Global Progress: an empirical analysis and an evolutionary framework

Francis Heylighen & Jan Bernheim
CLEA, Free University of Brussels, Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium

ABSTRACT. This paper argues that both the relativist and the pessimist critiques of the idea of progress are inadequate, while agreeing that the 18th century concept needs to be updated by a more evolutionary and holistic approach. Progress is defined as increase in global quality of life (QOL). Such QOL is intrinsically subjective, but not relative. It can be reliably measured through "life satisfaction" questionnaires. The "World Database of Happiness" provides extensive lists of social, economic and psychological factors that correlate with QOL. They include wealth, health, security, knowledge, freedom and equality. Various statistical data suggest that all these QOL indicators have undergone significant improvements during the last half century. This gives a strong support to the thesis that progress objectively occurs. Some remaining problems, such as pollution and the increased pace of life are discussed, but it is concluded that they can be tackled without really endangering global progress. The anxiety they engender is unfortunately amplified by a "bad news" bias in the media. It is finally argued that progress is a necessary component of evolution, which is fueled by the mechanisms of natural selection, knowledge growth and virtuous cycles.


KEYWORDS: progress, quality of life, happiness, optimism, pessimism, social indicators, forecasting, world view, evolution, development.



In history, the start of "modernity" is usually taken to be the 18th century Enlightenment. During that period, a belief in rationality, progress and science spread through the intellectual establishment, preparing the grounds for the industrial revolution (see e.g. Bury, 1955; van Doren, 1967; Nesbit, 1980). According to the ideology of modernity, rational thought as implemented in scientific enquiry is the key to discovering the truth about the world and ourselves. Such true knowledge will emancipate all individuals, freeing them from the shackles of ignorance, superstition and dogmatism. Moreover, this knowledge will fuel technological progress. By making production more efficient, it will create wealth and make our lives more comfortable and safe. Thus, the on-going accumulation of knowledge through scientific research leads directly to economic and social progress. Since there is only one true picture of the world, there can be only one way to progress: by gradually filling in more and more elements of this picture. The more elements are known, the better science will be able to predict and control nature, and the more the individual will be liberated from the vagaries of fate.

 Such a simple, deterministic view of historical progress does not fit in well with the complexity and confusion characterizing the 20th century. Atrocities like Hiroshima or the Holocaust paint a very different picture of the effects of scientific advances. Where is the progress in killing thousands of people in a few minutes? Does it mean killing more people in less time? Questions like these have brought post-modern thinkers to reject the project of modernity and its belief in rationality and progress. They argue that the idea that there is one true representation of the world leads to intolerance and even violence, since it implies the suppression of everyone who disagrees with this picture. Too often, the supposedly superior Western world view has been used to justify the oppression of women, non Western cultures, and colonized peoples. Instead, the post-modernists see knowledge as a set of perspectives, where different people have different views, without anyone being "right" or "wrong". The post-modernist thinkers emphasize the relativity of good and evil, and therefore the relativity of progress (cf. Marx & Mazlish, 1996). 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 publicity given to negative events and developments, such as pollution, global warming, resource exhaustion, overpopulation, famines, crime, war and terrorism has created a generally pessimistic mood, where people expect things to get worse and worse. A number of books such as Paul Ehrlich's (1976a,b) "The Population Bomb", and the "Limits to Growth" report of the Club of Rome (Meadows & Meadows, 1972) have sketched rather gloomy pictures of our planet's future. More recently, the media seem to be filled with bad news of all types, from wars to corruption, unemployment, child abuse and the appearance of new diseases. This leads many people to believe that the "noble savage" of the pre-agricultural age and the god-fearing simple person of the pre-industrial age had in fact a much better life than the harried computer user of the present. They see deterioration rather than progress (cf. Marx & Mazlish, 1996), and their vision of the future is one of gloom and doom. This erosion of our belief in progress leads to a generalised culture pessimism and a feeling of hopelessness. This is a dangerous development, which may produce stagnation, conservatism and particularism.

 Our purpose here is to argue that both the relativistic and the pessimistic views are inadequate. We wish to show that life in our present society is objectively better than life in earlier ages, and that progress continues unabatedly on a variety of fronts. We will support this reasoning by empirical data and by a new theoretical framework. This world view is supposed to replace the simplistic assumptions of 18th century rationalism and mechanicism, and to address its shortcomings. It is based on a number of new insights developed in diverse scientific disciplines, from thermodynamics to cybernetics, cognitive science, and the sciences of complexity. Thus, we wish to revive the progressive ideals of the Enlightenment, while criticizing its erroneous assumptions.

Our philosophy departs from the Newtonian world view in three essential respects:

1) holism or emergentism: the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. When different components are put together, they may interact either synergistically or antagonistically, but in general this interaction creates something new, an "emergent" system or property.

2) beyond materialism: non-material, "mental" factors, such as intelligence, knowledge, goal-directedness and feeling are also important in the functioning of such systems.

 3) evolution: systems are not static entities governed by deterministic laws, but the products of evolution, a self-organizing, creative process based on the variation and selection of "fit" variants.

These assumptions provide clear alternatives for the reductionism and materialism which are at the base of industrial society, and which play an obvious role in many current problems, such as resource exhaustion, pollution, reduction of cultural diversity and alienation. They emphasize non-material needs, creativity and the awareness of being in evolution. They also make the case for gradual, evolutionary changes, rather than revolutionary change. Evolution is innovative and conservative at the same time: it keeps what works, while exploring possible avenues for changing the things that could work better. Revolutions tend to be based on utopias: simplistic, reductionist pictures based on a particular ideology. Thus, an evolutionary world view can be progressive, while avoiding excesses such as those accompanying the French or Soviet revolutions.

 Let us conclude this introduction with a few remarks about the scope and methodology of our investigations. First, we want to study the world as a whole. Though we may look at particular countries or groups for purposes of illustration, we are ultimately interested in progress at the global level. Second, we wish to avoid idle theorizing. This means that we want to measure what is measurable, thus complementing abstract speculations as much as possible by concrete, empirical data. In order to do this we need a statistical approach. We believe in the law of large numbers: a phenomenon which for an individual person may be a meaningless coincidence becomes a hard mathematical fact when it applies to averages for large groups, such as the population of the world. Thus, the intrinsic unreliability and subjectivity of notions such as "happiness" or "improvement" can be tackled if we translate them into objective, statistical factors. The following sections will discuss in more detail how this can be achieved.


Global Quality of Life

Before we can start our analysis we need to define our basic concepts. The Newtonian world view which underlies industrial society tends to reduce progress to mere material growth, increase in knowledge, or at best some linear combination of such objective factors. One might wonder in how far such a measure represents global progress, rather than an arbitrary or ideologically biased selection of factors, which are not representative for what people really experience as important. For example, in how far is increase in GNP to be considered as progress, if it is accompanied by increase in pollution and resource exhaustion? The basic question concerns values: what is to be considered as good and what as evil? The answer to this question is intrinsically subjective, and apparently it cannot be derived from objective facts. Therefore, we propose to use the appreciation by the subjects themselves as a yardstick, and define progress as increase in the subjectively experienced quality of life for the world population.

What we mean by "increase" is obvious enough. This leaves us to clarify what "quality of life" (QOL) is. Intuitively, we can equate QOL for an individual with overall happiness or satisfaction with one's life. We see QOL as an emergent property, which is more than the sum of its components. This does not mean that QOL cannot be measured, though. In spite of the many interacting factors that affect it, people in general have little difficulty in judging the quality of experiences (Bernheim, 1995). For example, people can easily tell you whether they like one restaurant more than another one, or whether they enjoyed their vacations more this year than last year. Similarly, if the questions are asked in the right way, they are able to express their feeling of satisfaction with their life in general.


Measuring QOL

There exist a number of standardized item-based questionnaires for evaluating QOL. These typically subdivide the problem into different domains or components. For example the SF-36 test (Ware et. al, 1993) derives a QOL profile with the following dimensions: physical functioning, role physical, bodily pain, general health, vitality, social functioning, role emotional, and mental health. However, such instruments do not allow you to determine the overall QOL of an individual, since it is not clear how the partial scores on each of the dimensions should be added. For an individual, it seems impossible to determine the "weights" of each of the components, since a component typically only becomes important when it is lacking. Moreover the different components will generally interact in non-linear ways, so that even if we would know the relative importance of each, we would not be able to add them together. Finally, we can never be sure that all relevant dimensions of QOL or happiness are included.

