The Gifts of Modernity
(Or "The World Is Not A Flaming Dumpster")
Yet More Excerpts from Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
When I got to the end, I found I'd highlighted a quarter of this book. Rereading the sections I'd highlighted, I found I had to do second-order highlighting of the most critical-to-remember bits of the best bits. Herewith those. This isn't a thorough survey of this book and its arguments, but it's a good sample. And, critically, I suggest Pinker brings some direly needed evidence-based analysis to our conversation about politics and the human condition overshadowing even his prior book in telling the most important human story not nearly enough people know.
Exchange can make an entire society not just richer but nicer, because in an effective market it is cheaper to buy things than to steal them, and other people are more valuable to you alive than dead. ("If the tailor goes to war against the baker, he must henceforth bake his own bread.")
ENTRO(PY), EVO(LUTION), INFO(RMATION)
Poverty, too, needs no explanation. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth. Yet even today, discussions of poverty consist mostly of arguments about whom to blame for it.
People are by nature illiterate and innumerate. They underestimate the prevalence of coincidence. They generalize from paltry samples, namely their own experience, and they reason by stereotype. They infer causation from correlation. They are not so much intuitive scientists as intuitive lawyers and politicians, marshaling evidence that confirms their convictions while dismissing evidence that contradicts them. They overestimate their own knowledge, understanding, rectitude, competence, and luck.
For all the flaws in human nature, it contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits. Among those norms are free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgment of human fallibility, and among the institutions are science, education, media, democratic government, international organizations, and markets. Not coincidentally, these were the major brainchildren of the Enlightenment.
To say that violence has gone down is to be naïve, sentimental, idealistic, romantic, starry-eyed, Whiggish, utopian, a Pollyanna, a Pangloss.
No, to look at data showing that violence has gone down and say "Violence has gone down" is to describe a fact. To look at data showing that violence has gone down and say "Violence has gone up" is to be delusional. To ignore data on violence and say "Violence has gone up" is to be a know-nothing.
Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All of these things can be measured. And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.
"The improvements in health among the global poor in the last few decades are so large and widespread that they rank among the greatest achievements in human history. Rarely has the basic well-being of so many people around the world improved so substantially, so quickly. Yet few people are even aware that it is happening."
Part of the explanation lies in economic development. Part lies in the expanding circle of sympathy, which inspired global leaders such as Bill Gates, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton to make their legacy the health of the poor in distant continents rather than glittering buildings close to home. But the most powerful contributor was science.
In 1909 Carl Bosch perfected a process invented by Fritz Haber which used methane and steam to pull nitrogen out of the air and turn it into fertilizer on an industrial scale, replacing the massive quantities of bird poop that had previously been needed to return nitrogen to depleted soils. Those two chemists top the list of the 20th-century scientists who saved the greatest number of lives in history, with 2.7 billion.
Hundreds of studies, every major health and science organization, and more than a hundred Nobel laureates have testified to their safety (unsurprisingly, since there is no such thing as a genetically unmodified crop). Yet traditional environmentalist groups, with what the ecology writer Stewart Brand has called their "customary indifference to starvation," have prosecuted a fanatical crusade to keep transgenic crops from people not just from whole-food gourmets in rich countries but from poor farmers in developing ones.
Technology doesn't just improve old things; it invents new ones. How much did it cost in 1800 to purchase a refrigerator, a musical recording, a bicycle, a cell phone, Wikipedia, a photo of your child, a laptop and printer, a contraceptive pill, a dose of antibiotics? The answer is: no amount of money in the world.
In two hundred years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10.
Everyone is living longer regardless of income. In the richest country two centuries ago (the Netherlands), life expectancy was just forty, and in no country was it above forty-five. Today, life expectancy in the poorest country (the Central African Republic) is fifty-four, and in no country is it below forty-five.
Though it's easy to sneer at national income as a shallow and materialistic measure, it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing most obviously, longevity, health, and nutrition. Less obviously, it correlates with higher ethical values like peace, freedom, human rights, and tolerance. Richer countries on average fight fewer wars, are more likely to become and stay democratic, have greater respect for human rights and "emancipative" or liberal values such as women's equality, free speech, gay rights, participatory democracy, and protection of the environment.
