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Human Progress: Not Inevitable, Uneven, and Indisputable

October 30, 2013 in Economics

By Marian L. Tupy

Marian L. Tupy

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary defines progress as “advancement to a further or higher stage, or to further or higher stages successively; growth; development, usually to a better state or condition; improvement… applied especially to manifestations of social and economic change or reform.”

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with bad news, it can sometimes be difficult to think of “progress” and “humanity” in the same sentence. Are there not wars taking place, people going hungry, children at work, women being abused, and mass poverty around the world?

In fact, for most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. People lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were commonplace. Transportation was primitive and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind.

We haven’t achieved utopia, but a new website documents the enormous progress humanity has made, especially over the last two centuries.”

Average global life expectancy at birth hovered around 30 years from the Upper Paleolithic to 1900. Even in the richest countries, like those of Western Europe, life expectancy at the start of the 20th century rarely exceeded 50 years. Incomes were quite stagnant, too. At the beginning of the Christian era, annual incomes per person around the world ranged from $1,073 to $1,431. As late as 1820, average global income was only $1,274 per person. (Angus Maddison, whose income estimates I use here, gives his data in 1990 dollars. I have adjusted Maddison’s figures for inflation.)

Humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries. For example, average life expectancy in the world today is 67.9 years. In 2010, global per capita income stood at $13,037—over 10 times what it was two centuries ago.

It is not only income and life expectancy that are improving. Harvard’s Steven Pinker has documented a propitious decline in physical violence. He writes,

Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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