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Centers of Progress, Pt. 31: Göbekli Tepe (Religion)

Blog Post | Urbanization

Centers of Progress, Pt. 31: Göbekli Tepe (Religion)

The site’s megalithic structures and intricate carvings symbolize the power of religious devotion.

Today marks the thirty-first installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org called Centers of Progress. Where does progress happen? The story of civilization is in many ways the story of the city. It is the city that has helped to create and define the modern world. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of urban centers that were the sites of pivotal advances in culture, economics, politics, technology, etc.

Our thirty-first Center of Progress is Göbekli Tepe, the site containing the oldest known monumental structures and perhaps the earliest archeological evidence of religious practice. While there is much disagreement on the origins of religion, many scholars describe Göbekli Tepe as the world’s first man-made temple, sanctuary, or holy place. Göbekli Tepe serves as a reminder of humanity’s capacity to create impressive structures as well as the long history of systems of faith and their profound influence on the world.

Göbekli Tepe lies in the southeast of what is today Turkey, about 30 miles from the border with Syria. Today, only a small portion of the prehistoric site of worship has been excavated, and much of it likely remains buried underground. Göbekli Tepe consists of large, ringed enclosures measuring as wide as 65 feet across, as well as rectangular pillar arrangements that may have once supported roofs. Each ring is made up of over 40 T-shaped stone pillars, some as tall as 18 feet. Another 250 or so pillars may remain buried. Some of the uncovered pillars are blank, but many feature detailed totem-like carvings depicting people, abstract symbols, and a wide variety of animals such as foxes, lions, bulls, scorpions, snakes, wild boars, birds, spiders, and insects. Some carvings appear to be part human and part animal and may represent deities. The pillars are the oldest known megaliths, predating the better-known Stonehenge by millennia.

Boardwalks now encircle the main excavation site, allowing tourists to view the pillars from different angles. And a roof has been constructed over the stones to protect the carvings and archeologists from the sweltering sun. In July, the average temperature in the area is over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. While the climate is only classified as semi-desert, rain almost never falls during the summer.

But if you could visit Göbekli Tepe in its heyday, you would encounter a very different world. The climate was wetter, and the surrounding environment was a vast grassland filled with wild goats and gazelles. Looking out over the endless fields, you would see tall grasses, such as einkorn, wheat, and barley, rippling in the wind. Rivers and waterfowl may have been visible as well. Your view of the surrounding plateaus would be excellent, as Göbekli Tepe stands on top of a hill. The name Göbekli Tepe, in fact, means “potbelly hill” in Turkish.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the currently exposed structures of Göbekli Tepe were built over centuries, with some parts perhaps dating to 9500 BC and others constructed as recently as 8000 BC or even 7000 BC. It was a time of significant change. Communities like the ancient Natufians of Neolithic-era Jericho, located 500 miles southwest of Göbekli Tepe, were making the momentous transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to permanent settlement and agriculture. The people who built Göbekli Tepe were still mainly hunter-gatherers, but they also likely farmed in villages for at least part of the year. Archeological evidence shows that their diets consisted largely of meat but were supplemented by cereals that they probably farmed.

Erecting and carving humanity’s earliest monuments was a painstaking undertaking that required a multigenerational investment of time, labor, and craftsmanship. It likely involved hundreds of men. The people who built Göbekli Tepe did not yet have pottery or metal tools, nor the help of domesticated animals or wheeled vehicles. Flint tools would have been sufficient to carve the pillars, made of relatively soft limestone.

There is no proof that anyone ever lived at Göbekli Tepe, although some scholars believe it was nonetheless a settlement. There is much debate about whether the site offered sufficient access to water to sustain residents, and a lack of trash pit remnants suggests that people did not sleep at the site. Perhaps only a single person (such as a priest or shaman) or a small number of people resided there, leaving no archeological footprint that has yet been discovered. But even though Göbekli Tepe’s builders may have camped elsewhere, the site was certainly alive with activity. It may have been the closest thing to an urban center that the nomadic hunter-gatherers knew.

Turning away from the magnificent grasslands toward the imposing structures of Göbekli Tepe, one would have been struck by the aroma of freshly roasted wild boar, gazelle, red deer, and duck and witnessed the local hunter-gatherers commencing a festival amid their monuments. Researchers believe the hunter-gatherers congregated at the site to dance, celebrate, drink beer made from fermented grains, and dine together. In addition to food preparation tools, archeologists have so far uncovered some 650 carved stone platters and vessels at the site, some large enough to hold over 50 gallons of liquid. Over 100,000 bone fragments from wild game animals also suggest feasting. Such ritual feasts may have originated sometime between 8,000 BC and 6,000 BC, when the transition to agriculture linked the relative scarcity or abundance of food to certain seasons of the year. Among the festivities held at Göbekli Tepe may have been “work feasts” held throughout the site’s multigenerational construction to celebrate the completion of different sections of the temple.

