How We Make Progress

A new vaccine could put an end to the deadliest disease we've ever known.

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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We’re saturated by news.

No wonder, then, that it can be hard to sort the events that are really important from those that only seem to be. We live in a culture that prioritises today’s trivia over the long view.

So this week a short note on news that is, by any measure, monumental. It’s about a vaccine; but not that one. And about the nature of human progress.


It’s been a busy 12 months at the Jenner Institute, Oxford University’s centre for the development of new vaccines.

Last year it raced to develop an answer to the coronavirus. The first non-trial dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was administered to a UK citizen on 4 January.

This week, though, came another announcement.

In a trial among 450 children in Burkina Faso, the Institute’s new R21 malaria vaccine was shown to be 77% effective. It’s the first time a malaria vaccine has exceeded the World Health Organisation’s 75% target, which it says is the bar for declaring effectiveness.

In 2021, anyone can be forgiven for a degree of vaccine news fatigue. But when it comes to the obsession that drives this newsletter – our shared future – this announcement is huge.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne illness caused by the single-cell Plasmodium parasite. And the toll it takes on human life is almost beyond imagining.

The WHO estimates there were 229 million cases worldwide in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available. The annual death toll is around 400,000; two thirds of those who die are African children under the age of five. All this while billions of dollars are spent each year on mosquito nets and other preventative measures. It’s often said that malaria has killed half of all humans who’ve ever lived. Some quick napkin maths reveals that to be untrue; but also shows that the diesease is likely to be the single greatest cause of death in our history.

The hunt for a vaccine has lasted over 100 years. The malaria parasite contains over 5,000 genes, making it a complex puzzle to solve. Covid19, by comparison, contains 15 genes.

There’s still work to do. First, the Jenner Institute must replicate their findings in far larger trials. After that, we’ll need to plan and execute a rapid, low-cost global roll out. The lessons we’re drawing from the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine will prove crucial.

But if the stars align, humanity will be within touching distance of an answer to malaria. Freedom, at last, from a scourge that’s afflicted us for tens of thousands of years.

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Across its short life, New World Same Humans has covered a huge range of innovations: AI-fuelled companions, projects in solar bioengineering, new offices in the metaverse. The R21 vaccine may turn out, in the years ahead, to be by far the most important of them all.

Nothing matters when set against the lives that will be saved. But there is an underlying message here that strikes at the heart of what NWSH is about.

One of the questions I’ve grappled with often in this newsletter is that of human progress. As the centuries tick past do we humans, in any meaningful sense, advance the circumstances of our existence?

For the iconic British philosopher John Gray, the answer is an emphatic no. Sure, says Gray, across the course of our history we’ve accumulated knowledge and realised new technologies. But they just as often make us worse – more destructive, say, or selfish, or environmentally damaging – as they do better. According to Gray, human history isn’t a story of progress. Rather it’s one long, directionless muddle.

In the R21 vaccine, I can’t help but see a signal of the ways in which Gray is wrong.

Gray objects, in particular, to a notion that he says holds many in the Global North spellbound. That is, the idea that humanity is marching towards a Universal Civilisation: one that looks just like the liberal democracies practised in industrialised nations. In short, says Gray, people in the Global North tend to think it’s only a matter of time until every country becomes a version of Switzerland. But it’s a fantasy. On that, he’s surely right. Humans are too complex, and our cultures too various, for any one form of society to satisfy us all forever.

But it’s a mistake to let that insight transmute into another. That is, the idea that there is no such thing as progress in any sense. We’re not advancing towards the Universal Civilisation. But we are, slowly, making the world a better home for humans. A world in which deaths from malaria have been radically reduced is inarguably better than one in which it kills hundreds of thousands a year. This is a real, and powerful, form of progress.

Perhaps, as so often happens, it’s our terminology that’s befuddling us here. The word progress implies movement towards a known, and fixed, goal. But the shared human future isn’t like that. There’s no final destination. No End of History waiting for us, if only we search hard enough.

Amid that, though, it’s impossible to see innovations such as R21 and believe that the human story is entirely directionless. Human values are complex, and sometimes contradictory. But over time we are able, uniquely among the creatures of Earth, to make lasting changes that cause the world to behave in ways that align more closely with those values.

Yes, we’re groping our way in the darkness. But we are moving towards something better.


Keep Moving

Thanks for reading this week.

The news on R21 is heartening. But when it comes to making the world a better home for humans, we still have a long walk ahead.

This newsletter will keep working to make sense of that journey as it unfolds. And there’s one thing you can do to help with that mission: share!

Now that you’ve made it to the end of this week’s instalment, please consider forwarding the email to someone who’d also enjoy it. Or share it across one of your social networks, with a note on why you found it valuable. Remember: the larger and more diverse the NWSH community becomes, the better for all of us!

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I’ll be back on Wednesday with another New Week Same Humans. Until then, be well,

David.


David Mattin is the founder of the Strategy and Futures Research Unit. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.