The Useful Myth of Progress

During an intro to cultural anthropology class, I mentioned (I thought offhandedly) that progress itself is a cultural myth. One of the classes’ best students looked startled and concerned, and raised his hand. “No, it’s not.” he said firmly, and with complete conviction.

It is an incredibly difficult thing for people of any culture to have their most cherished values challenged. And progress is one of the key values of Western culture.

Things Just Keep Getting Better

For a moment, let’s think of Western culture as a book. That book, like books of any genre, has an underlying theme that tells us a lot about who the winners will be, who the losers will be, and what it all means.

For modern Western Culture, the theme could well be “progress.”

The Unknown by John Charles Dollman
“Progress” is the value that allows us to accept that the future is unknown and that new ways of living must be found.

“Progress” is the idea that things just keep getting better and better. It has several corollaries, such as the idea that all “improvements” are somehow inherently good, and that greater efficiency is somehow a good in and of itself.

The schema of “progress” mixes together several ideas in what amounts to a value judgement. It takes the idea of complexity, and attaches it to “the good.” We believe that the complex is somehow better than the simple.

Why Progress?

There’s a good reason that we value progress. The last 10,000 years or more have seen a steady increase in the human population and its population density. Throughout that time, change has been a constant.

From the time of the first cities (around 7,500 BCE), after the advent of farming and the Neolithic revolution, humans have lived in higher population densities than ever before.

Despite being social animals, we primates aren’t given to getting along in large numbers. We have had to develop cultural systems to manage the problems of putting so many territorial primates together. The developments in culture that came with urbanization — stratification, rule of law, etc. — required, and allowed for, ever greater cultural complexity.

With the ever-increasing human population, increased innovation, including complexity in technology and other aspects of culture, becomes necessary to maintain relative peace.

Mythologizing Progress

Painting of Eridu, one of the first cities
Progress supports increased population, which in turn requires new methods of organization and management.

As population density increases, populations have to spend more and more effort not only on resource management, but also on some kind of cultural “research and development.” Otherwise, conflict breaks out as competing groups let loose under the increased pressure. Ever-increasing population density means ever-increasing complexity in human methods of management.

Even such recent inventions as the Internet, seen through this lens, are tools for allowing increasing numbers of primates to somehow manage in a changing and increasingly stressful (in a primate sense) world.

“Progress” is required to maintain some kind of counterbalance to increasing biological pressures. More than that, our culture values “progress” as an idea. We invest in it. That investment is what allows us to maintain and develop the complex cultural systems that keep us relatively fed, healthy, and safe.

The idea that “progress is always good” is tied to the underlying assumption that human population density will always increase. As long as the population keeps going up, progress is a necessity.

Progress — increased complexity and efficiency — is necessary, but that doesn’t make it perfect. The ways that we understand progress are cultural. “Progress is good” is a statement of values, values shaped by specific realities and tied to the underlying assumptions of Western culture. Our ideas of progress determine winners and losers just as much as any war.

“Progress” is one of our bedrock assumptions about the world, and it is a needed one in these times. Yet despite its utility, it is cultural, an idea. Increased complexity is necessary, but that doesn’t mean everything labeled “progress” is inherently good.

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3 thoughts on “The Useful Myth of Progress”

  1. I certainly agree. I think it was only in the past couple of years that an article came out stating that anthropologists were only recently coming to terms with the fact that most hunter gatherers actually live very content and easy lives, with a fair amount of free time spent with family and friends. There are at least several books out that demonstrate how the Native Americans were much healthier and lived far more healthy lives than the Europeans who supposedly brought their superior ways to this country (and of course the only path open for the Europeans to survive in the wilds of the New World was to take over the planted fields of the Natives often by slaughtering them).

    I know your point is not that we should go back and live that way—but if anyone should take my comment that way—-they must remember that we would have a very hard time giving up what we understand as progress. Most of us would find it hard to be content without movies, IMAX, TV, Facebook, etc, etc, etc… But that does not mean that the so-called primitive cultures do not have important values and lessons to teach us.