From the Passover seders of Judaism to the Eid al-Fitr (nicknamed “Sugar Feast”) sweets of Islam, and from the Christmas dinners of Christianity to the staple deserts of Hinduism’s Diwali, religious feasts continue to hold great importance to communities across the world.

Much remains unknown about the nature of Göbekli Tepe and the religion that may have inspired its establishment. Prominent vulture carvings at the site have led some scholars to conclude that the religion was a “funerary cult” centered on venerating the dead. However, no human remains have been uncovered to suggest that Göbekli Tepe was ever a cemetery. Others think that the site was linked to astronomy and that its carvings reference constellations and comets. Some believe that Göbekli Tepe was a temple to the brightest star in Earth’s night sky, Sirius, because the central pillars may have framed the star as it rose. However, the main archeological team excavating the site rejects claims of an astronomical link.

Some scholars also think Göbekli Tepe may have been a holy site attracting hunter-gatherer visitors from across the Levant and as far away as Africa. Knowledge of the site would have traveled by word of mouth since writing did not exist yet. According to the journalist Charles Mann,

Göbekli Tepe may have been the destination for a religious pilgrimage, a monument for spiritual travelers to be awed by a religious experience—like the travel now made by pilgrims to the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya (where Buddha was enlightened), or Cahokia (the enormous Native American complex near St. Louis).

Objects found at the site support this theory. Researchers have traced certain obsidian artifacts to volcanoes hundreds of miles away, and other tools found among the ruins exhibit carving styles suggesting far-flung origins such as the eastern Mediterranean. However, these objects could have also come to Göbekli Tepe via trade between different hunter-gatherer bands. Göbekli Tepe represented “a very cosmopolitan area … almost the nodal point of the Near East,” claims the historian Tristan Carter. “In theory, you could have people with different languages, very different cultures, coming together.”

At some point, the Neolithic people decided to bury Göbekli Tepe. Maybe their religion changed, and the site lost its relevance to them, or maybe the burial was itself a ritual tied to their particular spiritual beliefs. The site’s remarkable level of preservation is credited to the way in which it was buried. The hunter-gatherers then built another layer of stone pillars on top of the buried temple.

Religious faiths continue to provide a sense of meaning, structure, and inner peace to many people today—about 93 percent of people globally, to be precise. While the negative effects of violent strains of religious extremism are undeniable and religious conflict has caused much suffering, faith has also uplifted humanity in many ways.

In fact, religious inspiration is a common factor among several of the Centers of Progress. Some scholars think the religion of the ancient Indus Valley civilization may have been based around cleanliness, helping incentivize Mohenjo-Daro’s achievements in sanitation. In Baghdad, during that city’s Golden Age, the then-prevailing interpretation of Islam helped motivate scientific inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge. In Renaissance-era Florence, faith inspired many leading artists, and the Catholic Church funded groundbreaking artistic projects. During the Scottish Enlightenment that birthed modern social science, the dominant moderate branch of the Presbyterian Church embraced cutting-edge thinkers in Edinburgh. And later, prominent Anglican clergymen supported London’s trailblazing quest to end the global slave trade. In each of these cases, religion encouraged some manner of positive innovation.

That is not to downplay the harms that can arise from highly illiberal forms of religion. Examples include the restrictive interpretation of Islam that ultimately contributed to unraveling Baghdad’s status as a center of learning or the extremist Christian movement led by the radical friar Savonarola that sought to destroy Florence’s artworks.

Happily, liberty-minded thinkers can be found among the adherents of all major religions today. See, for example, the scholarship of Mustafa Akyol on the Muslim case for liberty, the writings of Stephanie Slade on the Catholic case for liberty, and the work of Aaron Ross Powell on the Buddhist case for liberty. Their writings illustrate how faith can champion the freedom needed to discover and create remarkable things.

Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, the site containing the oldest known monumental structures and perhaps the earliest archeological evidence of religious practice.

While we may never learn why Göbekli Tepe was built, the site’s megalithic structures and intricate carvings arguably symbolize the power of religious devotion. The sophistication and artistic achievement embodied by this creation of a largely pre-agricultural society are astounding. If the site indeed served as a gathering place where prehistoric people worshiped now long-forgotten deities together, then it stands as a testament to the many ways in which humanity has sought to understand our place in the universe and express reverence. The mysterious, gigantic Stone Age site is worthy of being our thirty-first Center of Progress.

