Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has a message for the world and it’s one of hope and humanity.
While we may feel more pessimistic and cynical than ever, the reality is that according to every reasonable measure, we are currently living in the greatest moments of human history.
In his new book “Enlightenment Now,” Professor Pinker ignores the terrible headlines and the bombastic news coverage and digs down into the data which has some surprising results for everyone…
In almost every way, the world is getting better. In fact, only death by poisoning (because of the ongoing opioid epidemic), is on the rise. Every other manner of death, is on the steep decline.
It’s simply a great time to be alive.
In an interview with Slate, Pinker dives deeper into the data and explains why people should be excited to live in the here and now.
The heart of the book is a set of graphs showing that measures of human well-being have improved over time. Contrary to the impression that you might get from the newspapers—that we’re living in a time of epidemics and war and crime—the curves show that humanity has been getting better, that we’re living longer, we are fighting fewer wars, and fewer people are being killed in the wars. Our rate of homicide is down. Violence against women is down. More children are going to school, girls included. More of the world is literate. We have more leisure time than our ancestors did. Diseases are being decimated. Famines are becoming rarer, so virtually anything that you could measure that you’d want to call human well-being has improved over the last two centuries, but also over the last couple of decades.
Professor Pinker also delves into the reasons that “self-flagellation” (which runs rampant among the Left in the West), is not helpful, nor is it productive.
As a society, we must be self-critical as well … which, in practice, means flagellating other people in your society. There aren’t that many people who say, “I’m a racist or a sexist.” They’re basically condemning all the other guys in their society, but simply confessing, flagellating, putting on hair shirts, making conspicuous sacrifices, that helps our social capital in our peer group. It doesn’t make other people better off. It doesn’t cure disease. It doesn’t topple tyrants. The point of propelling moral progress is obviously not to accept the status quo, but it’s to identify problems and identify the solution to the problems, not to identify villains and flagellate the villains. That is a difference.
By the way, the comment about the self-flagellation of the West pertains specifically to a set of worldwide opinion polls where the citizens of various countries were polled in terms of whether they believe in gender equality, whether they believe in rights for religious and racial minorities, and it was simply the fact that it’s actually the Western societies that are the least prejudiced, and there are actually countries like India where people have contempt for those of other faiths. It’s not an excuse for the racism and ethnocentrism that remains, but a diagnosis that says that this is a peculiar problem of the West is just factually wrong. This is, I think, part of human nature that we tend to disrespect groups other than our own, and it is one of the gifts of the Enlightenment that we are pushing back against that. By the way, it’s all countries that are improving. Just some have gone further than others.
Pinker also deals with the two biggest attacks on his work – the problems of global warming and nuclear proliferation. The interviewer contends that some would argue that the dangers we face from global warming and nuclear destruction, and that perhaps we would have been better off without this kind of “progress.” Pinker quickly explains why that kind of thinking is simply foolhardy.
The extraction of energy, mainly via fossil fuels, has until now been an enormous boon to humankind. It has led to the abolition of slavery, to the emancipation of women, to the education of children, to lengthening lifespans, to richer experiences, but obviously it can’t continue in the way it has through massive burning of fossil fuels. It’s true that if, in 100 years’ time, the planet is despoiled because no one did anything to curb greenhouse gas emissions and just continued with business as usual, then at that point you can raise the philosophical question: Would we have been better off if we stayed in a lifestyle of the middle ages, had a life expectancy of 30, and a literacy rate of 10 percent, but at least we wouldn’t have had global warming? I don’t know how you would answer that question, but we’re not at the point at which that question has to be answered.
Likewise, if there was a nuclear holocaust, then whoever survived it, looking back, can raise the question: Was it all worth it? But I don’t think we’re at the point where we have to pose the question in that way. I think we’re at the point where we have to say: Having enjoyed the benefits of science and technology, how do we avert these potential catastrophes? How do we decarbonize? How do we denuclearize? [We should] put our rhetorical energy into correcting a course that we could go on if we’re not sufficiently aware of it…
The way to deal with it is not to say, “Was progress a big mistake?” because I think that just doesn’t give us a way to go forward. It leads to what are probably imponderable questions, but rather, how do we continue a process that has already begun of extracting energy from the universe with less carbon emissions?
There is a lot to like about Professor Pinker’s work, and of course, there is a lot to disagree with as well.
However, the reality is this, for the average human living on the planet today, life is far better than it was for their ancestors just a few short years ago.
To hear more from Pinker, check out this interesting interview he gave to Dave Rubin earlier this week.
Or here is Pinker trying to explain why “Progressives” hate progress.
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