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Change and Development


Although it generally is acknowledged that change characterizes many aspects of human life and the larger world and is associated especially closely with science and technology and their influence on society, this phenomenon is not easy to define. One puzzling issue concerns how an object can be one thing, then change, and still remain the same object (that has undergone change). How should such a relationship, which implies both noncontinuity and continuity, be distinguished from replacement? A common response to is to argue that in change there is some development or growth: A thing has immanent within it a feature that over time (through change) is made manifest. The application of this biological notion to scientific, technological, economic, political, or ethical change remains fundamentally problematic and may best be approached through comparisons and in historical terms.

Enlightenment Origins: Change in Science as Progress

Early forms of the interrelated ideas of change and development were expressed in various instances of premodern (European and non-European) thought. Aristotle's On Coming to Be and Passing Away is the first systematic discussion of change. However, it was only in association with the scientific revolution of the 1600s and the Enlightenment of the 1700s that change became a theme for systematic articulation and gave rise to a concept of change as progress that has implications for science, technology, and ethics. The scientific revolution was understood by its proponents as a decisive progress in knowledge. Modern science claims as well as strives to represent a truer picture of nature than all previous sciences. In part, this knowledge depends on a more accurate understanding of development and change in the natural world.

The idea that human agency can be understood as social in origin and that all humans have the capacity to change their individual and collective destinies through the deployment of reason to combat tyranny, ignorance, superstition, and material deprivation was an important hallmark of European Enlightenment thinking. The notion that science can explain everything in nature, with the resulting knowledge being available to promote human progress, became the hallmark of modern rationalism and the social sciences. The first systematic compilation of scientific and technological knowledge to this end is contained in Denis Diderot's (1712–1784) Encyclopédie (1751–1772).

Armed with their ardent faith in the rationality of scientific methods and their ability to dissect and attack prevailing religious, social, political, and economic practices, many of the followers of the Enlightenment believed in and acted on the possibility of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness for all humanity. Studies of the evolution of human societies gave rise to the notion of modernization as a way to change cultural patterns and social hierarchies and divisions.

The idea of progress through change became ingrained in intellectual thought and social and political action. Imaginative thinkers of modernization such as Auguste Comte (1798–1857), Henri Saint-Simon (1760–1825), and Robert Owen (1771–1858) claimed that the creative application of science and technology in industrial processes could unleash an economy of abundance that could bring an end to the pervasive poverty of the majority of the population in European societies. This progressive vision prevailed despite skepticism on the part of political economists such as Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) that poverty and want could not be eradicated because of unsupportable increases in the human population.

The Nineteenth Century and Beyond

The notion of society as organic in nature and societal progress as an evolutionary process became entrenched in modernization theory in the nineteenth century after the publication of Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) On the Origin of Species (1859). Karl Marx's (1818–1883) theorizing of civilizational development in teleological terms so that human history could be read as a dialectical process determined by the specific technological artifacts that are shaped by social forces and relations of production often was associated with Darwin's theory of evolution. Although Marx developed his views well before the Origin of the Species was published, Marx certainly thought that his views and Darwin's were compatible. However, the Darwinian theory of natural selection and "survival of the fittest" (a term coined by Herbert Spencer [1830–1903]) was used to justify "both a rugged economic individualism at home and a ruthless collective imperialism abroad" (McNeill 1963, p. 830).

Over the course of the 1800s the idea of progress became the basic ideology of scientific, technological, and economic change in Europe and North America. However, two basic theories about how to promote such progressive change emerged. One was that it was the result of spontaneous order arising from multiple individual sources, none of which has such order consciously in mind (as with Adam Smith's "invisible guiding hand" that operates in market economics); the other was that change requires some kind of central monitor to make sure it serves true human interests and thus becomes progress (by means of planning or some kind of social democratic control).