 This problem can be tackled by using a global QOL measure, such as ACSA (Anamnestic Comparative Self-Assessment, Bernheim, 1995; Bernheim & Buyse, 1984), where people evaluate their overall feeling. ACSA does this by asking people to compare their present situation with the best and worst situations they have experienced in their life. Such a global assessment may help us to derive weights for the different components, by checking in how far each component correlates with the overall QOL. However, this can only work with averages for large populations, because of the non-linear effects on the individual level noted earlier. Even then, we should be wary of non-linear interactions at the global level. For example, there might exist attractors in the space of QOL dimensions, corresponding to discrete life styles.

The specific advantage of ACSA as a global tool is that it eliminates the social desirability bias, where people answer that they feel happy because that is what they are expected to say. This bias is culturally determined. For example we might expect that in the USA, where success or failure is typically seen as the individual's own responsibility, people would not like to admit they feel unhappy, while in France, where it is normal to blame the government, the multinationals and other institutions for everything that goes wrong, people would find it perfectly acceptable to complain about their situation. Another advantage of ACSA is that it avoids peer relativity, where people compare their own situation with the situation of others in their group rather than with their own experiences.

However, ACSA is still dependent on the relativity of best/worst experiences people have had. One may wonder whether the worst experience for a Rwandan who saw his parents, siblings and children killed, his body maimed and his property destroyed during the massacre is comparable to the worst experience for a Belgian, who perhaps saw her father die of old age, or experienced an unhappy love affair. This problem would be solved if we could find a maximum level of happiness/distress, where feelings would reach a point of saturation, so that whatever happens people could not feel better or worse than this maximum. If people can be expected to have reached these maximum/minimum levels of satisfaction at least once in their life, then their scores on ACSA would be all comparable. If not, ACSA will need to be complemented by other global scales, which perhaps ask for comparisons with happiest/least happy person one knows.


Is happiness relative or absolute?

These questions point to some deeper issues connected to the measurement of QOL. There are reasons to think that satisfaction is to some degree relative, since people always tend to compare their present situation to other situations, which are different for different people. The "level of adaptation theory" (Brickman & Campbell, 1971) says that this is part of what defines happiness, because people always aspire to improve whatever they have got. They choose their level of aspiration to be higher than what they have now, but realistically attainable. They judge attainability by comparing their goal with their previous experience, and with the situations of the people around them. This provides them with a standard or reference level against which progress can be measured. Real happiness in this view can be achieved only if people feel a continuous progress towards their aspiration level, while the aspiration level itself moves up in step with their achievements. Although the net result may be the same, a series of small improvements is likely to be more satisfying than a big step forward followed by a prolonged status quo or deterioration. This may explain why people who win big in a lottery often lead miserable lives afterwards (cf. Brickman et al., 1978). Once they have gotten used to their new wealth, their old goals and aspirations seem petty, and they become aware that they will never be able to make any improvement as significant as the one brought about by the prize money.

Such a relativistic theory would imply that the measurement of QOL would tell us very little about people's overall situation, since their satisfaction would only depend on their varying, subjective aspirations, and not on their objective achievements. Yet, all existing measurements of QOL seem to have strong correlations with objective factors, such as wealth, health, success and failure, as we will discuss in the following section. Veenhoven (1991) therefore concludes that the relativistic theory is wrong, and that increases in QOL are produced by objective improvements. Yet, the level of aspiration theory may not be incorrect, but simply incomplete. It has been suggested that overall QOL might be the sum of an absolute, objective factor, measuring the given situation in which a person lives, and a relative, subjective factor, measuring the person's changing aspirations. Thus, the objective criteria would determine an invariant base level of QOL, which is modulated by a changing subjective appreciation.

 Such a model would tie in with Maslow's theory of basic needs (Maslow, 1970; Heylighen, 1992). Maslow distinguishes two types of needs: 1) deficiency needs, such as hunger, thirst, or the need for security, which can be satisfied by providing an adequate amount of food, drink or safety; 2) growth needs, such as the need for learning and "self-actualization", which can only be satisfied by continuing development. Thus, the satisfaction of growth needs imply a continuous increase in aspiration levels, while the satisfaction of deficiency needs stops at a given saturation level. If this is true, overall satisfaction can be reliably determined, since the satisfaction of the deficiency needs can be measured by the degree to which the deficiency is eliminated, while the satisfaction of the "growth" needs can be ascertained through psychological tests that measure the degree to which people feel capable to reach their aspirations, independently of what these aspirations are .

"Self-actualization", Maslow's term for the highest level of satisfaction or psychological health, can be reinterpreted as the "perceived competence to satisfy basic needs" (Heylighen, 1992). This corresponds to a feeling of control over one's own situation. Happiness in this view is less determined by the objective situation than by the subject's experience of control over that situation, that is, the subject's perceived capacity for maintaining or improving that situation. This encompasses both the deficiency needs (hunger, thirst, health, safety, ...), which can be seen as short term perturbations that need to be compensated, and the growth needs (knowledge, freedom, self-esteem, ...), which can seen as long term potentialities for increasing control. Thus, "absolute" or "objective" factors and "relative" or "subjective" ones become the extremities in a continuous dimension going from direct, urgent needs to indirect, long term ones.

 This higher level interpretation of happiness as control over one's self and environment ties in with our evolutionary world view. Indeed, it can be argued that natural selection will prefer individuals who can survive and proliferate in a variety of situations, i.e. who are capable to adapt and cope. In this sense, the psychological analysis of happiness would lead us back, via the cybernetic concept of adaptation or control, to a higher level form of the evolutionary concept of "fitness" (Heylighen, 1998). Happiness in the sense of a preponderance of positive feelings is then merely the biological signal that everything is OK, i.e. that needs are met, that the organism is fit (Veenhoven, 1996b). Negative feelings, such as pain, hunger, fear or anger, on the other hand, tell the organism that action must be taken because important conditions are not fulfilled.

Further issues

A wholly different problem with the measurement of QOL is whether it should be computed for an individual or for society. QOL for society does not seem to be merely the sum or average of QOL scores for all its members. For example, a society might achieve high QOL for the average citizen but at the expense of a suffering minority of poor people. One might expect that in the longer term the existence of great differences in the distribution of QOL would diminish QOL even for the best off. Indeed, the presence of an increasingly desperate underclass will expose the other citizens to a growing danger of crime, theft, kidnapping, etc. Even if the majority's QOL is not affected by the minority, there seem to be ethical arguments for rejecting a society such as Nazi Germany, where the majority is relatively well-off, while a minority of Jews, communists, homosexuals, etc. undergoes untold suffering. The utilitarian ideal of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" remains ambiguous, and must be further clarified if we wish to define progress for the world as a whole.

A final issue we wish to list here is whether QOL can be negative. In other words, can life be so bad that it is not worth living? This seemingly theoretical question becomes very concrete when we are confronted with the issue of euthanasia. It seems to us that, at least in certain circumstances, patients who suffer great pain should be allowed to die on their request.


Correlates of QOL

Now that we have discussed QOL as a theoretical concept, it is time to look at the concrete factors which either contribute to, or signal changes in, QOL. Such factors can be determined by a statistical analysis of different variables which are correlated with QOL. Correlation does not imply causation. A factor which goes up when QOL goes up, can be a cause of that increase, an effect of that increase, or the effect of a common cause which affects both. These different relations are not mutually exclusive: the same factor can be both a cause and an effect. This is typical for non-linear, feedback relations. However, in any case the correlated factor can be seen as an indicator of QOL. This means that if we see that factor go up, we can expect that in general QOL will go up as well.

 A very extensive analysis of such correlates has been done by the sociologist Ruut Veenhoven (1984, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996a,b) and his coworkers at the University of Rotterdam. They have compiled an extensive World Database of Happiness (Veenhoven, 1994, 1995), which contains the data from hundreds of polls and questionnaires testing for something akin to global QOL. These polls, executed by different institutions in different countries using different methodologies, have been recompiled to a common standard so that the results are as much as possible comparable. Although the wording of these polls can vary, the basic question they all ask is: How satisfied are you with your present situation?

The answers to this question seem comparable to the results of an ACSA test of global QOL, except that there is no explicit reference to the best and worst moments for comparison. As such, the "life satisfaction" questions may be more dependent on cultural biases and comparisons with peers. Although Veenhoven (1991) convincingly argues that his results are largely independent of culture, we note that the USA does score markedly better than France, as we predicted earlier on the basis of cultural difference. Of course, the higher score of Americans may be due to objective factors as well, but it is clear that this issue needs further study before we can be certain to have completely eliminated cultural bias.

The 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 strong (R> 0.6; p < 0.01) positive correlations with most of the factors which we would intuitively consider as "good", though some correlations are more subtle than what one would expect. Let us discuss the most important correlates, grouped by general category.

