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The Inevitability of Progress

The tyranny of the urgent has captured the world. Your cellphone beeps, reminding you of your next appointment. What a Godsend that you have this technology to help you stay on track in today’s competitive environment. But wait, isn’t it that same technology that made things so competitive?

Those of us who are old enough to remember life before cellphones and personal computers might reminisce about those simpler times. This love-hate relationship with technology is something nearly everyone can relate to, with some loving it more and some loving it less. But if you could go back to those simpler times, would you?

On objective measures, today there is less war, less disease, less poverty, and fewer deaths in childbirth than at any time in history. Yet we are also more stressed than ever. These things are all true, and they point to another truth, which is that progress always comes at a cost. The technology that allows us to travel effortlessly from continent to continent, in less than a day, is also the technology that is slowly destroying our environment. There is no free lunch.

There are no solutions, only tradeoffs. —Thomas Sowell, American Economist

And while we should reasonably moderate and manage our progress, my main point in this essay is that progress is an inevitable part of being human, or even of life in general, and that it cannot be stopped. That is a sufficiently bold statement that it deserves some backing, so here it is:

The complex biology that governs our actions hinges on one important chemical: dopamine. Dopamine is the neurochemical that fuels our reward system. Without it, we won’t even have the motivation to eat. It is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, being present in all vertebrates, and even many insects, mollusks, and worms. It is, to a great extent, what drives us.

We now understand that dopamine plays a larger role in rewarding progress toward goals than it does in their actual attainment. When you think about it, it makes sense. You have to get to the food before you can eat it. It is progress that pleases us and makes us happy. Why would we want to stop that?

Dopamine's main role is to be released anytime you achieve a milestone, or you think you're on the right path. —Andrew Huberman, Stanford Neuroscientist

Fortunately, our biology includes balancing systems to keep this from completely running amok. Chemicals like norepinephrine, glutamate, GABA, and cortisol, moderate our impulse to run into danger. The combination of motivation and restraint are the yin and yang of our actions. In the end, the system ties so directly to our biology as to render our proclivity toward progress to be both necessary and inevitable.

In summary, we must acknowledge the duality of progress to embrace its potential while steering away from its most negative consequences. By acknowledging both the yin and the yang of progress, we can ensure that our journey forward is not just inevitable, but also responsible and purposeful.


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