After World War II: Change as Development

The post–World War II idea of progress through science and technology beyond European and North American shores became the focus of modernization project. The extension of the notion of progress through science and technological industrialization to other nations and later into the colonies of imperial powers came to be known as development. Development as an autonomous practice within what is known as the Third World began in earnest after the World War II with the onset of decolonization. The modernization project implemented through different economic development models began in former colonies at the behest of the United Nations and the World Bank during the 1950s and afterward. The common denominator of those development models was modern technology, the rapid infusion of which was expected to materialize through its transfer from industrialized nations. The modernization project considered foreign aid in capital and technology to be vital for development.

The basic assumption of modernization projects is convergence, an important ontological premise of the Enlightenment: The world is on a Eurocentric path of economic and social change and democratic political dispensation; the West arrived there first, and the rest of the world is expected to catch up eventually. It is axiomatic in modernization theory that "traditional" societies can be transformed through a concerted project of economic development that can be achieved by changing the means of economic production by transforming archaic social structures that lack the incentives for and entrepreneurial spirit of rapid technological innovation. By formulating and implementing the "right" package of policies, the state and other agents of economic power can induce technological change, which is equated to a problem-solving activity. This minimalist, though very effective, model became the heuristic basis for economic development projects. However, this meta-model of modernization and the ensuing universalist narrative of change and development are being challenged by postcolonial and postmodern theorists and deep ecologists for various reasons.

It is important to note that beyond this pervasive notion of economic change and development, there are economists who believe that unleashing the invisible hands of free markets is the "natural" route to economic change and growth. Following this intellectual tradition from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to Peter Bauer, they claim that progress comes from "spontaneous order," not from centrally planned rational design. One of the most influential development theorists of this genre was U.S. presidential adviser Walt W. Rostow (1956, 1960), who distinguished five states of development: (1) traditional society, (2) preconditions for takeoff, (3) takeoff, (4) drive to maturity, and (5) high mass consumption. In this schema, development started in Western Europe and then in North America and Japan and finally the winds of economic change reaches the developing world. It was such orthodox visions of development thinking that became the hallmark of development assistance spearheaded by the World Bank and other aid agencies, until more recently.

Unalloyed faith in scientific and technological knowledge as the most important resource for development was entrenched in all theories of modernization until the 1960s. It generally was agreed that more than capital and labor—the traditional factors of production—it was knowledge manifested as ideas, information, innovation, and technology that would increase productivity, and consequently, the income and wealth of nations.

Criticisms of the Model

However, the unprecedented material progress that the West had experienced as a result of advances in science and technology was challenged when the unintended consequences of controlling and using nature became apparent and problematic. Rachel Carson's (1962) Silent Spring brought public attention to the excesses of industrialization in the form of pollution and irreversible environmental changes. The moral qualms that many scientists and intellectuals felt about uncritically pushing the frontiers of scientific knowledge became a matter of serious ethical reflection on the uses and abuses of scientific research. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atom bombs and the invention of recombinant DNA technique added impetus to the notion that the creators of knowledge also bear ethical and moral responsibilities for the application of science and technology, which until that time was thought to be a force for good for all humans. Ulrich Beck (1998), employing a constructivist theoretical framework of self-reflexivity, claims that scientific and technological advances are leading to global risk societies.

The idea that the future of modern industrial civilizations is at risk if the manner and direction of industrialization and economic growth are not reformulated became an important point of discussion among many policy makers, scientists, and public intellectuals after the publication of the Silent Spring and the Club of Rome study titled The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972). Through a system-dynamics modeling of global production and consumption patterns, Meadows and associates claimed that the world would run out of food, minerals, and living space as a result of unsustainable population growth, industrialization, and pollution. The alleged inappropriateness of modern technology for the development of the Third World was forcefully argued by E. F. Schumacher (1973) in Small Is Beautiful.

Ironically, the advances in science and technology that originally had disproved Malthus's claim that unchecked human procreation would lead to pestilence and famine were presented by many modern neo-Malthusians as the new danger that humans faced. It is a fact that humans are confronted with global environment changes such as global warming, tropical deforestation, industrial pollution, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. However, advances in science and technology are not the reasons for these problems, which are caused by the misuse of science and technology and the domination of the world by unenlightened political, religious, and economic ideologies.

