Is human development equal to progress?
In his Essay On Man, Ernst Cassirer writes of humankind’s cultural evolution as the “process of [hu]man’s progressive self-liberation”. In his Neo-Kantian perception of human development, humanity is pacing towards enlightenment by ever further freeing itself from its “self-incurred immaturity”. Similar to this idealistic view of human development, today’s liberal scholars invoke progress as the underlying feature of human development. Especially technological improvements, in combination with the benefits of capitalism, are to solve all problems humanity has faced in the past, is facing today and will face by conquering the forces of nature to ultimately bring humanity into an enlightened future.
From this, it seems that both Neo-Kantians as well as liberal thinkers argue that the underlying feature of human development is progress. But is it?
In light of the multiple planetary crises that humanity is facing and which threaten the integrity of the Earth System at large, it is necessary to critically inquire into this optimistic perception of human development. Following Gramsci’s differentiation between progress and becoming, we must analyse the nature, trajectory and future of human development to understand the direction that humanity is heading in. Are we really up for a continuous improvement of human lives, as some might argue, solely because the principles of development point in that direction? Or is something more complex happening that must be clarified—a trajectory of development that points towards a monumental decision we are facing at the beginning of the 21st century?
Part 1. The notion of progress in light of a philosophy of history
Understanding the perception that progress is the underlying and infinite direction of human development requires an inquiry into what progress means. The notion of progress is a tricky thing. That is because whenever it is considered, the question arises of what progress actually means for the person posing the statement. What is behind the notion of progress can only be understood in reference to what Haraway deems “situatedness”. This concerns the structures that shaped the thinking of the person at large and that uniquely make up an individual’s perspective of the world. Following Antonio Gramsci, the idea of what progress means “depends on a specific mentality, in the constitution of which are involved certain historically determined cultural elements … In the idea of progress is implied the possibility of a quantitative and qualitative measuring, of ‘more’ and ‘better’”. In this way, Gramsci deems the notion of progress ideological: what constitutes “betterment” or “improvement” is always decided based on a situated perspective and depends on the belief system of the person invoking its name. Progress as ideological is contrasted by Gramsci with the notion of becoming. Whereas the former must be understood historically and implies an ideological understanding of history as getting better, where the ‘better’ is what does the ideological work, becoming is a philosophical conception of the generalised process of history, the process of development that is at the heart of a materialist conception of history.
From this differentiation, if we want to understand the conjecture that progress could be infinite, we must reconsider human development via the notion of becoming. Such an understanding of the principles that drive human cultural development via the philosophical conception of becoming requires differentiation of the historical process at large—not merely of historical-social dimensions of human culture, but of evolutionary-biological and physical directionalities.
Part 2. Becoming as the (infinite?) process of history
To understand the process of (natural) history via the notion of becoming, we must first understand the physical directionality of the universe. The commonplace conception of the consequence of the laws of thermodynamics is captured by Boltzmann’s conjecture that leans on the Cartesian incommensurability of the two rivers: whereas “the river of biology, psychology, and culture, or the epistemic dimension of the world flow[s] up to increasingly higher states of order, … the river of physics flow[s] down to disorder”. Swenson, inquiring into the relationship of entropy and order, counters this conjecture by arguing for a progressive development of “higher ordered from less ordered states follow[ing] directly from natural law”. He shows that order is a direct consequence of the balance equation of thermodynamics, as “ordered flow [is] more efficient at dissipating potentials than disordered flow”. In combination with the law of maximum entropy production that “the world acts to minimize potentials at the fastest rate given the constraints”, the “world can be expected to produce order whenever it gets the chance”. The uphill flowing river of the “active epistemic dimension of the world, of biology, psychology, and culture” therefore does not contradict the tendency of entropy, but is the direct manifestation of its consequences.