Physical variables

The most obvious factor correlated with QOL is physical well-being or health. This is the basis for most QOL measures used in medicine to test the usefulness of different treatments. On the world scale, physical QOL is indicated by measures such as life expectancy and child mortality. Indeed, if we assume that normally QOL is positive, then the prolongation of life is by definition an improvement. Life expectation is also an essential component of the biological concept of evolutionary fitness. Some of the components that contribute to high life expectancy are adequate nutrition and quantity and quality of health care. Veenhoven (1996a,b) indeed found that sufficient food, as measured by average caloric intake, is correlated with life satisfaction, when different countries are compared, although the correlation disappears once a sufficient level of nutrition is reached. Like we would expect for a deficiency need, more calories than the necessary level do not translate into more satisfaction or QOL.

A less obvious correlate, which belongs to the effects rather than the causes of QOL increase, is tallness. Indeed, countries where nutrition and health care have over the last decades improved typically witness a growth spurt among the new generation.

Economic variables

Adequate nutrition and health care require a certain level of wealth. At the level of countries this is usually measured by the GNP (Gross National Product) per inhabitant. However, GNP is not really a measure of wealth, but of the amount of money being transacted, in which goods or services are bought or sold. A miser, who has accumulated property but does not spend anything, can be very rich, yet does not contribute to GNP. GNP also depends on changes in the values of currencies, which have little to do with the objective standard of living. Though somewhat more difficult to calculate, "purchasing power" seems to be a better measure. Veenhoven (1996a,b) found that real income per inhabitant is indeed strongly correlated with life satisfaction. Yet, he noted that the correlation diminishes once a certain level of wealth (about the level of Mexico) is reached. It seems that once people have sufficient money, further earnings contribute little to their QOL, indicating that wealth, like nutrition, would measure the satisfaction of a deficiency need. Within rich Western countries, there is practically no difference in QOL between rich and (relatively) poor people. In poor Third World countries, on the other hand, the poor are also the most miserable.

Social variables

People's social position and the organization of the society in which they live also play an important role in their QOL. Veenhoven (1996a,b) noted a clear correlation between, on the one hand, the average happiness in a country, and on the other hand, social equality, which is measured by the two components, equality between sexes, and equality between incomes (distribution of wealth). There is also a positive correlation with the amount spent on social security, but this correlation disappears when the income per capita is held constant.

On the other hand, Veenhoven found clear correlations with personal and economic freedom, freedom of the press and political democracy, although the latter correlation again disappears when income is held constant. Unlike wealth, freedom does not reach a saturation level, where further increases do not increase QOL, implying that it would be a growth need rather than a deficiency need.

 Another set of factors that seem necessary to support a happy society are those determining the general infrastructure of society, the presence of fair and easily enforceable laws, of the physical infrastructure such as roads, railways, and airports, and of an efficient market for the distribution of goods and services.

Security variables

 Peacefulness, security and political stability seem to be important requirements for a society to have high QOL. It seems obvious that the QOL will be lower in countries involved in external or civil wars, or which are at the mercy of crime, terrorism and constant political upheaval. Available data indeed show significantly lower life satisfaction in countries with high murder rates or high accident rates (Veenhoven, 1996a,b). Although we have not found any data on war and peace yet, Veenhoven also found a negative, albeit weak, correlation between "liveability" and the importance of the military in a nation.

Cognitive variables

Perhaps the most important variables contributing to QOL are those which determine the general level of knowledge. Veenhoven (1996a,b) found that the factor of education (as measured by literacy and school enrolment) has the largest positive correlation with QOL when different countries are compared. Media attendance too has a clear correlation. For individuals within one country, though, differences in education do not correlate with life satisfaction. This may be due to the fact that more highly educated people tend have to higher aspirations as well. This may also explain the lack of correlation with intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, within one country.

 A more subtle cognitive factor may be the "collective intelligence" or "social capital" of a society, that is, its capacity for efficiently distributing and co-ordinating effort, with a minimum of conflict and profiteering. This social cognition is implicit in the legal system, the organization of the economy and the unwritten rules which individuals follow in their interactions with others. For example, a society in which no one trusts anyone, and everybody is constantly trying to cheat the others, will have a low collective intelligence. One partial measure of this, a country's level of corruption, has indeed a strong negative correlation with happiness (Veenhoven 1996a).

Personality variables

An individual's general character and outlook on life correlates strongly with happiness. According to Veenhoven's research, life-satisfaction tends to be greater among people with good mental health, social assertiveness and empathy. Not surprisingly, happy people tend to exhibit the major characteristics which Maslow (1970) associated with self-actualization, the highest level of mental health: openness to experience, psychological resilience, and internal control beliefs. Persons with these character traits also tend to be the most lucky ones, in the sense that they have many successes or pleasant experiences. Those who lack these traits, on the other hand, are also those most prone to get in trouble or have different kinds of accidents or problems. Most of these findings boil down to the principle that happy people are those most able to control their environment (Veenhoven, 1996b), confirming our evolutionary interpretation of QOL.

Unrelated variables

Not all the variables that one might associate with QOL produce the correlations that one would expect. Some variables which would seem to indicate lack of QOL, such as unemployment, suicide rate, or distrust in institutions, show in fact little or no correlation (Veenhoven, 1996a). In fact, the correlation between unemployment and QOL, though not very strong, is actually positive! This might be explained by the fact that unemployment is typically a side effect of economic development, where high productivity decreases the need for labor.

Suicide rate and expressed trust in institutions, for which the correlations are practically zero, on the other hand, are typically determined by culture. In some societies it is more acceptable to commit suicide for various reasons (e.g. the well-known Japanese hara-kiri), or to be cynical about the government and institutions (e.g. France or Belgium), without implying that life in those societies is intrinsically less worth living or that their institutions are intrinsically less effective. Trust becomes a more reliable indicator when it shifts from institutions to people in general and in particular to family members. The more intimate the relation, the more the expression of trust will be determined by personal experience rather than by cultural prejudices. Even then, trust in family members has a rather weak positive correlation with QOL. Like absence of corruption, it can be seen as an indicator of collective intelligence or synergy.

Some other non-correlated variables remind us that the dimensions we use to estimate QOL must be carefully selected. The proportion of industrial production in the GNP might seem to indicate industrialization and therefore economic development. However, the importance of industry typically increases when a country develops out of a mostly agricultural stage, and then decreases again when it turns into a service-based economy. The proportion of agricultural production in the GNP is a much better indicator since it continues to decrease even after the country has made the transition to a service economy. Energy production per head of the population is a similar factor, which increases spectacularly during industrialization, but then stagnates when production becomes more efficient and an information economy takes over from an industrial one.

 Finally, there are some variables that are controversial, in the sense that some observers might expect them to correlate positively, while others would expect negative or zero correlations. These include population density, population growth, church participation and religiosity. The data of Veenhoven (1996a) show correlations close to zero for all of them. We can conclude that high QOL can be achieved as well in densely populated countries (e.g. the Netherlands) as in sparsely populated ones (e.g. Australia), and in countries where religion is considered to be very important (e.g. USA) as well as countries where it is relatively unimportant (e.g. Belgium).


Practically all factors that are intuitively seen as measuring improvement, from wealth, safety and health, to education, freedom, equality and honesty, are all strongly correlated with QOL, as measured through life satisfaction questionnaires. Therefore, these factors are also mutually correlated. Even if people would disagree with our choice of quality of life or "happiness" as the fundamental measure of progress, it seems unlikely that they would believe that none of these others factors would in any way indicate improvement either. Which of these factors you choose as fundamental is academic, since they all tend to go up or down together. Therefore, if we can show that most of these factors effectively increase over time, it will be difficult to deny the objective existence of progress, however you define it.

Yet, the fact that not all intuitive "improvement" variables are correlated with QOL shows that the results of this analysis are non-trivial. The presence of correlation gives us an objective criterion for deciding which particular variables--e.g. education or religiosity, accident rate or suicide rate, industrial production or media attendance--are good indicators of progress. Selecting only the correlated variables makes it in principle possible to formulate an overall "index of progress". Unlike existing indicators, such as the "Physical Quality of Life Index" (Morris, 1979), the "Human Development Index" (UNDP, 1996), or the "Index of Social Progress" (Estes, 1984), it would be difficult to criticize such an empirically supported index as being either arbitrary or ideologically biased.

