Drawing on nothing more than the 10,000 years of history and the trials of several world civilzations, novelist, historian and essayist Ronald Wright defines, simply and eloquently, why innovative specialization is great but comes with very significant diminishing returns. His A Short History of Progress looks at patterns in human history to help explain our world today, and central to this is the concept of progress traps – becoming too good at something to disasterous effect. To illustrate such short-sightedness, Wright points to examples like the ancient bison hunt, the desolation of Easter Island, and Cold War upsmanship.
Someone fond of logical absurdities once defined specialists as “people who know more and more about less and less, until they know all about nothing.” Many animals are highly specialized, their bodies adapted to specific ecological niches and ways of life. Specialization brings short-term rewards but can lead, in the long run, to an evolutionary dead end. When the prey of the sabre-toothed cat died out, so did the cat.
The modern human capital – our physical being – is a generalist. We have no fangs, claws, or venom built into our bodies. Instead we have devised tools and weapons – knives, spearheads, poisoned arrows. Elementary inventions such as warm clothing and simple watercraft allowed us to overrun the whole planet before the end of the last ice age. Our specialization is the brain. The flexibility of the brain’s interactions with nature, through culture, has been the key to our success. Cultures can adapt far more quickly than genes to new threats and needs.
…[T]here is still a risk. As cultures grow more elaborate, and technologies more powerful, they themselves may become ponderous specializations – vulnerable and, in extreme cases, deadly. The atomic bomb, a logical progression from the arrow and the bullet, became the first technology to threaten our whole species with extinction. It is what I call a “progress trap.” But much simpler technologies have also seduced and ruined societies in the past, even back in the Stone Age.