Societal Progress
Principia Cybernetica Web

Societal Progress

When considering general features such as wealth, knowledge, life expectancy and health, it seems that the state of humanity has spectacularly improved over the past century (cf. Julian Simon's analysis of progress). Yet, the idea of progress seems to have fallen into disrepute during the last decades. On the one hand, the postmodernist thinkers emphasize the relativity of good and evil, and therefore the relativity of progress. According to them, the modern Western way of life is not objectively superior to the way of life of more "primitive" cultures, both those living today in Third World countries or in the past before industrialization. On the other hand, the enormous publicity given to negative events and developments, such as pollution, global warming, resource exhaustion, war and terrorism has created a generally pessimistic mood, where people expect things to get worse and worse. This leads many people to believe that the "noble savage" of the pre-agricultural age had in fact a much better life than the harried computer user of the present.

We believe that the question of whether progress objectively exists can be approached scientifically. An analysis of progress should be based on a well-founded theoretical framework, such as the theory of evolution, which at least in our interpretation seems to imply a preferred direction of advance towards increasing complexity and intelligence. Moreover, the theory should be based on empirical measures, comparing the overall "well-being", "happiness" or "quality of life" of past and present generations. The problem is how to quantify an abstract and subjective concept such as "quality of life" (QOL). We believe that such a quantification is possible, by looking at more concrete and objective factors which can be shown to contribute to QOL.

The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven and his coworkers have developed an extensive "World Database of Happiness", which collects the data from hundreds of polls and questionnaires in which people were asked how satisfied they are with their life. These data for different countries were correlated with a number of other variables, such as GNP per head of the population, education level, freedom of expression, etc. Not surprisingly, life satisfaction turns out to have clear positive correlation with most of the factors which we would intuitively consider as "good":

  • health, life expectancy
  • level of education, literacy
  • access to information
  • average wealth
  • democracy, political and individual freedom
  • safety
  • equality between classes and between the sexes
Note that these basic values or determinants of happiness, which come out of an empirical analysis, are remarkably similar to the values formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

When on the other hand we look at statistics which trace the development of these factors over time, we find that on average they all have undergone spectacular increases during the past century, and continue to increase. For example, life expectancy is still going up with some 3 years for every 10 years that passes, depending on the country in which you live. Even less tangible factors, such as general intelligence as measured through IQ tests seems to go up with some 3 points per decade, for the 20 or so countries for which data are available (the Flynn effect). We can only conclude that empirically all major indicators of progress (sometimes grouped together in combined indicators, such as the Human Development Index, the International Index of Social Progress or the Physical Quality of Life Index) seem to be increasing unabatedly for the world as a whole. Together with a theory explaining the mechanism of this on-going improvement this should prove that progress is an objective reality.

See also:

Copyright© 2000 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen, & J. Bernheim

May 31, 2000 (modified)
Sep 10, 1997 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory

The Future of Humanity

Prev. Next

Increasing intelligence: the Flynn effect


Add comment...