Wall Street Journal | Economic Freedom

Australia to Abolish Nearly 500 So-Called Nuisance Tariffs

“The Australian government has announced it will abolish close to 500 ‘nuisance’ tariffs from July 1, reducing the cost of importing everything from toothbrushes to roller coasters and bumper cars.

Described by the center-left Labor government as the biggest unilateral tariff reform in at least two decades, removing the tariffs will cost the budget $19.9 million (30 million Australian dollars) in lost revenue annually, but help to streamline $5.6 billion (A$8.5 billion) in annual trade.”

From Wall Street Journal.

Blog Post | Progress Studies

Turgot and an Early Theory of Progress

Turgot, a French statesman, economist, and early advocate of economic liberalism, was one of the first to ponder how we achieve moral and material progress.

Summary: Progress, though central to modern life, was rarely thought about until the last two centuries. During the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Anne Robert Jacques Turgot connected freedom with progress, emphasizing the unique human capacity for cumulative knowledge. Turgot’s ideas laid some of the groundwork for modern liberalism and economic theory, influencing thinkers and policies long after his time.

Progress through the Ages

Though progress is an essential ingredient of modern life, it is an ideal that has only been acknowledged, discussed, and debated extensively in the last two hundred years. At first, it might seem odd to say large swathes of people did not always think deeply about progress. But this view ignores that the vast majority of our distant ancestors used the same tools in their daily lives that their ancestors, from hundreds of years in the past, had used in their time.

Broadly speaking, the Greeks and Romans viewed civilization like any other living organism; it grows then dies like all living things. The expected historical norm was the cyclical rising and falling of civilizations. Though some, such as the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius, theorized briefly about progress, this was an idiosyncratic line of inquiry at the time. Medieval thinkers viewed their age as a dark period in the shadow of an illustrious past. The word “progress” was alien to the human lexicon for thousands of years.

But this changed dramatically with the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement characterized, in part, by a new confidence in the power of reason to catalog, observe, and experiment upon our natural environment. An advocate for Enlightenment ideals and ambassador for liberalism in its early days, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, was among the earliest to examine the dynamics of progress. Importantly for classical liberals and libertarians alike, Turgot was the first to establish the connection between freedom and progress. Turgot believed without freedom, human progress would revert to cycles of development and decline.

Turgot’s Life, Education, and Career

Turgot was born in Paris to a distinguished Norman family that had long served the French monarchy as royal officials. Turgot’s father was Michel Michel-​Étienne, a Councillor of the Parliament of Paris and one of the senior administrators in the city of Paris. His mother, Dame Madeleine-​Françoise Martineau, was a renowned intellectual and aristocrat.

Turgot, as the youngest son in his family, was expected to join the church, the usual career path for a younger son in 18th-​century Europe. He began studying at the Sorbonne in 1749, but after a year, he decided he could not become a priest because he refused to conceal his beliefs that were at variance with the teachings of the church. Turgot was suited to being a student; he studied voraciously, reading history, literature, philosophy, and the natural sciences, interests he would maintain until his death.

Sorbonne Lectures: Early Ideas on Progress

While studying at the Sorbonne, Turgot made his intellectual gifts known and was elected by his fellow students to the position of Prieur. This mostly honorary position called for an occasional speech to be delivered publicly. The content of these speeches was inspired by Turgot’s interaction with Bishop Bossuet and his idea of “universal history.” Turgot’s innovation was to give a secularized account of humanity’s universal history. Turgot, like the ancients, accepted that all things live and then die. However, he maintained that humans have a unique capacity for language and memory, allowing them to pass down knowledge that accumulates incrementally over the centuries, leading to ever-​increasing stores of knowledge for the whole of humanity. Though this may seem like a simple idea today, for the time, it was revolutionary, and these speeches established Turgot at a young age as France’s foremost thinker on progress.

One of his speeches now survives as an essay entitled “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind.” It is debatable whether Turgot is the first person to theorize about progress, but we can say with certainty that Turgot is best known for identifying the relationship between freedom and progress.

Turgot’s “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind”

Unlike his inspiration, Bishop Bossuet, Turgot articulated a secular account of progress. Turgot does not entirely exile God from the discussion, but he relegates God to being a prime mover rather than a prime intervener in human affairs. For Turgot, progress does not come from divine providence but is a uniquely human phenomenon.