We may note that of these existing indicators, the PQLI, which combines life expectancy, child mortality and literacy, and the HDI, which moreover includes GNP per head and schooling, are based on factors which all correlate with QOL. The more detailed ISP, on the other hand, includes a number of factors such as population growth and unemployment, for which we found no correlation with QOL. Therefore, the results of the ISP seem generally less reliable. Although the number of included factors is rather limited, the HDI is at present probably the most reliable indicator of progress. It could be improved by adding some factors that measure e.g. freedom, equality, media attendance and security. This would allow it to more finely distinguish between the developed countries, where the HDI factors are otherwise close to their saturation levels.


Progress in QOL

As yet there have been few longitudinal studies in which the changes in QOL have been directly measured over prolonged intervals. One example is Easterlin's (1974) analysis for the post-war decades in the USA, which found that life-satisfaction remained stable in spite of a doubling in economic welfare. Such longitudinal studies are prone to distortions by the fact that people will increase their aspiration level with improvements in their situation, and thus report a constant level of satisfaction. It would be interesting to do longitudinal studies with a QOL measure which is less sensitive to aspiration level, such as perhaps ACSA.

 The lack of direct observation of QOL evolution can be compensated by the wealth of data for most of the variables correlated with QOL, such as wealth, life expectancy and level of education. Apart from the personality variables, for which it is difficult to get objective data, all these factors have undergone a spectacular increase during the past century in all major regions of the world.

Physical progress

Table 1 shows the increases in life expectancy for the world as a whole, the developed and the less developed countries. It turns out that life expectancy for the world is increasing with over 3 years every 10 years, while in the developed countries it has slowed down to little over 1 year, implying that the poor countries are quickly catching up with the rich ones. Yet, further medical advances and more healthy life styles promise a continuing increase even in the richest countries for the foreseeable future. Life expectancy is probably the most reliable measure of the physical component of QOL, and the one most closely related to the biological concept of fitness. Other physical variables such as the amount of calories available for nutrition per head of the population, or the average tallness of individuals also show a steady increase for practical every country for which there are data available. The most spectacular improvement is perhaps the steep decline in child mortality, which appeared first in the most developed countries, and now has reached even the poorest countries.

Life expectancy  Period  World  Developed regions  Less developed regions 
1950/55  46.1  66.0  40.7 
1970/75  57.9  71.7  54.5 
1980/85  61.4  72.7  58.6 
1990/95  64.7  74.0  62.4 


Table : increase in life-expectancy for the period 1950-1995. Source: United Nations Population Division (1994).


Economic progress

The average increase in wealth for most countries is well-documented. Poverty on the world level has decreased from over 70% in 1960 to 30% at present. Averaged over the different decades, an increase in GNP of 2 to 3% seems normal for the developed countries. This increase is primarily due to an increase in productivity of about the same amount. The underlying increase in productivity is more stable or reliable, as it is less dependent on the "boom and bust" cycles of the economy than GNP, where periods of stagnation or recession are followed by increases of 6% or more.

The increased productivity means that less resources and labour are needed to produce the same amount of goods. Buckminster Fuller (1969) called this on-going trend to do more with less "ephemeralization" (see also Heylighen, 1997). Perhaps the most spectacular illustration of this technological progress is Moore's Law, which states that the speed of microprocessors doubles every 18 months, while the price halves. This improvement results mainly from miniaturization of the components, so that more (processing power) is achieved with less (materials).

Ephemeralization explains the stable or declining prices (corrected for inflation) of physical resources and energy. The decline is particularly evident if the value of a resource is expressed as a percentage of the average income (Simon, 1995). The richer people become, the less they need to spend on basic resources such as food, energy and materials. This refutes the widely accepted pessimistic predictions (Ehrlich, 1976) according to which our resources are near to exhaustion. This was illustrated by a famous 1980 bet (Tierney, 1990) between the economist Julian Simon, who wagered that the price of a $1000 worth of 5 natural resources would decrease, and the ecologist Paul Ehrlich who betted that they would increase. In 1990, ten years later, all five resources chosen by Ehrlich as being near to exhaustion, had effectively become cheaper, providing Simon with a handsome 600$ gain.

No one can deny that resources such as oil, coal, copper or tin are finite, but that does not mean that we will ever suffer from their depletion. Because of technological progress, fuelled by market demand, resources are used ever more efficiently, so that ever smaller and more difficult to reach reserves can be used ever more productively. If any resource would come near to exhaustion, which is unlikely, given the enormous reserves, it could still be either recuperated through recycling (e.g. rare metals) or substituted by other resources (e.g. energy from oil can be replaced by solar or nuclear energy, both of which are in practice inexhaustible).

Social progress

For the social variables, somewhat less clear statistics are available, although Estes (1984) has developed a comprehensive International Index of Social Progress which includes such diverse variables as number of years since first unemployment law, violations of civic liberties and female primary school enrolment as per cent of males. Over the longer term, there does seem to be an increase in equality between the sexes (world-wide) and in equality in income (although this trend presently seems to be reversed in the developed countries). With the collapse of the communist block and the gradual disappearance of right wing dictatorships (Spain, Portugal, Philippines, Latin America, etc.), the last decades have witnessed a quite spectacular increase in democracy and general freedom of expression.


Progress in security

Clear figures are available about the number of people killed in accidents and through homicide. Data for the USA and a number of European countries show a steady decrease in the number of lethal accidents, with the present rate less than half the rate at the beginning of the century (Holen, 1995). This happened in spite of the fact that automobile traffic, which is by far the main cause of lethal accidents, has increased spectacularly. Although the absolute number of traffic deaths is higher than in the beginning of the century, the number of deaths per mile driven has fallen to a fraction of what it was, and even the absolute number is now starting to decline. For deaths caused by homicide, which are just a fraction of the accidental deaths, there is also a long term tendency toward decrease, although the last few decades have seen a slight increase for the USA, which seems to have turned back to a decrease just recently (Chesnais, 1995).

The relation between general socio-economic development and the number of people killed in war seems to be non-monotonous: as Peeters (1979) argues, economic development first increases the risks of large scale war, as more money and more lethal technologies become available for building up military power, but then decreases as a higher level of social and cognitive development makes the public understand how much there is to be lost and how little to be gained by waging war (cf. Bernheim, 1998). This pattern is clearly recognizable in Europe, which went through 2 world wars in the first half of the 20th century, and remained virtually war-free during the second half. We would therefore expect that the risk of war would become quite small once a country has reached a development level comparable to mid-century Europe. Many Third World countries haven't reached that level yet and as such provide increased risks for military conflicts (Peeters, 1979). Yet, the control exerted by supranational institutions and alliances, which are dominated by the most developed countries, makes it increasingly unlikely that such conflicts would escalate into large-scale war.

Although we haven't found precise figures as yet, we would therefore hypothesize that the number of people killed in wars as a percentage of world population would show a tendency towards decrease over the last few decades. Although recent wars such as the Gulf War or the war in Bosnia have received a lot of publicity, the number of deaths are relatively small compared to wars such as Vietnam or the 2nd World War. The end of the cold war has made it very unlikely that we will witness anything like a 3rd World War.


Cognitive progress

For the cognitive variables, there are plenty of data that show a strong and consistent improvement. Illiteracy has virtually disappeared in the developed world, and is quickly receding in the developing countries. In practically every country of the world, the average time spent in school has been constantly increasing over the past century. Both the percentage of people enrolled in school and the number of years people stay in school are continuously increasing (Simon & Boggs, 1995). Never have so many people known so much about so many subjects (Bernheim, 1998). With the increasing importance of permanent education, there does not seem to be a limit to this growth in the amount of education received. At the same time, the explosive spread of communication media, from telephones to newspapers, and TV to computer networks, has made access to information much easier. This is also reflected in the growing number of books and journals that are published and read everywhere in the world.

Cognitive progress is not limited to a mere accumulation of data, though. Even intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, has been undergoing a constant increase during the last century of about 3 points per decade, for the 20 or so countries for which data are available. This surprising observation has been called "the Flynn effect", after the researcher who first noticed it (Flynn, 1987).

Collective intelligence is more difficult to measure and we have not as yet found any data. One possible measure might be Kohlberg's levels of moral development, which determine to what degree people are capable to autonomously make decisions which are for the good of society without relying purely on the fear of punishment or adherence to a rigid set of moral or religious commands.


Psychological progress

According to Maslow's (1970) theory of self-actualization, increased satisfaction of basic needs should lead to improvement in mental health. This should show itself in decrease of neuroticism, more openness to experience, empathy, self-confidence, and belief in one's capability to change things for the better. It seems likely that such an increase in the average mental health of the population would have occurred during this century, but we have as yet found no data to test this conjecture. On the other hand, one might expect that increasing stress due to the accelerating pace of life (see further) has had a negative effect, especially during the last two decades.

