Steven Pinker’s dangerous optimism

How to defend the status quo by giving humanity props it doesn’t deserve

Are we high on humanity? Despite the pessimism over the return of right-wing populism, religious fundamentalism, gun violence, and stagnating prosperity in the West, two recent events can give us hope that some degree of optimism about the destiny of our species is not entirely unwarranted. For starters, we recently accomplished the singular feat of sending a car to space, orbiting permanently (and pointlessly) around the globe in order to remind us of the supreme narcissism of its previous, earthly owner Elon Musk. The other, is the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a quasi-sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both books follow the same basic plot line: humanity has never had it so good. By every measurable standard of progress, we are leaps and bounds better than any generation before us. Stop complaining.

If optimism is a religion, the Canadian-born Pinker is its high priest. The religious analogy is not unfounded: Pinker defends his thesis with a zeal that is uncommon outside of theistic circles, admonishing his critics and presenting absurd arguments even in topics where he has little or no academic authority. In a recent article in Popular Science, he argues that we should not fear AI being smarter than humans any more than we had to fear airplanes being faster than eagles because “someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle”. For someone defending the use of reason, an argument like that almost begs ridicule. Sadly, his perennial defense of human progress comes with an unfortunate by-product: it becomes a thinly disguised support of the economic and political status quo. If this makes you uneasy, just remember how much wealthier and healthier you are compared to your great-great-great-grandfather.

End of story, so it goes.

I could write a book about everything that is wrong with the Pinker Thesis (as I will now call it). Actually, I am writing one. But without wanting to spoil the surprise, here’s a summary of the main counter-arguments I have against his excessively rosy view of humanity.

The best of all possible worlds?

The first counter-argument actually begins by agreeing with him: human progress is real and undeniable. Between the above-mentioned two books are over 1,200 pages with over 100 graphs that show every measurable advance in human prosperity and they’re all true. But now consider this: should humanity be measured by how far we have gotten or by how far we could have been? The first reaction to this is why turn an positive issue into a normative one. Why add a value judgment? The answer is, because we always apply normative standards to information we interpret that involves a goal or objective. For example, would we congratulate someone with no cognitive impediments or adverse life circumstances who graduated from high school at the age of 25? Probably not. We would assume this person was lazy, unmotivated, and unambitious even despite the fact that a high school degree is better than no high school degree.

Making the normative statement that human progress is well below what it could be forces us to ask some really hard questions about our capacity to deal with collective problems like poverty or climate change. Yes, it is true that the level of extreme poverty in the world has fallen to record lows but this begs the question of why isn’t it lower? In fact, there are enough resources and wealth in this world as well as a a level of technological sophistication and knowledge of economics that really gives no justification for a single person on Earth being in extreme poverty in the 21st century. Similarly, we have sufficient notion of the causes of climate change to have taken much more forceful efforts to reduce the carbon emissions of polluting industries. Malaria, a disease that kills a child in the developed world ever 30 seconds, is also one of the cheapest to prevent. That the leading pharmaceuticals spend more research on curing baldness in the first world rather than malaria and other common infectious diseases is a terrible indictment of our twisted priorities.

A counter-counter-argument could be made that we are in no position to take this normative view because we have no other worlds to compare ourselves to, therefore we must safely assume that this one is the best of all possible ones. While being empirically true, this is not a reasonable proposition since it denies one of the finest aspects of human intelligence: our capacity for abstract thinking. We certainly can imagine a world, for example, where the world wars and the Holocaust did not occur and reasonably conclude that this world would be better. Pinker’s sympathies seem to cross-over with many of those of the New Atheists all of who would argue that a world without religion would be better. And yet we do not empirically know that is true since the world has never been without religion; in fact no major atheist society has ever existed. On the subject of progress, denying the normative statement that we could have done better implies that all our atrocities were somehow justified, that these were just growing pains of a species even if they came at the cost of hundreds of millions of lives unnecessarily taken. As you can see, taking the Pinker Thesis leads you through some very shaky moral ground.

The timing problem

The other major problem with the Pinker Thesis is that it can reliably be applied to almost any point in human history. The wishy-washy sentiments that technology has improved our lives, that violence has receded, and that we are eradicating most of the world’s ills like disease and poverty would be just as applicable in 1913 as it is in 2018. In 1913, after all, it had been nearly a century before the last major continental scale war (the Napoleonic Wars) and even the greatest conflicts of this period like the US Civil War or the Franco-Prussian War didn’t lead to a major loss of civilian life or economic dislocation compared to previous (or future) wars. The transformative aspect of technology during this century was nearly if not greater than that of the century that followed: in 1813 the fastest form of transport was a horse and carriage, a century later there were trains and airplanes. The standard of living in Europe, North America and Japan skyrocketed. An author like Steven Pinker would have found an audience in 1913 making nearly the exact same arguments he is making today.

The horrors that followed in the 30 years after 1913, however, would have been a dose of ice cold water on the optimists of the Belle Epoque. And though Pinker’s long-enough timeline conveniently makes the argument of progress irrefutable, for the grand majority of people, 30 years is a long enough timeline to be able to make the claim that life was worse off than the generation before them. Pinker also conveniently focuses on global averages, thus discounting the fact that things can get worse for many people in certain places and for those people, that’s all that matters. As Timothy Snyder argues in Bloodlands, “During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.”. Likewise Pinker asks the middle-classes of the West to rejoice about their stagnating incomes since the 1980s given that so many people in far off lands are now out of extreme poverty. Syrians should celebrate that the world is so much less violent now than ever, even if Syria has not experienced levels of violence as seen today probably since the Crusades and the Mongol invasion.

Pinker’s Thesis, ultimately, is a perversion of the mean across time. We can imagine a country that grows by 0.1% in per capita terms, that makes an advance of 0.1% in every economic and social indicator imaginable and expects us to believe that this is the best that that can be achieved. Or that because the same argument applies at nearly every other point in human history, that a feudal lord in the 14th century could argue that this was the best economic system possible, or that an absolute monarch in the 17th claim it the best political one too. Utter nonsense.

The glass is half empty

So ultimately, is the glass half empty or, as the Pinker Thesis have it, half full? Have we been deceived by pessimism to have a completely warped sense of where the world is going? I would argue that even although there are indeed many biases that may make us more negative than we should be, the Pinker Thesis just doesn’t hold water. It’s excessive empiricism denies any normative statements to be made about human progress, and carries with it some rather damaging implications, namely that we live in the best of possible worlds and that the existing social, political, and economic structures are necessarily benign. In the end, I’d much rather stick with the half glass empty view. It leads us to question why it is not full rather than satisfy ourselves with less than we deserve.

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