Ascent of Man

The Enlightenment idea of moral progress is under siege from all sides. But on the cusp of a new millennium, it is worth hanging on to the battered idea.
October 19, 1999

On 11th august, hundreds of millions of people, from the Caribbean to the Bay of Bengal, stared skywards to watch the sun go dark. It was a moment for large thoughts-about how far we had come since our ancestors ran away in fear at the darkened sky, about how science has changed the way we feel about nature: panic turning into wonder or into that quintessential modern emotion, disenchantment.

A time for still larger thoughts is looming. Come 31st December, most of the human race will be like children in the back seat of the family car, peeking over their parents' shoulders as all the nines on the speedo suddenly turn to zero and we find ourselves racing along the road of a new millennium. Prompted by these millennial and celestial conjunctions, the BBC is taking the Ascent of Man as the theme of the last Prom of this millennium. The theme allows us to see the lineage which connects, say, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Mahler's Second and Tippett's The Mask of Time. These are works of grand humanist affirmation; they affirm an idea of human progress, of man becoming master of himself and the world around.

Progress became a theme in European thought in about 1750. The thinkers of the Enlightenment wanted to replace the Biblical account of time (Genesis, Creation, Fall, Redemption) with a myth which put Man, not God, at the centre of the story. The narrative of human progress was understood to be both a material and a moral process; not just changing our technologies, but altering our instincts-and for the better.

We now live in ironic, anti-heroic times. Do we still believe in the story of progress? It sits in the attic of our minds like a glorious Victorian antique, as magnificent as a stuffed moose head and just as useless. Perhaps worse than useless. Modern political correctness has lodged a suspicion in our mind about the Ascent of Man. What do you mean, Man? What about Woman? And which Man? Surely not the European conquerors? And Ascent? Surely you're not implying that western civilisation is superior to everything that's gone before? And so on. The Ascent of Man may be an idea we had better do without.

Only 20 years ago, this did not seem so. That great educator and scientist, Jacob Bronowski, made it the title of his famous BBC documentary. For Bronowski, the Ascent of Man was the story of human evolution. It began over 4m years ago with the emergence of hominid species in Africa-furry, ape-like creatures who began the human ascent, about 1m years later, by standing on their hindlegs. This released their hands to use tools, increasing their food production capacity, their brain size, their superiority over other ape and animal competitors. There were an unknown number of hominid competitors, which were gradually reduced to two and then-100,000 years ago-to one: homo sapiens. Only this creature achieved language, and this gave him mastery of himself and nature.

As homo sapiens, we are the product not of one millennium, but of at least a thousand. We may look up at the sky through the lenses of a scientific world-view, but the brain which receives the signals is an organism imprinted with several million years of evolutionary terrors: of animals, strange signs in the skies and the omnipresence of imminent death.

For Bronowski the Ascent of Man was the story of man's freedom-his gradual emancipation from nature. But that is not the message which contemporary culture has heard. It has taken the evidence of palaeo-anthropology and archaeology as confirmation that we are more determined by our ancient past than we had supposed. The longer we discover our pre-history to be, the more deeply savage we feel.

This reading of the Ascent of Man has been reinforced by genetics. The explosion in genetic research in the past 25 years-the mapping of the human genome, the discovery of the genetic origins of certain diseases-has spurred a huge amount of confident inference about the genetic origin of everything from the sexual division of labour to the incest taboo. Not since the decades following the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859 has the public talk of contemporary culture been so dominated by genetic and evolutionary determinism.

There is a big problem with this determinism. To say that male aggression is coded in our chromosomes is both to affirm a truism but also to eliminate culture, history, and individual responsibility from the story. Why does this male, not that one, succumb to his impulses-that is the question. Genetic determinism doesn't have anything to say about the peculiar human invention called freedom. It doesn't begin to explain the variety of crazy and wise things we do with it.

In modern culture, the Ascent of Man has been turned into a story of the stubborn survival of old Adam, prisoner of ancient instinct. But there were always meant to be two stages to the Ascent of Man. In the first stage-from the first hominids to the emergence of homo sapiens-evolution was driven by Darwinian natural selection. Man was the plaything of nature. Determinism ruled. But since the arrival of homo sapiens, the Ascent of Man has been increasingly under the dominion of man himself. This is the second stage: mankind leaves the realm of necessity and begins to enter the realm of freedom. With the conquest of disease and scarcity-not achieved, but on the horizon-we are displacing the survival of the fittest. As we envisage the manipulation of the human genome, we can imagine a future in which the Ascent of Man will be controlled by the species itself. This is not a chilling new story, just the old story projected into the future. For the Ascent of Man is the story of overcoming fate: knowledge replacing superstition; control in place of chaos; mastery in place of drift.

