Book Reviews

It’s Not As Bad As All That

Humans have made more progress in the past 100 years than in all of history before. What does this tell us?

By Charles Kenny

Tagged DemocracyInequalityPhilosophyprogress

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress By Steven Pinker • Viking Press • 2018 • 578 pages • $35

While discussing humans’ tendency toward pessimism, psychologist Steven Pinker notes experimental research suggesting that critics who pan a book are viewed as more competent than those who praise it. What follows comes at some personal reputational risk, then: Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, is an exhaustive, compelling, and uplifting account of human progress. Pinker’s statistics may do little to persuade the Nietzschean, the Millenarian, the critical theorist. But for the rest of us Enlightenment Now suggests a large proportion of the planet is living a better life than ever before. If you want a single, authoritative tome to shove at elderly relatives who complain “things aren’t what they used to be,” this book is surely it.

The bulk of Enlightenment Now’s 500-plus pages is made up of a tour through trends covering global and national progress in health, income, education, violence, rights, norms, the environment, and subjective wellbeing over recent centuries. A very partial accounting of the results: A third of children in the richest parts of the world used to die before the age of five, and today that figure is 6 percent in the poorest countries; maternal mortality in the poorest parts of the world is less than a third the rate that the richest experienced two centuries ago. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is one-sixth of what it was in the 1970s. Literacy has climbed from 12 to 83 percent of the world’s population, and child labor is slowly dying out as schooling becomes universal.

The world as a whole is about 100 times wealthier, while the proportion living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day) has fallen from 90 percent of the planet’s population in 1800 to below 10 percent. One in 100 of the world’s people lived in a democracy two centuries ago; now two thirds live in countries that are broadly democratic. Women could vote in one country at the turn of the twentieth century; today they can vote everywhere men can bar one exception. Laws discriminating against racial and sexual minorities are withering away. Regarding the spread of infrastructure, progress has literally brought us out from the darkness: In 1800 an Englishman would have to work for six hours to buy a tallow candle that would provide light for just one hour. In 1994, he would have to work half a second to afford an hour’s worth of light from an LED bulb.

Or take data on the United States: From the peak death rates of the last century, Americans have become 96 percent less likely to die in a car accident and 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash. Fire safety in the United States has improved so much the typical firefighter will see just one burning building every other year. On a consumption basis poverty has declined by as much as 90 percent since 1960 and people report themselves happier and less lonely. They are also working less, polluting less, and saving the ozone layer. And while Pinker may deny the existence of a deity, if there is one it has become more benign: The risk of being killed by a bolt of lightning in America has fallen 37-fold over the course of the century.

Of course, there is a lot of misery and suffering left to address. Enlightenment Now reports on the 700 million worldwide still in extreme poverty, the 300 million who are clinically depressed, the 800,000 who commit suicide each year, the declining health and wellbeing of rural white Americans including those affected by a hideous epidemic of opioid abuse. Progress, he notes “is not utopia . . . there is room—indeed, an imperative—for us to strive to continue that progress.” But our past success suggests the hope that the striving will bear fruit.

Enlightenment Now also discusses looming challenges, the two most pressing of which are nuclear weapons and climate change. But Pinker notes nuclear stockpiles have already been reduced 85 percent from their peak, and the Paris climate accords suggest the world is serious about tackling greenhouse gas emissions. And he is optimistic about environmental sustainability in part because of past victories including over sulfur dioxide, particulates, and ozone. Future environmental gains can be delivered using technologies from artificial meat and tofu-driven aquaculture to next-generation nuclear and solar power. He emphasizes that regulation, carbon pricing, treaties, and clean-energy investment will all be necessary: “Far from licensing complacency, our progress so far at solving this problem emboldens us to strive for more.” I hope we will.

Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, expanded out from professional to popular books about genetics and the mind and then on to the 2011 blockbuster The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Along with revisiting the positive trends regarding war, murder, and physical abuse that he outlined there, he credits many of the same underlying causes he identified for the decline in violence with underpinning broader progress: factors like growing empathy, reason, cooperation, and cosmopolitanism. In short, suggests Pinker, the Enlightenment is working. And the purpose of his account is to help defend its ideals.

Pinker’s favored Enlightenment thinkers (among them Montesquieu, Smith and Kant) shared an “insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understand our world, and not fall back on generators of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation…or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.” They were united in the ideals of reason, science, humanism, peaceful exchange and the belief that improvement of human institutions could improve the quality of life. It was the shift to such beliefs that underpinned the technological advance, the legal and political reforms, and the norms and attitudes that have shaped the modern world for the better.

You might think there is no need for a defense of such values, Pinker notes, but they have faced opposition from the beginning. Not least, the Romantic movement deplored the break between reason and emotion or between people and their culture. Pinker quotes the nineteenth Century poet Baudelaire on the only people worthy of respect: “the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create.” And the twenty-first century still sees people appeal to faith over reason, or tribe over individual, including America’s 45th President. The good news, as Pinker puts it bluntly, is that we are seeing “progress, funeral by funeral” against such thinking. Trump, Brexit, and European populist parties all see considerably lower support amongst those born after 1980 than amongst those born before then. Right-wing populism is “better understood as the mobilization of an aggrieved and shrinking demographic . . . than as the sudden reversal of a century-long movement toward equal rights.”

