That mankind has made tremendous strides in science and technology is beyond dispute. The pace of progress since the Industrial Revolution validates the continuing development of our capacity to learn and apply skills previously thought to be confined to the imagination of science fiction writers.
Most such “progress” has been beneficial and has improved our standard of living. Often lost in the excitement are the downsides, the unanticipated problems that are the result of scientific and technological discoveries. Some have produced weapons of mass destruction capable of killing millions. Others have complicated how we relate to one another.
While these discoveries underscore the evolution of our intellectual capacity, do they also reflect a positive change in our values? Are we better? Are we more honest, more compassionate, more understanding, and more committed to the common good? Or are we the same as we have always been – self-absorbed, angry, and distrustful? It appears that the two paths of evolution do not occur in tandem.
The evidence strongly suggests our intellectual capabilities have steadily evolved over time while morally and emotionally we remain essentially the same as our ancestors. In fact, some of what we refer to as “progress” has created or exaggerated divisions within society. We have become more partisan, more antagonistic, and less able to either define or implement the common good.
Despite its history of mass annihilation, the threat of unimaginable nuclear war remains. Partisanship renders our national political processes almost incapable of constructive action. Despite the two-term election of our first black president, race relations remain fraught. His autocratic successor has split the nation in two and that fact threatens our democracy. Truth is no longer objective reality; it is whatever you imagine or want it to be. Freedom, too, is now subjective.
War is madness, as is defund the police and guns for everybody. Climate change is a global threat, yet we are unable to agree on sensible limitations. Regrettably, evolution is developing on two tracks: Science and technology are exacting disciplines, requiring patience, experimentation, confirmation, and, eventually, consensus. Our humanity is subjective, emotional, impulsive, and dependent on guidance from parents, teachers, philosophy, and religion.
The spiritual (or humanistic) component of human nature has failed to keep pace with mankind’s cerebral development. Without sensible restraints and clear directions, the balance between what we can do and should do is distorted as human nature improves slowly, incrementally. if at all. Unlike advances in science and technology, our progress is erratic, more variable, and more difficult to measure.
What does history teach us about evolution? That is happening and will continue so long as we do not destroy ourselves. Evolution is much more pronounced in science and technology and promises, if used correctly, to substantially improve life on earth.
But for that to occur, we must continue the slower and more complex striving to become better human beings.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.