Following Swenson, if order arises whenever it gets the chance, this ordering flow of entropy describes the basic mechanism for the emergence of complex “autocatakinetic systems” and then life itself. Leaving aside the details on how this occurred, Swenson writes: “Since the emergence of life on the Archean Earth some 4.5 billion years ago, … the production of dynamic order constituting the development of life, including human culture, is thus seen as the cycling of this same matter under the impress of the geocosmic gradient into progressively higher ordered forms or dimensions of space-time.” From this perspective of progressive development of order as a direct consequence of thermodynamics, a first insight into becoming as the process of history can be grasped: becoming in this instance describes the ordering flow of the universe.
From the ordering tendency of the physical world, Swenson argues, we can begin to understand “our place as both productions and producers in this rapidly accelerating global becoming”. As the universe is in the “order-producing business” as a means of increasing entropy, the development of life, humanity, culture and civilisation can be placed in a cumulative, emergent process of order-production—the two rivers are commensurable.
To understand humanities’ role in this ordering process, this emergent process of cumulative development has to be further detailed. For this, we must turn to recent anthropological insights into the ratcheting-up of both evolutionary-biological and human cultural development. The key notions that must be delineated for understanding human cultural evolution from this perspective are operational chains and problem solution distances (PSD) as introduced by Leroi-Gourhan and Köhler. The gap between the need of a complex autocatakinetic system for energy-intake to keep up its metabolism and the fulfillment of this need can be described via the problem-solution distance: in order to satisfy a need, depending on the scope of the problem-solution distance, the organism has to perform multiple sequential actions in and interactions with its environment, which can be conceptualised as “operational chains”. Organisms fundamentally differ in their capability to perform such sequential, nested actions: whereas single-cell organisms follow orientation along nutrient-gradients, more complex organisms have to orient themselves in their environment and interact with it. The emergence of hominin species, however, marks a shift in the evolutionary-biological development of complexity: a new depth in problem-solution-distance-capabilities and a new type of cumulative development emerges, which adds another layer to the notion of becoming.
The concept of “cultural capacities” conceptualises this increasing complexity of operational chains and PSD. Based on ethological and archaeological data, Haidle et al. formulate a model for the “evolution and expansion of human cultural capacities (the EECC model)”. They differentiate between behavioural performances and cultural capacities: whereas the performances describe empirically traceable behaviours exhibited by an analysed sub-group, cultural capacities are the theoretical conceptualisation that abstract the underlying PSD of the “potential range of cultural performances in different subunits at a given time”.
From this distinction, Haidle et al. trace the process of cumulative development of cultural capacities as the consequences of the social transmission of information. Building on this transmission, some species exhibit the capacity for traditions based on the durable presence of “behavioral entities … through repeated social learning”. Subsequently, a set of multiple traditions “that incorporate a diversity of behavioral forms” is described as the “basic cultural capacity”, which is exhibited by social animals such as the hominin species, dolphins, humpback whales and great apes.
Hereafter is where the key distinguishing feature, which marks marking the evolutionary branching of hominin species, arises: the ability for so-called “secondary tool use”. The fact that tools are not employed merely to satisfy immediate needs, but to manufacture other tools in order to satisfy more complex needs is a decisive step in increasing evolutionary complexity. This uniquely hominin ability to employ multiple tools in an encapsulated sequence and to use tools on tools, and then to transmit this knowledge to others, lays the basis for a cumulative development of ever higher technological complexity.
In an ever increasing array of complexity via the technological augmentation of previous steps, subsequent cultural capacities are detailed along the corresponding emergence of new behavioural possibilities, which can be sketched as follows: building on the “modular cultural capacity“ of using tools on tools, the ability of combining multiple manufactured modular objects into composite tools with new qualities (“composite cultural capacity”) is the necessary foundation for the “development and use of a set of cultural modules as an acting entity with two or more interdependent and exchangeable parts”, such as a bow and arrow (“complementary cultural capacity”). The last cultural capacity derived from the cumulation of the PSD is the “notional cultural capacity”, where “the socially transmitted information exceeds that of all former capacities”.
