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.
Mr. Gates readily acknowledged that the person he is today is not one he would have recognized when he was in his 20s and single-mindedly building Microsoft. “I was a zealot,” he said. “I didn’t believe in weekends. I didn’t believe in vacations. I knew everybody’s license plate so I knew when they were coming and going. That was my life: doing great software.”
.. Plus, you don’t want a tech company run by somebody in their 60s. At least I didn’t want to. I ended up retiring at 53.
.. But for a young man in his 20s, writing software night and day may be the best way to add to human welfare. I’d never heard of vaccines. I didn’t have any money. But the personal computer, the internet, hey, that’s what I was good at. And I enjoyed doing it every day.
.. I came across statistics that homicide rates in the Middle Ages were about 35 times what they are today in Europe. When I posted this online, I started receiving correspondence citing more examples: The rate of death in warfare has come down by a factor of 20 since 1945. Domestic violence is down. Child abuse is going down. I was sitting on all these data sets showing reductions in violence that few people were aware of that I thought ought to be better known.
.. That “things getting better” is the greatest story that no one knows.
.. there’s the idea that we can’t want something good for ourselves without wanting it for everyone.
.. What makes Papua New Guinea — where there’s no police and revenge after revenge — different from Western society is that when we give ourselves over to the law, we want it to be executed impartially. We gain stability. But if you could get your son off, of course you’ll try.
.. the proposition, Philip — which comes from Spinoza. He said those under the influence of reason desire nothing for themselves that they do not desire for all humankind. But reason is not a powerful part of human nature. Innately, we favor family over strangers, our tribe over other tribes. It’s only when we’re called upon to justify our beliefs — not consult our gut feelings, but convince others of the right way to act — that we conclude that all lives have equal value.
.. when you consider a radical change, like “Hey, let’s tear up the global trade agreements; they’re a disaster,” you’re more likely to implement it if you think things are getting worse. “Let’s tear up the treaties. Let’s try a nondemocratic approach.” Your willingness to go off the current path is much, much higher.
.. There’s a tendency in journalism and political debates to assume that it’s easy to achieve a perfect society: “Good people would do that.” The fact that we don’t means that evil people must be running the system: “Let’s throw them out and find nobler ones.” This leads to empowering charismatic despots and destroying institutions that have done a lot of good.
.. I’m sure Bill gets this all the time: “Why throw money at the developing world? They’re just going to have more babies and be just as poor.”
.. What indicator improves even faster than reduction in violence? Our distaste for violence. We’re more upset about it today. If I see someone spanking a kid — I’m stealing from Steven’s book — I might get up and say: “Hey, wait a minute!” Forty years ago, it might have been more like: “Do you want to borrow my belt?”
.. Extreme global poverty has been reduced from 90 percent 200 years ago to 10 percent today.
.. The person who invents an affordable and efficient toilet should be made a saint.
Think how much human happiness will be granted, how much human suffering eliminated. We should think quantitatively; it’s the morally enlightened way. But it’s not the way our brains evolved when we make moral evaluations.
.. One of the biggest enemies of reason is tribalism. When people subscribe to an ideology, they suck up evidence that supports their preconceptions and filter out evidence that goes against them. Contrary to the belief of most scientists that denial of climate change is an effect of scientific illiteracy, it is not at all correlated with scientific literacy. People who believe in man-made climate change don’t know any more about climate or science than those who deny it. It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation
.. But I’m optimistic. I do think awareness of how things have worked is important to recreate a conservative center — that is, make us careful about what we change.
.. innovation is not viewed as an unalloyed way to improve the human condition. And that’s fair, because it’s not pure. Does social media split us into tribes in a way that’s dangerous? Does it create, even in high school social circles, a channel for bullying, or a desire to look perfect in photos?
.. There are certain things that governments are always going to do better than private innovators. Basic research, for instance.
.. PG: Name a problem we may think of as intractable that you’re optimistic about solving in the near future.
SP: War between countries. Civil wars are harder to eliminate because there are so many insurgent and militia forces. But there are only 192 countries. They could agree not to declare war on each other. I think we’re on the way.
Steven Pinker has spent an entire academic career thinking deeply about language, cognition, and human nature. Driving it all, he says, is an Enlightenment belief that the world is intelligible, science can progress, and through rational inquiry we can better understand ourselves.
He recently joined Tyler for a conversation not only on the power of reason, but also the economics of irrational verbs, whether violence will continue to decline, behavioral economics, existential threats, the merits of aerobic exercise, photography, group selection, Fermi’s paradox, Noam Chomsky, universal grammar, free will, the Ed Sullivan show, and why people underrate the passive (or so it is thought).
.. Let me ask you a general question. Let’s say it were possible by spending $10,000 and devoting a few months of your life to it that any person on earth could blow up a significant part of a major city.
They could buy something, some kind of explosive. It would cost them $10,000. How long would it take before someone actually did this?
PINKER: Anywhere on earth?
COWEN: Anywhere on earth. Seven billion people on earth. Any one of them that can come up with the $10K and have a desire to do it, which is not most people of course. How long would it take before this would happen?
PINKER: Oh, I have no idea. By blow up, do you mean like the Tsarnaev brothers? Or do you mean like Hiroshima?
COWEN: Like Hiroshima.
PINKER: Someone on earth anywhere. Maybe not too long. I don’t know. I couldn’t really prophecy that.
COWEN: Let me then work back from that and ask you about your optimism about peace. Is it then your belief it will never be that cheap to blow things up?
PINKER: I don’t know. My optimism doesn’t consist of prophecy in that sense. That is, my optimism consists of looking at what has happened and noting that, first of all, the pessimistic view is factually incorrect. Namely, people believe that we’re living in unusually violent times and we’re not.
.. What I call the euphemism treadmill refers to the fact that the reason there often is a cycling is that the change in attitudes that you want to affect by changing the language will meet resistance in terms of the rest of our psychology. I don’t think it’s true that language determines your attitudes and beliefs, although it can push against them.
As long as there’s still some kind of negative connotation to an entity, then changing the label for it will just result in the new label picking up the emotional aura of the concept rather than the other way around.
As long as there is prejudice against African Americans where the connotation is not as positive as you’d like it to be, there will be the urge to find a new label that has not yet absorbed the taint of the existing one.