Steven Pinker: Lots of reasons to be cheerful.


Steven Pinker
ALLEN LANE, £25, ISBN: 0241004319, P571
by Harry Ritchie


June 2, 2018 | by Harry Ritchie

Brexit. Trump. Putin. The Chinese. Terrorism. Fundamentalism. Et bloody cetera. You’ve got to say, the late teens of the twenty-first century do not look like a great time for the whole rational-progressive project.

Endarkenment Now seems the much more accurate title for this book, given that the world seems to have ground to a halt on the march of social progress and taken several big strides backwards. Without offering anything by way of silver linings or lights at the ends of tunnels. But at this darkest of times, here’s Steven Pinker holding high the torch of the Enlightenment and its values and casting the light of knowledge and reason on our current engloomiment.

This present conflict between reason and its enemies is one that has important Scottish roots. On the one side, alas, there’s President Trump’s Scottish mother, and Alex Salmond’s exciting new career as a broadcaster for Russia Today. And on the other, there’s the Enlightenment itself – not quite completely made in Scotland, because France, Germany, even England did make their occasional contributions to what was of course a pan-European movement, but a remarkably high number of the Enlightenment’s key personnel were Scots.

Which begs an interesting question – how? How did a country on the fringe of Europe, with a population of 1.25 million, manage to produce, in one generation, two core members of the European Enlightenment in David Hume and Adam Smith, and a host of others, so many of them that they can just peter out in an apparently endless list – Hugh Blair, William Robertson, Lord Kames, Adam Ferguson, Robert Adam, James Hutton, Joseph Black . . . So? How come? How did Scotland produce such a golden generation? Thanks to Steven Pinker, I think I’ve got a better appreciation of the reasons – more of which anon.

In the meantime, there’s Pinker’s book to consider, and it is a genuinely considerable work – a proper, full-on defence of the Enlightenment and a decisive rebuttal to all those who think progressive values are either old hat or have turned out to be mimsily weak when confronted by today’s demagogues and populist revolts. Not so, states Pinker – the Enlightenment project is alive and well. Despite what you might reasonably assume, that march of human progress is still going strong – in fact, it’s picking up pace because things are just getting better and better.

What things, I hear you ask, would these be, exactly? Well, just about every thing you could think of, would be Pinker’s answer and he would have the statistics to back it up. Because his defence of the Enlightenment has a very twenty-first century emphasis – on data. Lots and lots of facts and figures, with lots and lots of charts and graphs, all backing up his every contention.

He musters so much evidence because he knows that each and every claim he makes about improvement and progress is actually quite shocking – because even when progress is blatant and dramatic, as with life expectancy, we either take it for granted or just don’t acknowledge it or somehow assume exactly the opposite.

Maybe that’s just innate human ingratitude for you but I think it’s mainly because our culture doesn’t give us any chance to accentuate the positive. The only versions of our world that we’re given are negative – war, conflict, disaster, trauma, more war. And almost all the versions we are given of the future are as negative as versions can get – Armageddon, species-wipeout sort of negative.

The most insistent and persistent of these negative versions are provided by the news. Which Pinker reassigns from the first draft of history to, more accurately, the reality equivalent of a sports commentary, where the day-by-day account is biased towards the horrible and the terrible. Looked at with dispassionate, white-lab-coated objectivity, the news is mostly about the worst things that have happened closest to the news-provider, featuring lots of bad things and very few good ones because the bad ones offer drama (Four Killed in Avalanche; Local Person Dies in Accident) whereas the good news is about ongoing trends (Happiness Continues To Rise) or the absence of bad things which doesn’t make for very exciting headlines – Man Saved From Potentially Dangerous Workplace By Health and Safety Legislation, Smallpox Still Eradicated. As Morrissey so rightly observes in his recent single, ‘The news contrives to frighten you’, because the news feeds off dramatic, bad stuff. And its relentless focus on the dramatically bad creates a skewed version of reality.

Shrugging on the lab coat of objectivity, Pinker offers his unskewed version. Looked at calmly and rationally, over the piece, in general, the graph of just about every aspect of human progress turns out to show a dramatically upward curve. One of the most dramatic of all is of life expectancy – worldwide that’s gone up from 30 to 71 in a century, and in the UK and other developed countries, it’s still increasing at its ever-steady rate, of eight hours a day. (Just to repeat that – eight hours. Every day.)

