The world is better today because of the Enlightenment, yet people attack reason, science, humanism, and progress when these things should be celebrated.
One of the bits of wisdom from the Scientific Revolution is that misfortune is no one’s fault. Bad things sometimes happen for no reason other than the universe is indifferent to human suffering. There’s no point looking around for someone to blame when an earthquake happens. Entropy ensures there’s more ways for things to go wrong than for things to go right.
No one is to blame for poverty. This is the default state of humankind given the effects of entropy and evolution. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing. Living things do all they can to avoid being eaten.
Some attack Enlightenment ideals for being Western, but similar ideas have been proposed all throughout the world. The Romantic movement pushed back against the Enlightenment favoring emotion over reason and religion over science. Since religion values souls over lives, martyrdom is celebrated and there’s no reason to improve the here and now. Religion encourages people to just put up with the horrors of life without trying to fix them. Nationalism is also anti-humanism. The individual is encouraged to sacrifice and die for their country, to put the group’s needs above their own.
People think the world is getting worse when it’s really getting better. Americans think crime is on the rise when violent crime has actually plummeted almost every year from 1992 through 2015.
The fact that news focuses on the negative is partly to blame. You never see a correspondent reporting that a particular country isn’t at war. The nature of news is to report things that happen, not what doesn’t happen. Also good news (like longer life expectancy) gradually unfolds over decades, while bad news tends to be instantaneous and thus more newsworthy.
People are more afraid of flying than driving even though driving is far more dangerous. This is partly because the news focuses on rare events like plane crashes and not on common events like car crashes.
Humans are bad at estimating risk and news paints a distorted view of reality. Heavy news watchers are more afraid of crime even though it’s declining. News junkies tend to misperceive risk, have higher anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, and contempt and hostility towards others.
Our own cognitive biases also make us more pessimistic. We have a negativity bias. It’s easier to imagine bad things happening than good. We dread losses more than we look forward to gains and we dwell on setbacks more than we savor good fortune. We’re more stung by criticism than heartened by praise. The English language has far more words for negative emotions than positive ones. Pessimism is associated with being intellectual even though the optimistic worldview is more reality-based.
The solution is to not automatically trust the news or our biased instincts, but rather to look at the numbers. Measure things like crime, poverty, and life expectancy and see if they go up or down over time.
For most of human history, the average life expectancy was around 30. Today it’s over 70. Starting in the 19th century, life expectancy shot up and it continues to do so. Two centuries ago, the country with the highest life expectancy was 40, now the country with the lowest life expectancy is 45. Between 2003 and 2013 in Kenya alone, life expectancy increased by almost 10 years.
Infant mortality has been around 50 percent for most of human history. Today, the global rate is less than 4 percent. Life expectancy is up even if you don’t count infant mortality. Maternal mortality has declined. And we’re healthier for more years than our ancestors as well, so reaching an old age doesn’t mean we’re infirm. In America between 2000 to 2012, dementia fell by a quarter and the average age of diagnosis rose.
Today we’ve forgotten how horrible disease can be. Karl Landsteiner saved a billion lives by his discovery of blood groups, but he’s hardly the household name he deserves to be. The chlorination of water has saved 177 million lives, smallpox eradication has saved 131 million, the measles vaccine has saved 120 million. Malaria was responsible for killing half the people who ever lived, but now fewer and fewer people die from it thanks to science.
Famine has been the norm for most of human history. Starving to death was common and many people throughout history have resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Human flesh was even sold at market during the 1630 famine in India.
Famine and undernourishment continue to happen today, but kill far less people. Unlike some predicted in the 1960s, saving lives from starvation didn’t lead to a population explosion. For one thing, people not living in poverty tend to have less children because more of their children survive infancy. For another thing, children dying of famine doesn’t really reduce the population because people continue to have kids to replace the ones who died.
Since the birth of agriculture ten thousand years ago, humans have used selective breeding to genetically engineer their food. The wild ancestor of corn was a grass with a few tough seeds. Carrots originally looked and tasted like dandelion root.
Agricultural improvements have lead to more food. In the mid 19th century, it took 25 men a full day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain. Today, one person operating a combine harvester can do it in 6 minutes. Two chemists, Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber created a way to turn nitrogen into fertilizer on an industrial scale, saving 2.7 billion lives. Norman Borlaug created better wheat, rice, and corn through selective breeding combined with modern farming techniques. This lead to the Green Revolution which saved the lives of a billion people who would have died of famine.