Purely on the basis of intuition it seems to us that people are more open-minded, autonomous and self-confident than a century ago (cf. Bernheim, 1998). The general attitude towards life seems more relaxed and spontaneous. Rigid control of behavior and emotions was probably necessary in difficult living conditions. Now that many physical and social constraints have relaxed, this has created room for acceptance and expression of different feelings, emotions and desires, such as sexual pleasure (cf. Bernheim 1998). This has reduced psychopathogenic repressions and increased the capacity to enjoy pleasant feelings. As a result, some mental disorders, such as hysteria, seem to have almost disappeared. As we will discuss later, other disorders, such as anxiety and depression, however, seem to have become more common.


Practically every factor that correlates with QOL and for which data are available shows a consistent, on-going improvement over the last century. None of the QOL correlates shows a consistent deterioration. Unless we would have overlooked essential components of QOL--which seems unlikely--this proves the objective existence of progress over at least the past century. Table 1 summarizes the different variables and their evolution.
type  Variable  Correlation with QOL  Increase over time  Progress 
global  QOL  ++  +?  +? 
physical  infant mortality  - -  ++ 
life expectancy  ++  ++  ++ 
tallness  +?  ++  ++? 
security  accidental death rate  - -  - -  ++ 
murder rate 
war deaths  - - ?  - ?  +?? 
economic  purchasing power  ++  ++  ++ 
economic freedom  +?  +? 
productivity  +?  ++  ++? 
resource availability  +?  +? 
social  freedom  ++  +?  +? 
equality  +?  +? 
corruption  - -  - ?  + ? 
infrastructure  +?  +?  +? 
cognitive  education level  ++  ++  ++ 
literacy  ++  ++  ++ 
IQ  +?  ++  ++? 
access to information  ++  ++ 
collective intelligence  +?  +?  +? 
psychological  openness to experience  +?  +? 
internal control 
mental health  +?  +? 
Table 2: Dimensions of progress.

The marks in the last three columns specify the correlation between the given variable and the column header. "+" means positive , "-" means negative correlation. A double mark, "++" or "- -", means that the relation is especially strong or significant. No mark means that the relation is not yet clear. The "?" sign notes that the relation is conjectured but that we have no hard data to confirm it yet. Positive correlation with QOL implies that a factor measures happiness. Positive correlation with time means that the factor increases. If both columns have the same sign (a happiness factor that increases or an unhappiness factor that decreases), the factor indicates the presence of progress.

This general development may be exemplified by the probability of accidental death (Holen, 1995). This factor is both strongly correlated with QOL, and consistently decreasing. Unlike other trends, such as perhaps the increase in wealth, equality or freedom, nobody would deny that decrease in accident rates constitutes an objective improvement. Yet, there is not any single, obvious cause for this decline. It is rather a combined effect of a multitude of small improvements in the most diverse domains, from seat belts in cars to better fire detection, higher awareness of objective risks, more stringent regulations for dangerous work, and more responsible behavior by better educated citizens. The only thing these diverse developments have in common is that they decrease the probability of serious misfortune, and thereby improve the control people have over their fate.


Negative Trends: real and apparent

Given the overwhelmingly positive trends which we reviewed, it seems difficult to understand why the idea of progress has fallen into disrepute and why there is so much pessimism among contemporary commentators and the public at large. Several causes can be discerned. First, we are definitely not yet living in the best of possible worlds. Many things are still much worse than we would like them to be, and some things are effectively deteriorating. Because progress has raised our standards and expectations, we tend to pay attention to problems which used to be ignored or considered normal in earlier periods, such as poverty, pollution or child abuse. This is a healthy attitude. The problem, however, is that there exists an inherent bias which exaggerates all the negative developments while minimizing the positive ones. We will first discuss that general bias and then examine some real and apparent problems which contribute to the negative feelings.

Good news is no news

Why cannot society fully enjoy its undeniable successes? One reason is that failures and catastrophes simply receive much more attention. Most of the time, things go the way they are expected to go, because that is what expectations are based on. In spite of the rhetoric about the relativity of progress, the normal expectation is that things either remain the same or slowly improve. A situation will only attract attention if it deviates from this default expectation, i.e. if it either deteriorates or improves spectacularly. Negative developments are usually the result of a sudden, unexpected disturbance: an error, an accident, a conflict, or a natural disaster. Such situations require quick action, and therefore the immediate and full attention of the people involved. Arousal, stress and emotion are the genetically programmed reactions to such unexpected deviations. Psychological experiments have shown that such stressful experiences remain much longer in memory than less emotionally loaded events.

 Positive developments, on the other hand, are usually the accumulated effect of the sustained efforts of many people. They merely require further continuation of the activities, without much emotion. Bursts of excitement are more likely to harm than to help. Therefore, they are less likely to be noticed and remembered. From the point of view of survival, not noticing a positive trend carries little risk. Not paying attention to an imminent danger, on the other hand, can be fatal.

Sudden breakthroughs are very rare. In general, when a scientific discovery is announced in the media, the only thing sudden about it is the decision of the researchers to contact the press. The "discovery" is normally a process of collecting, integrating and consolidating ideas and data that has taken years. Similarly, breakthroughs in negotiations are usually the result of months of sustained bargaining and discussion. Disasters killing hundreds of people, on the other hand, may be caused by a single earthquake, fire or terrorist attack. It are such negative events that are most likely to catch the attention and to be remembered in the long term. Because most bad news is acute, and good news chronic, people get the false impression that the situation is deteriorating.

 This effect is strongly amplified by the media. Something is deemed newsworthy only if it is likely to grab the attention of many people. This excludes most of the slow, predictable processes of improvement, while favoring events like murders, wars, famines, kidnappings, etc. Marshall MacLuhan expressed this as "good news is no news". This news bias is very real. Simon (1990) reports a personal experience where data about the catastrophic loss of farmland in the USA made the headlines. When Simon investigated the situation, he found that the statistics were simply wrong. He even managed to make the authorities admit that they had made a mistake. Yet, no newspaper seemed interested in publishing the corrected statement that farmland was actually increasing.

 The larger the deviation from the normal situation, the more newsworthy it is. By definition, large deviations are unlikely. However, since the present media have a global reach, the total amount of reported events from which they can select the most spectacular ones is extremely large. Because of technological and cognitive advances, this amount continues to grow. Given a growing amount of information about all possible events, a stable proportion of negative events, and a stable tendency to select only the negative events, the overall amount of bad news is bound to grow. We should not be surprised then that pessimistic mood and reach of the media have increased together.

Fiction, which is not constrained by the journalist's requirement that a story should be based on facts, further reinforces this effect. The occurrence of killings, crime and war in movies, novels and TV series is immensely greater than its actual occurrence in the outside world. This leaves the public with a strongly distorted view of the true situation. Interviews have shown that people who watch TV consistently overestimate the frequency of murder and other spectacular crimes.

The motivational aspect of bad news

Even when the news is good, the media bias will function to emphasize the most negative aspects. For example, a newspaper report discussing government data about increasing life expectancy will generally highlight those categories (e.g. poor regions or minorities) where life expectancy is worst, comparing their situation with the best possible situation, rather than with the situation as it was a generation ago. Thus, the attention of the public is always drawn toward shortcomings. The reason given for this emphasis is that it motivates the public to do something about those deficiencies. Insofar that this is true, this is to be applauded. However, the negativistic atmosphere seems to have gotten so strong that people often react with fatalism: why should I do the effort to improve things if the world is going down the drain anyway? This is the opposite of the desired effect.

The underlying mechanism may be illustrated by the following example. A number of city governments, confronted with rising crime, a growing feeling of insecurity, and a general sense of deterioration in inner cities and disadvantaged neighbourhoods, seem to have found an effective strategy to combat this downward spiral. They noted that the feelings of insecurity increased more quickly than the objective risks of becoming a crime victim. When they questioned the inhabitants, it became clear that their fears were fed more by superficial signs of carelessness, such as graffiti, vandalism, littering, and youths behaving aggressively, than by personal experience as crime victims. The resulting atmosphere of deterioration gave people the impression that the urban environment was going down the drain, and that they could do nothing about it. Some inhabitants would leave the neighbourhood. Others would become fatalistic, no longer doing the effort to clean up litter, or warn the police when witnessing crimes. This reinforced the downward spiral, creating an atmosphere of anarchy in which disadvantaged youths would become increasingly desperate in their search for a decent way of life, and increasingly bold in defying the law.

