Steven Pinker irks many of his fellow intellectuals. I’ve knocked him myself for his views on postmodernism and the origins of war, and he’s knocked me back. I am nonetheless a longtime admirer of the psychology professor turned megapundit, who packages big ideas and voluminous research in lucid, lively prose. Moreover, although he can be combative on the page, in person he’s a nice guy, and that matters to me.
And so, on a gloomy day just before Christmas, when I was casting about for someone to give my school a pep talk, Pinker immediately came to mind. In the latest of his many bestsellers, Enlightenment Now, Pinker argues that, contrary to what we might infer from daily headlines, things are getting better and better; we should be grateful to live in our era, the best (aside from recent setbacks) in our long, troubled history. This, I thought, is just the upbeat message that my students and colleagues need to hear in this plague-wracked season.
Some of my egghead friends groaned. They griped about Pinker’s overreliance on statistics, his fondness for capitalism, his tendency to trace everything good—and nothing bad—back to white, European males associated with the Enlightenment, whatever that is. Not only do they reject but they seem offended by his claim that humanity has advanced morally as well as materially over the past few centuries. They are what Pinker calls progressives who don’t believe in progress. Of course, few of my friends have actually read Pinker. A philosopher whom I urged to check out Enlightenment Now said he would do so only if I put a gun to his head, and probably not even then.
Now those loath to read Pinker’s 556-page book can check out my one-hour conversation with him, “The Case for Optimism: A Conversation with Steven Pinker.” (I came up with the title. Pinker isn’t crazy about being called an optimist, unless it’s clear that his optimism stems from empirical evidence.) In addition to fielding questions during our chat, which took place in March, Pinker spent 10 minutes or so presenting graphs documenting our progress, which he defines as “improvements in human flourishing.”
Some graphs track increases in good things: income, longevity, sustenance, safety, literacy, democracy, civil rights, leisure and happiness. Others show declines in bad things: poverty, infant mortality, famine, state-sponsored torture, capital punishment, war, homicides, lynchings and racist attitudes. Together, the graphs demonstrate that we are wealthier, healthier, freer, more peaceful, smarter and nicer than we have ever been. Not by a little, but by a lot.
Pinker isn’t a Doctor Pangloss who thinks we live in the best of all possible worlds. He recognizes that the goods of modern life are unequally distributed, and that poverty, disease, tyranny, violence and ignorance endure. But he wants us to know that we have advanced against these ancient wellsprings of misery, and we can advance even further if we don’t succumb to fatalism, tribalism or revolutionary fanaticism.
Pinker is what you might call a conservative progressive. He wants to preserve those practices, values and institutions—notably science, democracy and, yes, capitalism—that have contributed to human flourishing. He says: We’ve been doing some things right over the past few centuries; let’s keep doing those things, so we can make the world an even better place. He writes that “there is room—indeed an imperative—for us to strive to continue [our] progress.”
Progress is neither steady nor inevitable. “There are setbacks,” Pinker said, “there are reversals.” Anticipating questions about COVID-19, he flashed a graph of rising life expectancy among wealthy countries in the 20th century. The biggest downward spike came not from World Wars I or II but from the 1918–1919 influenza, which killed 50 million people. Longevity continued climbing after that pandemic, and it will do so again, Pinker suggested, as we suppress COVID-19 with vaccines and other measures. (Having just gotten my second Moderna shot, I was especially receptive to this upbeat message.)
Donald Trump’s election, which occurred after Pinker started writing Enlightenment Now, “knocked me off my stride,” he admitted. He rewrote parts of his book to account for the ascent of Trump and other right-wing demagogues. Their support, Pinker conjectured, comes primarily from older white males threatened by growing rights for women, immigrants and people of color; as this group ages, liberalism and tolerance should continue spreading. Surveys suggest, “amazingly,” Pinker said, that racist attitudes in the U.S. declined during the Trump regime, and after all Trump did lose the last election.