Genetically engineered food can accomplish in days what traditional farming accomplished in millennia. However, some environmentalists, indifferent to famine, oppose GMOs, even though all food is genetically modified. The phrase “natural farming” is an oxymoron. Farming is a method of changing nature. Organic farming requires more land than conventional farming, so it’s neither green nor sustainable.
In preindustrial Europe, buying clothes was a luxury for common people. For most of history, most people were poor. Wealth doesn’t just exist to be divided up, it needs to be created. This didn’t happen in a meaningful way until the industrial revolution. Capitalism has led to most people in the world no longer living in poverty. In 1800, 95 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. Today, it’s only 10 percent.
Poverty has declined due to the fall of communism, dictators, and wars and the rise of globalization. Larger trading networks made possible by technology make everyone better off. Science and technology have reduced poverty perhaps more than anything.
As bad as factory jobs are, they’re far better than working in the fields, evidenced by the fact poor people in developing countries always flock to factory jobs when they become available. It’s debatable whether foreign aid in the form of money helps or hurts since it tends to enrich corrupt government and it competes with local commerce. However, all agree donating technology and scientific knowledge definitely help developing countries.
Was the increased worldwide wealth all going to the rich? Economic inequality has increased in English-speaking countries since 1980. In the US, the share of income going to the richest 1 percent grew from 8 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2015.
However, inequality doesn’t mean the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Rich and poor can both get richer. Wealth isn’t a zero sum game. It’s not a finite resource. Wealth continually gets created. While inequality has risen, so has nearly everyone’s wealth, so we’re better off than we were in the 1950s. The rich have gotten rich faster, but the poor and middle class have gotten richer too. Also, while inequality has been increasing in English-speaking countries, inequality is down worldwide.
From the Renaissance to the early 20th century, European countries spent 1.5 percent of GDP on social spending such as health, education, and poor relief. It’s now 22 percent on average. While capitalist countries could do more to help the poor, they’re helping more than they used to.
Republicans complain about social spending, but despite their talk, they know doing away with Medicaid, Medicare, or Obamacare would cost them reelection. Social programs are extremely popular. Tellingly, the number of libertarian paradises in the world (developed countries without substantial social spending) is zero.
With regards to environmental problems, Pinker has faith technology will save us and says those who disagree have faith in stasis. People in the sixties warned that the population bomb would mean less food and resources and lead to famine, but human ingenuity saved us. Change is always inevitable, so extrapolating current use of a resource into the future doesn’t make sense. Humans have always changed the way we do things before a resource runs out.
Since 1970, when the EPA was established, the US population grew by 40 percent, people drove twice as many miles, and people became two and a half times richer, however air pollution has dropped by two thirds and energy use has leveled off due to improved efficiency. This disproves both the liberal claim that only reduced growth can stop pollution and the conservative claim that environmental protection hurts the economy.
We have cleaner air, cleaner water, and less deforestation now. On average, the wealthier a country is, the cleaner its environment. As poor countries become richer, they also experience less pollution. Oil spills have vastly declined from more than 100 in 1973 to just 5 in 2016 due to incremental improvements in safety and technology. An area double the size of the United States is protected now in the form of wildlife refuges, national parks, and so forth. Many species have been saved from extinction.
This doesn’t mean that everything is OK, that things get better on their own, or that we don’t need to do anything. Things are better due to lots of people working really hard and we must continue to do so. However, we don’t have to be pessimistic. It’s possible to improve the world and be optimistic at the same time.
Also helping the environment, we’re less materialistic now. Digital technology is replacing physical items like books and music records. Cars are no longer considered status items (half of American 18-year-olds don’t even have a driver’s license). Wireless technology means we no longer need telephone poles and wires everywhere. The cell phone alone has replaced dozens of products such as cameras, alarm clocks, calculators, maps, camcorders, etc. Social media has led to people bragging more about experiences they’ve had than physical items they own. More people live in cities which means they take up less land, use less fuel to commute, and use less resources for building and heating. Our annual usage of material is declining.
