Heroes of Progress: An Interview with Alex Hammond

The following is an interview conducted by Archbridge Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab Clay Routledge with Alex Hammond, author of the new book, Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World, which is out March 19, 2024.

Clay Routledge: What inspired you to write a book on the topic of human progress?

Alex Hammond: Over the past two centuries, humanity has experienced unprecedented progress. Between 1820 and 2020, extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.90 per person per day) declined by over 90 percent. Over the same period, average global life expectancy more than doubled, and illiteracy declined by over 86 percent.

Yet, despite this immense progress, most of us remain pessimistic and anxious about the state of the world. A 2020 survey by the global public opinion company YouGov asked my fellow Britons, “Generally speaking, do you think the world is becoming a better or worse place, or is it staying much the same?” A whopping 70 percent of respondents thought the world was becoming a worse place to live. Eighteen percent thought it was staying the same, and a measly four percent thought it was improving. When YouGov asked a similar question to Americans in 2016, 65 percent of respondents thought the world was worsening, and just six percent thought it was improving. Similarly, a 2022 national survey found that one-third of American adults and half of Americans under 30 report feeling anxious all or most of the time.

I believe the findings of the two studies above are inherently linked. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker notes in the foreword to the book, “s[k]epticism often breeds apathy and fatalism.” This fatalism and apathy, I would argue, underpins much of our modern-day anxiety about the state of the world and humanity’s ability to overcome the most pressing problems of our day. Therefore, the question remains: what causes this skepticism? Pursuing this question led me to write this book.

I believe, perhaps due to a post-1960s intellectual climate that deems it uncool to celebrate those who have come before and media outlets who are becoming increasingly pessimistic about humanity’s outlook, that mass skepticism is rooted in our lack of knowledge about the incredible feats of progress that have come before. As such, Heroes of Progress was written to take readers on a journey through the lives of some of the most important people and explore the societal conditions that made their innovation possible. By sharing these stories, I hope this book will cause the reader to develop a sense of gratitude for what has come before and inspiration as to the endless capacity of free individuals to transform the world for the better.

Clay: What makes someone a hero of progress, and what was your process for selecting the individuals you feature in your book?

Alex: I have defined a “hero of progress” as someone whose work saved or improved the lives of millions of people, irrespective of field or area of expertise. From agronomists whose hybrid crops saved billions of lives, intellectuals who changed public policy and removed barriers to human flourishing, business people whose inventions raised living standards and revolutionized our societies, or scientists whose medical breakthroughs eliminated diseases and ended pandemics, the book features them all—and more!

However, it should be said that despite the narrow selection criteria, the book is not all-encompassing. It is likely that many other people, dead or alive, could fit the definition of a hero of progress. One challenge in compiling the heroes is that the innovation process is usually incremental, collective, and part of a network of information and improvements built on centuries or millennia of acquired knowledge. For simplicity’s sake, I only included those who played the clearest and most important part in developing ideas, processes, change, or goods that went on to save or improve millions of lives. That said, the book attempts to highlight many unsung people who changed the world for the better and without whom, we’d all be far poorer, sicker, hungrier, ignorant, and less free.

Clay: As a psychologist interested in human progress, I appreciate your emphasis on the human mind. You write, “Nations, governments, societies, businesses, committees, groups, algorithms, and computers don’t have ideas. Ideas spring forth from the human brain.” When researching the individuals you feature, did you find any indications of possible common psychological characteristics among these heroes of progress?

Alex: Although the heroes came from many different nations, fields, and historical eras, some common characteristics are evident. The first, and likely unsurprising, trait many heroes hold is their high level of industriousness, grit, and tenacity toward pursuing what they deem meaningful. Fritz Haber, for example, conducted thousands of experiments day in and day out for over a decade just to prove that synthesizing ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen was possible. While many people would have given up on these repetitive experiments, Haber believed his work was meaningful and couldn’t be stopped. Thanks to his perseverance, Haber’s breakthrough eventually led to the widespread adoption of synthetic fertilizer, which saved hundreds of millions, if not billions, of lives.

Similarly, most heroes wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, went into fields others told them they were incapable of being in (due to background, sex, race, etc.), and took any opportunity to work on what they believed was meaningful. Take Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering as an example. Their employers didn’t allow them to spend their workday developing a vaccine for whooping cough. Instead, they tirelessly worked in their lab during evenings and weekends over the course of years to develop the vaccine. In doing so, their work helped to save over 15 million lives so far.

Another trait, particularly common for heroes who lived roughly between 1500 and 1800, was their willingness to migrate. Many heroes moved nations (often several times) to gain freedoms, networks, mentorship, or an education that simply wasn’t available in their home country.

