Harvard scholar assesses human progress – and how to enable further progress

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by Hans Dembowski

The spectacular results of reason, science and humanism

Sometime back, I promised to read Steven Pinker’s book “Enlightenment now” and tell you what I think about it. I have done my work and can now assure you, that the book is quite powerful and certainly deserves attention.

Let me start fulfilling my pledge, by quoting the Harvard scholar himself. Here is an abridged version of the beginning of chapter 20. It has the title “The future of progress” and starts with a summary of what has been achieved in the past 250 years or so:

“Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81. When the Enlightenment began, one third of the children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today that fate befalls six percent of the children in the poorest parts. (…)

“The world is about 100 times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across the world’s countries and people. The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90 % to less than 10 %, and within the lifetime of most of the readers of this book it could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in most human history, has vanished from most of the world, and undernourishment and stunting are in steady decline (...)

“War between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world’s surface. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, one seventh of what it was in the early 70s, and 18th of what it was in the early 1950s, and half a percent of what it was during World War II. (…)

“People are getting not just healthier, richer and safer, but freer. Two centuries ago, a handful of countries, embracing one percent of the world’s people, were democratic; today two-thirds of the world’s countries, embracing two-thirds of its people, are. Not long ago half of the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against racial minorities; today more countries have policies that favour their minorities than policies that discriminate against them. 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. Laws that criminalise homosexuality continue to be stricken down. (…)

“As people are getting healthier, richer, safer and freer, they are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable and smarter. Early in the 19th century 12 % of the world can read and write; today 83 % can. Literacy and the education it enables will soon be universal, for girls as well as boys. (…)

“As societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier and better educated, they have set their sights on the most pressing global challenges. They have admitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer, and peaked in their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal, and perhaps even carbon.”

This is only a part of Pinker’s summary of the blessings of progress. The book discusses all issues tackled thoroughly. The documentation of facts and trends is thorough. The data clearly indicate that human progress has been overwhelming, and Pinker sees scope for further progress, if humankind keeps relying on reason, science and humanism.

The final chapters discuss what reason, science and humanism mean. Pinker admits that human beings are not by nature reasonable and that irrational behaviour is actually quite common. The psychology professor insists, however, that they are endowed with reason, can use this capacity and benefit from doing so.

Science, of course, is based on reason, and Pinker praises its merits, pointing out that it keeps delivering results in terms of new technology and expanding the horizons of knowledge. He refutes post-modern, romanticist and other intellectual notions that belittle science. No, it is not just another ideology, it is a means to understand and change the world.

That said, Pinker wants the powers unleashed by science to be harnessed in a spirit of humanism, which bases morality on a secular foundation. The principle idea is impartiality, accepting that all human beings are of equal value and deserve to have equal rights. Pinker explains: “If I object to being raped, maimed, starved or killed, I cannot very well rape, maim, starve or kill others.”

This thinking is secular because it is self-explaining. It is not necessarily anti-religious, however, and actually fits the biblical rule of treating others as one would want them to treat oneself. Other world religions have equivalent rules. The point of enlightened humanism, however, is that collectively binding decisions should not be based on some kind of faith dogma. Nor should they be based on special interests or personal will. According to Pinker, policies should be based on the careful assessment of all relevant facts and well-considered hypothesis about causes and impacts, taking account of all interests affected.

So is everything fine given that humanity has made such spectacular progress? No, Pinker warns of serious dangers. One is nuclear war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the other is climate change. If nothing is done to control these risks, Pinker considers catastrophes to be possible and even likely. In his eyes, however, the situation is not desperate because multilateral action has been taken on both fronts.

The big question, of course, is whether multilateral efforts are strong enough. Action on climate change must be stepped up fast, whereas non-proliferation and disarmament agreements seem to be eroding. As the Harvard professor acknowledges things can go terribly wrong.

A serious problem he sees in this context is the surge of unenlightened populism in many countries, and, unsurprisingly, US President Donald Trump serves him as the most prominent example of a leader who pretends to know more than experts do, and shies away from fact-based discourse. Populist leaders claim to personally represent their nation, find any kind of dissenter opposition illegitimate and try to change the constitutional order in a way to entrench their power permanently. They thrive on divisiveness, not on problem solving.

Pinker writes that the way western nations practice democracy is part of the problem. Elections tend to resemble sports events, with citizens rooting for one team and resenting the other. Campaign slogans and polemical agitation prevail where nuanced arguments and diligent number crunching are needed. Media pundits would do a better job if they carefully weighed arguments instead of reinforcing their audience’s entrenched world view, the author reasons. He shows how current examples of populism are rooted in long-standing anti-rational intellectual traditions. Nonetheless, he expresses the belief that the forces of enlightened liberalism will prevail – not least, because populists’ rejection of experts means they are likely to run into problems they refuse to see.

So do I agree with all the arguments Pinker makes? No, of course not. I think his basic stance on reason, science, humanism and progress make perfect sense, but I disagree with some details.

For example, Pinker tells us not to worry about rising inequality as long as living standards in general keep rising. He has a point, but what I find worrisome is that the extreme wealth of the super-rich is increasingly giving them the power to usurp democratic decision making (see, for example, our dossier on philanthropy).

Another example is that Pinker considers nuclear power to be a rational choice in view of climate change, arguing that there have only been few accidents in the past and they all proved to be far less deadly than feared by environmentalists. In my eyes, however, nuclear power is no option as long as the issue of nuclear waste remains unsolved. It is good to know that the ancient Romans, whose empire included a small town in the area where I live, did not bury any toxic waste that has to be kept safe for millennia anywhere near.

Moreover, I feel more sceptical about some scientific research than Pinker apparently does. It is very difficult to assess the impacts and side effects of research results produced by private-sector corporations. Two fundamental principles of science are transparency and disinterestedness. All too often, regulating agencies base decisions on corporate research that does not meet these criteria.

All these points deserve reasoned and fact-based debate, considering the interests of all parties concerned. And that is perfectly in line with the principles Pinker spells out in his book. He proves that enlightened democracy is certainly more promising than authoritarian populism.

Pinker, S., 2018: Enlightenment now. The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. London: Allen Lane.

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