Presentism and the Myth of Progress

Presentism and the Myth of Progress January 30, 2018

Presentism

If you believe our ancient ancestors were idiots, I question your critical thinking skills.

Full of Ourselves

On another Patheos blog last week, a commenter made this rather surprising claim:

There is no “wisdom of the ancients”. Primitive humans, then and now, have no significant knowledge that we lack in our advanced societies. No great secrets have been lost. All our available evidence suggests that the intellectual capacity of humans hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. But we are a cultural species, and that means that as time passes, our knowledge base grows. Ancient humans were not stupid, but they were profoundly ignorant. They had almost no accurate information about how the Universe operates. They had not yet invented complex philosophy, they had not yet invented subtle moral and ethical ideas. Their worldview depended heavily on completely fictional (and largely false) stories that they took as ancient truths.

Surprisingly, I’m the only person who seemed to take issue with such blatant chauvinism. I’ll ignore the bigoted reference to current-day “primitive humans,” but I think it’s ludicrous to denigrate ancient humans as if they were benighted half-chimps. They had a staggeringly sophisticated mindset about natural phenomena as well as the human experience of our strange and precarious universe. They originated art, language, agriculture and astronomy. The main reason we don’t lack for significant knowledge is that they invented it.

The Past as Prologue

Presentism is a very common bias in our day and age. It’s defined as the tendency to interpret the past in terms of present-day values and concerns, but in a more general sense it’s the attitude that all of history has been nothing more than a set of stepping stones to the world as we know it. It portrays humanity as going from a state of greater or lesser folly and ignorance to the understanding and enlightenment we enjoy today.

Historians caution against interpreting the past according to the values and norms of the present. We can’t assume our ancestors had the same way of conceptualizing things like myth and ritual, morality, the self, the common good, and the aims of inquiry; we also can’t simply assume that our thinking is superior simply because it’s the way we think. The American Historical Association says, “Presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation.”

There’s a crude caricature of Darwinism, the March of Progress, that perfectly illustrates the bias of presentism: previous species evolved into humans as if we were the predetermined goal all along. Along with our biological evolution, human culture is said to have evolved (in the sense of progressed) toward the lofty status of modern Western society.

Myths of Progress

Pop science is just riddled with this bias, and disdain for the ignorance of our forebears is common. We don’t object to Christopher Hitchens taking his usual cheap shots at religion here, but we should think twice about the way he characterizes our ancestors as ignorant savages:

One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion…

I don’t want to argue about religion, so don’t go there. What I object to is the idea that nobody before the modern era had any idea what was going on. This is intellectual dishonesty on such a grand scale that it boggles the mind. Evolution buffs should know full well that our Neolithic ancestors were cognitively indistinguishable from modern humans. I’ve already discussed how easy it is for people these days to believe that medieval humans believed the Earth is flat (they didn’t) , so it should come as no surprise that the way we relate to more ancient ancestors is sodden with our biases about progress and superiority.

Though the Stars Walk Backward

Presentism also leads to the sort of pseudohistory that speculates that ancient stone circles and the Pyramids were the work of technologically advanced aliens. How could these primitive humans, the logic goes, have built such impressive architectural wonders?

Historian Giorgio de Santillana, in his comparative mythology Hamlet’s Mill, points out that myths from ancient Mexico, Egypt and India indicate a primitive knowledge of the precession of the equinoxes. The main obstacle in historians acknowledging ancient humanity’s understanding of this astronomical phenomenon, according to de Santillana, wasn’t the interpretation of textual evidence but rather preconceived notions of what ancient humans were capable of understanding. He says:

Our period may some day be called the Darwinian period, just as we talk of the Newtonian period of two centuries ago. The simple idea of evolution, which it is no longer thought necessary to examine, spreads like a tent over all those ages that lead from primitivism into civilization. Gradually, we are told, step by step, men produced the arts and crafts, this and that, until they emerged into the light of history.

To use evolutionary gradualism as a guiding principle of historicism is to ignore mountains (or pyramids) of evidence. Despite what their pop-science poobahs have told them, science fans should realize that human history hasn’t been a gradual and inexorable advancement from superstitious savagery to white Western wisdom.

Do we give our ancestors enough credit for their sophistication, or do we just give ourselves way too much? Does pop science give a biased view of human history and progress?

"You express a concern with accuracy here, so it would be nice if you had ..."

Po-Mo, Post-Truth, and Useful Idiots
"Record the conversation yourself and post it, if he refuses to let it see the ..."

Pro-Life Is About Oppressing Women. That’s ..."
"It’s not like we have evidence that the early Christians decided to pretend myth-Jesus had ..."

