Don’t listen to the gloom-sayers. The world has improved by every measure of human flourishing over the past two centuries, and the progress continues, writes Steven Pinker.
Such gloominess is decidedly un-American. The U.S. was founded on the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress.
.. You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare rose-tinted images of the past with bleeding headlines of the present.
.. Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.
Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.
.. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion.
That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.
.. Through most of human history, continuing into the 19th century, a newborn was expected to live around 30 years. In the two centuries since, life expectancy across the world has risen to 71, and in the developed world to 81.
When the Enlightenment began, a third of the children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today, that fate befalls 6% of the children in the poorest parts.
.. The poor may not always be with us. The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago
.. Within developed countries, inequality is rising, but real poverty is not. A century ago, the richest countries devoted 1% of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it.
.. Despite backsliding in countries like Russia, Turkey and Venezuela, the long-term trend in governance is toward democracy and human rights.
.. At the turn of the 20th century, women could vote in just one country; today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one (Vatican City).
.. And despite the panic about “kids today” (heard in every era), younger generations are less unhappy, lonely, drug-addicted and suicidal than their Boomer parents.
.. The answer is less mysterious: The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.
.. Secular liberal democracies are the happiest and healthiest places on earth, and the favorite destinations of people who vote with their feet.
My friend Tyler Cowen argues that Jordan Peterson is the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now, and he has a point. Peterson, a University of Toronto psychologist, has found his real home on YouTube, where his videos have attracted something like 40 million views.
In his videos, he analyzes classic and biblical texts, he eviscerates identity politics and political correctness and, most important, he delivers stern fatherly lectures to young men on how to be honorable, upright and self-disciplined — how to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives.
.. His worldview begins with the belief that life is essentially a series of ruthless dominance competitions. The strong get the spoils and the weak become meek, defeated, unknown and unloved.
For much of Western history, he argues, Christianity restrained the human tendency toward barbarism. But God died in the 19th century, and Christian dogma and discipline died with him. That gave us the age of ideology, the age of fascism and communism — and with it, Auschwitz, Dachau and the gulag.
.. Since most conflict is over values, we’ve decided to not have any values. We’ll celebrate relativism and tolerance.
.. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.”
.. Life is suffering, Peterson reiterates. Don’t be fooled by the naïve optimism of progressive ideology. Life is about remorseless struggle and pain. Your instinct is to whine, to play the victim, to seek vengeance.
.. “The individual must conduct his or her life in a manner that requires the rejection of immediate gratification, of natural and perverse desires alike.”
.. Instead, choose discipline, courage and self-sacrifice.
.. Much of Peterson’s advice sounds to me like vague exhortatory banality. Like Hobbes and Nietzsche before him, he seems to imagine an overly brutalistic universe, nearly without benevolence, beauty, attachment and love. His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional. I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice.