Neil Thomas, writing a defense of intelligent design, mentioned the old British satirist Thomas Peacock, who had summarized all such arguments in 1845. I hadn’t heard of Peacock, so found the book Headlong Hall and read the first few chapters. The characters are the best part; the action seemed to get a bit repetitive.
Three characters are riding in a stagecoach toward an invited dinner.
Foster the perfectibilian:
Mr. Foster, who, we must observe, was a thin gentleman, about thirty years of age, with an aquiline nose, black eyes, white teeth, and black hair — took occasion to panegyrize the vehicle in which they were then travelling, and observed what remarkable improvements had been made in the means of facilitating intercourse between distant parts of the kingdom: he held forth with great energy on the subject of roads and railways, canals and tunnels, manufactures and machinery: “In short,” said he, “every thing we look on attests the progress of mankind in all the arts of life, and demonstrates their gradual advancement towards a state of unlimited perfection.”
Escot the deteriorationist:
Mr. Escot, who was somewhat younger than Mr. Foster, but rather more pale and saturnine in his aspect, here took up the thread of the discourse, observing that the proposition just advanced seemed to him perfectly contrary to the case, “For these improvements, as you call them, appear to me only so many links in the great chain of corruption, which will soon fetter the whole human race in irreparable slavery and incurable wretchedness: your improvements proceed in a simple ratio, while the factitious wants and unnatural appetites they engender proceed in a compound one; and thus one generation acquires fifty wants, and fifty means of supplying them are invented, which each in its turn engenders two new ones; so that the next generation has a hundred, the next two hundred, the next four hundred, till every human being becomes such a helpless compound of perverted inclinations, that he is altogether at the mercy of external circumstances, loses all independence and singleness of character, and degenerates so rapidly from the primitive dignity of his sylvan origin, that it is scarcely possible to indulge in any other expectation, than that the whole species must at length be exterminated by its own infinite imbecility and vileness.
Jenkison the status-quo-ite:
“Your opinions,” said Mr. Jenkison, a round-faced little gentleman of about forty-five, seem to differ toto cælo. I have often debated the matter in my own mind, pro and con, and have at length arrived at this conclusion — that there is not in the human race a tendency either to moral perfectibility or deterioration; but that the quantities of each are so exactly balanced by their reciprocal results, that the species, with respect to the sum of good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, happiness and misery, remains exactly and perpetually in statu quo.”
I’m naturally a deteriorationist (note linear vs exponential!), but with advancing age I’m turning more into a status-quo-ite. Peacock’s 180-year-old portraits help us to see that these viewpoints are INNATE PERSONALITY TYPES, not induced by facts; though the facts of various eras do favor one viewpoint or another.
Here’s the best portrait of all, the host Squire Headlong:
The servants, unpacking all these in furious haste, and flying with them from place to place, according to the tumultuous directions of Squire Headlong and the little fat butler who fumed at his heels, chafed, and crossed, and clashed, and tumbled over one another up stairs and down. All was bustle, uproar, and confusion; yet nothing seemed to advance: while the rage and impetuosity of the Squire continued, fermenting to the highest degree of exasperation, which he signified, from time to time, by converting some newly unpacked article, such as a book, a bottle, a ham, or a fiddle, into a missile against the head of some unfortunate servant who did not seem to move in a ratio of velocity corresponding to the intensity of his master’s desires.
All was bustle, uproar, and confusion; yet nothing seemed to advance.
Brits recognize the psychopath type. This description matches precisely the character of the female psychopath in ‘Man from Room 17’ and the male psychopath in ‘Danger Man’. In fact the female version was dramatizing Peacock’s text verbatim. She was unpacking an art exhibit, fermenting against dozens of employees while her obsequious butler followed at her heels.
As mentioned before, these characters don’t appear in American literature and TV. We have grouchy bosses and cruel criminals, but we don’t see the rule-changing chaos-generating torture-loving psychopath. Nurse Ratched comes close, but she’s low intensity compared to the British examples.