No, Conspiracism Has More In Common ..."
"If someone wishes to perpetuate the incorrect concept that the subspecies of Homo Sapiens are ..."

Will Genetic Science End Racism or ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Foxglove

    Recently I was reading the 2nd-century CE author, Aulus Gellius. In one passage he presented a debate between those who believed that drink first passed through the lungs before entering the stomach and those who disputed the idea. This debate puzzled and disappointed me, because the ancients knew quite a bit about the body and the functioning of various organs. You would expect better of them.

    Once you’ve read some ancient history you cease to patronize the ancients. As in present times, there were plenty of very smart people among the crowd of know-nothings. The knowledge we have today is based on all the learning of previous generations.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    Being ignorant does not mean they were stupid.

    But they were ignorant, there is no denying it.

    No doubt, in 1000 years, people will look back at us and call us ignorant, as well. And they will be right.

  • They weren’t ignorant, they just didn’t understand the universe in the exact same way we do. If we judge our ancestors not on how they developed art and agriculture, but on whether they could work a smartphone, then we get the historical perspective we want and deserve.

  • Jennny

    I happen to have lived on the Great Orme in Wales and had a Bronze Age tunnel entrance in my back garden – truly – look up Great Orme Copper Mines, N Wales. And there are Hut Circles and Burial Mounds in the area. As I walk past them on the coastal hills, I am torn between wondering how on earth people could have survived in such primitive conditions, on bleak hillsides, in mud huts, dependent on the sea to fish or there to be rabbits etc to catch…and being amazed at their skills at discovering the properties of metals and smelting them, at having survival skills I know nothing about and never will.
    I saw a TV programme about excavations on a scottish island. Archeologists were trying to work out how huge standing stones got from the quarry into position some distance awy. They got teams of people to pull with ropes, they slid tree trunks under them as rollers but the stones would not budge and they were baffled. Then an elderly islander went by – perhaps this was staged for the cameras – but he said he recalled his grandfather talking about seaweed. The movers went to the shore and collected large amounts…and the stones slid over seaweed-covered ground with ease. We do not know what we do not know!

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    This attitude has always confused me. The humans at the beginning of civilization were just as smart as humans now. The only exception is that their society wasn’t nearly as complex or power-hungry as ours is today. What is true is that we lead better lives than anyone ever did prior to us; the average middle class existence is leagues beyond what any king ever experienced in antiquity, and that’s a direct result of our rise in complexity and power consumption. What’s more, the humans of antiquity were pretty sharp — after all, the idea of atomic theory isn’t a modern invention. The Ancient Greeks did it first, and the Heliocentric model has been around for a long time.

    For those people who think that the humans of antiquity weren’t as intelligent as we are, I’d like to point out that Donald J. Trump is president of the United States. That should end any argument you might have that we’re somehow “smarter”. You can compare Trump to men like Mussolini, or the Brothers Gracchi, or other populist figures throughout history, but Trump will always come up short and it will always be an insult to the men you’re comparing him to. And Americans elected him president; they felt he was fit to serve.

    I mean, hell, Aristotle — Medieval Europe’s favorite thinker — was wrong about a lot of things, but at least he read a fucking book once in a while.

  • What is true is that we lead better lives than anyone ever did prior to us; the average middle class existence is leagues beyond what any king ever experienced in antiquity, and that’s a direct result of our rise in complexity and power consumption.

    I’m not going to claim that access to food, clean water and protection from disease aren’t benefits of modern life. But it behooves us to understand, as you said, the environmental cost of our full tummies. It’s also good to remember that even these benefits are distributed differently depending on socioeconomic and racial status.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    This is actually one of the reasons why I consider myself a technogaian and welcome automation.The big problem with agriculture is as it is today is a labor bottle neck, and automation can help with that. Combine automation with polyculture and suddenly your staple crops — grains mostly — don’t have to be staple anymore. We keep farming grains because they provide the most caloric intake for the work it takes to farm them, but if you have automated farming systems and greenhouses that grow crops primarily in LEDs that emit in the red spectrum, it becomes just as cheap to grow things like melons, strawberries, and the like, and you can do that over smaller areas. Once you do that, you don’t have to worry about turning over huge city-sized hunks of land just to grow grains anymore. Which is a good thing, since when the Ogallala Aquifer dries up and and that megadrought hits the American midwest because we did jackfuck about climate change, we won’t have city-sized hunks of land to devote towards growing grains anymore.

    Of course, automation has problems all its own, and that that whole “not distributed equally” is a real big part of that problem. And if there’s any problem that’s going to destroy our complex civilization, it’s that one.

