This episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast is about progress, how we invented it as an idea and then went about pursuing it on-purpose.
Our guest is University of Chicago historian Ada Palmer. I wanted to talk to Ada because she wrote this brilliant, fun, illuminating essay earlier this year titled On Progress and Historical Change which felt like had been written specifically to address my exact confusion.
Historians, she writes, are careful to avoid a teleological frame of mind they sometimes call “Whig history,” in which we look back at our ignorant pasts and compare it to our amazing present and then assume there is an ultimate goal to all of this activity, an end-state of perfection, a strange attractor pulling us toward the ultimate purpose of all human effort. The truth is that it is a lot more complicated than that.
In the essay, she reveals the problems with thinking in this way and asks, “Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place?”
In the episode, you’ll hear her address all these questions and more, and I promise it will leave you feeling optimistic, but also a bit more realistic.
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