTH AUSTRALIA Swing to minor parties expected in SA poll

ASIA Burma: ignored and misunderstood

HISTORY The improbability of progress

MUSIC Playing the pitch: being in tune is a sometime thing

CINEMA Wonder: Our deeds are our monuments

BOOK REVIEW Exploring our own recent archives

BOOK REVIEW Rising in a society fractured at heart

BOOK REVIEW A dubious thesis but deserves a read

NEWS Pat Byrne elected new NCC president

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Liberals return for second term in Hobart

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The improbability of progress

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, March 10, 2018

What little scientific and technological development occurred in the ancient world was often not linear or cumulative, or even maintained. In ancient Egypt the technology of pyramid building decayed: it was the later pyramids that crumbled. With them crumbled other knowledge and techniques in architecture, geometry, and administration.

Another later spurt of Egyptian intellectual and technological energy created structures like the temple at Karnak – less mighty than the pyramids but impressive enough. Like Stonehenge they show an ability to elevate huge masses of rock. Then that too faded away.

Perhaps something was saved. Herodotus tells of an ancient king, Necho, who set out to dig a canal through the isthmus between the Nile and the Red Sea. He eventually gave it up on the advice of an oracle, but this further emphasises what the pyramids wrote against the sky and the stars: the Egyptians had thought big. At the dawn of civilisation they thought, as one writer has put it, like gods and giants.

Those colossal Egyptian works may have played some part in inspiring the false (or not quite false) start of technological civilisation in Ptolemaic Alexandria, near Giza, with the great pyramids proclaiming what mankind might achieve. Further, at the opposite end of the scale, they created miniatures that give us another insight into their humanity. (Recently, major stonework has been discovered in Eastern Turkey adorned with wonderfully delicate and sophisticated carvings of animals, which may be up to 13,000 years old. It is suggested that the site is in a good state of preservation because for some unknown reason ancient people deliberately buried it.)

Other civilisations of the Ancient World, such as the Mycenaean, the Minoan, and the Hittite, had some artistic and cultural achievements but these peoples too were apparently incapable of significant technological innovation. They were swept away by the incursions of less-civilised peoples and disappeared so completely that even the Greeks who came after apparently knew nothing of them … nothing at all.

So too the great civilisations of Babylon, Assyria, Persia all stopped at a low technological level, though some had isolated innovations. The Harappans of the Indus Valley had some impressive achievements in public administration and public works, and then disappeared. Many important discoveries were made in China, but then innovation and even knowledge of the outside world were deliberately rejected there. The great Asian civilisations, like those of Ankor and Ayutthaya, would push the technology of building in stone about as far as it could go, and that was not really very far beyond where it had been in the ancient world.

All remained dependent upon animal power, human sweat and sails. We see an almost immeasurably slow accretion of knowledge until the post-Roman world.

The earliest instances of glass-making known date back to Syria, Mesopotamia and Old Kingdom Egypt in the third or fourth millennium BC. Burning-glasses may be referred to in Greek drama. After the end of the Roman Empire (when Pliny the Elder mentioned them) it was possibly not till about the 11th century that some Muslim scholars began making burning-glasses again, and not until some time after that that spectacles came into use.

The properties of curved glass to concentrate light had not previously been applied. Telescopes and microscopes did not appear until about the early 17th century. More centuries would pass before the discovery of microscopic life led to antiseptics.

No better – indeed worse – can be said of pre-Columbian America and elsewhere. In the striking phrase of Roger Sandall: “The Maya, and the Aztecs too, offered barbarism plus pyramids.” (Roger Sandall, Weblog, October, 2005.)

They put a great deal of their intellectual energies into developing innovative methods of torture and human sacrifice. Various other cultures, if less homicidal, were also stagnant technologically. Wheels existed in some pre-Columbian American societies but only as toys, and their remarkably sophisticated calendars (to ensure their human sacrifices were on time) were sometimes set out in the form of circles – facts that suggest that even so apparently obvious an action as applying the wheel to transport is actually a difficult intellectual feat, perhaps accomplished only once and then gradually copied. It is astonishing that the principle of the wheel was not, in thousands of years, even inadvertently discovered by watching rolling logs or rocks.

