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Introducing Our Upcoming Book, Heroes of Progress

Blog Post | Science & Education

Introducing Our Upcoming Book, Heroes of Progress

Over the past two centuries, humanity has become massively more prosperous, better educated, healthier, and more peaceful.

The underlying cause of this progress is innovation. Human innovation―whether it be new ideas, inventions, or systems―is the primary way people create wealth and escape poverty.

Our upcoming book, Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World, explores the lives of the most important innovators who have ever lived, from agronomists who saved billions from starvation and intellectuals who changed public policy for the better, to businesspeople whose innovations helped millions rise from poverty.

If it weren’t for the heroes profiled in this book, we’d all be far poorer, sicker, hungrier, and less free―if we were fortunate enough to be alive at all.

Considering their impact on humanity, perhaps it’s time to learn their story?

Heroes of Progress book advertised on Amazon for pre-order

Heroes of Progress Book Forum

On March 21st, the author of Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond, will present the book live at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. He will be joined by Marian Tupy, the editor of Human Progress, and Clay Routledge, the Archbridge Institute’s Vice President of Research, who will speak on the individual’s role in advancing human progress and the need for a cultural progress movement.

Learn more about the event here.

Praise for Heroes of Progress

Making an inspiring case for progress at this time of skepticism and historical ingratitude is no easy feat. Yet, by relentlessly outlining the extraordinary ability of individuals to shape our world for the better, Alexander Hammond does just that.

Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Innovation is a team sport achieved by people working together, using precious freedoms to change the world, so it’s sometimes invidious to single out one person for credit. But once an idea is ripe for plucking, the right person at the right time can seize it and save a million lives or open a million possibilities. Each of these 65 people did that, and their stories are both thrilling and beautiful.

Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom

The figures in this book are the overlooked and often unknown figures who have transformed the lives of ordinary people, for the better… This book is a correction to widespread pessimism and is both informative and inspirational.

Dr. Stephen Davies, author of The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity

Superman and the Avengers are all very well, of course, but the real superheroes are thinkers, scientists, and innovators of flesh and blood who saved us from a life that used to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Alexander Hammond tells their inspiring stories in this magnificent book that will leave you grateful to be living in the world these men and women created.

— Johan Norberg, author of Open: The Story of Human Progress

The 65 innovators honored here made us happier, healthier, and longer-lived. Indeed, it is thanks to some of them that we are here at all. Their story is the story of how the human race acquired powers once attributed to gods and sorcerers―the story of how we overcame hunger, disease, ignorance, and squalor. I defy anyone to read this book and not feel better afterwards.

Lord Daniel Hannan, president of the Institute for Free Trade

The 65 fascinating stories in Heroes of Progress are
testaments to the ingenuity of humankind in delivering a richer,
healthier, and hopefully freer world. Alexander C. R. Hammond
provides an inspirational reminder that when individuals are
free to speak, think, innovate, and engage in open markets, the
heroic potential of humanity knows no bounds.

Lord Syed Kamall, Professor of politics and international relations, St. Mary’s University

In Heroes of Progress, Alexander Hammond reminds us that human minds are the fundamental driver of every discovery, invention, and innovation that has improved our lives. By telling the stories of pioneering men and women who have advanced civilization, this book not only honors past heroes of progress, but also provides inspiration for the next generation to use their uniquely human imaginative and enterprising capacities to build a better future.

— Clay Routledge, Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute

Blog Post | Human Development

What Is Progress? (Or, Progress Towards What?)

How we define ultimate progress depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

Summary: The definition of progress varies from worldview to worldview. While material progress, social progress, and human progress are interconnected, the notion of progress isn’t universally agreed upon and often hinges on differing standards of value. However, there are are key throughlines that unify different reasonable notions of progress more than is initially obvious.

In one sense, the concept of progress is simple, straightforward, and uncontroversial. In another sense, it contains an entire worldview.

