Is the World Actually Getting … Better?

Our current moment feels ominous. But in his new book, Steven Pinker argues that the present is much better than the past.

Steven Pinker attends the 2011 World Science Festival opening night gala at Alice Tully Hall on June 1, 2011 in New York City.
Steven Pinker attends the 2011 World Science Festival opening night gala at Alice Tully Hall on June 1, 2011 in New York City. T. Roth/WireImage

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of the new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It follows up on his controversial best-seller The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which offered a sweeping account of why Pinker believes the present is better than the past.*

Below is an edited transcript of the show. In it, we discuss why people have so much trouble with the notion of progress, whether global warming and nuclear weapons invalidate his thesis, and just how much of a threat Donald Trump and other demagogues are to our future.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: What is it that you think we misunderstand about our current moment in relation to our past?

Steven Pinker: The heart of the book is a set of graphs showing that measures of human well-being have improved over time. Contrary to the impression that you might get from the newspapers—that we’re living in a time of epidemics and war and crime—the curves show that humanity has been getting better, that we’re living longer, we are fighting fewer wars, and fewer people are being killed in the wars. Our rate of homicide is down. Violence against women is down. More children are going to school, girls included. More of the world is literate. We have more leisure time than our ancestors did. Diseases are being decimated. Famines are becoming rarer, so virtually anything that you could measure that you’d want to call human well-being has improved over the last two centuries, but also over the last couple of decades.

What do you want to get across other than, “Things are better”? Are you just trying to set the record straight, or are you trying to get us to think differently about the way things are now?

No, I’m absolutely trying to get people to think differently.

I put the facts of progress in the context of the ideas that made it possible, because one has to ask, Why have things been getting better? Does the universe contain some mystical force or arc bending toward justice or dialectic that just make things better and better over time? The answer is, “Surely not.” I attribute it to particular ideas and values that came in around the time of the Enlightenment and the second half of the 18th century, and when they were embraced, they made progress possible in the past, and therefore if we embrace them now, they’ll make future progress possible.

These ideals I boil down to reason, science, and humanism. Reason—that we should apply rationality to analyzing our situation and our problems as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, gut feelings. Science—we should consult our best understanding of reality rather than superstition and folklore. And humanism—that we should prioritize the well-being of sentient beings, especially human beings, rather than the glory of the nation or the spread of the faith or the triumph of a race or ethnic group.

One critique of your book and your last book is essentially that it’s a way of making people who are in positions of power or wealthy people now feel good about where we are. Your book has gotten great praise from Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. A friend of mine proposed I ask that, if we were looking back 115 years, and someone said that the richest people in the country—the Rockefeller types—had said that some book about our current moment was really speaking to reality and what was correct and so on, we would probably look back on that with a certain bit of a jaundiced eye. There is something that we should be skeptical of the fact that people like Gates or Zuckerberg would feel so positively about this book that it’s somehow understating aspects of reality, maybe, that we don’t want to pay attention to.

It doesn’t seem like much of an argument—that is, if Bill Gates likes it, then that suggests that maybe it’s not right. I don’t really see the logic of the objection, and Gates does deserve credit because unlike philanthropists of the past, he didn’t just use his fortune to get the naming rights of concert halls, but applied a humanistic ethic, namely, “How would this fortune go the furthest in making the most people better off?” He decided that combating infectious disease in the developing world would bring the greatest human life and happiness for the amount of money that was available. There are a lot of other things he could have done with the money.

I’m not trying to say that Gates is a bad person. You write in the book, for example, “Notwithstanding the habitual self-flagellation by Western intellectuals about Western racism, it’s non-Western countries that are the least tolerant.” It does seem that one of the things that you’re trying to do in the book is say that self-flagellation is something that is not great, that we’re maybe too hard on ourselves.

This gets to the Gates and Zuckerberg question. Wherever you think we are in relationship to where we were 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago, it does seem you can take two approaches to that. One is that things are getting better and we should celebrate it, and the other is that no, we really should be flagellating ourselves no matter what the circumstances were 100 years ago, because there are still so many problems with the world.

There are problems with the world, but self-flagellation doesn’t make the problems any better. If I feel guilty about poverty in the developing world, and I flagellate myself, I haven’t saved any lives. I haven’t fed any children. We should analyze problems and solve them. I think the mindset behind the question is: Aren’t rich people bad, and aren’t we compelled to condemn rich people and condemn the status quo? I do argue against that because that doesn’t make anyone better off.

I was not trying to imply that what Zuckerberg or Gates likes means it’s not good or that we should be going after rich people for liking a book or for being rich in and of itself. I was trying to get at the larger attitude that we take to these things. It’s interesting that you said that you don’t think self-flagellation brings things about. I’m not sure that that’s not true. I think that the self-flagellation that we see in Western societies, because the quote I was reading was about Western societies, about racism or misogyny probably has had a role in helping ameliorate them.