The various pre-Columbian American cultures do not seem to have interacted, traded, or enriched one another with goods or ideas except in a minimal way, while some of these pre-Columbian civilisations were capable of astonishing feats of stonework. Potatoes, though the principal food of Peru, were unknown in Mexico. Some had sophisticated systems of mathematics, including in the case of the Mayans the concept of zero. Zero might also describe the difference this concept made in improving their people’s lives.

A number of science-fiction writers have written somewhat self-congratulatory (from the human point of view) scenes in which aliens from space are flabbergasted at how quickly the human race has advanced – “They’ve gone from animal-power to space flight in 200 years!” etc.

Harry Turtledove has written a series of books, Worldwar, in which intelligent but slow-developing and methodical aliens, having previously sent exploration-probes to medieval Earth and discovered that the most advanced military technology is represented by armoured knights, return with a conquest-fleet which they have fitted-out to overcome more of the same. They reach Earth in 1942 and receive shocks as great as those received by the humans …

However, since we have no actual standard of comparison, another interpretation of human scientific and technological history might be that progress has been very slow – indeed for much of the time non-existent. It may be that modern progress often seems so fast because in preceding millennia it occurred hardly at all.

A more misanthropic story might tell of more go-ahead aliens exclaiming scornfully: “Gee! It took them that long?” We cannot judge from a sample of one.

It may be that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969 it was the first time a conscious living being had reached another world. We do not know. But we know that for many millennia after human brains with vast capabilities came into existence there was basically almost no scientific and technological progress of Earth beyond the simplest tools.

The great religious and moral codes of the world, ancient and modern, tend to contain broadly common values and commandments – to be charitable and benevolent, to honour one’s parents, to tell the truth, not to steal, murder, even to have good manners. These appear to be immutably necessary for any viable society, and to receive lip service even when they are not obeyed. C.S. Lewis records some of them in the appendix, “Examples of the Tao,” to his The Abolition of Man.

In 621 BC, Indian ruler Ashoka, horrified at the suffering of war in the Kalinga Campaign, came to desire for all animated things “security, self-control, peace of mind and joyousness”. (See Laurence Binyon’s book, Akbar) The often bloody-thirsty Vikings still had the Elder Edda say, “Man is man’s delight”; and Confucius said the people should be multiplied, enriched and instructed.

These values are part of the intrinsic shape of human nature and civilisation. A concern for the general good was implied in the public works of many civilisations, such as the Harappans and, on a great scale, China. But there is no immutable and universal injunction to expand and apply knowledge. Only in the West has that arisen, and not universally even there.

It does not seem a universal human instinct. Progress is not an “immutable” aspect of society, civilisation or human life. It does not obey a Categorical Imperative: in general it has never happened. If we tend to assume that it is somehow universal, this may be the product of what has been attacked by the politically correct as a “Eurocentric” view of world history. The politically correct, however, may be less happy to be reminded that a non-Eurocentric view of world history is one that contains largely slavery, starvation and stagnation.

It is also worth noting that Christianity, not exclusively, but unlike some other religions that saw the universe as having neither beginning nor end, saw the universe as existing in time, and “time’s arrow” implied that it was going somewhere. This meant change. Change is often frightening, and there are often good reasons to resist it. When the margin of survival was small, as it was for most of human history, change carried the risk that, if it did not work – if a new sort of plough broke or a new-fangled drainage system flooded – that small margin would disappear.

For most of history mankind could hardly afford the luxury of experiment. Only once has the impulse to experiment been carried on, generation after generation, to create a scientific and technological civilisation. The more we consider history, the more our Western, Judeo-Christian civilisation appears unique and virtually miraculous.

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