But while emphasizing that the far larger threat is from the right, Pinker suggests that the Enlightenment is under attack from the left as well. He is concerned by a widespread “philistine indifference to science,” data phobia, and love of “morose cultural pessimists who declare that modernity is odious, all statements are paradoxical, works of art are tools of oppression, liberal democracy is the same as fascism, and Western civilization is circling the drain.” Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are name-checked, and Pinker also takes aim at Leon Wieseltier, now-disgraced former literary editor of The New Republic, for “issuing crippling diktats on what scholarship in the humanities may not do, such as make progress.” The demonization of science and progress by left-intellectuals poisons minds on university campuses across the country, suggests Pinker, leading students to abandon science for finance and bureaucrats to overregulate research.

The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day) has fallen from 90 percent in 1800 to below 10 percent.

These are surely valid concerns, but at the same time, the humanities and softer sciences still have much to offer on the role and place of the Enlightenment and Enlightenment values. For example, while Pinker makes a strong case for progress underpinned by the spread of Enlightenment values, it needs a caveat—one that can draw from some of the left-leaning discussions of development. There are less benign interpretations of how we got to the modern world, which involve conquest, slavery and exploitation alongside fellow feeling and rationality. And there’s an active debate about which came first—the material progress or the moral values (see, for example, Benjamin Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, in which he argues strong economies foster opportunity, tolerance, and mobility). Regardless, all good things don’t necessarily go together: A lot of the recent global progress in income, health, and education has taken place in countries that do not hold fully to Enlightenment values when it comes to liberty and free expression. China and Ethiopia are two examples.

Amongst the humanities, theology is surely Pinker’s least favorite: He suggests that atheist humanism is the purest distillation of the Enlightenment values that he champions. This might go too far: Surely you don’t need God to be good, but you still don’t need to deny God’s existence to agree with progress and humanism—a good thing, too, given that only about 13 percent of surveyed populations worldwide reported themselves as “convinced atheists” in 2012. And while atheism need not be “in” as a core value, I might suggest otherwise about concern for inequality. Pinker argues that inequality “is not itself a dimension of human progress,” and that what exercises (or at least should exercise) people is inequality caused by unfair advantage rather than unequal outcomes. But there is a rich tradition suggesting inequality of outcomes is a bad in its own right. One of the Enlightenment’s most famous brains, Rousseau, wrote a whole discourse on the unnatural (and unhealthy) nature of any inequality not based on personal characteristics, after all.

If I can’t fully share Enlightenment Now’s concern with political correctness run amok (perhaps because I don’t work on a campus), I would accept that progress-denial is alive and well in liberal circles. In January, 2017, David Graeber, the academic and activist credited with coining the Occupy Wall Street tagline “we are the 99 percent,” sent out a series of tweets about the state of the world: “does anyone know any handy rebuttals to the neoliberal/conservative numbers on social progress over the last 30 years? again & again i see these guys trundling out #s that absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, child labor, have sharply declined. . . . that life expectancy & education levels have gone way up, worldwide, thus showing the age of structural adjustment etc was a good thing. It strikes me as highly unlikely these numbers are right, or anyway that such improvements are due to privatization, etc. It’s clear this is all put together by right-wing think tanks. Yet where’s the other sides numbers? I’ve found no clear rebuttals.” Graeber implies that if data on global progress doesn’t fit the narrative on the evils of neoliberalism, it must be the data that is wrong.

At a time when surveys of consumer confidence show yawning gaps between Democrats and Republicans, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that indicators of global progress are treated as freighted with ideological significance. Progress is particularly ideological if your appeal is based on a miserable present—before the socialist overreach or the neoliberal market purism (pick your poison) of Obama and Timothy Geithner. That is why the right and left often share a narrative, notes Pinker: “the institutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in deepening crisis.” These two groups are in “macabre agreement that wrecking those institutions will make the world a better place.” That America is in decline is an important justification for radical change to make it great again—be it mass nationalization or rampant nativism.

And therein lies the danger of progress-denial to progressives. For example, Enlightenment Now lays out significant evidence that, even as inequality has worsened, the War on Poverty has made some important strides, with the proportion of people under one consumption-based measure of poverty falling from 30 percent to 3 percent of Americans between 1960 and 2016. Denying that progress allows welfare opponents to suggest the system has failed and the safety net can be removed without consequence: Whatever the government does, the poor will always be with us.

The same logic applies worldwide. Fear about our ability to feed the global population spurred research into new food crops but also led Robert McNamara, at that point head of the World Bank, to discourage financing of health care because people not dying of illnesses would contribute to the population explosion. And portraying Africa as a shithole is an approach used by people trying to raise money to help the region as well as those trying to lock this country’s doors to immigrants from the continent. Marriages of convenience result: crusading aid agencies willing to take aid money to spend there on the grounds that it will help slow migration to here. The participants should be ashamed.

Finally, I should note an interest: Pinker mentions my book Getting Better amongst a list of seventeen “beautifully written books . . . that flaunt the news in their titles.” He goes on to report that none were awarded with a major prize even while Pulitzers were handed out for books on genocide, terror, cancer, racism, and extinction. His beautifully written book should prove the most worthy exception. It is past time that progress was treated with the seriousness it deserves.

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Charles Kenny is senior fellow and director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development. He is the author of Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding and The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Great for the West.

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