Instead of spending all their resources on tackling the really harsh problems, such as drug trafficking, murder or organized gangs, the most successful attempts to reverse this downward spiral have focused on combating the more conspicuous signs of deterioration, such as littering, other misdemeanours and petty crime. This has been called the policy of "zero tolerance". Paradoxically, when these superficial problems got under control, the more serious crimes appeared to diminish as well. For example, after many years of seemingly unstoppable increase, the murder rate in New York City has spectacularly decreased during the last few years. The reason seems to be that the inhabitants have regained a feeling of control over their neighbourhood, and thereby the motivation to work for the further improvement of their situation.

 Similarly, it seems likely that the all too common feeling of hopelessness among young people, which is at the root of drug abuse, vandalism and suicide, is at least in part due to the barrage of bad news and the repeated warnings of impending doom in the media and the public at large. Instead of motivating people to do something about it, exaggerated emphasis on negative trends seems to have just the opposite effect. A more positive (and, as we argue, more realistic) portrayal of the situation is likely to harness enthusiasm for further improvement. Well-meaning activists and journalists seem to forget that the best way to motivate people is still a combination of the carrot and the stick: on the one hand you must show them the dire consequences if they do not act, on the other hand you must show them how large the rewards will be if they do act. This latter, positive, approach seems to be neglected, contributing to an overall atmosphere of gloom and doom.

Environmental conditions

Perhaps the most important cause for worry, fuelling most of the prophecies of doom, is the perceived deterioration of the environment. It cannot be denied that the natural world is affected by developments such as ozone depletion, acid rain, deforestations, species extinction and the greenhouse effect. Since most of these development are side effects of economic growth, many people tend to think that material progress necessarily goes together with ecological deterioration, so that we can no longer speak about global progress. Although some of the present ecological problems are very real, we must make several qualifications to this pessimistic evaluation.

 First, although industrial pollution negatively affects our health, these effects are much smaller than the positive effects brought about by medical advances and a higher standard of living. The on-going increase in life expectancy is an incontrovertible proof of this assertion. The fear for different chemical products released in the environment by human activities is often out of proportion to the objective risks. It has been estimated that the elimination of all cancer deaths due to pollutants, additives and nuclear materials would increase life expectancy by a mere 90 days (Stock, 1993). This is negligible compared to the gains of over 25 years made since the beginning of the twentieth century. One reason for the exaggerated fear is that people tend to overestimate the dangers of artificial poisons with respect to natural poisons (Ames, 1995). The fact that something is natural does not mean that it is safe. After all, in the struggle for life, plants had to develop a variety of toxins in order to ward off being eaten. The more effective the toxin, the better the chances of survival for the plant. Artificial toxins, on the other hand, have in general not been selected for their toxicity: it is merely a side effect of their other properties.

 Second, although pollution on the world scale is still increasing, there is a clear trend towards decrease in the developed countries. Statistics for air and water pollution in major cities and regions in Europe and North America show a consistent improvement over the last decades (Simon, 1995). The London smog, which was a notorious killer in the beginning of the 20th century, has all but disappeared. At the same time, the Thames river is full of fish again. As economy and technology advance, more money and better techniques become available for minimizing pollution. As the general quality of life increases, people are less willing to undergo the effects of pollution, and more motivated to enjoy a pleasant, natural environment. This leads to more stringent laws on emission of pollutants, and to more encompassing recycling schemes. There is no reason why the same development would not take place in the poorer countries once they reach a higher level of development.

 Third, the problems of global change, although serious, should be considered in the right perspective. The tackling of ozone depletion is an unexpected success story, where the scientific discovery of the destructive effects of CFCs on ozone was followed shortly by the observation of a growing "ozone hole" in the atmosphere, and by an international treaty for the phasing out of CFC production. The release of CFCs has been significantly reduced since, and is supposed to stop completely in the next two decades. The ozone hole is predicted to reach its maximum size a few years from now, and start diminishing from then on. Its effect on health in the form of increased frequency of skin cancer, is likely to be much smaller than the effect of increased sun bathing or use of UV tanning lamps.

 The tackling of global warming by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases is much less forceful, though. International agreements have as yet hardly managed to slow down the increasing production of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. However, the dangers of global warming need to be put into perspective. Recent scientific developments have made it clear that the temperature of the Earth has undergone many large fluctuations during the past thousands of years, and has at times been both significantly colder (the Ice Ages) and significantly warmer than it is now (Stock, 1993). The hypothesized increase of the average temperature with 1 to 3 degrees Celsius by the end of next century would therefore not be unprecedented. Moreover, there is reason to believe that life and civilisation were in fact thriving better during the warm periods (Moore, 1998), as higher temperatures and rainfall increased crop yields. Though global warming would create a number of problems, its overall effect may be positive rather than negative. If there are "losers" and "winners", then international solidarity can be organized to help the losers. Moreover, there are still plenty of alternative methods to tackle the increase in carbon dioxide, from "seeding" the oceans with minerals to boost the growth of algae, to the management of forests so that they absorb a larger amount of carbon-dioxide (Moffat, 1997). In any case there are still so many uncertainties concerning its intensity, effects, or possible ways to avoid it, that concern and further research are in order, but pessimism seems inappropriate.

 Perhaps the most serious environmental problem is the fast reduction in tropical rain forests, and the concurring loss of biodiversity. Although such losses seem largely irreversible, some qualifications are needed. First, loss of tropical forests is to some degree compensated by increase in temperate forests (Simon, 1995). As countries in the tropical regions get more economically developed, and curtail their demographic expansion, it is likely that they too will start to invest more in forest management, while reducing their need for farmland by increasing agricultural productivity. Second, the history of life shows that here too the Earth has witnessed very large fluctuations, both in forest cover and in species diversity (Stock, 1993). There have been periods where over 96% of known species have been extinguished, yet life always managed to recover. With the growing number of natural reserves and increased protection of wildlife it is unlikely that we will ever come near to such drastic levels of extinction.

Finally, the problem of the population explosion (Ehrlich, 1976) has lost much of its urgency. Since it came to the fore in the 1960's, population growth on the world level has systematically decreased. In the developed countries, population growth is practically zero, in the developing countries it is rapidly decreasing. The world population is expected to stabilize at about the double of the present level by the year 2100. The accompanying increase in population density only causes major problems in very poor, agricultural countries, such as Rwanda or Bangla Desh, where more land would be needed to feed the population. In Rwanda, for instance, contrary to elsewhere the Malthusian apocalyptic predictions have been verified by the 1994 genocide, which literally decimated the population. The introduction of vaccines and antibiotics broke the balance between high fertility and high mortality, leading to extreme overpopulation. In these circumstances, political conflict degenerated into wholesale massacre.

 On the other hand, countries such as the Netherlands, Singapore and Japan show how a high population density can very well go together with high economic and social development levels. As we saw, overall QOL is independent of either population density or population growth. Moreover, Simon (1996) argues that in the long run population growth accelerates economic development, as more people are capable to solve more problems, while temporary scarcity because of increased demand promotes innovation. Since productivity increases in general more quickly than population, population growth should not lead to the exhaustion of resources or farmland. However, it is clear that for the densely populated agricultural countries mentioned before, population control remains a high priority.

The pace of life

The most difficult problem of all may be the ever accelerating speed of change in our present society. Whether things evolve in a positive or in a negative way, change itself constitutes a problem. Scientific, technological, cultural and social innovation are taking place at such a breath-taking pace that no one can really keep up with them. Yesterday's revolutionary new product, has become common-place today, and will be outdated tomorrow. People constantly need to revise their skills in order to adapt to the changing circumstances. The problems of unemployment and growing disparity between richer and poorer classes in most Western nations are largely due to the fact that not everybody can cope as well with this need for constant re-education. As traditional agricultural and industrial jobs are disappearing, employees need to adapt to the intellectually much more demanding jobs of the information society. Many lack the necessary educational background. Even the intellectually most advanced groups, the researchers, educators, managers and technologists, often feel overwhelmed by the changes in their domain.

It is intuitively obvious that too much change will put a strain on people and organizations. The futurologist Alvin Toffler (1970) has made a detailed study of the acceleration of change and its psychological effects. He suggested that it would lead to a set of severe physical and mental disturbances, which he called the "future shock" syndrome. Just like people exposed to war or disaster may develop a nervous breakdown ("shell-shock"), people exposed to the rapid changes of modern life may develop a state of helplessness and inadequacy, where they simply cannot cope with new developments anymore.

 Researchers have indeed found a positive correlation between change and physical illness. The "Life Change Scale" is a psychological tool which measures the amount of change experienced by a person over a given time interval (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). The "Life Change" questionnaire asks people to mark on a list which important changes they recently underwent: move to a new home, a new job, marriage, divorce, birth of a child, death of a family member, travel, promotion, etc. The total score for a person is calculated as the sum of all changes that the person experienced, multiplied by their relative weights. Using this scale, it was shown that individuals with high life change scores are significantly more likely to fall ill. More surprisingly, it turned out that illness correlates with all changes, positive (like marriage or promotion) as well as negative (like divorce or job loss).