An even more startling graph appears on page 81 – showing the estimated GDP of the world over the past two thousand years – a line that bumps along the bottom for 1,950 of these years and then climbs steeply from just above 0 to 110, where the vertical axis is showing global GDP in trillions of dollars.

But what about terrorism/warfare/the refugees? is the inevitable rejoinder to any such rosy account. To each conceivable topic, Pinker proves our current fears to be misguided, by presenting the data, crunched to show the always-heartening reality.
Warfare – down. The refugees – today’s four million Syrian refugees are dwarfed by the even more cataclysmic upheavals of the past, such as the 14 million displaced by the partition of India in 1947 or the 60 million refugees created by the second world war in Europe alone. Terrorism? For all the terror terrorists create, the statistics are unsettlingly reassuring – an American has a greater chance of being killed by a wasp than ISIS. And for all the fear they can spread, terrorist groups are historically fringe movements doomed to failure – and the terror they temporarily create is actually, Pinker convincingly argues, a symptom of the generally incredibly high levels of safety and security enjoyed by citizens of developed democracies.

How about inequality then? Because there are a couple of undeniable hard facts about contemporary inequality which are very unencouraging – the one about the six richest people in the US owning as much as the bottom fifty per cent, or the other one about the US being a measurably less equal society than the Romans, who, let’s remember, had slaves. Well, as a North American, about inequality, Pinker has a Mandelsonianly relaxed attitude – just as well given that the dust jacket carries an endorsement from Bill Gates (‘My new favourite book of all time’) – and he is careful to remind any ungrateful reader at this point that the poverty graph has been going down, and at a steep angle. In any case, the poor have become much richer – and cue another fact-filled page proving that almost all Americans below the current poverty line now enjoy the mod cons of mobile phones, flushing loos, refrigeration and pizza-delivery serves, all beyond the dreams of a Vanderbilt or Rothschild 150 years ago.

So swamped are we by the doom and gloom of the news and by forecasts only of oncoming disaster, that, for all the graphs and stats, all this sunny assessment can still be oddly hard to accept. The most unacceptably cheering good news of all – even including the eight-hours-a-day life-expectancy one – is the upward trend of intelligence. Because, measurably, people have been getting smarter – IQ tests show that across the world, over the course of the past century, scores have been rising, at the rate of about three points per decade. Which means, preposterously, that an averagely intelligent person now teleported back to a hundred years ago, would be in the top two per cent of the Edwardian population … Strange but, and Pinker has the scores to show it, true.

Pinker’s data-crunching provides the firmest possible foundations for his assertion of pragmatic optimism, of proper appreciation of what we have achieved as an enlightened civilisation and what we might do to make things even better. Or if you prefer, less bad. The converse of Pinker’s enlightened view of the present is a proper appreciation of just how crap things were in the pre-enlightened olden days. Our progress since, let’s say 1700, has been so sensationally upward on all those graphs because the starting-points were always so dismally low.

Which brings me back to the strange arithmetic of Scotland’s golden generation in the eighteenth century – all those original thinkers from such a small population. I think Scotland was such a hotbed of original thought because although it didn’t have much else going for it, it did offer two basic features, which were, appallingly, new. Both were inadvertent legacies of John Knox’s democratic version of the Reformation. One was that Scotland offered an intellectual climate where wisdom was not received, where authority was questionable and free thinking was encouraged. The other, very specific legacy was the School Act of 1696, which meant that this was the first mostly literate and numerate country in Europe, and one that also offered university education at prices affordable to tradesfolk and the like. It wasn’t all-inclusive by any means but three hundred-odd years ago, Scotland gave the first glimmers of what a decent education system could do, producing a firework display of talent successfully tapped and potential gloriously fulfilled.

High time we celebrated the progress we all have made since then, says Pinker – rightly so and importantly so. That Bill Gates quote might sound over the top – but he’s got a point: this is a genuinely great book.

From this Issue


by Harry Ritchie


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