“The Renaissance, for the most part, was a really terrible period to be alive, and was, in fact, in a lot of ways worse than the Middle Ages. Bigger conflicts with higher casualties and more rapid circulation of diseases, among other phenomena, added up to a lower life expectancy. All of that was a result of the economy improving, technology advancing, society becoming more wealthy, the powerful within those societies becoming more powerful. When you make “progress”, when trade improves and more ships are coming in and travel is happening more, diseases travel faster, more people die of more plagues. When trade booms and new technologies bring in new money, governments have more funds and can have larger armies with better equipment and wars become deadlier. A friend of Machiavelli wrote this in a letter to Machiavelli, who at the time (during the Renaissance) was writing a history of Florence, but had not finished writing this history. His friend pleaded to Machiavelli, “You must finish your history, because without a good history of this period, future generations will never believe how bad it was. And they will never forgive us for destroying so much so quickly.” - historian Ada Palmer talking with David McCraney.
This mural is of the Poseidon (or Neptune) statue in Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy, the city considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. It was built in 1565, roughly in the middle of the Renaissance. I visited it several times while in Florence and I love it (unlike Michelangelo). When learning about the “apocalyptic” reality of living during the Renaissance for the average person, as Palmer puts it, as well as other confounding realities about various epochs in humankind’s trajectory, it can be fascinating to consider more deeply the wellbeing of both individuals and our species during certain epochs, the diverging ways these periods are valuated, and how we can think about navigating our future based on such assessments. It can be counterintuitive when we first consider that human history may not be trending, however haphazardly, in one direction toward ultimate enlightenment, some peak endpoint of morality, equality, justice, peace, mental and physical capacity, spirituality, fulfillment. Most of these things have had, in fact, anything but a linear development over time. It can become even more intriguing to then juxtapose the complex and often myopic notions of progress within civilization against the far larger backdrop of human existence, as much as 20 times longer than civilization. In what ways is the wellbeing of humans today, both as individuals and as a species, truly greater, and in what ways are we potentially worse off than humans, say, tens of thousands of years ago? What can the future offer? In what ways are theses question answerable?
I think it’s helpful to look at different ways history is viewed. While not currently a dominant paradigm, historian Ada Palmer notes the problematic legacy of Whig history, a “school of historical thought whose influence still percolates through many of our models of history,” which, to summarize briefly, is an approach which “presumes a teleology to history, that human societies have always been developing toward some pre-set end state: apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises.” Now, you might not agree to something that straightforward or simplified, but where do you generally fall in terms of how you conceive of the arc of human history? Pause for a minute and ask yourself, what was life like 30,000 years ago? What might our future look like? What is the value in terms of individual well-being for various humans, of everything that has transpired in between?
In all respects, we were worse off than we are now. I see human history as a long period of complete failure. Failure, that is, to make any progress. Our species has existed for, depending on where you count it from, maybe 50,000 years, maybe 200,000, but one way or another, the vast majority of that time, people were alive, they were thinking, they were suffering, they wanted things, nothing ever improved. From the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever improved. Generation upon generation upon generation of suffering and stasis. Then there was slow improvement, then some more rapid improvement, and then there were several attempts to institutionalize a tradition of criticism - which I think is the key to rapid progress in the sense that we think of it, which is progress discernible in a human lifetime - as well as error correction, so that regression is less likely. That happened several times and failed every time except once: in the European Enlightenment over the 17th and 18th centuries.
What worries me is that the inheritors of that little bit of salutary progress are only a small proportion of the population of the world today. It’s the culture that we call The West. Only the West really has a tradition of criticism institutionalized. Moreover, there’s the problem that in the West, knowledge of what it takes to maintain our civilization is not widely known. In fact, the prevailing view among people in the West, including political leaders and very educated people, is of a picture of the relationship between knowledge and progress and civilization and values that is just wrong in so many different ways.”
Now, I don’t think it's fair to assume Deutsch leaves no room for the possibility of periods of flourishing within this dark outline of his, and this was a passing commentary in the context of wider ranging conversation, but he is nonetheless clear about the overall picture. Deutsch is a firm believer that humankind’s trajectory has been a true ascension, comprised, however sparsely, of the “brilliant sequence of cultural peaks—such as the invention of stone tools, agriculture, cities, and modern science—by which humans have learned how ‘not to accept the environment but to change it,’ thereby improving our lives. And that this progress, despite continual setbacks, has been cumulative for as long as our species has existed.”
Duetsch has a brief article summarizing his praise for Jacob Bronowski’s classic TV series The Ascent of Man, which further illuminates his perspective. He writes, “Bronowski dared to stand in front of the great stone statues of Easter Island and declare that “‘these frozen faces ... mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.’” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face,’” for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “‘for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential ... children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.’” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.”
From this perspective the measuring stick of humankind’s development is clearly the advancement of morality, rationality, reason, the humanities, and the degree to which our institutions and culture foster and protect these higher faculties. What this perspective seems to completely ignore is the health and wellbeing of both human individuals and our species, as well as that of other species. Daniel Vitalis, and others from his school of thought, look at our trajectory more through this lens, which seems to paint a very different picture. They would probably laugh at the notion that agriculture represents a cultural peak. It is now a popular idea that the Agricultural Revolution marks the practical downfall of man (in terms of health and the advent of exploitative hierarchies, to briefly touch on two reasons). Deutsch’s convictions might well be true enough within the scope of civilization, but what about comparing the wellbeing of pre-civilization humans? Vitalis uses the word domestication, to characterize how he sees civilization’s impact on many of our capacities compared to our hunter-gatherer counterparts, arguing that
Usually when we read about domestication there’s a bias in the writers. They start out from the assumption that this has ascended us out of the miry pit of the hell of the wild where we struggled and fought tooth and nail for survival and every day was so hard. And domestication rescued us from this. This is just not true. The indigenous peoples we’ve observed in the last century have rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, cavities, depression, fatigue, suicide, that are drastically lower than ours, if not nonexistent in some cases. These people were way healthier than we are in many ways, and probably happier. Their communities and families were intact. In the deep past, our smallest groups were foraging groups of about 35-50 people, living together with a shared fate. Civilization arrives on the scene and cleaves that down into family groups, into the nuclear family, and today the individual is exalted as the most important. There is an obsession with the individual. So compared to the past, the generation today doesn't care to the same extent about family, or community, or ecology.