    1. “But that does not mean that the so-called primitive cultures do not have important values and lessons to teach us.”

      Very true. Would you mind mentioning any specific books that you found particularly interesting? I’m always on the lookout for interesting reading.

      Thanks your comment.

      1. I have many such books—-but here is one that is really good I think—- The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living (Compass)
        Joseph M. Marshall III, ISBN-10: 0142196096; ISBN-13: 978-0142196090. You can follow that with his book, Walking with Grandfather (that one should have a CD with it, which he does some story telling on.

        Another really good book is Arthur Versluis’ Sacred Earth, The Spiritual Landscape of Native America. He does a good job of relating native beliefs with other cultures and belief systems—for example he discusses the Javanese Kalamakara with the Pawnee symbol of the Great Spirit. I thought he handled it very academically—-and not in a New Age gimmicky manner. (ISBN 0-89281-352-0) (and in case it is important to anyone, he suggests that it is important to dig deep into one’s own spiritual beliefs to find the same values or meanings if that is important to you, rather than to convert to a new belief that is not one’s own—but as I recall, he did feel that these other beliefs do help give new perspectives from which to understand your own). But I thought it was very fascinating from an anthropological sense too.

        There are some books that have come out on the Siberian belief systems—I’ll have to dig into my library to find those. Again, on the subject of Native Americans, there are numerous books about and written by, or with the help of various, Medicine Men, such as Lame Deer, Crow Dog, and Wallace Black Elk. (Wallace was the father of my good friend, Jennifer Black Elk, and the other two are her uncles. Wallace was of course related to the Black Elk of Black Elk Speaks fame.)

        About half a year before my first hanblechiya (vision quest), I kept running into the book Lakota Belief and Ritual, by James R. Walker (ISBN: 0-8032-9731-9). I finally decided to buy it. James Walker recorded many legends and stories as he lived with the Lakota as a Doctor in the 1800’s. I was really fascinated with it, and followed it with, Walker’s, Lakota Myth (ISBN: 0-8032-9706-8). It was a few months after that, that I was inspired to do a vision quest with the lodge community (sweat lodge community) I was a part of (I was one of the few white people in a group of mostly Lakota (Sioux)). In a very unmistakable manner, starting on the second day of my vision quest—a bird and a tree demonstrated to me a portion of the Lakota creation myth I had learned about from Walker’s books. I somehow knew that it would be followed with something about the Lakota Sky Maiden, Woh’pe, (which means shooting star), who came down to get the brother’s, the Four Winds, to create the sacred directions so the world could be created. (I suspected this because for the first night, all night long, I had not seen a single shooting star. I was deep in the Rocky Mountains and the sky was so clear I could see my surroundings clearly by the starlight (the moon was not up—-I thought that was very strange, I always saw shooting stars when camping in such areas). A few hours before dawn’s first light, I had dozed off, but suddenly awoke—-I looked to the North (at the tree I now understood, from the events the previous day, to be the Tree of Waziya, the powerful medicine man of the North) and suddenly in the night sky—-the story of Woh’pe and of how the North Wind loved her, but he was only to be her brother, as she chased after the South Wind who she loved, played out before me. It was not a vision—it was shooting stars, and the tree, and the directions, and the shooting stars came one after the other in a clear pattern—-and they were the only ones I saw the whole time I was there, despite all the clear nights. After my Vision Quest, I learned that Woh’pe returned to the Lakota people as the White Buffalo Calf Woman (who brought the sacred pipe and the 7 sacred rituals, that the Lakota had lost).

        Coincidentally, I have related this, and a few other of my hanblechiya stories several times this week to several different people—I am heading up to Bear Butte in South Dakota with a bunch of Lakota and a few White People, a Navajo, and an Apache for hanblechiya on Thursday—-this year I will be supporting though and not going up on the hill—-so I have been playing my part to help prepare some first timers.

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