Is the world really better than ever? Steven Pinker on the case for optimism

The author of Enlightenment Now defends himself from charges of utopianism. 

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The state of the world gives much cause for pessimism, if not for despair: rampant inequality, remorseless climate change and resurgent nationalism. But in recent years a global movement has emerged to counter this grim account. The “new optimists”, as they are known, assert that humanity has advanced in almost every respect (the Swedish historian Johan Norberg, Oxford economist Max Roser and the former Northern Rock chairman Matt Ridley are among the foremost advocates).

In Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, they have found their bible. “It grew out of an epiphany I had after writing The Better Angels of Our Nature [his 2011 bestseller],” Pinker (an atheist since 13) told me when we met at One Aldwych hotel during his recent visit to London.

The Harvard psychologist, a slight, soft-spoken man, whose mop of white curls puts one in mind of Queen guitarist Brian May, explained: “I started to realise that it was not just violence in which the human condition showed improvement. It was also in prosperity, in education, in health, in longevity, in child mortality, in attitudes towards women, ethnic minorities and gay people, even time spent on housework.”

Across 576 pages, Pinker meticulously charts these developments: in the last 250 years, average global life expectancy has increased from 29 years to 71, wealth has risen 200-fold, the rate of extreme poverty has fallen from 90 per cent to 10 per cent (with half the decline in the past 35 years) and the number of people living in democracies has increased from 1 per cent to nearly two-thirds. Pinker quotes Barack Obama’s 2016 observation: “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born… you’d choose now.”

Enlightenment Now produces a statistical sugar high: one is exhilarated but unsure whether the effect is healthy. If humans have progressed, could this be partly due to judicious scepticism or even pessimism?

“I think there’s probably an optimum amount of pessimism, which current journalism tends to push us past,” Pinker replied. “The danger is fatalism: the belief that our problems are so intractable that it doesn’t matter what we do.” The other danger, he added, is radicalism: “the belief that current institutions are so hopelessly dysfunctional that our only option is to raze them to the ground.” 

Pinker, who was born in 1954 in Montreal, Canada, into a middle-class Jewish family, was a teenage anarchist but renounced his political faith after the civil unrest that followed a 1969 police strike. Enlightenment Now is a defence of liberal democracy and capitalism against radicals of all kinds: Marxists, right-wing nationalists and eco-activists (whom Pinker rebukes for their “misanthropy” and opposition to nuclear power).

In an excoriating review in last week’s New Statesman, John Gray charged Pinker with misrepresenting the Enlightenment (Gray quoted the Scottish philosopher David Hume: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”). Yet Pinker dismissed this objection. “Hume’s statement is easily misunderstood: it doesn’t mean that we should act impetuously or follow our hearts, throw caution the wind… The Enlightenment thinkers’ attitude to rationality is that what we lack individually we can approach collectively through norms and institutions.”

In a pleasingly dialectical coincidence, I interviewed the Lebanese-US philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Pinker’s most voluble critic, immediately after our meeting. “I met him at [the historian] Niall Ferguson’s wedding [in 2011],” Pinker recalled. “I was with my wife, standing in line to board a bus from the church to the reception hall, when he [Taleb] found me and started pompously lecturing me out of complete ignorance of what I’d written.”

But Pinker conceded that “black swans”, as Taleb calls them (rare but high-impact events such as the 2008 financial crisis), were a challenge to his thesis. “We have to be vigilant and minimise those risks.” He further cited “climate change, the risk of nuclear war, the rise of authoritarian populism and nationalism, and permanent economic stagnation” as the greatest obstacles to progress. Trump, Pinker said, had proved even worse than anticipated due to “the shocking compliance of the Republican Party with his programme”.

What of inequality? Unlike some new optimists, Pinker is not an economic libertarian (he cites expansive welfare states as a mark of progress) but he contends that the problem of income distribution has been overstated. “The most recent econometric studies suggest that affluence has greater predictive power for societal well-being than equality,” Pinker told me, rejecting the thesis of The Spirit Level (2009).“We should concentrate on the particular social pathologies that we want to improve”.

Pinker emphasised that progress did not equate to “living in a utopia” (700 million people, he noted, remain in extreme poverty). Yet his defiant assertion is that only by understanding the history of progress can we create the conditions for its future. How optimistic is he? “I like the phrase used by Hans Rosling [the late Swedish data guru]: I consider myself a ‘serious possibilist’. It’s very hard to prognosticate what will happen, but if you know that it can happen you can mobilise your energy into trying to make it happen.”

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left