Global warming is a huge problem, but it’s one that can be solved with carbon tax, switching to nuclear (which is the safest form of energy production), carbon capture (such as planting more forests), or even spraying sulfates, calcite, or sea water into the air to reflect sunlight (mimicking the effects of volcanic eruptions which temporarily reduce global temperatures.) However, this last idea isn’t a solution to this problem, just a Band-Aid to give us more time to make the big fixes.
Pinker admits the rate of war deaths has gone up in the seven years since he published The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it’s still lower than the amount of war deaths in the 1980s. While we cannot predict if another very destructive war will occur, the size of armed forces and military spending (as a percentage of GDP) have decreased, indicating nations are becoming less warlike. Also, trading countries are less likely to go to war, and trade has gone up since the end of WW2. Democratic countries are less likely to fight each other and the number of democratic countries has gone up.
Murder and crime have declined due to an effective rule of law based on legitimate law enforcement, fair adjudication, moderate punishment, and humane prisons. Technology like outdoor lighting, security cameras, and better locks reduce opportunity for crime, and criminals can be taught impulse control through cognitive behavioral therapy.
Traffic accidents have fallen 24-fold from 1921 to today due to safety features like seat belts and guard rails, traffic law enforcement, and stricter drunk driving laws. Since 1980, about 650,000 Americans have survived who would have died if traffic fatalities remained the same.
The horse era was even more dangerous than the car era. Horses were often underfed, nervous in cities, and flogged to exhaustion by pitiless drivers. Runaway horses trampling people was common. The fatality rate during the horse era was twenty times higher than that of the modern car era.
Pedestrian deaths have fallen as well. It’s six times safer to walk today than it was 1927. Planes are a hundred times safer than they were in 1970. Accidental deaths due to falls, fire, and drowning have all dropped over the last century due to guard rails, warning signs, safer flooring and ladders, life jackets, life guards, professional firefighters, smoke detectors, fire alarms, etc.
Poisoning deaths have gone up since the 1960s due to drug overdoses. The opioid epidemic in the 1990s was particularly deadly. Interestingly, the group most like to die of a drug overdose in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and today are Baby Boomers. Teen drug use has actually gone down.
Workplace deaths have dropped from 20,000 in 1929 to 5,000 in 2015. Deaths from natural disasters have also dropped due to early warning systems, better buildings, better medical care, etc. Natural disasters continue to be devastating to poor countries (Haiti has 10 times as many hurricane deaths as the richer Dominican Republic which is located on the same island) but as poor countries become wealthier, natural disaster deaths do go down.
Terrorism is scary, but rare. Americans are 800 times more likely to die in a car crash. Terrorism hasn’t steadily declined (it randomly jumps up and down from year to year, especially since the definition of what counts as terrorism changes), but few people die of it however you define it.
Anarchy is deadlier than tyranny. Having a tyrant in control is better than the chaos of no one in control. Of course, democracy is the least violent form of government, exerting enough power to keep people from preying on each other, without preying on people itself.
Democracies also have higher economic growth, fewer wars, healthier and better educated citizens, and virtually no famines. Today, over 100 countries are democracies. And autocracies like Russia and China are less repressive than they used to be.
The death penalty used to be common, but is now abolished in over 100 countries (and an additional 90 countries technically have it on the books, but don’t practice it). The United States is one of the few countries that still puts people to death, but executions are mainly concentrated in a few counties in the South. 30 states haven’t executed anyone in five years and even Texas has reduced executions from 40 in 2000 to just 7 in 2016. The majority of Americans no longer support the death penalty, so it’s only a matter of time before it goes away.
Surveys show people have become less racist, sexist, and homophobic over time. Google searches show less people search for racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes and the people who do are mostly the older generation. It seems like police shootings are more common because they’re more likely to be captured on video now, but police shootings have actually decreased. Prejudice has continued to decline even during Trump’s presidency.
The poverty rate for African Americans has fallen dramatically (from 55 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2011), life expectancy has risen (from 33 in 1900 to 75 in 2015), and rate of illiteracy has fallen (from 45 percent in 1900 to nearly zero today).
Hate crimes have gone down. Rape, sexual assault, and violence against women have fallen. There was only a quarter as many incidents in 2014 as there was in 1993. Too many of these crimes continue to happen, of course, but things are getting better.