 Rapid change affects not only our physical but our mental state. The emotional reaction associated with change is first of all arousal. This a priori neutral state may develop either into a positive feeling, as when novelty elicits curiosity, excitement and wonder, or into a negative one, as when lack of understanding triggers confusion, tenseness and fear. However, the longer such arousal is sustained, the more likely it is that interest will wear off and fatigue will set in. If a person does not manage to find an adequate response to the novel stimuli, he or she will experience loss of control and distress.

The instinctive reaction of an animal to stressful situations falls into three main categories: fight, flight or fright. The same inherited reactions seem to underlie our negative emotions. The "fight" reaction is associated with anger and aggression. "Flight" corresponds to fear and anxiety. "Fright" is the reaction of an animal that freezes or "plays dead" in the face of danger. The corresponding human emotions seem to be apathy, depression and despair, which are all characterized by utter helplessness. Aggression is a short term reaction, which cannot be sustained very long. Anxiety and fear, however, can be constantly present. Fear is directed at a specific, frightening target, whereas anxiety is a generalized expectation that bad things may happen. This seems the most likely response to the continuing experience of unpredictable and uncontrollable change. Apathy and depression are more likely to be the outcome of a long process of failed attempts to control the stressful situation.

 Not only individuals but society as a whole is likely to undergo these negative effects of too rapid change. The three basic attitudes are easily recognized in current patterns of social behavior. Aggression directed at no one in particular seems to underlie phenomena like vandalism and hooliganism. Individuals running amok and shooting dozens of innocent bystanders may suffer from a more extreme version of this condition. Helplessness and despair can be recognized in the increasingly common "burn-out" syndrome, and in the ever so frequent depressions. Drug addiction may be another one of its symptoms.

But perhaps the most common neurosis in present society is anxiety. This is illustrated by the record use of anxiolytic drugs, like Valium or Temesta, which are used to suppress the typical anxiety symptoms, such as sleeplessness, worrying, irritability, tension and stomach upsets. Anxiety also shows in the many irrational fears and scares, where far-away threats trigger disproportionate reactions. For example, the 1991 Gulf War should have worried only the countries neighbouring Iraq and Kuwait. Yet, the world, and the USA in particular, for several months recorded a spectacular drop in air traffic: people became afraid to travel anywhere. In Belgium, a continent away from the Gulf, people started hoarding basic food stuffs, like sugar, coffee and flour. It is clear that this underlying current of anxiety is often brought out and magnified by the media's bad news bias.

 On the socio-economic level, anxiety is apparent in the growing feeling of insecurity. As we noted earlier, fear of aggression tends to increase more quickly than the actual crime rates. Even when economic conditions are good, governments lament the absence of the "feel-good factor". Uncertainty makes people save money for later rather than invest it now. The "consumer confidence" needed to boost sales remains elusive. A main cause seems to be the continuing threat of job loss. Although households in the Western countries have a much higher average income than twenty years ago, the turmoil in the labor market makes future earnings very unpredictable.

The acceleration of change is accompanied by an increase in the information needed to keep up with all these developments. This too leads to psychological, physical and social problems. The psychologist David Lewis, who analysed the findings of a survey (Reuters, 1996) according to which two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension--and one third from ill-health--because of information overload, called the resulting symptoms "Information Fatigue Syndrome". This merely adds to the stress caused by the need to constantly adapt to a changing situation.

 In conclusion, it seems that the biggest problem facing present-day society is not that there is too little progress, but rather too much of it. Our mind, physiology nor social structures are fit to cope with such a great amount of change. Unfortunately, change, complexity and information overload are very abstract and fuzzily defined phenomena, which are difficult to grasp. Therefore, few people have as yet understood that they are at the root of the anxiety they feel. When trying to explain their vague feelings of dissatisfaction, they will rather look for easily recognizable causes, such as unemployment, pollution, crime, corruption, immigration, etc. These phenomena, which have become much more visible because of the attention they get from the media, play the role of scapegoats: they are blamed for the lack of QOL which people experience, while being only tangentially related to it. This reinforces the atmosphere of gloom and doom.

Because progress feeds back on it self, as we will discuss in the next section, there is no slowdown in sight. We should rather expect a further acceleration of social and technological change, which will be limited only by our capacities to cope. It is obvious that this evolution threatens to seriously reduce our QOL.

In the longer term, we can hope that a new kind of equilibrium will be reached, characterized by a wholly different type of social organization. The corresponding higher level of functioning has been described by metaphors such as the information society or the "global brain" (Stock, 1993; Russell, 1995). In the meantime, we can only try to better manage change, controlling as much as possible its negative side-effects. One obvious counteraction mould consist in consciously postponing innovations until their usefulness has been fully proven and their implementation has stabilized (cf. Toffler, 1970). Such a policy seems particularly in order for the domain of information technologies, where market pressure has forced the producers to bring out new versions of their hardware, software or communication protocols every few months. This leaves insufficient time for the producers to duly test and streamline their product and for the consumers to gather the necessary experience to use those products efficiently. The result is increasing stress among both producers and consumers. Another counteraction is to support permanent education, so as to avoid the formation of an underclass of "information poor", while maintaining a decent level of social security, so as to minimize people's fear that they too might drop out. A third one is to investigate and develop technologies to more intelligently process and filter the available information, so that only the most relevant and clearest data would need to be taken into account.


Mechanisms of Progress

Natural selection

Now that we have argued that progress is a general characteristic of global change, we should look into the question why there is progress rather than regress. First, in spite of recent criticisms (Gould, 1996), it can be argued that the process of evolution is inherently progressive. We understand evolution here in the most general sense, as the process which generates novel designs, whether these concern biological organisms, physical systems, technical inventions, social organizations, or simply ideas. Evolution proceeds by the variation of a given design and the selection of the most fit variants.

"Fitness" refers to the probability that a given design will survive and be (re)produced (Heylighen, 1998). Fit variants by definition will become more numerous, while unfit variants will disappear. Therefore, the average fitness of a population of designs can only increase or remain the same, but never decrease. (Applied to biological systems, this is a paraphrase of Fisher's (1930) fundamental theorem of natural selection.) If we assume that there always exist fitter designs, then variation will sooner or latter generate such a design, and therefore average fitness will continue to increase. Formulated in this way, the principle of natural selection (the "survival of the fittest") is a tautology, an undeniable, logical truth. The only matter for debate is whether "fitter" also means "better". If we consider that survival and growth are intrinsically good, and death or extinction intrinsically bad, then we must conclude that "fit" is also "good", since it is a direct measure of survival rates. We have argued earlier that what we called "quality of life" can be seen as an extension of the originally biological concept of fitness to our present human situation. Thus, the continuing increase of fitness implies continuing improvement and therefore progress.

 Such a natural selection of the more fit alternatives takes places not only in nature, but at all levels of society: good ideas are retained and publicized, while bad ones are forgotten; competent people get promoted and become role models, while incompetent people remain in low level jobs, or get a better education; successful firms and organizations expand and are imitated, while unsuccessful ones disappear from the scene; prosperous nations attract immigrants and influence world policy, while poor, unhappy ones lose people through emigration, and are held up as examples of how not to organize society.

 It might be objected that fitness is a relative notion: what is fit in one type of environment may no longer be fit in another environment (cf. Gould, 1996). Thus, the inexorable increase of fitness only holds in unchanging environments (which seem wholly atypical if one takes into account that different systems evolve together, and thus change each other's environment). For example, the evolution from hairless elephant to woolly mammoth is due merely to a cooling down of the climate. If the climate becomes warmer again the woolly variant will lose its fitness relative to the hairless one, and the trend will be reversed.

 Yet, there are ways in which fitness increases in an absolute sense. Environments are always to some degree variable. Therefore, it is to the benefit of an evolving system to be adapted to a wide range of situations or environments. The larger the range, the more likely that the system will survive all actual perturbations of its normal situation, and therefore the fitter it will be. This type of fitness promotes generalism rather than specialism. It is characterized by increased control over the environment, that is, increased competence for the organism to satisfy its needs in spite of perturbations or limiting factors. This may be illustrated through the climate change example: although the warm-blooded, woolly mammoth is only relatively fitter than its hairless cousin, it is absolutely fitter than a cold-blooded reptile, which would never have been able to adapt to a cold climate, with or without hair. Indeed, warm-bloodedness means temperature control, i.e. the capacity to internally compensate a variety of fluctuations in outside temperature.