The most basic meaning of “progress” is simply advancement along a path, or more generally from one state to another that is considered more advanced by some standard. (In this sense, progress can be good, neutral, or even bad—e.g., the progress of a disease.) The question is always: advancement along what path, in what direction, by what standard?

Types of Progress

“Scientific progress,” “technological progress,” and “economic progress” are relatively straightforward. They are hard to measure, they are multi-dimensional, and we might argue about specific examples—but in general, scientific progress consists of more knowledge, better theories and explanations, a deeper understanding of the universe; technological progress consists of more inventions that work better (more powerfully or reliably or efficiently) and enable us to do more things; economic progress consists of more production, infrastructure, and wealth.

Together, we can call these “material progress”: improvements in our ability to comprehend and to command the material world. Combined with more intangible advances in the level of social organization—institutions, corporations, bureaucracy—these constitute “progress in capabilities”: that is, our ability to do whatever it is we decide on.

True Progress

But this form of progress is not an end in itself. True progress is advancement toward the good, toward ultimate values—call this “ultimate progress,” or “progress in outcomes.” Defining this depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

To a humanist, ultimate progress means progress in human well-being: “human progress.” Not everyone agrees on what constitutes well-being, but it certainly includes health, happiness, and life satisfaction. In my opinion, human well-being is not purely material, and not purely hedonic: it also includes “spiritual” values such as knowledge, beauty, love, adventure, and purpose.

The humanist also sees other kinds of progress contributing to human well-being: “moral progress,” such as the decline of violence, the elimination of slavery, and the spread of equal rights for all races and sexes; and more broadly “social progress,” such as the evolution from monarchy to representative democracy, or the spread of education and especially literacy.

Others have different standards. Biologist David Graber called himself a “biocentrist,” by which he meant

… those of us who value wildness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. … We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. … Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet.

By this standard, virtually all human activity is antithetical to progress: Graber called humans “a cancer… a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”

Or for another example, one Lutheran stated that his “primary measure of the goodness of a society is the population share which is a baptized Christian and regularly attending church.”

The idea of progress isn’t completely incompatible with some flavors of environmentalism or of religion (and there are both Christians and environmentalists in the progress movement!) but these examples show that it is possible to focus on a non-human standard, such as God or Nature, to the point where human health and happiness become irrelevant or even diametrically opposed to “progress.”

Unqualified progress

What are we talking about when we refer to “progress” unqualified, as in “the progress of mankind” or “the roots of progress”?

“Progress” in this sense is the concept of material progress, social progress, and human progress as a unified whole. It is based on the premise that progress in capabilities really does on the whole lead to progress in outcomes. This doesn’t mean that all aspects of progress move in lockstep—they don’t. It means that all aspects of progress support each other and over the long term depend on each other; they are intertwined and ultimately inseparable.

Consider, for instance, how Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen defined the term in their article calling for “progress studies”:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.

David Deutsch, in The Beginning of Infinity, is even more explicit, saying that progress includes “improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.”

Skepticism of this idea of progress is sometimes expressed as: “progress towards what?” The undertone of this question is: “in your focus on material progress, you have lost sight of social and/or human progress.” On the premise that different forms of progress are diverging and even coming into opposition, this is an urgent challenge; on the premise that progress is a unified whole, it is a valuable intellectual question but not a major dilemma.

Historical Progress

“Progress” is also an interpretation of history according to which all these forms of progress have, by and large, been happening.

In this sense, the study of “progress” is the intersection of axiology and history: given a standard of value, are things getting better?

In Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the bulk of the chapters are devoted to documenting this history. Many of the charts in that book were sourced from Our World in Data, which also emphasizes the historical reality of progress.

So-Called “Progress”

Not everyone agrees with this concept of progress. It depends on an Enlightenment worldview that includes confidence in reason and science, and a humanist morality.