In 1950, almost half the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against racial or ethnic minorities. By 2003, fewer than a fifth did. In 1900, women could only vote in New Zealand. Today, women can vote in every country men can except Vatican City. Women make up almost 40 percent of the workforce and more than a fifth of national parliaments. Homosexuality used to be a crime in nearly every country in the world, today it’s legal in nearly 100 countries.
Liberal values increase over time. Each generation is more liberal than the one before it. The most conservative region of the world today, the Islamic Middle East, is as liberal as Western Europe was in the 1960s.
What makes a country more liberal? Liberal countries are better educated, more wealthy, more urban, less inbred, more peaceful, more democratic, less corrupt, and less crime-ridden. Liberal countries have better access to information and more scientific and technological productivity.
Violence and sexual abuse of children is also on the decline, despite sensationalist news reports that make it seem more common.
Throughout most of human history, children began working as farmhands and domestics, almost from the time they could walk. In the 17th century, it was common to have a child crank a spit with a slab of meat on it over a blazing hot fire for hours at a time. And of course, children worked as factory labor during the Victorian era. People thought it was good for children to work since it kept them from being idle. Most people looked on child labor favorably until the Enlightenment.
IQ scores have risen on average 3 IQ points per decade worldwide due to better nutrition, better education, less disease, and less pollutants.
Another measure of progress is free time. For most of human history, farmers worked from sunup to sundown. While foragers hunt and gather only a few hours a day, they spend many more hours gathering firewood, carrying water, processing food, and other chores. The San of the Kalahari work at least eight hours a day six to seven days a week on food-related chores alone. So even hunter-gatherers didn’t have as much free time as we have today.
In 1870, Western Europeans worked an average of 66 hours a week. Now they work 28 fewer hours. Retirement is a recent concept. For most of history, people worked until they died. Thanks to modern conveniences like plumbing, electricity, refrigerators, washing machines, etc., the amount of time spent on housework has dropped from 58 hours a week in 1900 to 15.5 hours a week in 2011. Laundry alone took 11.5 hours a week in 1920, now it’s just 1.5.
In 1929, Americans spent more than 60 percent of their income on necessities. Now it’s only 35 percent, which leaves more disposable income. Despite popular belief, families spend more time together now than they used to. In 1924 only 45 percent of mothers spent two or more hours a day with their children. By 1999, it went up to 71 percent. Single and working mothers today spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home mothers did in 1965.
Almost half the world’s population has internet access and three quarters have mobile phones, helping people separated by distance to stay in touch.
Health, education, freedom, and leisure are prerequisites for happiness. In order to be happy, people also need to have meaning and purpose, to feel productive, and to have social connection, safety, and enough money to fulfil their needs.
In the World Values Survey, 86 percent described themselves as happy. People get happier as they get wealthier, especially those who are lifted out of poverty. The data show people have gotten happier since 1973 in tandem with their country’s rise in GDP.
Culture and geography also affect happiness. Latin America is happier than you’d expect given their income and Eastern Europe is less happy than you’d expect. Almost 90 percent of Americans rate themselves as at least pretty happy, and almost a third very happy.
People tend to get happier as they age. Happiness goes down during recessions. Millennials and Gen Xers are happier than Baby Boomers. African Americans have been getting much happier in the last 35 years.
The loneliness epidemic is a myth. Forty years of surveys show Americans spend as much time with relatives, have the same number of friends, and see them as often today as they did in the 1970s.
What counts as a mental illness has been expanded. The 1994 edition of the DSM listed three times as many disorders as it did in 1952, and fewer symptoms are required for a diagnosis. In fact, half of Americans qualify for a diagnosis under the current DSM, meaning not having a mental illness is now abnormal. However, the increasing rate of diagnosis is a sign of progress. The fact that we’re focusing on more and more minor issues means we’re more compassionate than we used to be.
The US and Russia have both been dramatically reducing the number of nuclear weapons. Nuclear stockpiles have been reduced by 85 percent.
This book was written during Trump’s first year, so Pinker comments upon the rise of populism in 2016. Populist parties entered governing coalitions in 11 European countries. The UK voted for Brexit and Trump was elected in the US, threatening progress. However, a single person can’t undo hundreds of years of progress just like that. State and local governments, other countries, and even corporations will push back because they benefit from peace, prosperity, and stability.
