Tuesday, October 23, 2012

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Three

“Mastery over Physical Nature,” pages 15-25

Mankind is of recent vintage by geological standards, but our technical prowess might mean that we are nearing the end of our run. To avoid extinction, we must think at the level of our species, and not of any particular subset of our species.

Russell embarks on a pre-history of man, necessarily conjectural. Our ape ancestors, beset by population pressures, splintered into arboreal and terrestrial groups. The stone weapons of the upright walking hominids proved decisive, and these intelligent creatures spread over the earth. Their brains grew, and a million or so years ago, they became essentially what we know as human.

Early humans could not teach much to their children (or to others), but the development of language changed that: one voice could be heard both wide and far. Intelligence grew in importance, and so natural selection pushed the species in the direction of greater intelligence. But brain size and hominid intelligence leveled off some half a million years ago, it seems, to the point where if some proto-human time traveler moved 500,000 years forward to today, he or she would do fine at school.

Not that our creature wouldn’t give up some advantages when moving to the modern era. In his own time he could roam freely, rarely meet a stranger, exercise sufficiently just in the course of meeting his basic needs, and live on friendly terms within his tribe. The occasional massacres between tribes were a downside, but probably rare while the human(oid) population was low. A constant threat was the potential for hunger and even starvation.

The invention of tools that help kill animals, and the discovery of fire, were major advances. We don’t know the origin of language, but humans developed speech and other primates did not. “On the whole I am inclined to think that language has been the most important single factor in the development of man [p. 19].” Writing further enhanced the ability of language to transmit information. Agriculture and the domestication of animals were other, post-language contributors to progress. In the aftermath of the establishment of agriculture, only industrialization serves as a rival in terms of promoting human welfare – and industrialization followed a few thousand years of little advance in the quality of civilization, even as the extent of civilization spread in geographical terms.

Machines and applied science began to make their revolutionary marks at the end of the eighteenth century. The direct impact of industrialization is on the man v. nature conflict, but it also necessitates a still-forthcoming alteration in man v. man and man v. himself. The fact that a new equilibrium has not been established in these two other conflicts is “the main cause of the present troubles of the world [p. 21].”

Gains in agricultural productivity traditionally result in population increases, and not in higher average consumption. Nonetheless, output beyond subsistence is what made possible attention to politics and war, science and art; this surplus maintains kings and philosophers, artists and musicians. In the modern US, not only are living standards high, but a very large segment of the population produces no tangible output, either agricultural or industrial.

In rich societies, the despotism of nature has been overcome, so people should be free to follow many different pursuits. The choices are not totally unconstrained, however, and we find that rich nations devote large quantities of their surplus to military production. So increasing surpluses do not automatically translate into higher human welfare. Given the current political situation, a technological advance that permits huge strides in production will reduce human welfare, as more resources will be diverted to military output: “our new mastery of nature brings new responsibilities and new duties [p. 24].”

While humans still have limits, the constraints imposed by nature have been slackened considerably. “It will not be long before it becomes possible to travel to the moon [p. 24].” Science allows us to tame nature, but by itself cannot resolve the conflicts among men, and within each individual.

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