In another example of progress, sometimes called the Egalitarian Revolution, modern societies now devote a substantial chunk of their wealth to health, education, pensions, and income support. Social spending now takes up a median of 22 percent of their GDPs. The explosion in social spending has redefined the mission of government: from warring and policing to also nurturing.
A second realization of the ecomodernist movement is that industrialization has been good for humanity. It has fed billions, doubled life spans, slashed extreme poverty, and, by replacing muscle with machinery, made it easier to end slavery, emancipate women, and educate children.
The third premise is that the tradeoff that pits human well-being against environmental damage can be renegotiated by technology. How to enjoy more [stuff] with less pollution and land is itself a technological problem, and one that the world is increasingly solving.
As countries first develop, they prioritize growth over environmental purity. But when they can afford both electricity and clean air, they'll spring for the clean air.
The team that brings clean and abundant energy to the world will benefit humanity more than all of history's saints, heroes, prophets, martyrs, and laureates combined. Breakthroughs in energy may come from startups founded by idealistic inventors, from the skunk works of energy companies, or from the vanity projects of tech billionares, especially if they have a diversified portfolio of safe bets and crazy moonshots.
War may be just another obstacle an enlightened species learns to overcome, like pestilence, hunger, and poverty. Though conquest may be tempting in the short term, it's ultimately better to figure out how to get what you want without the costs of destructive conflict and the inherent hazards of living by the sword, namely that if you are a menace to others you have given them an incentive to destroy you first. Over the long run, a world in which all parties refrain from war is better for everyone. Inventions such as trade, democracy, economic development, peacekeeping forces, and international law and norms are tools that help build that world.
The almost 5,000 pedestrians killed in 2014 is still a shocking toll (just compare it to the 44 killed by terrorists to much greater publicity), but it's better than the 15,500 who were mowed down in 1937, when the country had two-fifths as many people and far fewer cars. And the biggest salvation is to come. Within a decade of this writing, most new cars will be driven by computers rather than by slow-witted and scatterbrained humans. When robotic cars are ubiquitous, they could save more than a million lives a year, becoming one of the greatest gifts to human life since the invention of antibiotics.
And what about the very archetype of an act of God? The projectile that Zeus hurled down from Olympus? The standard idiom for an unpredictable date with death? The literal bolt from the blue? Yes, thanks to urbanization and to advances in weather prediction, safety education, medical treatment, and electrical systems, there has been a thirty-seven-fold decline since the turn of the 20th century in the chance that an American will be killed by a bolt of lightning.
In 2015 an American was more than 350 times as likely to be killed in a police-blotter homicide as in a terrorist attack, 800 times as likely to be killed in a car crash, and 3,000 times as likely to die in an accident of any kind. (Among categories of accident that typically kill more than 44 people in a given year are "Lightning," "Contact with hot tap water," "Contact with hornets, wasps, and bees," "Bitten or struck by mammals other than dogs," "Drowning and submersion while in or falling into bathtub," and "Ignition or melting of clothing and apparel other than nightwear.")
A good democratic government allows people to pursue their lives in safety, protected from the violence of anarchy, and in freedom, protected from the violence of tyranny. For that reason alone, democracy is a major contributor to human flourishing. But it's not the only reason: democracies also have higher rates of economic growth, fewer wars and genocides, healthier and better-educated citizens, and virtually no famines. If the world has become more democratic over time, that is progress.
Court watchers believe it is only a matter of time befor the Justices are forced to confront the caprice of the whole macabre practice head on, invoke "evolving standards of decency," and strike [the death penalty] down as a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment once and for all. [It] makes it seem as if there really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice. We are seeing a moral principle Life is sacred become distributed across a wide range. The pathways are manifold and tortuous, the effects are slow and then sudden, but in the fullness of time an idea from the Enlightenment can transform the world.
By now you should be skeptical about reading history from the headlines. The number of police shootings has decreased, not increased, and three independent analyses have found that a black suspect is no more likely than a white suspect to be killed by the police. (American police shoot too many people, but it's not primarily a racial issue.)
As indefensible or unworkable ideas fall by the wayside, they are removed from the pool of thinkable options, even among those who like to think that they think the unthinkable, and the political fringe is dragged forward despite itself. That's why even in the most regressive political movement in recent American history there were no calls for reinstating Jim Crow laws, ending women's suffrage, or recriminalizing homosexuality.