Turgot defined stages of civilizational development, beginning with hunting, then pastoral, and finally agricultural. Two years prior, in 1748, in The Spirit of the LawsMontesquieu had done the same. However, Montesquieu used these stages to illustrate how topography and climate influence human activity. Turgot’s stages are not separated by varying climates but by human developmental differences. Turgot argued human activity and civilization are influenced not only by climate and topography but also by degrees of social development, progress is not a mere descriptive conclusion; in Robert Nisbet’s words, “it is a method, a logic, of inquiry.”

Where Does Progress Come From?

For Turgot, the natural world is an unending cyclical succession of death and life —whereas human civilization shows signs not of constant decay but rather ever more vitality. Humans are unique creatures because of their capacity for language, writing, and memory. Because of these capacities, the knowledge of particular individuals becomes “a common treasure-​house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age.”

All humans have the same potential for progress. However, nature distributes our talents unevenly. Our talents are made practical by a long chain of circumstances. Turgot wrote, “Circumstances either develop these talents or allow them to become buried in obscurity.” But from this infinite variety of circumstances, progress slowly develops unequally at first, but its benefits spread to the whole human species over time.

Humans’ collective capacity for memory means that even amidst war, famine, and disaster, they can preserve and continuously improve their knowledge of the world. Writing prophetically before the economic miracle of liberalism, Turgot says, “Amid all the ignorance, progress is imperceptibly taking place and preparing for the brilliant achievements of later centuries; beneath this soil the feeble roots of a far-​off harvest are already developing.”

Progress Requires Experimentation

Unlike many of his philosophical contemporaries, Turgot greatly admired artisans and mechanics, people who worked with their hands to create new machines. Unlike Rene Descartes, Turgot did not believe the greatness of his century came from a superior set of ideals, attributing it instead to new inventions. Ultimately, Turgot believed we were indebted to artisans rather than philosophers for much of the comforts in our daily lives.

Behind all science lies experimentation. Turgot understood he could not give a complete account of how progress would unfold because a large part of it was down to chance and unique circumstances. He wrote, “Any art cultivated over a period of centuries is bound to fall into the hands of some inventive genius.” Turgot elaborates, “Chances lead to a host of discoveries, and chances multiply with time. A child’s play can reveal the telescope, improve optics, and extend the boundaries of the universe in great and little ways.” This might seem like fanciful thinking, but when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, it was due to a simple mistake that yielded a crucial element of modern medicine, while Edison had to experiment over 1000 times before creating an effective light bulb which thereafter illuminated the entire world. There is no set path for progress to take. That is why we must leave people the maximum freedom to experiment and try new ideas to maximize future progress.

Obstacles to Progress

Turgot feared the main impediments to progress were conventional thinking and concentrated interests that benefited from the status quo. Turgot believed a concentration of power in any area would lead to stagnation and decay in all aspects of life, whether cultural, economic, or political. Inherited ideas, or what John Stuart Mill would later call, “dead dogma,” stop people from appreciating new knowledge. Turgot recommended we follow the facts because, “The greatest genius will not question a theory unless he is driven by facts.”

Turgot’s Laissez Faire Economics

After his time in the Sorbonne, Turgot turned his attention to politics. In 1752, he started climbing the political ladder as a substitut and later a conseiller in the Parliament of Paris. While living in Paris, he frequented salons, gathering places for intellectuals to come together to debate and discuss ideas. While attending, Turgot met the intendant of commerce, Jacques Vincent de Gournay, the man perhaps best known for popularizing the term laissez-​faire economics. In an effort to promote the study of economics, de Gournay gathered a group of young men, including Turgot.

During this time, Turgot became acquainted with physiocrats such as Quesnay, who argued that the state should not regulate commerce to promote economic growth, but leave markets free. Inspired by his mentor de Gournay and his friends like Quesnay, Turgot became one of the foremost advocates of free trade in France, if not the whole of Europe, before the days of Adam Smith.

When de Gournay died in 1759, Turgot wrote a fitting eulogy that summarized de Gournay’s beliefs while expanding Turgot’s own positions on how best to run an economy. The result is a short essay entitled “In Praise of de Gournay,” where Turgot develops his laissez-​faire philosophy.

Establishing the Idea of Economic Liberty

Turgot’s eulogy is the most complete statement of his economic beliefs that survives. Speaking on his mentor’s behalf, Turgot argues that, “The general freedom of buying and selling is therefore the only means of assuring, on the one hand, the seller of a price sufficient to encourage production, and on the other hand, the consumer, of the best merchandise at the lowest price.” Turgot, like de Gournay, believed that if people were left free to make their own decisions, there would not be anarchy like people expected, but instead harmony. Individuals, driven by self-​interest, make their own decisions with the information available to them, and by acting on their own interests, they unwittingly promote the interests of the whole of society.