The people who first put this new story of freedom together were Enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu, Hume, Adam Smith and Voltaire. This was the story of progress which they began to tell in order to make sense of what they could see all around them: the creation of a capitalist market society spanning the globe. They wanted to understand how "commercial society" had come into being, and they created a historical theory to explain it. It was a four-stage theory of human progress, beginning with hunter-gatherer societies, moving on to shepherding societies which in turn metamorphosed into settled agricultural communities, culminating in commercial societies based on the market. The motor of change, Smith argued, was a new division of labour which enabled these societies to move from one stage to the next. These stages were also political: the hunting band was the essential unit of government in stage one; by stage four it was the nation-state.

The philosophers wanted to explain not only how capitalist society had come into being, but why the moral character of modern individuals was so different from their primitive forebears. For them, the Ascent of Man was the story of the civilisation of human instinct. Old Adam becomes new Adam, capitalist man: sociable, acquisitive, individualistic, but also peaceable and non-violent. Human nature is historical; it changes over time; progress is measured in freedom, and freedom means rational control of instinct. Human beings cease to act like children; they discover that altruism is better than violence. This happens because the institutions they create-family, church and state-tame their instincts. This is a moral fable, full of choices: reason is better than emotion, control is better than chaos, and so on. I make no apologies. I like this story. Its moral preferences are my own.

The 19th-century Victorian heirs of the Scottish Enlightenment liked it, too. My great-grandfather was a Victorian Presbyterian parson, living in Canada; on his bookshelf was a work entitled History of European Morals, by William Hartpole Lecky, a Protestant Irish MP and amateur historian who was a near contemporary of Darwin. While Darwin was giving us Ascent of Man, version one, the emergence of homo sapiens through natural selection; Lecky offered his Victorian readers Ascent of Man, version two: the civilisation of human instinct through religion, state and family.

Lecky's vision of moral progress wouldn't have been dismissed as an inspirational fable by his audience. It corresponded to their experience. They saw the flag of empire following British trade and bringing religion, order and good government to the lesser breeds without the law. The Victorians wanted their domination to be high-minded, and Lecky and others allowed them to think that it was.

But it wasn't only the empire which made Victorians believe in moral progress. The abolition of child labour, blood sports and then slavery made Victorians believe that they were living through the greatest age of moral progress. And perhaps that is what seems to doom the idea of the Ascent of Man nowadays-its association with Victorian self-congratulation. It is the language of my great-grandfather, not my own.

Today we are more likely to listen to the late Victorian critics of the idea of moral progress. Nietzsche disdained shallow English psychologists like Lecky who did not understand that an instinct "civilised" was just an instinct "suppressed"; that politeness was a ruse, and Christian philanthropy just another form of condescension. Freud felt the same-and all those hysterical Viennese women who came to his consulting room in the late 1890s seemed to be not the beneficiaries of civilisation, but its victims: their sexual identities crushed by the demands of civility.

We are much more the heirs of Nietzsche and Freud than we are of Lecky, Mill, Buckle and the Victorians. At best, we believe that civilisation has an ambivalent impact on our moral instincts: yes, we become less aggressive towards others, but at the cost of diverting our aggression inwards. Civilisation is built on guilt. It has not made aggression, violence, lust and savagery disappear; they are only sublimated. Old Adam-the fearful, fearing creature inside, the substrate of our evolutionary story-will never be civilised, only chained. The repressed will return.

The same late Victorian optimists who believed in moral progress also thought that war was impossible. Commerce had created such interdependence, conflict was unthinkable. Norman Angell's famous pamphlet of 1910, which argued that war was impossible in Europe, summed up a continent's illusions.

Ask anyone born since 1914 why they have difficulty believing in the Ascent of Man and many would simply give you a list of names-from Ypres, the Somme and Verdun in the first world war, to Auschwitz, Katyn and Hiroshima in the second. In each of these places, the most perfect modern technology created the most perfect devastation. In place of the broad upland meadow of progress, which the Victorians envisaged, we created the wasteland. For the first time since 1750, millions of people experienced history running not forwards, from savagery to civilisation, but backwards, to barbarism.

As Paul Fussell has argued, the first world war created a permanently ironic temper of mind in relation to certain Victorian certainties: sacrifice, nation, honour-and progress. You couldn't use the word and expect to be believed after visiting the poison gas ward of an army field hospital. But while war disgraced Victorian ideas of progress, it created a hunger for new ones: communism and fascism duly obliged. If capitalism had led to imperialism and war, these two new utopias each promised a world beyond scarcity and conflict. They were similar in another way. They were visions of a better world if only-if only certain groups could be eliminated. In the case of fascism: gypsies, homosexuals, communists, Jews. In the case of communism: the class enemy. Progress was within our grasp if certain classes of persons could be eliminated. And they were.