Pinker called climate change arguably “the biggest problem in human history.” To move away from fossil fuels, he suggested, we should tax carbon emissions in a way that does not unduly penalize the poor, and implement cheaper, cleaner sources of energy, possibly including advanced nuclear reactors. Pinker rejected solutions that involve abolishing capitalism, which even China has embraced, or returning to a state of low-energy, pretechnological innocence, which would prevent developing regions from attaining the affluence enjoyed by wealthier nations.
All in all, Pinker did what I’d hoped he would do. He defended his data-driven optimism in a way that encourages social and environmental activism. Some progressives worry that acknowledging progress will make us complacent and hence undercut efforts to solve our remaining problems. I worry, as Pinker does, that not acknowledging progress will discourage activism by fostering despair and rage, which can be exploited by power-hungry tyrants on the right and left.
There are divergences between Pinker and me. In Enlightenment Now, he argues that the left worries too much about inequality; poverty is the problem, not inequality per se, some degree of which is inevitable. I’m an old-fashioned lefty, who wants to decrease both poverty and inequality by taxing the rich at a higher rate and giving more to the poor. But for the most part, I share Pinker’s perspective.
There is something unseemly, I realize, about white, bourgeois males like Pinker and me singing the praises of modern civilization. Of course we dig it; guys like us are its chief beneficiaries! But as Pinker demonstrates, more and more people are benefitting from our current world order, in spite of its manifest flaws, and I feel a responsibility to convey this hopeful message to my students and anyone else who will listen.
One of my pessimistic pals, James McClellan, an historian of science, found Pinker’s presentation persuasive. The case for progress seems “incontrovertible,” McClellan says, and Pinker’s call for pursuing further advances “without upsetting the applecart” makes sense. But given our commitment to capitalism and economic growth, McClellan doesn’t see “how industrial civilization can possibly be sustainable in the long run”; after all, our recent progress represents a brief uptick compared to the broad sweep of history, in which many civilizations have come and gone.
Pinker’s faith in progress is far from absolute. In his book The Blank Slate, he espouses a “tragic” view of human nature, a term he attributes to economist Thomas Sowell. According to this perspective, our evolutionary heritage, which makes us innately selfish and aggressive, constrains our behavior and prevents us from fulfilling utopian dreams of universal peace and prosperity.
Pinker still adheres to the tragic viewpoint. That became apparent near the end of our conversation, when I wondered how far our progress can take us. I quoted biologist Edward Wilson, who wrote in his 2014 book The Meaning of Existence, “We have enough intelligence, goodwill, generosity and enterprise to turn Earth into a paradise both for ourselves and for the biosphere that gave us birth.”
Is Wilson’s utopia feasible? I asked. No, Pinker replied flatly. Although we can go much further toward solving our problems, we will never entirely eliminate them. Some “pollution,” “prejudice” and “homicide” will persist, he said, and we will continue to squabble over our divergent values. Utopian schemes, such as those pursued by the Soviet Union under Stalin and China under Mao, invariably end badly, Pinker said. But “if we deal with climate change, if we reduce poverty, if we reduce violence, that would be pretty good.”
My optimism is riddled with doubts. Part of me fears, along with McClellan, my historian friend, that our civilization can’t last. I see democracy as well as capitalism as a destabilizing force. As our recent history has demonstrated, democracy gives us the freedom to make mistakes, including the terrible mistake of abandoning our commitment to democracy and liberal values.
Another part of me hopes that an age-old utopian goal might be within our reach. If the all-too-unsteady decline of war between nations continues, perhaps we can figure out how to end war once and for all. The world’s nations still spend, collectively, almost $2 trillion a year on “defense,” with the U.S. accounting for about a third of that amount. Imagine diverting that money toward cleaning up the planet, improving education and health care and raising living standards worldwide!
If war ends, we’ll still have plenty to complain about. We’ll still endure heartbreak and grief, we’ll still get old and die, we’ll still be innately selfish and find ways to torment each other. So, if utopia is a world without suffering, then a world without war won’t be utopia. But it would be pretty good.
This is an opinion and analysis article.