Certainly, just as individuals, we have to be self-critical. As a society, we must be self-critical as well … which, in practice, means flagellating other people in your society. There aren’t that many people who say, “I’m a racist or a sexist.” They’re basically condemning all the other guys in their society, but simply confessing, flagellating, putting on hair shirts, making conspicuous sacrifices, that helps our social capital in our peer group. It doesn’t make other people better off. It doesn’t cure disease. It doesn’t topple tyrants. The point of propelling moral progress is obviously not to accept the status quo, but it’s to identify problems and identify the solution to the problems, not to identify villains and flagellate the villains. That is a difference.

By the way, the comment about the self-flagellation of the West pertains specifically to a set of worldwide opinion polls where the citizens of various countries were polled in terms of whether they believe in gender equality, whether they believe in rights for religious and racial minorities, and it was simply the fact that it’s actually the Western societies that are the least prejudiced, and there are actually countries like India where people have contempt for those of other faiths. It’s not an excuse for the racism and ethnocentrism that remains, but a diagnosis that says that this is a peculiar problem of the West is just factually wrong. This is, I think, part of human nature that we tend to disrespect groups other than our own, and it is one of the gifts of the Enlightenment that we are pushing back against that. By the way, it’s all countries that are improving. Just some have gone further than others.

A lot of people think the two biggest threats to the steadily improving (even if insufficient) progress we’ve been making are nuclear weapons and global warming. Nuclear weapons are something that we’ve made via scientific ingenuity, and global warming is a result of many things, but one of them is economic growth and modernizing societies. I think that you and I would both agree that they’re both existential threats to everyone. How do you fit them into your larger idea about science and progress and what they’ve offered the world?

The extraction of energy, mainly via fossil fuels, has until now been an enormous boon to humankind. It has led to the abolition of slavery, to the emancipation of women, to the education of children, to lengthening lifespans, to richer experiences, but obviously it can’t continue in the way it has through massive burning of fossil fuels. It’s true that if, in 100 years’ time, the planet is despoiled because no one did anything to curb greenhouse gas emissions and just continued with business as usual, then at that point you can raise the philosophical question: Would we have been better off if we stayed in a lifestyle of the middle ages, had a life expectancy of 30, and a literacy rate of 10 percent, but at least we wouldn’t have had global warming? I don’t know how you would answer that question, but we’re not at the point at which that question has to be answered.

Likewise, if there was a nuclear holocaust, then whoever survived it, looking back, can raise the question: Was it all worth it? But I don’t think we’re at the point where we have to pose the question in that way. I think we’re at the point where we have to say: Having enjoyed the benefits of science and technology, how do we avert these potential catastrophes? How do we decarbonize? How do we denuclearize? [We should] put our rhetorical energy into correcting a course that we could go on if we’re not sufficiently aware of it.

It seems to me that the threat of global warming, even if it hasn’t realized its worst potential yet, is scary enough and bad enough and there’s a possibility that it could lead to such catastrophic outcomes that it does feel like even if we don’t want to judge individual people 100 or 1,000 years ago, it does seem like maybe we should change how we think about the notion of progress a little bit.

It clearly requires some changes, but the change that it requires, at least so I argue in the fairly extensive discussion of climate change that I have in the book, is that we have to figure out how to get the greatest human benefit with the least environmental cost. In particular, the least emission of greenhouse gases. In fact negative emission [of greenhouse gases], because we’ve got to pull some of that CO2 out of the atmosphere at some point during this century. The way to deal with it is not to say, “Was progress a big mistake?” because I think that just doesn’t give us a way to go forward. It leads to what are probably imponderable questions, but rather, how do we continue a process that has already begun of extracting energy from the universe with less carbon emissions?

To turn to nuclear weapons, I don’t know what the odds are of a full-scale nuclear war. I don’t know if India and Pakistan are going to go to war, or the United States and North Korea, but it does seem like, again, that we’ve put ourselves in a position where the unthinkably awful is possible, and that whether the contingency plays out, it’s worth thinking about how we think about what progress is, because we’ve put ourselves in such a huge threat. It does seem like that should call into question a little bit how we think about progress.

It does. I would say that the invention of nuclear weapons has been our species’ biggest blunder, and probably occurred as a result of a number of historical contingencies surrounding World War II. Namely, we rushed to develop them before the Nazis did, and it’s quite possible that if there was no Hitler, there’d be no nuclear weapons today. But at the extreme end of the unpleasant-to-think-of contingencies, there is the fear of nuclear winter or at least nuclear autumn. I mean, that would be close to the existential threat. There are horrific but not species-ending scenarios, such as an exchange of a few nuclear weapons, which would be unspeakably awful but not even necessarily worse than some of the atrocities that our species has gone through in the past, like the European wars of religion and the conquests of Genghis Khan. So yes, at the extreme end, there’s a kind of damage that we never had to deal with in the past that is nuclear winter, and then there are a number of other possibilities that are horrific but not existential and clearly we ought to prioritize avoiding.

In that regard, I’m not saying that we should accept the historical course or the trajectory that we’re on, particularly the trajectory that has recently been bent by the current Trump administration, that this very much should be publicized more than it is. In the last presidential election, for example, it figured pretty much not at all, and instead there was enormous discussion of relative trivialities like terrorism, police shootings, email servers, economic inequality—all of which are issues, but compared to the threat of nuclear war, they’re less consequential. I would like to see a greater discussion of our nuclear strategy, our nuclear posture, our nuclear weapons trajectory.

