The life of an ordinary men is nasty, brutish, and short – 16th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes
When my eldest brother was in Form 6, he was asked to write an essay that asked a simple question: “Is man admirable”?
It provoked a lively discussion over dinner. My father won the day by pointing out that tuberculosis had been a deadly scourge in India where he’d grown up but not now, when it was all but wiped out.
Much later, I found out that Jonas Salk, the vaccine’s creator, had been even more admirable: he donated his patent to humanity which must rank right up there as a perfect 10 on the Scale of Goodness.
It has taken mankind 2.6 million years to progress from the Stone Age to a nuclear one.
Progress might be an unfortunate word in the context, but it is accurate as the first test of an atomic bomb was so portentous that geologists marked the day as the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch – an age of widespread human influence over the planet.
That influence is undisputed: cynics might sniff that technological progress has merely equipped us with better and more efficient means of killing one another, but I’d argue it’s been a far more beneficial influence.
Take disease. Smallpox is the deadliest plague in history because it’s estimated to have killed over 300 million people. Yet, it disappeared by 1977 thanks to a concerted global campaign.
Such advances have almost always stamped out or negated every life-threatening disease nature’s thrown our way. What’s more, we’re getting better at it.
It took us 56 years from the start of the 20th century to cure tuberculosis, but it only took two years to reduce Covid-19 from mortal threat to common cold.
During Lincoln’s time, infant mortality in the US was high with almost half of all babies dying. Now they are as low in Malaysia as they are in the US. And life expectancies keep increasing.
Did you know it’s 85 in Singapore currently?
There have always been prophets of doom throughout history, even some with scientific bent. In 1798, for instance, Thomas Malthus predicted that mankind was inherently doomed because food supply only increased arithmetically while mankind multiplied geometrically. Overpopulation, argued Doubting Thomas, was as certain as mankind’s eventual demise from starvation.
Nope. Food supply has kept growing as technology evolved. More tellingly, replication rates in all developed countries are well below replacement rates. This is also happening in less developed countries like Malaysia.
While we can safely conclude that mankind has generally triumphed over disease and famine, the same cannot be said about wars.
There has been a marked decrease in battlefield deaths over the last century but that doesn’t prove that wars are declining. It might just indicate better medical care.
Indeed, there is a war currently raging in Europe the first serious one in 82 years.
But here again, technology has ensured that sanity will have to prevail because the converse is unthinkable. There are no winners in a nuclear war because the outcome is mutual assured destruction, or MAD, and the finish is egalitarian: everyone will be cremated equal.
What we need are better people, more Salks and less Putins. It could be our next, great evolutionary leap: when we move from man to kind.