In the long term, [civilization] damages the genetics of our species and leads to degeneration. It doesn't help a species long term. Indigenous peoples have intact genetic lineages that stretch way, way back and we do not. One of the problems with civilization is when it wipes out indigenous peoples their lineages go extinct, and we’re left with the bag of our mixed up genetics that are hyper-domesticated and degenerating, that are breaking down. This is another taboo, but you can look at the kids being born now and the generation in elementary school and high school, and a lot of them look sick. They are malnourished, they have improper dentition, all kinds of deformities that are becoming normalized. And I’m including myself in this group too. We don't know what the repercussions of these actions will be on our species long term. We spend too much time talking about individuals and not enough time talking about our species. Our ability to survive and thrive into deep future is questionable.”
Again, this is an incomplete picture and is not meant to romanticize hunter-gatherer peoples and wish we were born in the Amazon jungle, or anywhere 50,000 years ago. But there’s no getting around the stunning disparities in health, both mental and physical; and our eroded relationship to ecology, which is mutually damaging to both humans and countless other species. It also does not imply that we can’t restore these capacities, or even surpass them in the future.
Vitalis and Deutsch actually agree on a lot in terms of their condemnation of vast majority of civilization, but for Deutsch the highlights clearly lie in post-Enlightenment institutions and the peaks of rationality and reason, while Vitalis would emphasize the virtues of indigenous peoples. But they are also looking at very different things. One does not seem to be considering physiological or ecological health when talking in such sweeping terms, while the other, in the areas where it does appear contradictory, doesn’t seem to acknowledge the potential future world of entirely unprecedented flourishing that only select technologies and institutions of certain civilizations can bring about.
One way or another, how do we think about the “progress” that seems so clear to Deustch and Bronowski and others, when accounting for the mind-boggling, appalling rates of diabetes, obesity, malformed skeletal conditions, homelessness, the skyrocketing suite of mental disorders - chronic, debilitating anxiety, ADHD, OCD, depression, suicide, addictions - ecological devastation, that are as much a trademark of our modern, Western spheres as any of its luminous achievements? It seems that in some ways the health of our most precious ideas, such as morality, human rights, free speech, have benefited more from civilization than we as physiological creatures have. This brings to mind the bizarre notion - entertained with varying degrees of facetiousness- that humans can actually be seen as host vehicles used by various parasites or symbiotes (in the scientific usage of the term) for their own evolutionary success. You could look at marijuana or roses or potatoes this way, as Michael Pollan explores in The Botany of Desire; or you could look, strangely enough, at pure abstractions this way, such as religion, morality, or technology. These things, from an evolutionary perspective, have succeeded tremendously because of their propagation by humans.
It's entirely possible these disconcerting conditions might just be temporary setbacks that are ultimately solved by future technologies and enveloping victories of true liberal democracies, but it confuses the picture to me, at least. The major problems that civilization is usually praised for overcoming (periodically, at least), seem to only be problems that civilization brought into the world in the first place. Overpopulation? Enslavement? Major wars? Gender inequality? Famine? What is the value of our most brilliant, transcendent symphonies, paintings, literature, institutions of morality and justice, computational wizardry, to the millions of people who are born into this world prediabetic, malnourished, conditioned into unprecedented pathologies, prescribed questionable medications, effectively indentured into servitude? Is our current predicament indicative of the likelihood of these issues being a continuing problem, or are these diseases of modernity simply the growing pains of a global civilization and its technologies?
Understanding the mismatch between our modern environment and our evolutionary one, along with studying extinct and extant hunter-gatherer peoples, largely explains why we can become so lost and sick in the modern world. Yet the very process by which we understand, study, implement these findings, and the only way to create the best possible future for the maximum number of humans, is through use of the greatest products - namely reason and science - created and continually refined by certain segments of civilization. The only way Vitalis and scientists can even make credible claims about the disparities between us and indigenous peoples is through reason and science. A future where well-being is maximized to a degree impossible for hunter-gatherer tribes to have reached, on a scale equally impossible for indigenous lifeways to realize, can be brought about only by technologies developed by a civilization of reason and science. As Sam Harris argues in his book The Moral Landscape and elsewhere, there are peaks of human well-being unavailable to certain peoples because of their limiting cultural beliefs. Furthermore, there is the prospect of states of human consciousness as yet unattainable by us, that will only be opened up by further evolution aided by future technologies. Species predating Homo Sapiens, such as Australopithicenes, and chimpanzees for that matter, arguably did not have the same spectrum of states of consciousness available to them due to less developed brains. It is entirely feasible, however unlikely our jaded imaginations currently deem it, that the technologies developed by the cultural and intellectual peaks that Deustch and Bronowski cherish, will eventually allow for a type of profound flourishing for billions of future humans currently unavailable to us. In fact, it might be our greatest moral imperative to advance the projects of civilization that will most likely lead to a future where, perhaps trillions of humans or posthumans have the best chance of flourishing and well-being.