  • sault

    “If we judge our ancestors not on how they developed art and agriculture,
    but on whether they could work a smartphone, then we get the historical
    perspective we want and deserve.”

    That’s a total strawman argument. Nobody is saying smartphone operational skills (or any technological feats that weren’t even available to ancient humans) are the determining factor in judging someone’s ignorance or lack thereof.

    Our distant ancestors didn’t know they should drink from clean water sources, leading to countless deaths from cholera and other waterborne diseases. Our ancestors didn’t know that witches, warlocks and demons were pure fiction, leading to untold numbers of needless executions, quack medical procedures and pointless suffering. Ignorance has consequences.

    It’s not their fault and many of them were operating on what seemed like (to them) the best, most moral path. Although there were a lot of people guided by fear or simple opportunism that actively fought against the moral, intellectual and cultural development of the human race, usually in the name of god. But the ones that didn’t succumb to fear or opportunism slowly but surely moved things in a positive direction.

    Humans have made progress and life today is objectively better than life even 100 years ago on every objective measure. Those advancements are mostly due to humanity’s progress in discovering how the universe actually works and developing a better common understanding between members of our species. Progress has consequences too.

    Progress is tenuous and we can experience setbacks like the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the ensuing “Dark Ages” in Europe. Nothing is guaranteed and we are always a few missed meals away from anarchy. The surest way to lower the odds of that happening is to embrace the progress humanity has made and extol its benefits so that people aren’t so hasty to “burn it all down”. Postmodernist nonsense about how the way we think and the intellectual tools at our disposal aren’t objectively better than in the past is just whistling past the graveyard.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    Our distant ancestors didn’t know they should drink from clean water sources, leading to countless deaths from cholera and other waterborne diseases. Our ancestors didn’t know that witches, warlocks and demons were pure fiction, leading to untold numbers of needless executions, quack medical procedures and pointless suffering. Ignorance has consequences.

    This isn’t true. There were functioning sewer systems in the Indus River Valley civilization, Crete, and Rome, precisely because they figured that foul water was bad for you.

    What’s more, witch hunts still happen in parts of West Africa today, the Catholic church is performing more exorcisms than before, a number of people believe in ghosts, demons, spirits, astrology, psychic powers, magic, and absolutely batshit conspiracy theories so insane next to nobody 50 years ago would’ve believed them (Pizzagate, anyone? What about Project Jade Helm?) make up a sizable percentage of our population.

    c’est plus change . . .

    The humans alive today are intellectually identical to the humans that built the Great Pyramid, that constructed Ur, and that established the first cities, tamed crops, and domesticated animals at the beginning of civilization. The only difference is that we have better healthcare to push back against (anti-vaxxers, folks who are anti-fluoride), a better understanding of reality to push back against (flat-earthers, creationists, intelligent design proponents, witch hunters, astrologers, and the like), and a more complex society with a more extensive social safety net to try and cut (libertarianism, conservatism).

    In short, the only thing that we have better flat screen TVs.

  • sault

    “The only difference is that we have better…”

    Exactly, objectively better outcomes that stem from our exploration of reality and expanding moral “umbrella” that protects more and more people. Through fits and starts, our species has undeniably been moving in the right direction and producing better outcomes.

    Just like your examples of Roman sewers doesn’t prove the entire ancient world was enlightened and functioned optimally, the exceptions of anti-vaxxers and exorcists don’t prove that contemporary society has abandoned the march of progress. There are postmodernists all over the place like pizzagaters, Trump supporters, flat-earthers, etc. that do not appreciate the benefits of that progress. They deny objective reality and substitute another reality that fits with their beliefs. They don’t understand the complexity of society that allows them to deny reality and still keep breathing like they do on a daily basis. But like I said, fits and starts, right?

  • William Zingrone

    Shem, “Primitive humans, then and now, have no significant knowledge that we lack in our advanced societies. No great secrets have been lost. All our available evidence suggests that the intellectual capacity of humans hasn’t changed much in thousands of years”. I whole heartedly agree with the above. You called them “benighted half-chimps” he didn’t. He stated that the ancients were our intellectual equals. Your defensiveness leaks thru your whole argument. The Egyptians built the pyramids with a 3-4-5 square and a water level, and some very clever block quarrying and moving techniques, you bet they didn’t need aliens to guide them. They weren’t stupid, but they were as ignorant of all the accumulated knowledge we have acquired since thru science, as any other culture from those barbaric, primitive times. That’s not a slight on the intellectual capabilities of the ancients, just an accurate description of our species state of knowledge at the time. We haven’t figured it all out, and will look comparatively ignorant to the folks in the 2100’s and beyond. Science is our only path to knowledge. Religion is the repository of old, primitive and yes, ignorant explanations, historical fictions, and mythologies. It is the source of most, if not all, of our modern-day misogyny, homophobia, sexual repression, and science denial. The sooner we jettison religious thought altogether, as Hitch said “from the infancy of our species”, the better. And we can do better. Progress is not inevitable and humans are not the endpoint of evolution. Modern knowledge is no longer merely “Western” nor “white.” It is now owned by the species as a whole and practiced all over the globe by folks of every ethnicity, nationality and gender. We can appreciate every step in the ascent of man, yet realize most of the modern worldview we now hold as a given is largely the result of the last 200 years of modern science, without that attitude somehow denigrating the accomplishments and capacities of the ancients.

