Fallacies in the Current Cult of Progress
FEBRUARY 01, 1965 by FRED DEARMOND
Mr. DeArmond, lecturer, writer, and business consultant on personnel training, is a contributor to numerous periodicals and the author of books such as The Executive at Work and How to Sell and Unsell Ideas.
"Human knowledge has doubled in the last 12 years. It will double again in the next five years, and by 1980 it will be doubling itself every three months." This exaggerated herald of an onrushing millennium by a well-publicized space navigator has been widely quoted and acclaimed.
Another speaker solemnly declared that in the decade 1960-70 more scientific knowledge will be developed than in all the centuries that preceded 1960. Now, a belief exists that if only enough billions are spent on research, cancer and heart disease can be wiped out by scientific blitz. Such speculation is symptomatic of the unbalanced state of mind in the soaring 1960′s. It exhibits a deplorably narrow concept of what human knowledge is and how it is accumulated.
This new gospel of technology by the specialists is a result of focusing on the immediate and close-up while blurring the achievements of all the thinkers who preceded our generation. It magnifies the present and minifies the traditional wisdom of the ages. Our contemporary wise men should be reminded that in all they discover they stand on the tall shoulders of Aristotle, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Spencer, and all the others who did the pioneering. If each scientist or inventor had to start from scratch, how far would any have gotten toward such startling innovations as irradiated foods, tranquilizing drugs, and guided missiles?
It seems reasonable to ask by what standards is human knowledge bounded by those who see its range being expanded at such fantastic rates. Are modern automation gadgets to weigh heavier in the scales than the centuries-long and laborious study and experimentation by which the physical facts of the universe such as the laws of thermodynamics and the persistence of motion were determined? The question is like asking which is the more important, a child’s early training when he is learning how to perceive, to react, to reason, and to communicate, or the later development when he applies to the refinements of practical living the basics of what he has learned in childhood and youth.
Rejection of Tested Values
What we are witnessing is the growth of a cult of Progress. "Everything you thought you knew about marketing as long as five years ago is out of date; throw it away and go modern," a speaker said at a meeting of a Sales and Marketing Executive’s club. This is simply nonsense, of course. If I could have the choice of talking for an hour with Claude Hopkins or John H. Patterson, or of interviewing the present head of a leading
People have the same basic desires, aspirations, and frailties that they had five years or 500 years ago. They display the same courage, curiosity, cupidity, generosity, and brutality in somewhat changed forms as in the times of Dante and Chaucer. The capacity to learn is as great but no greater than when Plato walked and talked in his Academy. So slow is the process of evolution that the spirit and body have remained unchanged through 50 centuries of recorded history. Nietzsche’s Superman has not appeared.
In the 1790′s the French Jacobins pursued a revolutionary cult to a tragic conclusion. They attempted a premature delivery of a perfect society based on liberty, fraternity, equality, plus a worship of the Goddess of Reason. May not the outcome of the present aberration be an abortion, also? To anyone who makes the smallest pretense to a sense of the historic values, it is positively frightening to see so many presumably literate leaders hailing the millennium when they are obviously ignorant of the past and the process of societal evolution. The main tradition of our Anglo-American race has been to make every advance on the tested foundation of the best in the past.
My friend E. W. Dykes has well said that "evolution is the nearest thing to eternal purpose which man can discover." But humanity has a way of chasing the recurring illusion that progress is a steady march toward perfection. The illusion may be illustrated in a parable out of the experience of Peary, the polar explorer. One whole day he traveled northward, urging his sleigh dogs on at a brisk pace. But when at the close of the day he checked his bearings, he was astonished to find that he was much farther South than he had been in the morning. He had been toiling all day toward the North on an immense iceberg being drawn southward by an ocean current.
Some of our vaunted advances in civilization are a counterpart of Peary’s illusion. The sum total of human satisfactions might be as close a criterion as we could establish for genuine progress. In that respect, as Alfred N. Whitehead said in his Dialogues, "One of the happiest times in the history of mankind was the 30 years roughly from 1880 to 1910." That was surely about the peak of liberty and contentment for Americans.
