Hedges argues that the both secular and religious fundamentalists are a threat. Both groups have lost sight of the notion of sin -- the idea that human nature is at its core limited, flawed, fallible. Once people forget about sin, once they believe in human moral progress, all manner of trouble ensues:
Yet the belief persists that science and reason will save us; it persists because it makes it possible to ignore or minimize these catastrophes. We drift toward disaster with the comforting thought that the god of science will intervene on our behalf. We prefer to think we are the culmination of a process, the result of centuries of human advancement, rather than creatures unable to escape from the irrevocable follies and blunders of human nature. The idea of inevitable progress allows us to place ourselves at the center of creation, to exalt ourselves. It translates our narrow self-interest into a universal good. But it is irresponsible. It permits us to avert our eyes from reality and trust in an absurdist faith.
"For every age," Joseph Conrad wrote, "is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end."
The belief that rational and quantifiable disciplines such as science can be used to perfect human society is no less absurd than a belief in magic, angels and divine intervention. Scientific methods, part of the process of changing the material world, are nearly useless in the nebulous world of politics, ideas, values and ethics. But the belief in collective moral progress is a seductive one. It is what has doomed populations in the past who have chased after impossible dreams, and it threatens to doom us again. It is, at its core, the enticing delusion that we can be more than human, that we can become gods.
The real problem, it seems to me, is not the belief that human moral progress is possible; the real problem is the idea that it's inevitable. It's not. And if, as we have suggested, humanity takes one step back for every two forward, even a fairly significant trend of moral progress would have to be marred by many horrible setbacks which, when added together, could make a strong case for a complete lack of moral progress or even for an observable trend of moral decay.
It's easy, for example, to look back over the past century of human history and see one example after another of technological advancement being put in the service of human exploitation and destruction. The examples are many. They are appalling, and they are unavoidable.
Even so, they don't tell the whole story. As we have noted before, research shows that human pre-history was significantly more violent than any period in recorded history -- including the 20th century. A modern human living in the 20th century was less likely to die from violence at the hands of a fellow human being than a hunter-gatherer living 50,000 years ago. In fact, in order for the 20th century to reach the carnage level of the hunter-gatherer era, we would have had to see a total death toll from wars of about 2 billion.
I can't find a good estimate of the total death toll of all wars in the 20th century, but let's take the high-end estimate for all World War II deaths as listed in Wikipedia, 75 million, and let's double that. And then, just for good measure, let's double it again. So that gives us an estimate of 300 million total war-related deaths in the 20th century.That means that the technologically powered depravity of that century managed to achieve a death rate of only about 1/7th of what our hunter-gatherer ancestors faced.
What if we go back just a couple thousand years. What percentage of the world's population lived in slavery at that time, or a condition we would find indistinguishable from slavery? Yes, it is horrifying to think that pockets of slavery and slave-like conditions still exist in our world today -- but how many billion would have to be slaves today to match the percentages of the era of Julius Caesar?
How many women voted (anywhere, for anything) 300 years ago? All around the world, how many vote now?
How many environmental groups existed 150 years ago? How many exist now?
How many animals benefited from prosthetic technology 25 years ago? How many benefit now?
Technological development doesn't make us better. It gives us more choices. And sometimes we choose to make things better with the increased capability we have been given. It's not inevitable that we will make things better, but it does seem built-in for us to try. Hedges is right that we shouldn't view ourselves as the culmination of a process of advancement. We aren't the culmination; we're just the latest step. Nor should we view human nature or the human condition as perfectible. Rather, we should see them for what we have demonstrated them to be time and time again throughout our history -- vastly improvable.
As for that "enticing delusion" that we can become more than human, I think I have to hang on to that one for a while. Even the idea that we will become "gods" isn't out of bounds, relatively speaking. I have at my fingertips capability that would make me seem vastly godlike to one of those hunter-gatherer ancestors we were just talking about. I believe that our descendants will surpass us even further than we have surpassed the hunter-gatherers. The thing to remember is that, when they reach that state, there will be nothing godlike about it.
Hedges is right to point out our limitations and the risks we face. But I think he is missing out on something important. The future is never the future. All you ever get is the present. The utopia we live in (relative to our ancestors) is not utopia at all, as we well know. And transcending what it means to be "human" does not make one a god or even put one into a transcendent state of humanity. Transcending limitations is the natural human state. To reject the human ability to advance may be the biggest delusion of them all.