Searching for the Four Keys to Progress

Yesterday I watched a science documentary entitled “Living Universe” with my 10-year-old son. The documentary was on Curiosity Stream, an online streaming website which I highly recommend.

“Living Universe” is about scientists searching for life on “exoplanets” (planets outside our solar system). The task is gargantuan. Today we feel overwhelmed by the task of landing a human on Mars. But a round-trip to Mars is a trivial task in comparison to travelling to exoplanets. The distances and travel time involved are staggering.

Such a task requires an enormous amount of planning. Much of the planning involves propulsion, communication and measurement. But what do you measure? If you have no idea whether life exists on a planet, what should you look for? Presumably, all the species that we are used to on planet Earth would not be on another planet. And the exoplanet will likely have a great deal of variation on it. Where do we look?

And remember that all of the decision-making has to be pre-programmed. Given the distances involved, a round-trip communication with planet Earth would take decades. Every eventuality must be anticipated and planned for.

Imagine, for example, that intelligent beings on another planet launched a similar mission towards our planet. Imagine that they dropped landers in the Antarctic and the middle of the Sahara Desert. They would undoubtedly find life, but they would conclude that planet Earth could only support simple forms of life. They would be missing the rest of the life on planet Earth.

So that gets exobiologists thinking. Exobiologists are biologists who specialize in life on other planets. Yes, there really is such a specialty. Exobiologists ponder the same type of questions as biologists who study the origin of life on planet Earth. They ask themselves, what are basic irreducible ingredients to life?

Exobiologists have concluded that all life in the universe requires four key ingredients:

  1. Liquid water
  2. Carbon
  3. Energy
  4. Nitrogen and a few key organic minerals

Given those key ingredients, exobiologists are confident that life will emerge. They have no idea what that that life will look like, how it will behave or its level of intelligence. They can only be confident that life in some form will exist. Or more accurately that life will eventually exist given enough time.

This is true because life is, and must be, self-organizing. Life someone ratchets itself up from non-life.

Biologists feel confident that given these four ingredients, billions of random “experiments” will be conducted. By experiments, I mean random combinations involving the four key ingredients of Life. The vast majority of these experiments will lead to failure. But a tiny few will hit upon a random combination of these four factors that creates life and enables it to survive and reproduce. Most likely, it requires not just one success, but many successes, each contingent upon the others.

Because so many of these experiments fail, the fifth ingredient (not mentioned in the documentary) would be Time. Exobiologists have faith (and yes, there is a dash of faith going with this science) that the four key ingredients will self-organize into reproducing life. Once that occurs, the number of experiments can radically accelerate as something analogous to natural selection takes over. So life has to get a lot of things right just to exist.

It struck me how similar the four key ingredients to life are to my idea of the Four Keys to Progress. In my book, From Poverty to Progress, I argue that a society can only experience progress when it either innovates or copies the Four Keys to Progress. Those keys are:

  1.  A highly efficient food production and distribution system. This enables large numbers of people to overcome geographical constraints so they can focus on solving problems other than producing enough food to survive.
  2. Trade-based cities packed with a large number of free citizens possessing a wide variety of skills. These people innovate new technologies, skills and social organizations and copy the innovations made by others.
  3. Decentralized political, economic, religious and ideological power. Of particular importance are elites being forced to compete against each other non-violently. This ensures that the benefits of innovation go to the masses rather than to elites.
  4. Widespread use of fossil fuels.

In my book, I describe each of the above in much greater detail. Suffice it to say, once a society has all four keys, it will experience some form of progress. Human history can be viewed as a vast evolutionary process that led to the accidental discovery of the four keys to progress. Once these four keys were discovered, they slowly and unevenly diffused throughout the world.

The more societies that have these four keys, the more rapid the progress that they are likely to experience.  The larger the populated and the more interconnected these societies are, the greater the amount of progress.

What do I mean by progress? In my book series, I define progress as “the sustained improvement in the material standard-of-living of a large group of people over a long period of time.” In particular, I focus on changes to standard-of-living that are rapid enough and sustained enough that one person could notice positive changes within their lifetime.

Just like an exobiologist looking for life, the existence of the Four Keys to Progress does not tell us everything we need to know about that progress. It does not tell us everything that we need to know about a society. It does not tell us how progress works. It does tell us, however, that the people who live within that society will experience sustained improvement in their material standard-of-living over a long period of time.

This is not something to be taken lightly. Every other form of life on planet Earth lives in something like a stable state. Each individual plant or animal is born and then dies. Some reproduce, most do not. But there is really very little change or progress from the point of view of individual plants and non-human animals. They either survive or they do not. They either reproduce or they do not. There is nothing outside the human experience that is even close to progress.

This existence has also been the state of mankind for hundreds of thousands of years (paleontologist disagree on exactly when modern humans evolved). Mankind has clearly evolved over the last few hundred thousand years. Each individual human has lived lives is different from others. But at its most fundamental level, humans either lived or they died. They either reproduced or they did not. Until very recently, virtually no one experienced anything like progress.

Today we live in world where a significant portion of mankind has the Four Keys to Progress. For that reason, we experience progress. Perhaps that progress is not as rapid as we would like. Perhaps that progress is not as evenly distributed as we would like. But it is progress none the less.

Despite all of today’s problems, and all the problems that our future might hold, we should all feel fortunate to live here and now.

If you would like to learn more about this or other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.


The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

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