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. Continue reading