Due to America’s two-party system, any Republican presidential candidate will automatically get 45 percent of the popular vote. Trump only got 46 percent of the popular vote (much less than Clinton’s 48 percent), so Trump’s election is not a sign of a huge shift in voters’ attitudes.
Obama left office with a 58 percent approval rating, well above average. (As this book was written before Trump left office, Pinker doesn’t include these numbers, but if you’re curious, Trump left office with a miniscule 34 percent approval rating and never got above 50 percent at any point during his presidency.)
Elections are emotional reactions to issues of the day, not a barometer for where society is going. People who cited the economy as the most important issue were more likely to vote for Clinton, as well as people in the two lowest income brackets. Trump voters tended to be old, wealthy people afraid of immigration and terrorist attacks. Educated people were more likely to vote for Clinton since educated people are less likely to demonize people from other races and cultures and they have a respect for facts and well-reasoned arguments.
Interestingly, Trump support didn’t align with unemployment, religion, gun ownership, or proportion of immigrants as you might think. Instead, it aligned with regions of the country where people used the N word in their Google searches.
Since each generation is more liberal than the one before, authoritarianism will likely die out with the Baby Boomers. Gerrymandering and the electoral college give rural voters more influence even though they’re in the minority. As urbanization progresses, this problem will fix itself.
Since democracy, social insurance, religious tolerance, the abolition of slavery and judicial torture, the decline of war, and the expansion of civil rights are all liberal ideas, you could say we’re all liberal now. We shouldn’t forget that as bad as things are now, people in the past believed even more irrational things.
Arguing that people aren’t rational is self-refuting, since the very act of coming up with an argument is an appeal to your audience’s reason. Of course people aren’t always rational, but it’s better when we try to be. Evolution favors the reasonable. After all, hunter gatherers rely on reason to track animals. People who believe in reality have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.
The major enemy of reason today is not ignorance. Those who don’t believe in climate change (or evolution or vaccination or anything else) understand what it is. They reject the science because doing so is part of their religious or cultural identity and it helps them fit in better with their social group. Republicans can be rational about global warming if one of their own delivers the message and if the politics surrounding it is downplayed.
You can’t get someone to change their mind by lecturing at them. There are more effective ways to get through to them. Have them argue the opposite position, try to reach a consensus in a small discussion group, have a team of rivals, or agree beforehand to an empirical test. Simply asking someone to explain something (like how a toilet works) makes them realize they don’t actually know as much as they think they do. The same is true of politics. Most people opposed to Obamacare don’t actually know what it is and if you ask them to explain it, they’ll realize they have a gap in their knowledge they need to fill. People will also be less biased if they have to risk something and have to live with the consequences of their opinions.
When issues aren’t politicized, people do act rationally. People generally trust science when it isn’t a political issue. For example, the Hepatitis B vaccine wasn’t controversial, while the HPV vaccine was. They’re both sexually transmitted diseases that can lead to cancer, but HPV became political because the manufacturer lobbied state legislators to make it mandatory for adolescent women, thus politicizing it. The Hepatitis B vaccination wasn’t politicized and was simply looked at as a public health measure.
Postmodernists try to blame science for war and genocide when in fact war and genocide have both decreased ever since the advent of science. Just because people use science as an excuse to do evil things doesn’t make science itself evil. People used to use religion as an excuse for racism and slavery; this doesn’t mean religion is evil. Scientific theories are often incomplete, but it’s science that fixes them. The self-correcting nature of science is a strength, not a weakness. Scientists are human and prone to error like everybody else, but the scientific method is the best way to eliminate bias.
Pinker gets a couple things wrong. He claims white people are just as likely to get shot by police as black people, which isn’t true. He also claims Y2K was never a threat, even though it was. He also says that in the future, hundreds of diseases could be detected from a single drop of blood, which was a fraudulent claim made by Theranos. Pinker is anti-socialism, but he’s in favor of universal basic income and socialized healthcare, so I think he’s using a different definition of the word “socialism” than most people do.
So some of the things he said haven’t aged well, but overall, I think he’s right. The Enlightenment is responsible for a vast amount of human progress, and if we want things to get even better, we should continue to utilize reason, science, and humanism to the best of our abilities.