It’s been a traumatic week in a traumatic year for America. Weeks like this prompt reflection on the idea of progress (a frequent topic
and how it happens. Ada Palmer, historian and sci-fi author
, has a really superb essay on this
from 2016, which I re-read often. It includes this line, which seems especially relevant this week:
One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?” The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%. But it’s also not 90%. That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm. That is progress
There’s lots to love about this essay, including the claim that the fascinating Francis Bacon
(more people should read his The New Atlantis
) invented the modern idea of progress (Much more here
, if you like long podcasts). The best section, though, examines how to reconcile the Great Man theory
of history, which implies that individual human agency matters, with the Great Forces view, which suggests it doesn’t.
Palmer describes a simulation of a papal election that she runs in one of her history classes (which sounds incredible
). Every time she’s run the simulation, “great forces” have determined the broad thrust, but individual action determined the details - and the details turn out to matter a lot. As Palmer describes it, “progress” is a complex system that’s hard to influence in the specifics. But we can - and people have - nudge it in the right direction. That’s a reason for optimism, perhaps, in a week that needs some.