  • Science is our only path to knowledge.

    Let’s not overstate the case. Science is a reliable way to create and test useful models of natural phenomena. It’s not a cure for all our social problems.

  • Steve Bastasch

    I’m reminded of the example of “Ishi, the Last of his Tribe” where the author conveys that Ishi thought that modern (“Presentist”?) white people were smart and clever, but not wise. And I’m also reminded of a line in A Canticle for Leibowitz about our civilization having fallen (via nuclear war) because we had been materially great, but not great in any other sense. “Wisdom vs. Smarts” seems to be one crucial issue in this debate.

  • Exactly, objectively better outcomes that stem from our exploration of reality and expanding moral “umbrella” that protects more and more people. Through fits and starts, our species has undeniably been moving in the right direction and producing better outcomes.

    Come now. You’re using the word objective as if it denotes something absolute and value-independent. But for every supposed advantage of our modern mindset, I could point out a downside. We might have conquered smallpox, but our over-reliance on antibiotics has spawned antibiotic-resistant superbugs. We may have done away with human sacrifices, but we accept the deaths of tens of thousands through atomic detonations as something that we just have to live with in the modern world.

  • al kimeea

    How could my ancestors be idiots, they were brewing a fine beer from heather around 4000bce. It tastes good. They also ignorantly thought disguising yourself on a certain day would prevent the dead from taking you with them. As if the dead care…

  • Have to thank @disqus_4QIAckO8X4:disqus for the quote.

  • William Zingrone

    Where else does knowledge come from, to fix social issues or advance our overall understanding of the world? Religion, Philosophy? Pure speculation both without empirical validation. You overstate thruout your piece, such as “White Western knowledge” (the Chinese had advances years before the West, and now have thoroughly co-opted modern science as has nearly every other culture), or that a clear-headed view of the relative ignorance of the ancients (they did their best with the limited knowledge of the time) somehow leads to “ancient aliens must have helped them.”

  • sault

    Objective does denote something absolute, but I will admit it’s not value-independent. The life expectancy of people today vs 100 or 1000 years ago is undeniable.

    Conquering smallpox was a triumph of scientific inquiry and the moral progress humans have made towards taking care of each other. Over-reliance on antibiotics stems from ignoring the empirical data and our moral obligations to minimize human suffering / needless deaths.

    These moral obligations are indeed value judgements, but they are self-evident. You can’t morally argue for more human suffering and death after all.

    The nuclear standoff during the Cold War was averted precisely because leaders on both sides accepted the world for what it was rather than navel-gazing about how we can’t know anything for sure. Humans never had the capability to destroy the Earth before nukes came around and we had to do a lot of growing up through gathering cold, hard facts and exercising cold, hard logic. The alternative was just too terrible.

    Beyond that, Postmodernism itself is a complete waste of time. Humans can learn the truth from observation, analysis and synthesis. We can learn from our mistakes and realize some things are bad ideas while other things work great. Postmodernism keeps us from progressing and establishing a more knowledgeable and more moral world. It results in chaos where everybody can have their own truth based on how they feel or what they value. Postmodernists might flatter themselves by thinking they’re open-minded and correcting for the excesses of logical thinking, but they’re really just enabling the denial of a shared reality that’s pushing this world closer towards disorder. I’ll pass; I have better things to do and not a lot of time to waste.

  • Personally, I think it’s ludicrous to think that data points alone can solve our social problems. Obviously there has to be great consideration paid to human self-determination, values and rights, so we need to include things like moral and political philosophy. Like I said, science doesn’t solve social problems.

  • Cold, hard facts and cold, hard logic aren’t all that motivate political policy.

    I don’t know what your problem with postmodernism is, because you spend more time reviling it than defining what you mean by it. To me, postmodernism isn’t a denial of science or reality, it’s a skeptical approach to totalizing narratives like religion, science, and rationalism. It seems to bother you that someone could be skeptical of the truths you affirm.

