Only an idiot would choose to live at any other time than the present

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

Steven Pinker’s new book is a characteristically fluent, decisive and data-rich demonstration of why, given the chance to live at any point in human history, only a stone-cold idiot would choose any time other than the present. On average, humans are by orders of magnitude healthier, wealthier, nicer, happier, longer lived, more free and better educated than ever before. Moreover, as Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure noted: ‘Bowling averages are way up, minigolf scores are way down, and we have more excellent waterslides than any other planet we communicate with.’

Some of the many graphs in this book slant from the bottom left towards the top right, showing the rise of Good Things, and some of them (charting the decline of Bad Things) go the other way. But the gist of all of them is that something brilliant has been happening over time, and since the 18th century it has been happening very fast. It was pretty crap being alive in the 16th century, even if you were, say, the King. Nowadays, most poor people live better than even the potentates of old.

Is this obvious? Not as obvious as it should be. Various cognitive quirks (Pinker’s academic specialisms are brain science and linguistics) incline us to gloom. The ‘availability bias’ means that if we’ve read about a bad thing recently we’ll overestimate the likelihood of it happening to us. Pessimism — possibly an adaptive trait, since you can’t be too careful — is baked into our worldview. Our news cycles run in hours rather than decades, and our news values (it bleeds, it leads) favour gloom and doom. Catastrophists and Jonahs — the people Pinker calls ‘progressophobes’ — make the intellectual weather. As he puts it ruefully, a pessimist sounds like they’re trying to help you; an optimist sounds like they’re trying to sell you something.

One of the most interesting things in his book is his emphasis on what economists call a Kuznets curve: a rebuke to the linear simplicifications of progressophobes who see industrialisation as heralding doom to the environment and devil-take-the-hindmost plutocracy. As industrial capitalism works its magic, inequality increases… but in due course goes down again: once lots of people are wealthy, they start to take an interest in education, social welfare nets and so forth. Likewise with the environment: society makes a great leap forward by belching coal smog and poisoning rivers… but once people are rich they start to take more interest in not choking half to death every time they step out of the front door. (I simplify a little.)

Pinker was annoyed when, in response to his previous book The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the historical decline of violence, critics sneered that he was being ‘Panglossian’. As he rightly points out, Dr Pangloss’s claim that we are in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ was — in context — the creed of a pessimist: he was saying that humans have no right to expect better of a world ordained by the Almighty.

Pinker’s case is the opposite: we can and should believe in progress, and we can show it has been achieved, but we shouldn’t be complacent. In order to keep the trend going in the right direction we should keep taking the medicine that got us this far. This medicine, he calls ‘Enlightenment’ — and his book is a robust defence of the values that characterised it: reason, science, humanism and progress. These are under threat from populists, authoritarians, command-and-control socialists, anti-vaxxers, postmodernists (everyone seems to hate postmodernists these days) and the no-platformers of Generation Snowflake. He also admits that the threat of nuclear annihilation and/or the complete collapse of the earth’s ecosystem would put a black fly in his chardonnay; but he sees these as problems to be solved rather than apocalypses meekly to be submitted to.

But what does he mean by ‘Enlightenment’? Historians would cavil — and have cavilled — that there was no single Enlightenment. Here was something that happened, over more than a century, in several different ways in several different countries, and it didn’t come out of nowhere. There were commonalities — a disregard for arguments from religious or political authority; a strong interest in the use of reason and, associated, the scientific method — but to present it as a unitary and unproblematic thing is to produce a bit of a straw man. Pinker’s Enlightenment — which skates a bit around the theism of the main thinkers of the period, for instance — presents, as per his title, a rather now-inflected version of the Enlightenment.

But none of those objections do much damage to Pinker’s argument: they simply query the way he has framed it. He could just as well have made a case that democracy, market liberalism, free exchange of ideas, Popperian science, human-rights universalism and a secularisation of the public sphere have made the world a much better place for humans to live in, whether or not you want to call them ‘the Enlightenment’, and that we should have more of them. No argument there.

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