Excerpted: The Storm of Progress by Wade Rowland

If the existential threat of AI is making you uneasy, it should be: we need to ask profound questions about what’s going on. In his new book, The Storm of Progress, (Linda Leith Publishing) Wade Rowland takes a positive approach about the essence of humanity, arguing that by better understanding human nature in light of current scientific and philosophical knowledge, we can be better—and do better.

Read an excerpt from The Storm of Progress, below.

The cover of The Storm of Progress


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We must ask, what kind of “progress” leads to the destruction of humanity’s basic habitat, even its basic identity? 

This is a wrenching question because—I will be arguing—it goes to the root of our culture’s long-standing faith in the sanctity of Enlightenment-era thought and its conceptions of progress. That may seem like a stretch, I realize. How could it be that more science and less superstition; more observation, less presumption; more reason, less emotion—all these good things—how could it be that they are what has led us into existential peril? 

The short answer is that these ideas are not at fault. The problem lies in more fundamental attitudes to human nature itself that underlie the Enlightenment vision. A new and profoundly subversive worldview emerged in Enlightenment-era Europe in opposition to the Roman Catholic consciousness that held the commanding heights of the European intellectual landscape throughout the Middle Ages. The idea of an orderly universe ruled over by a benign, loving deity included a conception of the human being as having been made in “God’s image,” that is, participating in a fundamental, transcendent goodness. 

According to the radical new Enlightenment perspective, however, humanity is effectively alone in the universe, left to its own devices by a Creator that seems to have retreated into distant, inactive retirement. Newly seen as products of a series of random, purposeless, natural processes, humans are condemned to coping as best we can with a grab bag of innate mental and physical traits generated through brutal evolutionary competition with one another, and with other species, in an uncaring world of scarcity and hazard. These “innate” characteristics were taken to be the constituents of “human nature” which, like other aspects of the natural world, was newly available to scientific understanding and manipulation via the mysterious gift of human reason and the revolutionary new tool we now refer to as the scientific method.

No longer was it possible to find comfort in the thought that we were made in God’s image, that we had a place in a “great chain of being” that linked us to our maker, and that there was transcendent purpose to our existence. Instead, we were on track to a newly conceived destiny of constructing an earthly paradise, which would be based on the secure foundations of science and reason. In the early generations of the rationalist revolution (the Enlightenment era is often called the Age of Reason), there was high optimism, a near-euphoria, over human possibilities now that reason had been unchained from the fetters of intuition, moral judgment, and millennia of confining, conservative, religious, and mythological dogma. 

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Wade Rowland is emeritus professor of media and communication studies at York University, Toronto. Among more than a dozen previous books are: Greed, Inc.: Why Corporations Rule Our World and How We Let It HappenGalileo’s Mistake; and Canada Lives Here: The Case for Public Broadcasting (LLP 2016). He lives with his artist wife Christine Collie Rowland in rural Port Hope, in the Northumberland hills of Eastern Ontario.