"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Has Civilization Progressed Since Pre-History?

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama notoriously predicted the end of history:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

He has long since recanted.  Current affairs quickly showed that although world powers might no longer fight under the banner of grand and overarching political philosophies, smaller and equally dangerous conflicts would replace them. Destabilizing conflicts between the Tuaregs and mainstream Mali, The Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government; between Hutus and Tutsis, Bosnians and Serbs, and even between rival drug cartels in Mexico have been fought with equal passion for expanding territory and socio-political influence.

Fukuyama believes that despite the persistence of international and internecine disputes, conflicts and wars, society is progressing; and that the gradual but unstoppable juggernaut of liberal democracy will include the likes of  Somalia, Afghanistan, and Congo. William Pfaff has written a book review of Fukuyama’s latest book The Origins of Political Order http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/nov/24/how-much-progress-have-we-made/?page=1 and does not agree:

I am not myself aware that human character and conduct today display any general improvement over that recorded in the historical past. The political crimes of the twentieth century had their counterparts in the past, although the scale and reach of political crime subsequently became much more destructive, thanks to technology and modern bureaucratic organization, by comparison with so-called Asian barbarism, past wars of religion and race, enslavement, or mass extermination waged by men like Genghis Khan. Comparable things, or worse, continue to happen in our times. That men and women are morally improved from what they were at the beginning of recorded history has yet to be demonstrated.

Shakespeare’s Histories are the most eloquent expression of the belief in a fundamental, immutable, and demanding human nature.  Reading these plays from King John to Henry VIII, one is struck by what the critic Jan Kott referred to as ‘The Grand Mechanism’:

Emanating from the features of individual kings and ururpers in Shakespeare's History plays, there gradually emerges the image of history itself – the image of the Grand Mechanism. Every successive chapter, every great Shakespearean act is merely a repetition:

     The flattering index of a direful pageant,
     One heav'd a-high to be hurl'd down below . . . --- Richard III, 4.4.85-6

It is this image of history, repeated many times by Shakespeare that forces itself on us in a most powerful manner. Feudal history is like a great staircase on which there treads a constant procession of kings. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step upwards is marked by murder, perfidy, treachery. Every step brings the throne nearer. Another step and the crown will fall. One will soon be able to snatch it.
From the highest step there is only a leap into the abyss. The monarchs change. But all of them -- good and bad, brave and cowardly, vile and noble, naive and cynical -- tread on the steps that are always the same. . . (Shakespeare, Our Contemporary)

Fukuyama is not moved by these historical facts or fictional observations; and sees world history as a series of positive changes.  Within his lifetime he has seen many:

Fukuyama assumes that what Huntington called the “third wave of democratization” has already largely taken place, since at the time he was writing this book the number of “democracies and market-oriented economies,” forty-five at the start of the 1970s (according to Freedom House), had increased to some 120—”more than 60 percent of the world’s independent states.” Fukuyama therefore claims that liberal democracy is now “the default form of government.” To increase that total and ensure the enlargement of a new democratic international order, it will be necessary to rescue “collapsed or unstable governments.”

What Fukuyama ignores almost entirely is increasing conflict between the West and radical Islam.  Whereas Islamic states were at one time the leaders of liberal political, scientific, and economic thought, they have long since turned inward behind the walls of theocracy.

Much more important is that Islamic theocracy gets no attention, yet surely has been and remains the biggest obstacle to the Muslim countries’ ability to create modern political and social systems… Popes and monarchs often struggled over power, but the principle of separation between religious and secular realms was never seriously in doubt, whereas the supremacy of Koranic authority over Muslim caliphates or regimes has been overturned for any considerable period only in modern Turkey (a revolution still contested).

What bothers Pfaff most in the Fukuyama book is that the author assumes an even trajectory, a progressive curve whereby civilizations modernize.  History does not corroborate this assumption says Pfaff:

What about Mesopotamia, whose first settlements are assumed to have been in the fifth millennium BC? Its monumental architecture survives and the University of Chicago has just published a twenty-one-volume dictionary of its language, with its Babylonian and Assyrian variants, which deals with agriculture, commerce, transport, medicine, and divination, among other subjects. The language was preserved on mud or stone tablets. Not only the Hammurabic Code of law but the Gilgamesh Epic survives, the latter considered the oldest surviving chef d’oeuvre in world literature. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations had palaces, exquisite golden jewelry, ornamentation, and running water and baths—as did their successors in the Greek city-states, to say nothing of Rome, Carthage, and Persia. Abundant records survive of the artistic and intellectual achievements of the first Egyptian dynasty, that of Menes in the third pre-Christian millennium.

Babylon, controlling the entire Tigris and Euphrates region in the second millennium BC, promulgated law and had what historians say was a quasi-feudal system. The urban centers of the great Indus Valley civilization, roughly contemporaneous with Babylon, such as Mohenjo-daro, possessed palaces, as well as complex domestic water and drainage systems leading into brick waterways, and traded with Mesopotamia and the Middle East.

One can easily argue, says Pfaff, that society has not progressed or improved since ancient times, and perhaps regressed.  Fukuyama’s argument that since past civilizations were monarchic, slave-owning, and non-democratic; and that the evolution of history has been just the opposite, one can only assume that ours is a more advanced culture.  Circuitous reasoning at best says Pfaff.

Progress cannot usefully be discussed without discrimination among orders of progress, since human knowledge obviously expands. Scientific knowledge progresses, as does technological knowledge, invention, and exploitation. Humans in the aggregate have grown larger and healthier owing to science, better educated in the advanced civilizations, more sophisticated due to accumulated experience and recorded knowledge, vastly more powerful in their use of knowledge and technology. But have these humans themselves actually progressed?

The evidence of evolution as an account not only of the physical and social development of the human (and other) species demonstrates immense change in our manner of life and thought, and above all in our tools, but in what sense has this been progress? In human terms, apart from the abolition of slavery, is the Middle East a better place to live today than was the prehistoric Eastern Mediterranean? Has human nature improved?

One of the most damning statements that Fukuyama has made in defense of his argument that society is progressing – and one of the most absurd and ridiculous – is the following:

Asked whether he agreed with Martin Luther King Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Fukuyama replied, “I do. Look, that’s why we have something called the Agency for International Development, in the hope that someday Somalia might look like Norway. It’s called progress.

I agree completely with Pfaff’s conclusions – there is no evidence that society or civilizations have improved; and there is ample proof to the contrary. Most importantly I believe that society will never improve unless and until human nature is reconfigured through recombinant DNA.  Our institutions will change.  Political philosophies will come and go, civilizations will rise and fall, the definition of barbarity and inhumanity will change according to the times; but our fundamental, basic urge for self-preservation and the extension of territory, expansion of power, and control of natural and human resources which enable it will never change.

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