One argument against the idea of progress claims that material progress has not actually led to human well-being. Perhaps the benefits of progress are outweighed by the costs and risks: health hazards, technological unemployment, environmental damage, existential threats, etc. Some downplay or deny the benefits themselves, arguing that material progress doesn’t increase happiness (owing to the hedonic treadmill), that it doesn’t satisfy our spiritual values, or that it degrades our moral character. Rousseau famously asserted that “the progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our true happiness” and that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection.”

Others, as mentioned above, argue for a different standard of value altogether, such as nature or God. (Often these arguments contain some equivocation between whether these things are good in themselves, or whether we should value them because they are good for human well-being over the long term.)

When people start to conclude that progress is not in fact good, they talk about this as no longer “believing in progress.” Historian Carl Becker, writing in the shadow of World War I, said that “the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited,” and asked: “May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?” In 1991, Christopher Lasch asked:

How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?

Those who dispute the idea of progress often avoid the term, or quarantine it in scare quotes: so-called “progress.” When Jeremy Caradonna questioned the concept in The Atlantic, the headline was: “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” One of the first court rulings on environmental protection law, in 1971, said that such law represented “the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material ‘progress.’” Or consider this from Guns, Germs, and Steel:

… I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.

The idea of progress is inherently an idea that progress, overall, is good. If “progress” is destructive, if it does not in fact improve human well-being, then it hardly deserves the name.

Contrast this with the concept of growth. “Growth,” writ large, refers to an increase in the population, the economy, and the scale of human organization and activity. It is not inherently good: everyone agrees that it is happening, but some are against it; some even define themselves by being against it (the “degrowth” movement). No one is against progress, they are only against “progress”: that is, they either believe in it, or deny it.

The most important question in the philosophy of progress, then, is whether the idea of progress is valid—whether “progress” is real.

“Progress” in the 19th Century

Before the World Wars, there was an idea of progress that went even beyond what I have defined above, and which contained at least two major errors.

One error was the idea that progress is inevitable. Becker, in the essay quoted above, said that according to “the doctrine of progress,”

the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. … At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves … will ever set it right.

(Emphasis added.)

The other was the idea that moral progress was so closely connected to material progress that they would always move together. Condorcet believed that prosperity would “naturally dispose men to humanity, to benevolence and to justice,” and that “nature has connected, by a chain which cannot be broken, truth, happiness, and virtue.”

The 20th century, with the outbreak of world war and the rise of totalitarianism, proved these ideas disastrously wrong.

“Progress” in the 21st Century and Beyond

To move forward, we need a wiser, more mature idea of progress.

Progress is not automatic or inevitable. It depends on choice and effort. It is up to us.

Progress is not automatically good. It must be steered. Progress always creates new problems, and they don’t get solved automatically. Solving them requires active focus and effort, and this is a part of progress, too.

Material progress does not automatically lead to moral progress. Technology within an evil social system can do more harm than good. We must commit to improving morality and society along with science, technology, and industry.

With these lessons well learned, we can rescue the idea of progress and carry it forward into the 21st century and beyond.

This article was published at The Roots of Progress on 3/9/2024.

Axios | Labor & Employment

Average Worker Now Logs off at 4 p.m. On Fridays

“Quitting time has been shifting earlier throughout the week, and it’s especially early on Friday, according to an analysis of sign-off times from some 75,000 workers at 816 companies by the workplace analytics firm ActivTrak.

Friday sign-off times have moved up from around 5 p.m. at the start of 2021 to around 4 p.m. now. Monday-Thursday sign-offs have also shifted earlier, to around 5 p.m. on average.”

From Axios.


Thailand Moves to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

“Thailand has taken a historic step closer to marriage equality after the lower house passed a bill giving legal recognition to same-sex marriage.

It still needs approval from the Senate and royal endorsement to become law.

But it is widely expected to happen by the end of 2024, making Thailand the only South East Asian country to recognise same-sex unions.”

From BBC.