This “notional cultural capacity” marks the beginning of civilisational development of humankind. With the emergence of notional tools and concepts, for example cave paintings, music instruments or figurines, in general media, which are “mentally constructed and socially shared entities and relationships” that represent meaning and which “unfold their main potential only in social use”, the focus of human evolutionary development is shifted to the refinement and communication of notional concepts. A key marker of this notional capacity is the usage of exograms, the storing of memory records outside of the nervous system. After this “exographic revolution”, with the emergence and use of media for horizontal and vertical storage and passing of knowledge, civilisational history begins—humankind’s ontogenetic-individual and evolutionary-biological evolution is mostly overshadowed by its subsequent historical-social development. As media externalize knowledge, the development of humankind shifts onto a new foundation: the development, refinement and communication of exograms and notional concepts causes the process of cumulation of knowledge, of the improvement of know-how and of technologies, to accelerate.
The insight into becoming that we can distill from this conception of humankind’s cultural development is the notion of the “ratchet effect”. Building on the emergence of secondary tool use in combination with social learning, the abilities developed in previous cultural capacities are abstracted and recombined into new types of behavioural affordance which enable humans to perform new types of actions—human culture is ratcheting up. Following Löffler, the EECC model provides a “non-teleological, cumulative-linear conceptualisation of the history of human development: The model shows that the prehistory of human can be conceived as a natural-process-like passing through universal stages of development”. Cumulative development of complexity, which in human development no longer focuses on evolutionary-biological but, with the emergence of secondary tool use, on technological cumulative development, can thus be seen as a further refinement of the notion of becoming.
However, in order to fully understand the key principles of human cultural development, the process of global becoming and its relation of progress, the developmental mechanisms at hand must be further concretised. Expanding the developmental mechanism of cumulation via the concept of the ratchet effect, building on the EECC model as well as Bammé’s concept of “axial caesuras”, Löffler analysed the development of human history as the cumulation of “civilisational capacities”.
The Axial Age in Greece and the Modern Age are described by Bammé as fundamental transformations, which, when applied with the capacities model, reveal themselves as stages of cultural capacities. In these capacity steps, all forms, phenomena and performances of human culture and civilisation at large are fundamentally altered, increasing in complexity—each building on the technological, social, cultural and philosophical processes and capabilities of previous cultures. Whereas the “Greek Miracle” (800–200 BC) built on the cultural and technological processes and achievements of the “Hydraulic Civilisations”, the “European Miracle” (1400–1900) built on the advancements and technological processes of the “Greek Miracle” to mark a fundamentally new type of civilisational capacity. Extrapolating from these capacity stages, Löffler describes the “Technological Civilisation“ as the capacity shift in whose upheaval humankind is situated at the turn of the 21st century.
In analysing this cumulative development, Löffler shows that civilisational development follows the same underlying principle of ratcheting-up as the cultural capacities that Löffler refines via the notion of “process-emulative recursion”. Based on the ratchet effect, each cultural and civilisational capacity functions as the base from which the subsequent capacity abstracts its principles and reintegrates them in a new manner.
The notion of “process-emulative recursion” is further clarified by the advancements in technology from the Axial Age to the Modern Age, which represents a sequencing of more complex secondary tool use. The progression is roughly sketched as follows: in the former, technological complexity was marked by simple machines, the so-called “mighty five of power amplification”, which include “wedge, screw, inclined plane, lever and winch”. In contrast, as Löffler writes, in “the Modern Age, the principle of the simple machine is reintroduced on a new level of abstraction and integrated into the compound machine”. These compound machines are assemblages of multiple simple machines combined into a single functional unit, which is then able to perform more complex tasks. With this emergence of compound machines, the notion of progress first arises as technological progress, because improvements and recombination made it possible to continuously improve the efficiency and productivity of compound machines. This was a distinct innovation in technological augmentation in comparison to the Axial Age, where it was impossible to improve the efficiency of simple machines.
