By Michael Corballis 16/10/2018


Steven Pinker is an optimist. In his two recent books, he paints an increasingly rosy picture of human civilization.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), he shows how human violence has declined over the centuries. In Enlightenment Now (2018), he tells us that, besides becoming less violent, we live longer, and are wealthier, heathier, happier, safer, and more knowledgeable. Lest you think he is merely describing the privileged life of a Harvard academic, he shows that these trends are worldwide. The book is awash with graphs pointing relentlessly upward for the good things of life, and downward for the bad. His only major concern, it seems, is climate change, but he does seem to give the sense—or at least the hope—that science will eventually solve that.

The argument is monumentally convincing, but as far as I can tell it has not been universally acclaimed. Normally, we welcome good news, at least at the personal level—a salary increment, a clean bill of health, a breakthrough in science or business. But to be told that human life as a whole is doing well, and getting better and better, is somehow greeted with suspicion. Why?

Perhaps part of the reason is that relentless good news can come across as hype, like the television commercials that bombard us. Is it fake news? This can be true even of science reporting—in an increasingly commercial world, scientists are often urged to exaggerate discoveries, with “breakthroughs” that in truth scarcely prick the surface of knowledge. But I don’t think Pinker is guilty here. His writing is certainly upbeat, and characteristically eloquent and convincing.

Perhaps another reason is that we adapt to new plateaus of comfort and wellbeing, and forget the past. I grew up during the World War II years in a middle-class home without a fridge, television set or central heating, and the telephone was on a primitive party line where you had to manually ring the code to reach the neighbors, or contact the operator to go further afield. We are now awash with gadgets and devices for our comfort, convenience and entertainment, and can be instantly in touch with people across the globe. We complain when small things go wrong, like a glitch on the Internet or an app that won’t download. It sometimes seems as though things are getting worse when in fact they’re vastly better than they were just a few decades ago.

Pinker has drawn intellectual fire too. He attributes the good-news story partly to the historical Enlightenment, beginning in 18th century, but some have suggested that he misrepresents it. To be sure, those early thinkers were still awash with superstitions, and knew nothing of evolution or particle physics, but they did establish the scientific approach that has given us the modern state of physical comfort and advancement. To accuse Pinker of misrepresenting history simply seems specious, as though to evade the truths of his upbeat message.

Pinker is scathing of postmodernism, with its pessimism and anti-science stance. In the swamp of postmodernism, science and reason are seen to be at odds with spiritual and indigenous values, and with emotional and religious understanding. One reviewer suggests that dedication to science and reason drags families apart. My father left his native Ireland as a young man to go farming in New Zealand and never saw his family again, a deprivation far worse than that of the scientist who may move to a different place, but still have the luxury of fast travel, the internet, and skype to maintain contact. Whether or not science is to blame, the diffusion of peoples is surely part of the reason that we have grown more understanding and tolerant.

Of course, science can threaten existing values, and scientific progress may always be tempered by a romantic yearning for a simpler past. Indigenous communities may feel especially threatened, but the threat of change is not restricted to them—and as Pinker documents, they have probably benefited from scientific discovery more than they have lost. Even industrially advanced cultures have changed dramatically, and for the most part positively, in the face of scientific advance. Religion, for example, has lost its hold in the western world (with the curious exception of the United States), leaving magnificent but empty cathedrals and a rich but now untargeted heritage of art and music. We can still enjoy these things. Some of the negative reaction to Pinker may be a necessary brake on the relentless pursuit of progress, but it will not stop it.

Science is not everything; it is complemented by the arts, and often informed by them. We do need to relax some of the STEM-like rigidity of much of modern science, and Pinker himself adds humanism to the recipe of science and reason. Science is not all machines and equations, and now embraces topics like empathy, creativity, and happiness itself. What is important about science is the effort to discover what is true and what works, and if we keep the focus that way we can scarcely go very wrong. We may even survive.