One who thinks of 1964 as a pinnacle of achievement might profit in perspective by looking back just over a century, to the year 1859. During that twelvemonth period these literary classits were published: Darwin’s Origin of Species, George Meredith’s Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Thackeray’s The Virginians, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Also Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde. In that year, too, the first oil well, "Drake’s Folly," was brought in at
All this moved Emerson to note in his Journal that "the only progress ever known was of the individual, not the race."
Today the scientists are erecting a dazzling utopia on man’s increasing mastery over the forces of nature. Everything is to be done by machine, and soon man will not even have to raise his hands to clothe and feed himself. Their supremacy in the world inspires Jacques Barzun to ask, "What do they know of science who only science know?" He goes on to add, "… if college boys and girls think that science steadily and automatically makes for a better world—then they have wasted their time in the science lecture room."
A narrowly specialized scientist is surely the most gullible babein-the-woods for plausible economic, political, and ethical fallacies. In his own field the scientist is inclined to be dogmatic, doctrinaire, scornful of "laymen’s" opinions. In any other field, but especially the nonscientific, he is prone to accept almost any pronouncement that carries authority. He will follow slavishly any line promulgated by another specialist of status.
The enormous branching out of scientific specialties moved Will Durant to a comparison of our age with that of the great Greek philosophers, when science limped so far behind theory. "Our modern danger," he wrote, "is precisely opposite; industrial data fall upon us from all sides like the lava from Vesuvius; we suffocate with uncoordinated facts; our minds are overwhelmed with sciences breeding and multiplying into specialistic chaos for want of synthetic thought and a unifying philosophy. We are all mere fragments of what a man might be."
Conventional Wisdom Ridiculed
The two magic words in advertising are "free" and "new." Both are attached like barnacles to the mores of our century. Adults with college degrees, no less than the unsophisticated, fondly swallow those all-purpose pills that promise something for nothing from the hucksters. "New" has become the very embodiment of the "good" word, taking precedence over such favorite adjectives as "sacred," "true," and "sound."
This passion for novelty, coupled with an admiring worship of our time as vastly ahead of any that went before it, has given the present generation a distorted sense of values. We are being exhorted by tremendous forces of conformity to judge everything by its newness. A leading spokesman of the prevailing pragmatism is John K. Galbraith, professor of economics at Harvard and mentor of New Frontier presidents. In his The Affluent Society, Galbraith reserves his most withering irony for what he repeatedly calls "the conventional wisdom" in an economic society. His admired predecessor, John Maynard Keynes, likewise discarded in toto the wisdom of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and others. Thus, the Western world suffers from having embraced an economic philosophy that sneers at the past.
It seems that the ultimate reach of ridicule heaped upon a conservative statesman or politician is to relegate him to oblivion as an anachronism who belongs in the nineteenth or the eighteenth century. Then there is the peculiar assumption that a political leader who is "ahead of his time" is per se a very great man. All the political leaders who have achieved greatly have been abreast of their times and aware of the past. That is where Abraham Lincoln always stood. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Horace Greeley marched on ahead and found themselves alone in the great slavery-secession struggle. Because
And so I rest on the wise epigram of the great Spanish thinker, Jose Ortega y Gasset, "We know so much that we do not understand!"
Do Our Best
Some of us are sensitive and hate to see any man compelled to work for less than he needs for a decent standard of living. Many claim they have a way out—socialism, single tax, communism, birth control, prohibition, the golden rule, co-operation. All have been tried somewhere or other. Not one has equaled the expectations of its advocates.
In the meantime, we have made a good deal of progress under our present system of private ownership, with individual initiative and responsibility. The trouble is that no degree of prosperity seems to disturb the relative distinctions. The poor men of today are probably as well off as the well-to-do of a century ago. But that is no consolation to the man who is low in the scale. So we shall probably always have complaining. I don’t know what we can do about it except to do our best to improve conditions, and be philosophic.
William Feather, The William Feather Magazine, October, 1964.