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Progress makes perfect?

Or so say those who hold to the idea of human perfectability. But even in an era of remarkable human progress, the human condition has not changed since the Fall of man

Issue: "2000: The Millennium," July 31, 1999

When William, Duke of Normandy, and his band of freebooting adventurers set out to conquer Britain in 1066, one of the toughest parts of the task was crossing the English Channel, which took several days and cost quite a few lives. Now, travelers can hop on the train in London and arrive in Paris three hours later. Modern adventurers can more nearly duplicate William's itinerary by taking the hydrofoil from Cherbourg in Normandy to Portsmouth, England, in about an hour. That's progress, no doubt about it.

When Marco Polo headed east out of Venice in the 13th century on a journey that brought him to the court of the great Khan in China years later, he surely would not have believed that one day men would circle the globe in less than 24 hours, and be able to go to the moon in little more. That, too, is real progress.

When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg to draw attention to the truth of God's Word and its distortion by many church leaders, he could not have conceived of Billy Graham speaking the same truth to millions of people all over the world instantaneously via television. More progress.

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When the physicians in the Italian city of Sorrento banded together in 1151 and took an oath, based on the writings of an ancient Greek named Hippocrates, which bound them to "do no harm" to their patients and to protect human life at all costs, they could not have even dreamed that one day Dr. Christiaan Barnard would take their pledge to a higher plane by replacing a diseased human heart with another taken from a person who had recently died. Amazing progress.

When Johannes Gutenberg set the type for his Bible, using movable type for the first time, in 1453, the number of copies printed was less than 100. Now the press run of WORLD is 100,000 copies each week. It took weeks to hand set the type and several days to print just one full copy of the Bible on Gutenberg's press. Late 20th-century presses can print a good-sized book in two minutes.

Back to those Norman knights again. Their most effective weapons were the long sword and the bow and arrow. It was an arrow that struck the English King Harald in the eye, in fact, that sealed the Norman conquest. How would William the Conqueror react to William Jefferson Clinton's airstrikes that pulverized Belgrade with great efficiency and accuracy from a distance of 15,000 feet in the air? King Harald was no less dead than a Serb soldier who was in the way of a bomb or a cruise missile, but it was sure a lot more comfortable for President Clinton to issue his commands than it was for Duke William.

We live in an age of unprecedented change. With every development in the scientific and technical realm the next and more revolutionary change draws nearer and seems to happen sooner. As recently as the beginning of this century, men and women thought in terms of definite limitations on all aspects of life-how long they might live, how far they might travel, how much wealth they might amass, how many children they might have-but now we live in an age in which we are tempted to believe that there just are not any limitations. Thirty years ago Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, which demonstrated the ever increasing pace of change in almost every aspect of life: "The world of today ... is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caesar's. I was born in the middle of human history, to date, roughly. Almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before."

But, while all of this "upward and onward" spirit has dominated the headlines and altered the lifestyles and expectations of people all over the earth, what has been going on "inside"? Some believe that just as printing presses and the weapons of war have been perfected and constantly upgraded, so too must people be upgraded into more efficient and effective organisms. After all, we now have transplants of organs and the replacement of defective body parts. And men have "created" life in the cloning of sheep and mice. It can't be long, some think, before the "cure" is found for cancer and every other disease that now cuts off life. Soon, it is believed, we will be able to create individuals to specification.

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