  • al kimeea

    SP – “Despite what their pop-science poobahs have told them, science fans should realize that human history hasn’t been a gradual and inexorable advancement from superstitious savagery to
    white Western wisdom.”

    Consider:

    – the relationship between force and acceleration (a vague foreshadowing of a fundamental law of classical mechanics and a precursor to Newton’s second law of motion) – 1100s – Muslim – centuries later in Europe

    – refutation of Aristotelian classical elements and Galenic humorism; and discovery of measles and smallpox, and kerosene and distilled petroleum – 900s – Muslim – centuries later in Europe

    – pulmonary circulation and circulatory system – 1242 – Muslim – centuries later in Europe, Harvey

    – variation of gravitation and gravitational potential energy at a distance; the decrease of air density with altitude – 1121 – Muslim – centuries later by xian lines of inquiry

    – the concepts of true north and magnetic declination. In addition, he develops the first theory of Geomorphology. – 1000s, in China – far earlier than anywhere else…, n

    And centuries before science. Also not much of a stretch that one group hating another enough to enslave it predates the real world examples of people who might use any tool in the book to oppress others I gave.

    Not one pink-skin in that list and centuries before natural philosophy. And still science, still wisdom. From other cultures curious about the same environment we share.

    In reaction to that list (and another of 12 non-white scientists):

    SP – “If anything, you’re describing the way our knowledge has developed as such a mind-bogglingly complicated set of processes that involve different cultures over the course of millennia that you’re kind of making my point for me. How can you be sure the exact same connections will be made in each and every one of the million instances that phenomena have been studied over the
    course of human history?”

    me – It’s what happened. Your incredulity notwithstanding

    SP – “I know it’s what happened. But the notion that it would happen exactly the same way again, that the same fortuitous connections would take place and the same interpretations would be successfully argued, is pretty unlikely.” italics in original…

    You know Muslims and Chinese contributed to science before Europe even knew what natural philosophy was. You even emphasized that it happened.

    Did you know this before you wrote your first informative essay on how science is only a white western male playground?

    You need to read The Crucible. A play about the superstitious savagery the pink-skins visited on themselves in colonial America.

  • SP – “Despite what their pop-science poobahs have told them, science fans should realize that human history hasn’t been a gradual and inexorable advancement from superstitious savagery to
    white Western wisdom.” […]

    Did you know this before you wrote your first informative essay on how science is only a white western male playground?

    For the umpteenth time, you’re taking my words completely out of context, and making it seem like I’m saying the exact opposite of what I’m saying. Here, I was explicitly denying the validity of the attitude that our ancestors were ignorant savages while white-dominated Western society represents the enlightened and morally superior pinnacle of human development. This is why I rarely bother to respond to your posts, except to patiently point out—yet again—where you’ve egregiously misrepresented my position.

    I’ve pointed out to you several times now that your habit of putting words in my mouth is insulting. Despite my asking you to drop the surly attitude and engage in dialogue, you continue to swoop in with your shit cannon loaded for big game. You continue to spam the board with silly posts, rehash old disputes and order me around like this is Al’s Playground.

    I’m asking you to be reasonable, that’s all. Do you understand?

  • al kimeea

    “Here, I was explicitly denying the validity of the attitude that our
    ancestors were ignorant savages while white-dominated Western society
    represents the enlightened and morally superior pinnacle of human
    development.”

    Who says that? I wasn’t taught that in a pubic school. Wasn’t taught that at all…

  • Aboriginal australians managed to thrive for over 40,000 years, because they understood how to live sustainably.
    Our civilization is likely to implode in the next 200 because we started off on a mindset that focussed on unending expansion.

  • srh1965

    “Aboriginal australians managed to thrive for over 40,000 years, because they understood how to live sustainably.” That depends on the much-debated definition of sustainability. Their nomadic lifestyle could only support a relatively small number of people per unit of area, which is why they did not greatly increase in population. You might regard that as thriving. I’m not sure.

    “For thousands of years, Aboriginal Australians burned forests to promote grasslands for hunting and other purposes. Recent research suggests that these burning practices also affected the timing and intensity of the Australian summer monsoon…

    Pre-historians and ecologists have been long concerned with the possible effect that Aboriginal vegetation burning practices may have had on the Australian ecology. Bill Gammage has recently published a very readable overview of the concept in “The biggest estate on Earth: how Aborigines made Australia”…”
    https://theconversation.com/how-aboriginal-burning-changed-australias-climate-4454

  • True

    Jesus loves you, don’t forget it!