The desire to not take no for an answer, often ignore criticism, work relentlessly, and move abroad to pursue opportunity ultimately meant many heroes were exceptionally disagreeable. Take Maurice Hilleman, the man credited with saving more lives than any other medical scientist in the 20th century. One of his mentees noted that he kept a row of shrunken heads (fake ones, made by his children) on his desk as trophies for every employee he fired from his lab. He ran his laboratory like a military unit and refused to accept mandated classes run by his employers. Yet, he developed over 40 vaccinations and created eight of the 14 recommended in the current schedules. In my opinion, if many of our heroes had been around today, they would likely have been fired or canceled long before they could make their world-changing discovery. To me, this is one of the most unexplored elements in the modern free speech debate—though that’s an article for another day!

Clay: Even if someone has an amazing idea, her or his ability to turn that idea into something truly impactful is influenced by their environment. In the book, you also emphasize the importance of freedom. Why is freedom in all its forms—from free speech to free markets—so critical to human innovation and progress?

Alex: It is only when people have agency and freedom that they can then turn their ideas into innovations. To create ideas, humans must be free to speak, publish, associate, disagree, take risks, and, most importantly, disrupt the status quo. However, Diedre McCloskey said it best when she noted that innovation “isn’t enough [for technological and material progress]. It has got to be tested whether it is profitable to work.” Therefore, a broad range of pro-market policies are needed to allow individuals to save, invest, and trade, which ensures the best innovations rise to the top and, sometimes, even change the world forever.

The price mechanism, which serves as a useful device for innovators to separate good ideas from bad, must remain undistorted for innovation to flourish. The lack of economic and social freedom and a distorted price mechanism is why, for most of human history, our relationship with innovation was sporadic, episodic, limited, and often reversible.

In the second half of the 18th century, humanity’s relationship with innovation began to change when some states in Western Europe—first the Netherlands and the United Kingdom—stopped disincentivizing innovation. They allowed their citizens to develop new ideas and contradict old ones without fear of ostracism, harassment, imprisonment, or death. These freedoms, to varying degrees, have slowly spread across the world.

As the book presents the biographies of the heroes in chronological order, it is fascinating to see that as fundamental personal and economic freedoms begin to spread across the world in the 19th, 20th, and continuing into the 21st century, the backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexes of the heroes become increasingly diverse.

Clay: You make the important point that more people means more minds, which means more ideas. There is a lot of discussion today regarding declining fertility rates. Some see this as a good trend; others see this as a bad trend, often arguing that having more humans (more minds) is actually helpful for addressing challenges such as climate change and improving life for everyone.

I would put myself in this second camp and think that even if AI, robots, and automation can help resolve some of the problems that would result from a declining population, a world with a lot fewer children is, on the whole, bad for progress because children are a powerful source of meaning and existential inspiration. They remind us that we are part of something larger and more enduring than our individual mortal lives. This has an expansive effect on our decisions by encouraging us to improve the world. Do you have thoughts on how current fertility trends might influence progress going forward?

Alex: Due to the human mind’s unique ability to build on and improve past innovations, which in turn leads to technological progress and economic growth, I agree with the late University of Maryland economist Julian Simon’s analysis that the homosapien brain is the world’s “ultimate resource.”

I am deeply concerned about the threat of declining fertility as it relates to culture, geopolitics, governance, and, most importantly, innovation and continued progress. Free nations such as South Korea, where it has been estimated that for every 100 great-grandparents, there will be just 6.6 great-grandkids, will almost certainly experience less innovation and economic growth.

However, despite declining fertility, the sheer number of human minds is just one aspect of innovation. As noted above, there must also be freedom for innovation to flourish. Consequently, given billions of people worldwide lack the freedom of speech, association, ownership, trade, investment, and ultimately, the ability to test their ideas in a marketplace, there is an unfathomable amount of untapped potential for innovation in the world today. If all unfree nations become economically and socially free tomorrow, the rate of innovation and global economic growth would be immense.

Clay: Your colleague Chelsea Follett wrote a book focused on the places where major advances occurred. Beyond freedom and population, what are important factors that help people actualize their creative and innovative ideas to become heroes of progress?

Alex: As you mention, individuals’ freedom to choose and act without oppressive or insurmountable policy hurdles is a prerequisite for innovation. However, another aspect that also determines the rate of progress is the number of individuals with the skills (education) and mindset to believe that they can pursue meaningful tasks and test or develop their ideas. Without the skills and belief that you can pursue your goal and overcome hurdles, creativity and innovation are unlikely, if not impossible. Like the number of people living in free and open societies, there is immense untapped potential among people already on this planet to become empowered with the confidence and skills to innovate.

Alexander Hammond
Alexander Hammond
Alexander C.R. Hammond is a Free Trade Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs and founder of the Initiative for African Trade and Prosperity. He is the author of Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World .