The civilisational developmental process at large can again be seen as another clarification of the notion of becoming. Building on the notion of “ordering” (Swenson) and “cumulation” (Haidle), the concept of recursion enables us to understand the subsequent building up of the increasing complexity of layers on previous developments. The line of development of compound machines from simple machines can be extended backwards into the cumulative extension of problem-solution distances via secondary tool use and its abstraction in modular, composite, complementary and notional forms as described by Haidle et al. In this way, the cumulation of technological complexity by abstracting, combining and reintegrating previous developments marks a key example of the process-emulative recursion in human and cultural development at large.
Becoming thus describes the recursively cumulative ordering process of development, where each new stage of complexity recursively integrates previous stages in a higher order. Here, in relation to the common teleological critique that historical materialist conceptions of the process of history face, it is worth quoting Ulrich Mueller: “Development has a direction, but no goal.” Whereas the developmental principles of the ratchet effect indicate that later stages must necessarily be built on previous ones, they do not refer to a telos, they don’t have a goal. Now that we understand the principles of human cultural development as the process of becoming, we can inquire into where this goes—is this process infinite?
Part 3. The dialectic of becoming
Being attentive in these times of multiple planetary ecological as well as socio-economic and political crises, something seems off with the conjecture of infinite development. The global becoming in the form of civilisational development has been rapidly accelerating since the onset of the Modern Age. This is the direct consequence of the development of compound machines and subsequent technological cumulation which uses the energy stored in fossilised organic matter. Through this, human civilisational development capitalised on the available energy surplus and thus accelerated the nature-culture metabolism of human civilisation to unforeseen levels. But this speed of development, technological advancement and the use of fossil fuels have severe consequences for the Earth System: the early 21st century has been marked by the looming planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss as well as the continuous threat of planetary nuclear war. In light of these catastrophes, which threaten the survival of human civilisation at large, the notion of an infinite becoming begs the question: will becoming in the form of the process of cumulation continue into the future, or will humanity destroy its basis of development and institute its own doom?
A key insight into the question of the survival of humankind in the process of a possibly infinite becoming is to be found in the Fermi Paradox, which asks: why has humankind not come in contact with extraterrestrial life? Multiple answers to this paradox are proposed, but in the context of the multiple planetary crises that humanity is currently triggering, one seems to be particularly striking: the self-annihilation hypothesis. It argues that bottlenecks in civilisational development might hinder the development into multi-planetary species, which would then be able to contact one another. As Shklovsky and Sagan have argued, it might be the fate of all such civilisations to destroy themselves before they reach multi-planetary being and interstellar travel. In view of the planetary crises at hand, the disruption of the planetary system from which intelligent life developed in the first place, could be one of these civilisational bottlenecks.
If we adapt this notion, the main barrier for infinite becoming is that the conditions for the species’ survival could be undermined: the intelligent species’ development will run up against planetary limits and elicit a planetary crisis, such as uncontrollable climate change, species extinction or nuclear war, and thus elicit civilisational collapse which halts its development. In this perspective, the cumulative expansion of problem-solution distances is undermined by the inability to stop technological cumulation in a manner that maintains human survival.
This can be further clarified with the Dialectic of Enlightenment described by Horkheimer and Adorno: in view of the Nazi terror during World War II, the authors posit that the enlightenment and its focus on instrumental reason has turned against itself. Through this, “humanity, instead of entering a genuinely human condition, lapses into a new form of barbarism”. The enlightenment principles revert back into mythological thinking, technological progress – understood as the improvement of compound machines—is turned against the progression of civilisation and “the fully enlightened Earth shines in the sign of triumphant doom”.
The turning against itself based on its own principles of development, against the backdrop of the notion of technological progress versus civilisational development, is the movement that I wish to focus on. The development, the process of becoming, in reaching planetary civilisational stages and subjugating the Earth System to its will via technological progression is effectively turning against itself in the planetary crises humankind is facing. Thus, we can formulate the Dialectic of Becoming: the trajectory of becoming as cumulative development based on recursively integrating previous steps, which results in substantial technological advancements, has the dramatic potential to turn against itself and undermine its own process. The goal of achieving a possibly infinite process is then effectively hindered by the principles that open up the potential in the first place. Cumulative evolution has the potential to go on infinitely, but it also has the very real potential to destroy itself—the fully becoming Earth shines in the sign of triumphant doom.