It is in this sense of increasing control over one's life that the progress in QOL which we discussed in this paper can be seen as a direct extension of the increase in fitness that characterizes evolution as a whole (cf. Heylighen, 1992). Economic progress can similarly be seen as an increasing control of society over the products and services that it needs (Heylighen, 1997). Although natural selection helps to increase control, once a minimal level of control has been reached, progress can take place in a more efficient way.

The growth of knowledge

Progress through natural selection tends to be very slow and inefficient. Although natural selection in a sense guarantees that negative developments won't last, because they will eventually be eliminated, this elimination is usually accompanied by great suffering and loss of resources. The survival of the fittest usually implies the death of the unfit. For example, it could be argued that Soviet-style communism was an intrinsically unfit system, and that it had to collapse sooner or later, to be replaced by the more fit Western-style democracies. However, it would have been more efficient, resulting in much faster progress, if that replacement would have taken place at an earlier stage.

 Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution has developed a number of shortcuts for the tortuous process of blind variation and natural selection. It is knowledge in its diverse forms which allows us to anticipate to some extent what will happen. This allows us to avoid blind alleys, without first needing to explore them. Campbell (1974) has conceptualized knowledge as a "vicarious selector". Knowledge selects the most adequate actions from the variety of potential actions, in the same way that natural selection selects by destroying inadequately behaving systems. The difference is that knowledge does not destroy actual systems, it only eliminates potentialities. Knowledge substitutes for the environment, allowing us to make selections before the environment is able to destroy the system. Thus blindness is substituted by some degree of foresight, allowing intelligent, informed choices.

Yet, knowledge is in principle always incomplete (Heylighen, 1992b). No theory is able to make perfectly accurate predictions in all domains. Therefore, there always remains an element of blindness or unpredictability, so that well-intended actions can result in dangerous, unforeseen consequences. Examples abound of wonder cures with fatal side effects, household chemicals that cause cancer, social housing projects that engender vandalism and crime, or political utopias that can only survive through harsh repression.

 Our difficulty to anticipate effects (feedforward) is to some degree compensated by our capability to correct mistakes after the fact (feedback). The moment you observe that things start to go the wrong way, you can take counteraction to compensate the deviation. For example, if you notice that too many people study medicine, while there are not enough engineers, you can take measures to make engineering more attractive, and medicine less attractive. It is not necessary to know the cause of the decline in popularity of engineering. In many cases, simple reactions based on a minimum of knowledge are sufficient to correct the problem. Feedforward and feedback together determine the classic cybernetic paradigm of control. Even with deficient knowledge, progress can be made towards the chosen goals, and disturbances can be compensated, whatever their origin.

Still, feedback control requires at least an awareness of the problem, that is, the observation that the real situation deviates from the ideal or desired situation. In totalitarian regimes, where feedback from the population to the authorities is minimal, that awareness is often absent. In such cases, the process will eventually have to fall back to natural selection: a system that is incapable to solve the problems that threaten its survival will eventually disintegrate and be replaced by a system that can cope better. This is what happened to Soviet totalitarianism. Moreover, feedback requires the knowledge of at least one way to counteract the perturbation. This knowledge may lack for the subtle and complex side effects of seemingly innocuous activities, such as the fertility problems in animals and people caused by the production of certain hormone-like substances during industrial processes. If the fertility-reducing effects of artificial hormones would not have been discovered, there would have been a natural selection of those populations which produced a minimum of these hormones. This would eventually have resulted in the reduction of the problem, even in the absence of any awareness of its causes or possible remedies.


Virtuous cycles

Although the quick expansion of knowledge to some degree explains why progress is much more visible now than it was a few centuries ago, the spectacular acceleration of social and economic development requires some further explanation. We have discussed the different components of progress, such as wealth, education, health, security, etc., as if they were independent. They obviously are not. Each of them contributes to the overall QOL or fitness of humanity. This means that progress in one domain will make society more competent to push for progress in another domain, by removing stresses or by increasing resources and tools. Progress in the latter domain will similarly boost progress in the former domain, thus creating a virtuous cycle of progress producing more progress. A few examples will clarify this general principle.

 The growth of knowledge obviously benefits all other domains: it creates economic growth through technological developments, improves health through education and medical advances, decreases the probability of war or accidents by better informing people about risks and opportunities, leads to more democracy by making people more aware of the issues and more capable to express their opinions, etc. In turn, the growth of wealth will benefit all other domains, including the domain of knowledge: it makes more resources available for education, research, medical interventions, improved security, increased freedom because of reduced dependency on income, etc. We can go on with health: more healthy people will be more productive in general, whether it is in the material, the intellectual or the social domain. Similarly, people who feel more secure will invest more resources and energy in developing themselves or the economy.

The same positive feedback or mutual reinforcement can be observed within each of the major domains. The best example is scientific progress where advances in one domain (say, particle physics) often unexpectedly boost research in another domain (say, computer networks), which can then again help forward the former domain. Similarly, higher productivity in one economic sector will usually lead to higher investment in another sector, thus improving productivity there as well. In conclusion, progress feeds on progress, thus continuously promoting its own development.


Summary and Conclusion

The cultural relativism promoted by post-modern thinkers would imply that the 18th century concept of progress has become meaningless. At the same time, the emphasis by the media on social and environmental problems and catastrophes has fostered an atmosphere of gloom and doom. This paper set out to show that both the relativist and the pessimist positions are inadequate. This means that we had to: 1) define progress in a universally acceptable, culture-independent manner; 2) show that progress defined in this way effectively occurs. We have attempted to update the concept of progress by replacing the materialistic and reductionistic assumptions underlying the philosophy of the Enlightenment by a more evolutionary, holistic and cognitivistic framework.

The resulting holistic concept of progress had to be operationalized, so as to make it empirically testable. Our definition of progress as increase in global quality of life led us to study the different indicators of quality of life. The extensive data from the "World Database of Happiness" allowed us to determine which social, economical and psychological variables have a significant correlation with QOL. The results confirm the values that most people intuitively hold: health, wealth, security, knowledge, freedom and equality all seem to contribute to our feelings of well-being. We then checked in how far each of these factors has increased for the world population as a whole. Representative data for roughly the last half century seem to indicate that all these factors have indeed progressed. This makes a very strong case for the objective existence of progress.

 Yet, it can always be argued that, however extensive the list of indicators that we have considered, it lacks some crucial factors. If these crucial factors would show deterioration, then our thesis of global progress could again be questioned. Because our conception of QOL is holistic, we can of course never discuss all possible factors that contribute to it. Therefore, we have focused on those factors that are most often associated with pessimistic prognoses: pollution, global change, population growth, speed of innovation, and information overload. We concluded that they pose real problems, which need to be tackled. Yet, we also noted that the effects of these problems on QOL are probably less severe than they are usually portrayed and that there exist effective methods to tackle them. Although the environmental situation is still deteriorating on the world level, the first signs of improvement are unmistakably there. The problems of too rapid change and information fatigue are more subtle, though, and have as yet hardly been addressed. Although their long-term effects are perhaps not as menacing, they threaten to seriously reduce global QOL, while slowing down progress in other domains. They are probably at the root of our present society's wide-spread anxiety.

Unfortunately, the resulting tendency to worry is amplified by a needless media bias towards bad news. It seems to us that much of the resulting pessimism and despair could be avoided by a more realistic--and therefore more positive--portrayal of the global situation. We hope that the present essay will contribute to the creation of such a more hopeful and optimist outlook, which may produce the enthusiasm and energy needed to tackle the remaining problems. In particular, we hope that our universalist vision of progress may provide an essential building block for a new world view. Such a progressive world view would replace the mechanistic picture, in which we are separate, atomized individuals governed by deterministic laws, with the notion that we are active and creative participants in a global evolution towards the greater good for the greater number.

 As a first step towards the establishment of such a world view, we had to explain on theoretical grounds our observation that evolution is progressive. Natural selection on its own is already sufficient to explain why positive developments survive and develop, while negative ones are eliminated. However, to explain the unprecedented speed and efficiency of progress during the last centuries we had to invoke some additional mechanisms. The growth of knowledge allows us to ever more efficiently anticipate and control the results of our actions. The resulting acceleration in development is further boosted by the virtuous cycles, where progress in one domain facilitates progress in other domains. Still, the fact that evolution remains intrinsically unpredictable means that we must remain on our guard for expected and unexpected problems. The best guarantee for continuing success is an open mind and a pragmatic attitude, unrestricted by dogmas or prejudices.


Francis Heylighen has been supported during these investigations by the Fund for Scientific Research -Flanders (NFWO) as a Senior Research Associate.



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