Even if we did invent superhumanly intelligent robots, why would they want to enslave their masters or take over the world? Intelligence is the ability to deploy novel means to attain a goal. But the goals are extraneous to the intelligence. There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors. Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They're called women.
THE FUTURE OF PROGRESS
A third [promise] is the economic empowerment of billions of people through smartphones, online education, and microfinancing. Among the world's bottom billion are a million people with a genius-level IQ. Just think what the world would look like if their brainpower were put to full use!
Trump proposed to relax libel laws against journalists, encouraged violence against his critics at his rallies, would not commit to respecting the outcome of the 2016 election if went against him, tried to discredit the popular vote count that did go against him, threatened to imprison his opponent in the election, and attacked the legitimacy of the judicial system when it challenged his decisions all hallmarks of a dictator.
The problem with dystopian rhetoric is that if people believe that the country is a flaming dumpster, they will be receptive to the perennial appeal of demagogues: "What do you have to lose?" If the media and intellectuals instead put events into statistical and historical context, they could help answer that question. A liberal democracy is a precious achievement. Until the messiah comes, it will always have problems, but it's better to solve those problems than to start a conflagration and hope that something better arises from the ashes. By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers who can consolidate the tremendous progress we have enjoyed and strengthen the conditions that will bring us more.
The reactionary fringe of conservatism, recently disinterred by Trumpists and the European far right, believes that Western civilization has careened out of control since some halcyon century, having abandoned the moral clarity of traditional Christendom for a decadent secular fleshpot that, if left on its current course, will soon implode from terrorism, crime, and anomie. Well, that's wrong. Life before the Enlightenment was darkened by starvation, plagues, superstitions, maternal and infant mortality, marauding knight warlords, sadistic torture-executions, slavery, witch hunts, and genocidal crusades, conquests, and wars of religion. Good riddance. The arcs in figures 5-1 through 18-4 show that as ingenuity and sympathy have been applied to the human condition, life has gotten longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting. Problems remain, but problems are inevitable.
The left, too, has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism. Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st. Over the same time span, communism brought the world terror-famines, purges, gulags, genocides, Chernobyl, megadeath revolutionary wars, and North Korea-style poverty before collapsing everywhere else of its own internal contradictions. Yet in a recent survey 18 percent of social science professors identified themselves as Marxist, and the words capitalist and free market still stick in the throats of most intellectuals. Partly this is because their brains autocorrect these terms to unbridled, unregulated, unfettered, or untrammeled free markets, perpetuating a false dichotomy: a free market can coexist with regulations on safety, labor, and the environment, just as a free country can coexist with criminal laws. And a free market can coexist with high levels of spending on health, education, and welfare.
The facts of human progress strike me as having been as unkind to right-wing libertarianism as to right-wing conservatism and left-wing Marxism. The totalitarian governments of the 20th century did not emerge from democratic welfare states sliding down a slippery slope, but were imposed by fanatical ideologues and gangs of thugs. And countries that combine free markets with more taxation, social spending, and regulation than the United States (such as Canada, New Zealand, and Western Europe) turn out to be not grim dystopias but rather pleasant places to live, and they trounce the United States in every measure of human flourishing, including crime, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and happiness.
It's not that Goldilocks is always right and that the truth always falls halfway between extremes. It's that current societies have winnowed out the worst blunders of the past, so if a society is functioning halfway decently if the streets aren't running with blood, if obesity is a bigger problem then malnutrition, if the people who vote with their feet are clamoring to get in rather than racing for the exits then its current institutions are probably a good starting point. Reason tells us that political deliberation would be most fruitful if it treated governance more like scientific experimentation and less like an extreme sports competition.
Though some ideological differences come from clashing values and may be irreconcilable, many hinge on different means to agreed-upon ends and should be decidable. Which policies will in fact bring about things that almost everyone wants, like lasting peace or economic growth?
Events are determined by myriad small forces incrementing or decrementing their likelihoods and magnitudes rather than be sweeping laws and grand dialectics. Unfortunately for many intellectuals and for all political ideologues, this is not the way they are accustomed to thinking, but perhaps we had better get used to it.
Indeed, in one realm after another we are seeing the conquest of dogma and instinct by the armies of reason. Health care is being reshaped by evidence-based medicine (which should have been a redundant expression long ago). Volunteering and charitable giving are being scrutinized by the Effective Altruism movement, which distinguishes altruistic acts that enhance the lives of beneficiaries from those that enhance the warm glow in benefactors. The blogosphere has spawned the Rationality Community, who urge people to be "less wrong" in their opinions by applying Bayesian reasoning and compensating for cognitive biases. And in the day to day functioning of governments, the application of behavioral insights (sometimes called Nudge) and evidence-based policy has wrung more social benefits out of fewer tax dollars.