Part 4. Can we pull the emergency breaks of the train of history?
The Dialectic of Becoming now leads us full circle to the question of progress as civilisational progress, as humankind’s progressive self-liberation. Whereas the notion of progress itself is a specific mentality about the particular historical conjecture assessed, becoming can be seen as the potentially infinite process of history. Seen from the perspective of becoming—cumulative development from the order-producing tendency of the universe to the ratcheting-up of humankind’s cultural and civilisational development—the continuation into the future could be proposed as logical: that human development into the Technological Civilisation will continue unabated. Thus, it’s not that humankind’s cultural development is the process of “progressive self-liberation”, but that the notion of becoming clearly emphasises Mueller’s conjecture: “Development has a direction, but no goal.” However, in the context of the multiple, planetary crises that humanity is facing, the question remains whether this process will actually continue into the future—and whether this can be seen as progress. In light of the Dialectic of Becoming, of the consequences of civilisational development for the Earth System at large, the notion of progress, considered ideological by Gramsci, re-emerges with a different ring to it: judging the historical conjecture from a normative standpoint.
When we think about progress in terms of planetary futures, we turn to a contemporary of Horkheimer and Adorno: Walter Benjamin. His thesis VIII on history, written in the time of Nazi terror in Europe during World War II, but equally applicable to the multiple planetary crises of the 21st century, proposes that the state of exception in which humankind now lives is the rule. It is thus necessary to “attain a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight”. In contrast to Marx, who “says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history”, Benjamin argues that perhaps “it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to pull the emergency brake.” One might ask whether “the task of progressive politics goal is not to ride the train of history but to pull the emergency breaks”.
In view of the planetary crisis, the question of progress returns not as one of self-liberation, but of keeping the process of cumulation in line with the need for planetary survival. Thus, to pull the breaks has a broader meaning than to stop the self-destructive tendencies of enlightenment, and an even more severe character: Can we stop ourselves from undermining the basis of our own survival by pulling the breaks on certain technological developments which inhabit the potential to halt the process of becoming? Can we escape the Dialectic of Becoming? Can we self-domesticate (further) by controlling our own developmental mechanisms to stop its worst consequences? Can we escape the dangerous lock-in of our path dependencies that chime in our own doom?
It is here that the difference between cultural capacities and cultural performances can be fruitfully picked up again: whereas the capacities describe the possible range of expression, the performances describe the actually exhibited behaviour. Self-domestication here then refers to the idea that even though behavioural performances could be expressed, humanity could collectively decide to leave these avenues of development unexplored and unexpressed in order to reduce its harmful effects. A positive example for this can be found in the elimination of FCKWs due to their harmful effects on the ozone layer. However, whether such self-domestication can occur with present performances such as fossil fuels or atomic bombs, or with the intentional and purposeful inexpression of the capacity for geo-engineering, which possibly entails disastrous, unintended consequences due to unknown unknowns for the Earth System at large, remains to be answered.
As this analysis shows, the notion of the Dialectic of Becoming is a warning to those who champion progress as infinite and innate to the process of human development. Whereas cumulative becoming is possibly infinite, progress depends on judgement from a normative mentality. If no one is left to assess cumulative becoming as progress, then the notion of infinite progress is meaningless. Thus, in order for someone to perceive cumulative becoming as progress, the focus has to shift towards our own self-preservation by understanding the mechanisms of becoming and abstaining from self-destructive technological performances and socio-economic structures that drive us towards cataclysmic planetary doom. Instead, we have to achieve the transformation of Modernity into the global, integrative Technological Civilisation that enables the “continuation of the cultural evolution and history of civilisation on a new level of complexity, in which fundamentally new relational structures, physis
and world relations would emerge.” The pressing question of our contemporary situation is whether humankind can pull the breaks in time. As Welzer & Sommer argue in light of the ecological necessities and limits with which humanity is confronted: the transformation will happen, the only question is whether it happens “by design or by disaster”.