“How could we have evolved from monkeys, if there are still monkeys?”
That’s a common joke-argument made at the expense of people who don’t believe in evolution. Since the theory that life gradually evolved over billions of years is now commonly accepted as fact, we view this argument for what it is: ridiculous.
We can find such a statement to be silly because we accept that the very concept of evolution is a slow, gradual change, rather than a mass shift from apes into humans.
While we can accept this truth, however, many cannot apply the same logic to our standard of living. For instance, I recently came across this meme, attributing issues such as hunger, poverty, and disease to capitalism.
The logic behind such an argument, it would seem, is that the existence of abundant food and medicine in some parts of the world, and its absence in others, is indicative of a capitalist inability to properly distribute such basic necessities evenly and equally.
This is untrue. In fact, there is a demonstrable link between the expansion of capitalism as an economic system and the reduction of poverty and inequality. As a result, this sort of argument is eerily similar to the one made against evolution: If we came from apes, why are there still apes? If capitalism reduces poverty, why is there still poverty?
Why, then, do we find the first argument ridiculous, but the latter to be an acceptable criticism? The reason is actually quite sweet; we’re just too idealistic.
All too often, we forget that the horrors of poverty and disease don’t have a single ‘cause’, but are part of the default state of humanity. Our movement from rags to relative riches, like evolution, has been a gradual growth over time, rocketing upwards as we began to embrace free trade as a global system.
Capitalism doesn’t ‘cause’ poverty; it’s been our best way out.
Idealistically, however, we forget this. Rather than comparing our current state to that of the past, and thus emphasising just how far we’ve come in improving our standards across the globe, we compare the modern world to a utopian, fictive version of itself. As a result, we overlook all the progress we’ve made over the course of history, and condition ourselves to view the earth as being in a far worse state than it actually is.
Let’s look at that meme again. 20,000,000 dead each year from preventable causes, with the finger pointed straight at capitalism. Naturally, since we strive for a more perfect world, we understand that this figure is about 20,000,000 too many. The world should be perfect, so clearly something is horribly, horribly wrong if the real state of things doesn’t match the utopian vision.
But, how much higher was this figure 100 years ago? Or 50? Or even 25? In comparing ourselves to perfection, we forget that all the great progress that has been made.
It’s good to be optimistic. We should always have that goal of a perfect world in our minds. But let’s not forget that, in reality, we’re making leaps and bounds towards that goal already. Our pessimism stems from a comparison of our world to perfection, rather than to its former self.
Like evolution, this is a slow process. There is no overnight cure-all to the world’s problems, but we’re certainly on the right track. Remember that, and it becomes far easier to view this place with a little more optimism.