There is, of course, a flaming exception: electoral politics and the issues that have clung to it. Here the rules of the game are fiendishly designed to bring out the most irrational in people. Practical agenda items like trade and energy are bundled with moral hot buttons like euthanasia and the teaching of evolution. Each bundle is strapped to a coalition with geographical, racial, and ethnic constituencies. The media cover elections like horse races, and analyze issues by pitting ideological hacks against each other in screaming matches. All of these features steer people away from reasoned analysis and toward perfervid self-expression.
It's intellectuals who most fear "scientism," which they understand as the position that "science is all that matters" or that "scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems." But a call for everyone to think more scientifically must not be confused with a call to hand decision-making power over to scientists. We're not talking about which priesthood should be granted power; we're talking about how collective decisions can be made more wisely.
A respect for scientific thinking is, adamantly, not the belief that all current scientific hypotheses are true. Most new ones are not. The life-blood of science is the cycle of conjecture and refutation: proposing a hypothesis and then seeing whether it survives attempts to falsify it. This point escapes many critics of science, who point to some discredited hypothesis as proof that science cannot be trusted.
What, then, distinguishes science from other exercises of reason? The first ideal is that the world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles. The second ideal is that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.
Because the cultures of politics and journalism are largely innocent of the scientific mindset, questions with massive consequences for life and death are answered by methods that we know lead to error, such as anecdotes, headlines, rhetoric, and what engineers call HiPPO (highest-paid person's opinion). We have already seen some dangerous misconceptions that arise from this statistical obtuseness. People think that crime and war are spinning out of control, though homicides and battle deaths are going down, not up. They think that Islamist terrorism is a major risk to life and limb, whereas the danger is smaller than that from wasps and bees.
Whatever we make of the hard problem of consciousness, positing an immaterial soul is of no help at all. For one thing, it tries to solve a mystery with an even bigger mystery. For another, it falsely predicts the existence of paranormal phenomena. Most damningly, a divinely granted consciousness does not meet the design specs for a locus of just desserts. Why would God have endowed a mobster with the ability to enjoy his ill-gotten gains, or a sexual predator with carnal pleasure? (If it's to plant temptations for them to prove their morality by resisting, why should their victims be collateral damage?) Why would a merciful God be dissatisfied with robbing years of life from a cancer patient and add the gratuitous punishment of agonizing pain? Like the phenomena of physics, the phenomena of consciousness look exactly as you would expect if the laws of nature applied without regard to human welfare. If we want to enhance that welfare, we have to figure out how to do it ourselves.
In 2016 there was a brief hope that the Christian virtues of humility, temperance, forgiveness, propriety, chivalry, thrift, and compassion toward the weak would turn Evangelicals against a casino developer who was vainglorious, sybaritic, vindictive, lewd, misogynistic, ostentatiously wealthy, and contemptuous of the people he called "losers." But no: Donald Trump won the votes of 81 percent of white Evangelical and born-again Christians, a higher proportion than of any other demographic.
A "spirituality" that sees cosmic meaning in the whims of fortune is not wise but foolish. The first step toward wisdom is the realization that the laws of the universe don't care about you. The next is the realization that this does not imply that life is meaningless, because people care about you, and vice versa.
The history of secularization belies the fear that in the absence of religion, societies are doomed to anomie, nihilism, and a "total eclipse of all values." Secularization has proceeded in parallel with all the historical progress documented in part II. Many irreligious societies like Canada, Denmark, and New Zealand are among the nicest places to live in the history of our kind (with high levels of almost every measurable good thing in life), while many of the world's most religious societies are hellholes. American exceptionalism is instructive: the United States is more religious than its Western peers but underperforms them in happiness and well-being, with higher rates of homicide, incarceration, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, child mortality, obesity, educational mediocrity, and premature death. The same holds true among the fifty states: the more religious the state, the more dysfunctional its citizen's lives.
The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I dare say, spiritual. It goes something like this. We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity. Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy for pity, imagination, compassion, and commiseration. These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality. As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived. We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.