In Universally Preferable Behavior: a Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, Stefan Molyneux makes an interesting claim about progress:
If we look at the technological and economic progress of mankind, we see more or less a flat line for countless millennia, followed by massive and asymptotic spikes over the past few hundred years. It is inconceivable that some widespread genetic mutation could account for this sudden and enormous acceleration of intellectual consistency and material success. Theories claiming that a certain “snowball effect” came into existence, mysteriously propelled by an accumulation of all the little increments of knowledge that had occurred since the dawn of civilization, can usually be dismissed out of hand as entirely ex post facto explanations, since they have no predictive value.
I’m not sure what Stefan means by “asymptotic”. The lumpy curve of progress is a typical real world data set that a statistician would take one look at and fit an exponential curve to. The exponential curve has a long tail that is “more or less flat”, which then accelerates to infinity. This is exactly a snowball effect. Our population has also been increasing exponentially, a fact that has enormous predictive value. The only thing that can’t be predicted is what happens when the curve shoots off toward infinity. In a closed system, the curve will reach some peak before falling back to zero. Will there be a technological singularity, as posited by Ray Kurzwell, or will we exhaust our resources and crash back into the stone age, possibly becoming extinct in the process?
From here, Stefan draws the following conclusion:
Thus there must be a downward force that has historically acted to crush and enslave the natural liberty of mankind: superstition in the form of religion, and violence in the form of the aristocracy, threatened rational thinkers with intimidation, imprisonment, torture, and murder. Just as a farmer profits from the low intelligence of his cows, and a slave-owner profits from the fear of his slaves, priests and kings retained their privileges by threatening with death anyone who dared to think.
While I agree that the Christian dark ages were in most ways a huge step backward from Hellenic civilization of the early first millennium, saying that religion and violence were consistently dampening forces is like saying that if it weren’t for the dinosaurs, mammals (including humans) would certainly have evolved hundreds of millions of years sooner. And who are we to say that the first human to try to explain lightning wasn’t the first scientist? That long ago ancestor came up with a theory, something no animal before him had ever done. Perhaps it’s merely the rate at which we disprove false theories that has increased.
I see rational thought as the evolutionary product of civilization. Scarcity and the violence it led to drove the need to more clearly understand the world. As our ability to feed more people grew, so did our population, keeping the evolutionary pressure fairly constant. Human evolution has moved from genetic selection to ideological selection. Those who remain locked into a fundamentalist ideology that is two thousand years old won’t be able to compete with those whose world view more closely matches reality. The great struggle ahead of us is to resist those who have evolved, but would throw the baby (ethical behavior) out with the bathwater of dogma, primitive beliefs, and tribalism.