Many of the regulations governments impose are attempts at stopping fraudulent sales or scams. Turgot wrote that, “To suppose all consumers to be dupes, and all merchants and manufacturers to be cheats, has the effect of authorizing them to be so, and of degrading all the working members of the community.” On top of regulations, the government imposed a long list of different taxes on every kind of labor. Turgot believed a more concise and understandable tax system would help repair France’s then-​failing economy.

Turgot’s thinking on spontaneous order anticipates that of later scholars like F.A. Hayek. Turgot argues that complex systems, such as economies or whole societies, emerge and organize without central planning. The idea of spontaneous order challenges the misconception that only top-​down, state-​run authorities can craft efficient and free societies. Turgot asserts that the doctrine of laissez-​faire “was founded on the complete impossibility of directing, by invariant rules and by continuous inspection a multitude of transactions which by their immensity alone could not be fully known, and which, moreover, are continually dependent on a multitude of ever-​changing circumstances which cannot be managed or even foreseen.” In short, almost 200 years before Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” Turgot was arguing that an individual, group of individuals or even an entire government would never have access to the mountains of information required to “manage” the economy.

Like his mentor, Turgot was for free trade and a government that mostly stayed away from trying to manage the minutiae of the economy. Turgot believed people did not need to be managed; quite the opposite, their productive energies needed to be unleashed upon the world.

Political Career

Though a prominent theoretician on economic and philosophical matters, Turgot was never an academic. Though academically gifted, Turgot wanted more than for his ideas to be discussed in salons; he wanted them to be implemented for the benefit of France. In 1761, Turgot was appointed as the tax collector of Limoges. Turgot eliminated complicated taxes and abolished the despised corvée, a form of unpaid labor demanded in lieu of taxes. Throughout his time in Limoges, Turgot dedicated himself to removing obstacles in the way of the poorest in society earning their daily bread. By 1773, when Turgot left, Limoges was one of France’s more prosperous areas; as a reward for his achievement, he was appointed as Controller General of France by Louis XVI.

With his new position, Turgot had ambitious plans. He aimed to implement several economic reforms, including free trade, reducing the lower classes’ financial burdens, and removing feudal privileges. Turgot’s reforms faced strong opposition from powerful concentrated interest groups among the day’s nobility, clergy, and guilds. Ultimately, Turgot resigned in 1776, never holding a political position again. He spent his final years at his family estate, buried in his studies and correspondence, dying at the age of fifty-​four.

Turgot’s Importance to the History of Liberalism

Though unsuccessful in his reforms, Turgot’s efforts put laissez faire and liberalism on the political map. They were no longer mere theories but practical policies. The writings of Turgot are still valuable because they help remind us of a simple yet fundamental truth: that progress consists not in merely more capital goods but in an ever-​increasing store of cumulative knowledge. His writings also illustrate that progress was a relatively rare phenomenon before the Enlightenment, only experienced in brief glimpses by select pockets of the human population. Despite being a busy and politically engaged figure, Turgot’s ideas nonetheless had a massive impact on the intellectual history of the Western world.

Legacy of Turgot

It is difficult to overstate the impact of Turgot’s ideas and work as a politician. He has garnered many admirers, including the economist Joseph Schumpeter and libertarian thinkers like Murray Rothbard. Turgot’s career in economics was brief but brilliant. Thinkers like Turgot, his mentor Vincent Gournay, and his friend François Quesnay were responsible for France being among the first countries to implement laissez faire economic policy and for integrating liberal ideas into the public consciousness. Without the intellectual and political efforts of people like Turgot, liberalism and economic freedom might have remained obscure ideas relegated to a select group of obscure intellectuals.

A version of this article was published at Libertarianism.org on 11/14/2023.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.



Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce


Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats




Other comebacks



Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation


Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing


Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources



Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development


Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment



Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s


Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases



Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations



    Artificial intelligence



    Construction and manufacturing


    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles


    Other innovations


    AI in science


    Chemistry and materials






      Bloomberg | Cost of Living

      Swiss Remove Tariffs to Ease High Cost of Living

      “Known for its high living costs along with its chocolate and cheese, Switzerland is making a bold move in the era of trade protectionism that should make things a little cheaper: saying goodbye to industrial tariffs.

      Starting in January, 95% of all imports will enjoy duty-free status, promising more affordable goods like cars, household appliances and clothes. That’s up from 81% currently. Tariffs will remain on agricultural products.

      While this move wipes out half of customs revenue in a country that’s home to the World Trade Organization, it’s expected to boost competitiveness and moderate the elevated prices for everyday items.”

      From Bloomberg.