The past two centuries have seen an unprecedented growth in all walks of life. We have seen tremendous advances in the field of communication, transportation, production, health, and science. A few hundred years ago this was unimaginable, even by the most ambitious of minds. And yet here we are, reaping the benefits of the seeds of progress which were sown by the forefathers. Other civilizations might have laid the ground work for the monumental growth but the credit for it undoubtedly goes to the West. What started off as small insignificant changes at the turn of the Dark Ages (circa 1500 AD) resulted in a complete revamp of the socio-economic landscape. There are those who ascribe this western phenomenon to the creative gene (race), assumed to be characteristic of the west. This article shoots down this creative gene view and presents an alternate analysis on what constitutes the ‘seeds of progress’.
The creative gene idea has been around ever since the West became the predominant force in the world. Its origins can be traced to the classification, by the German scholar Max Müller (1823 – 1900 AD), of a light-skinned Aryan race. This new racial concept was picked up by others – most notably by Hitler in his fervently championed ideology of a ‘master race’. These views attributed the glory of the western civilization to the distinct genetic makeup of the white man. One that resulted in the impressive dynamism and spirit of enterprise shown by the people of Europe.
Debunking the creative gene theory, especially in light of the recent progress shown by non-western countries, has become an easier task than before. East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have taken giant leaps towards modernization and have highly developed economies. Other players like China and India are making significant inroads with impressive economic growth rates year after year. The developed countries themselves employ a diverse workforce from around the globe, specifically in the high-tech industries. This racial diversity, coupled with a creative output that is second to none, stands as a testimony of the creative abilities inherent in us all. The reasons for ‘the rest lagging behind the west’ come down to bad governance and lack of infrastructure in those societies. The creative gene theory is dead, and with any notions of complacency which might be based on racial superiority.
What then is the Holy Grail – the specific factors that tap into the creative energies of the people? Which are the circumstances which give rise to the creative spur, similar to what has been witnessed in the West? This is what constitutes our search for the ‘seeds of progress’.
The progress of the West can be seen as a long series of innovations starting from around 1500 AD. The timing of these innovations is akin to that of the domino effect, with one set of innovations triggering another. Our task then is to arrive at the initial conditions that started the process, and proceed from there. A three step theory is presented here:
1. Presence of enterprising individuals/attitude
2. Economic windfall of the masses
3. The spiral effect
1. Presence of enterprising individuals/attitude:
The first step towards a collective creative spur, similar to that seen in Europe, is the presence of an enterprising attitude in the society. There are many factors that can determine whether a society will promote such an attitude. One such factor frequently has been the challenge posed by the environment. Generally people in tropical climates, with milder temperatures and readily available food, tend to be more present oriented and less motivated to plan ahead. Compare this with people in harsher climates, the attitude is more of planning for the approaching seasons and being more future oriented. Historically people in such regions are hardier and naturally motivated to find solutions for the environmental challenge. When considering recent times, the term ‘environment’ can be extended beyond climatic conditions to include socio-economic factors that can motivate people to work and plan ahead.
Another factor that plays a role in nurturing an enterprising attitude in people is their belief system. Historically some belief systems, like Confucianism in older times and Orthodox Islam since the Abbasid Caliphate, have directly or indirectly discouraged entrepreneurial activities and/or creative thought. Religions can play a positive role as well, as seen in Europe with the affirmation of the Christian work ethic. The factors may be many, but the key emphasis is on an environment which nurtures a spirit of entrepreneurship and rewards such activities.
2. Economic windfall of the masses:
Spurred by the presence of enterprising individuals, a vibrant and dynamic society will regularly produce technological innovations in various fields. Some of these innovations will be in key areas which form the backbone of the economy and therefore affect the livelihood of the masses. Such technological innovations are capable of rapidly increasing the productive output of the people and infuse vigor and dynamism in an otherwise stationary economy. Europe saw a fare share of such innovations from the horse collar in the Middle Ages to the windmill and water
wheel of the early industrial era. The horse collar, originally a Chinese innovation, made its way into Europe and allowed the horses to be considerably more effective in the field. Deeper ploughing meant greater crop yield for the farmers and lesser requirement of resources for the same tasks. Over the ensuing centuries the productivity of the farmers in Europe saw a steady increase and allowed secondary industries to crop up. Similar effects were seen by the use of water wheel and helped Europe transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. In short, innovations in key areas in a society can produce economic windfall of the masses. The resultant prosperity acts as a catalyst for further improvements not just in the economic sphere but also the political landscape. These spiral effects and improvements are discussed in step 3 below.
3. The spiral effect:
With the masses enjoying an uplifted economic state and an increased self-interest in local economics, pressure mounts on the local polity. A horse, which by now can bring twice the yield, is an all the more important commodity and thus prone to frequent theft and vandalism. The economic interests of the masses, having been directly tied to commodities, results in an increased pressure on the local governments for addressing the issues. The government, by now more resourceful from the increased tax revenues in a burgeoning economy, is thus well poised to address the problems. Such scenarios are capable of producing cyclical effects where technological innovations spur economic growth, causing improvements in the systems and processes, which in turn foster greater creative output. In short a kind of self sustaining spiral effect is started which can grow with time.
Europe might have seen secondary factors of economic growth, like influx of vital resources from the colonies, but those only accelerated an already burgeoning and vibrant economy. Europe would still have come out in front and continued to be a strong player in the world market, without these external factors.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
The steps to progress are very much valid in today’s world. Every country has its own unique socio-economic landscape and the kind of innovations required may therefore be unique as well. The need therefore is to create an environment of enterprise in the society and give incentives for innovation in key areas of the economy.