What would falsify your argument in your mind? If nuclear war broke out, and the conditions were horrific everywhere, would you say, “Oh, I attribute part of that to Enlightenment thinking and our focus on science?” Or would you say that that was actually a betrayal of it?

It’s some of each. The knowhow to wreak that destruction was clearly a product of science, but the value system that allowed it to happen would be the most flagrant contradiction one could imagine of humanism. That was certainly the historical genesis in the ideology of Nazism, which is pretty much the opposite of humanism, and seeking the glory of the race over the interests of individual people and of the various escalations and saber-rattling and conflicts over territory and ideology that would have taken the world to that place.

We are a country that likes to think that it was impacted by Enlightenment ideas and has used those ideas to prosper and become the richest, most powerful country on Earth. Has Trump’s election shaken you in any way about how you view America and our embrace of those ideas? I ask about Trump specifically because he himself is such a rejection of them in so many ways in terms of who he is as a person, almost to an unimaginable degree, which I think is part of the reason why people were so shocked, myself included, that he won.

Yes. In many ways, the United States is not at the forefront of the Enlightenment project, even though the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution were the earliest and greatest gifts of the Enlightenment. The United States was conceived as an Enlightenment nation, but it always entertained counter-Enlightenment forces of cultures of honor; of manly self-defense; of a kind of millennial, quasi-religious, messianic role of the United States in particular as the indispensable nation, the city upon the hill—both very counter-Enlightenment notions. Trump himself is quite obviously an exponent of counter-Enlightenment ideas. This was most obvious when he was influenced by Steve Bannon, who explicitly cited some crackpot European fascists of the first decades of the 20th century who almost set themselves in opposition to the Enlightenment. Many of Trump’s themes, such as nationalism, such as the racialism that is always lurking behind his comments, such as a withdrawal from international cooperation, such as protectionism as opposed to international commerce—these are all deeply counter-Enlightenment ideas.

It was for me in the course of writing the book—and the Trump election occurred in the middle of the process. It certainly represented a bigger pushback of counter-Enlightenment forces than I would have liked to see in terms of the progression of history. It didn’t shock me in the sense that I didn’t believe that the West or the United States had ever been all in for Enlightenment values. There had always been a tension between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment values, but I have to admit that I did not expect him to be elected, and I did not expect the counter-Enlightenment pushback to be as successful as it was.

The sort of counter-Enlightenment pushback, as you call it, which we see with Trump and we see varieties of it throughout Europe, and we see varieties of it through the Middle East and South Asia and East Asia and all around the world, to what extent are you worried about that as a serious, long-term threat to the progress that you’re detailing? Or do you see it as unlikely to be more than a hiccup?

I think I would see this somewhere between a hiccup and a reversal. The fact that authoritarian populists have gained control of a number of countries, including the United States, is certainly worrisome, and indeed, real damage could be done. The nuclear war being the most obvious example, but also a corroding of the system of international norms that deserves much of the credit for reducing warfare, a pushback against democracy, and all of the other threats that we’re all too well-aware of. The long-term trajectory—there are some forces that are pushing back against it. One of them is sheer demographics. Authoritarian populism is far more popular among old people than young people. It drops off like a cliff. I have a graph in the book that plots support for Trump, for European populism, and for Brexit, and all three curves are kind of cliff-shaped, where millennials just have not fallen in love with populism in the way that aging baby boomers and silent generation types have.

That’s one reason to suspect that over the long term, this is not the wave of the future. The other is that there really has been a process spanning many decades, at least 50 years, of liberalization across the world. This is something that’s visible in the World Values Survey, where every generation has become more tolerant than the one that preceded it. The progress has been uneven across regions of the world. There’s just no question that Western Europe is more liberal than the Middle East and North Africa, but the tide has lifted all the boats so that a twentysomething in the Arab world today is in many ways more liberal than a Swede in the early 1960s, as hard as that is to believe. Now, that’s a force that has been pushed along by affluence, by education, by connectivity, by mobility, but all of the cosmopolitan forces of modernity, to the extent that this is a real process, it’s unlikely to go into reverse overnight. … In general, younger people, more connected people, better educated people just don’t subscribe to the same kind of racism and sexism and homophobia and nationalism as their elders.

You don’t think that’s a change that will happen with generations in the sense that when the millennials become 75, they’re going to be complaining about immigrants coming over or whatever it is?

Yes, right, like the old saying that if you’re not a socialist at 25, then you have no heart, and if you are a socialist at 55, you have no head. No one knows who said it first, but it’s attributed to many people. It turns out to be false as a demographic fact about attitudes. It is not the case that as people get older, they get steadily more conservative. So it’s much more likely that people carry their values with them as they age and that as one cohort replaces another, the population as a whole shifts.

Correction, Feb. 21, 2018: This piece originally misidentified Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature as The Better Angles of Our Nature.