The Shenanigans of Progress

The Genesis of Inequality – The Failed Promises of Food Production – The Superbugs – The Advent of Social Media – Progress has a Weak Point.

The Genesis of Inequality

About 15,000 years ago Homo sapiens were hunters and gatherers. But somethings began to change around 9500-8500 BC –  we started to domesticate plants and animals, not for fun, but for progress. Now, the unpredictability of food supply was relatively put to rest, and more nutritious food on the table of the common man (it turns out the word ‘nutritious’ would not apply to the earliest farmers).

And this means that an average (wo)man on the street could develop other interests, rather than hunt and gather all day. In other words, humans begin to specialize, leading to complex civilizations. But it’s not difficult at all to imagine the numerous ills of complex civilizations which the agricultural revolution birthed.

The first will be inequality. When the early farmers begin to have extra food, the need of people to administer such sudden glut of food arises, this led to the invention of bureaucrats, who are always very happy to tell people what to do (just like they do today). Afterwards, complex political structures begin to evolve (this is the genesis of inequality), and war with nations inevitably followed. Contrast this with the egalitarian society of our ancestors.

Secondo, the steady food production the progress promised lead to very explosive sexual activities. It turns out that the products of such activities are not very compatible with the itinerant nature of hunting and gathering.

And here we are.

We opened the door, and threw away the keys.

The Advent of Social Media

It turns out we have been opening lots of doors ever since, and throwing away the keys, of course.

Here is a more recent (and famous) example. When most of us made the decision to join the world of social media, the motivation was to stay in touch with families and friends, and increase our connectivity. As an example, I was even able to launch a charity campaign for indigent folks in Nigeria, while doing my experiments –  about 6,000 miles away – in a carbohydrate research center in Georgia.

While the social media gave us impressive connectivity, it gave us cyberbullying, it gave us more identity thieves, counterintuitively its making us less social, it wastes a hell lot of our time, it makes us more anxious and it’s giving us more (and new sets) of vibrant terrorists.

And there seems to be no way out.

We made progress.

The Superbugs 

My third tale of progress is about superbugs, and you are probably aware of this. There is this tug of war going on between humans and bacteria. We had an edge sometimes around the 20th century, thanks to a miracle drug called antibiotics. However, friends, we might just be at the beginning of losing that edge.

When an effective antibiotic is used against a bacterial infection, say, tuberculosis, the causal agent dies. But we know that living organism undergo random mutations some of which could be helpful. And mutations that will confer bacterial resistance to an antibiotic is clearly a helpful one.

Following through with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as the bacteria that lacks this bacteria resistance genes become obliterated, it gives up more resources to the bacteria resistant strains and they continue to burgeon. This is the story of the emergence of superbugs.

And, so what? you might say. Well, if we lose this war, we might just end up dropping dead of minor injuries and petty bacterial infections. And indeed, we are beginning to smell the fume of the pyre.

Progress has a Weak Point

These three tales above teach some great lessons about progress.

Progress has a weak point –  it doesn’t travel alone. It brings with it huge extra luggage. So huge that we mysteriously fail to detect it (only in hindsight). In the case of our hunter gatherers ancestors it was the birth of inequality, war, population explosion etcetera. For social media it was cyberbullying, and a few more terrorists capable of blowing us up.

But progress does a little more harm than the luggage – it gives us an illusion of control. When antibiotics was discovered, we had this illusion. So, we began to use it voraciously, we even fed them to our livestock to get them fat. Only to find out that we are making pathogens stronger.

We have an asymmetrical perspective about human progress, as we find it extremely difficult to note that progress is accompanied with loads of shenanigans (and in some cases, disasters). And we almost always fail to note that harm is in the future.

Friends, we need to be more skeptical of progress, any kind progress.

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3 thoughts on “The Shenanigans of Progress

    • Olatomiwa Bifarin says:

      I would define it the exact way you defined it: to take one step forward without taking two steps backwards (or even one step backwards). A much more philosophical question would then be, does that type of progress exist (No, I don’t think so), or could that type of progress ever exist? Like most philosophical questions, there are no ‘answers’ or, better still, there are only answers that leads to much more deeper questions. But, to make this short, I share the sentiments of C.S Lewis in his 1943 book, the abolition of man: “There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger.” In order words, there are no free lunch. What I will rather advocate for is that we should only take a step forward if and only if we can guarantee, at most “a few inches” backwards. And then, the next question becomes: how would you define “a few inches”? That answer will depend largely on who answers it.

  1. What I find most curious about man’s existence is our quest to search “meaning”. That all of us, even those who don’t pray to a God, obey a “master” of pleasure in one-way shape or form. However, what separates us is our innate ability to shape our world with our imagination before it’s even molded and to have the faith to overcome life’s mysteries. I am most inspired by the people who spend their lives in service to others not knowing whether they will get to experience the fruit of their labor but with the hope that they will leave this world a better place, in one way or another.

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