Potential Answers

Advances in science and technology were able to unravel many of the myths of limits to growth and theories concerning unsustainable human population growth. Innovations in agriculture, industry, health, and habitat were shown to be capable of solving many of the problems of food scarcity, disease, and inhospitable living conditions. It became apparent that the difficulties faced by the world's poor are not a production problem any longer but are due to inequitable distribution of resources and denial of access to the opportunities for better living conditions as a result of failed development policies.

New information and communications technologies helped bring about the latest phase of economic, cultural, and political globalization. Recent advances in biotechnology, materials engineering, and communications and information technologies in tandem with globalization are promised to unleash a "new economy" that is predicted to bring prosperity and democracy to all people. However, the benefits of globalization may be a double-edged sword. Although untold wealth is created for a select few connected to the "network society," most people have not yet seen tangible benefits. The globalization of culture and the growth of economic markets are potent forces that threaten to complete the homogenization of cultures and the living patterns of many unique communities and social arrangements.

The ethical consequences of recent advances in molecular biology and genome science are predicted to be much more intractable than all earlier ethical questions concerning science and technology in the industrial age. Cloning, embryonic stem cell research, nanotechnology, biosynthesized and "intelligent" robots, bioengineered organs and tissues, and pervasive computing and human-computer interfaces are going to have a profound effect on the concept of what is "human." The increasingly tenuous divide that has existed between humans and nature will be removed forever. Because humans are now in a position to control their own evolution and because of the tenuous state of the idea of "human nature," the moral challenge will be to construct a collective "human identity" based on political notions such as equality, liberty, and the right to live a dignified life without fear, pain, hunger, and religious and political repression.

The "posthuman future" made possible by the coming biotech revolution (Fukuyama 2002) will allow people to construct the sort of "human essence" they want to preserve. However, questions of what exactly this "essence" is made up of and who can decide these issues and in what manner will be so complex and intractable that no advances in science and technology will be able to answer these questions.

Despite general skepticism in the industrialized countries that further advances in science and technology are the key to continued material well-being, the promise of modern science and technology to improve the material conditions poor people in the developing world is still largely unrealized. Advances in certain domains of science are still needed to conquer deadly diseases and improve the living conditions of billions of people. Unfortunately, funding for recent biomedical and biotechnological advances has been used to improve the dietary practices and treat the diseases that afflict rich people. Diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS that ravage hundreds of millions of poor people in the tropics have not yet received serious attention from the scientific establishment and funding agencies.

In a world riven by unfair social, political, and economic dispensations brought on by untenable religious and nationalistic prejudices in both the East and the West the only hope for a sane world is to rely on the critical rationality of modern science that many believers in the Enlightenment embraced. Science and technology face some crucial ethical dilemmas. Although there is no justification for funding scientific research and technological innovation to enhance the wealth of already rich people, many aspects of existing knowledge and technology could be deployed to liberate billions of people from poverty and deprivation.

Besides playing a direct instrumental role in advancing the material conditions of living, science and technology can be deployed to advance the cause of freedom that humans need to foster development and change. Scientific and technological knowledge is an important resource for advancing the cause of "development as freedom" (Sen 1999). Although scientific knowledge and technological artifacts have bestowed many good things on humanity and have paved the way for progressive change and development, they also have caused serious ethical dilemmas.

The idea behind change and development can be traced to the Enlightenment-driven notion of modernization, which entails two important principles. First, it favors the use of science and technology for human emancipation from wants and regressive social relations as well as inhospitable natural conditions. Second, it offers humans the possibility of becoming autonomous agents so that they can not only take charge of their own destinies but also self-consciously construct and change their identities.


SEE ALSO Cultural Lag; Development Ethics; Progress; Sustainability and Sustainable Development.


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