In the 50 years since 1945, serious moral thinking has devoted itself to the deep wound which 20th century slaughter inflicted on our pride in ourselves as a species. Time has not healed the wound. If anything, the Holocaust has become more of an obsession with the passing years, making everyone, not just Jews and other victim peoples, ask themselves whether they can trust other human beings again.

For trust had been one of the subliminal messages of the Ascent of Man. From the Enlightenment onwards, we had been taught that we were one species; we shared the same ascent, the same path upwards to the light. Beneath difference there was identity, a similar historical process of civilisation which gave us good reasons to trust each other in ultimate moments of moral risk. Yet what was there left to trust when men treated each other so much worse than animals?

So, in the 50 years since 1945, we have lived with a deep ambivalence about progress. On the one hand, we see it everywhere: technological, scientific, economic-the greatest expansion of material prosperity in human history, and not just in our safe and privileged world, but in zones of Asia, South America and southern Europe. The statistics which matter-life expectancy, infant mortality, income per capita-all tell a story of progress. Yet we do not believe it, and not only because this material progress has disturbing side effects: pollution, congestion, new inequalities. No: the real problem is that we do not believe, as our Victorian ancestors believed, that material progress entails or enables moral progress. We demand per-fection in our cars, our drugs, our computers-but we no longer demand anything but adequacy from our moral lives. We eat well, we drink well, we live well, but we do not have good dreams. The Holocaust remains the ghost at our feast; every time it slips from our mind it makes a terrible recurrence: Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, now Kosovo.

It is in this climate of self-distrust that genetic and anthropological determinism have become fashionable. It tells us what we find only too easy to believe: that old Adam is always with us; and that no matter what progress we make technologically, we make no progress within. We remain homo sapiens, the most fearsome creature in nature, a menace to ourselves and to all within our reach.

But misanthropy is a moral temptation like any other. There is just enough truth in it to make it plausible; not enough truth to make it anything other than a real danger to moral life. A world without a fable of basic human trust is not a world we want to live in. A world in which we do not trust strangers, in which we do not feel able to take moral risk with those we do not know, is a world of gates, fences, security systems, electronic tagging devices, closed circuit cameras. It is a prison, not a world of free men.

But there are other moral temptations as well. In place of the battered universalism represented by the Ascent of Man it is tempting to put our moral trust only in those who resemble us. Our own tribe. The drive to create ethnically homogeneous states has many causes, but among them is a retreat from the universal, a doubt that order can be created among those who are not of the same race or religion.

Moral universalism is not intrinsically superior to moral particularism. A person who did not care for his own, more than for the abstract human race, would be a moral monster. Particular ties come before universal ones. But equally, a person who has no conception of universal ties is also a moral monster; somebody who greets a person of another race or tribe or nation as if they belonged to another species, is a person no one can trust.

Universalism is embattled, but it is not actually in retreat or decline. Indeed, since 1945, we have done more to enshrine universal principles in international treaties than at any time in history. From the UN Charter to the Geneva Conventions on the Laws of War, the statute books are full of definitions of moral and legal universals. These documents have consequences: all nations sign up to them, and while they are more honoured in the breach, they do limit the capacity of states to harm their citizens.

The moral consensus they embody is different from the one the Victorians believed in. Theirs was based on a definition of human potential, an idea that all could attain, one day, to civilisation. Theirs was the universalism of hope; ours the universalism of fear. We may not agree what the good life is; but we know what the bad life is. We may not agree-across cultures and creeds-what civilisation means, but we all know what barbarism is. A universal set of values based on negatives: no torture, no murder, no starvation. Everything else is open to dispute, but not this.

We have learned this the hard way. It would have been better to have learned it in love and laughter, but we didn't. It none the less represents progress of a painful kind; the Ascent of Man can resume after our sojourn in barbarism.

So we need universals, but do we need an idea of progress? The one need not entail the other. But I am not sure that active faith in universals can be sustained without a belief that they are gaining an ever greater hold over people. As the philosophes saw, in a world without God who are we to put our faith in if not ourselves, and how are we to believe in ourselves if we do not also think that we are making progress? Without progress, without the hope and faith it implies, we are old Adam, locked in the eternal cycle of violence. With progress-this myth that we can change, that we are not prisoners of our instincts-we can chart our path into the future. We can say that history has a meaning-it is the story of how we mastered ourselves, rendered our species less of a terror to ourselves and every other creature too. I admit that I find it difficult to prove the idea of moral progress. But I also find it difficult to imagine a sensible life without the hope and promise which it holds out to us.