Question: how long is the average person globally expected to live? Your answer is almost certainly wrong. (It will be revealed further down).
Steven Pinker, the professor of psychology, linguist, thinker, author and 1980s glamrock star lookalike, has committed a book on the case for Enlightenment values – Enlightenment Now – The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress – (out now in paperback and Kindle). Let’s look at a couple of reasons why I think you may find this book fairly interesting.
The right question
Pinker, himself of the American centre-left, satisfyingly kicks both to the left and to the right politically (he’s Canadian originally). The book is neither primarily nor overtly political, but an empirical look at where the world is, through numbers, figures and facts, and an attempt at understanding what brought us here – and consequently what can help move us forward in the same general direction.
A key point Pinker makes is that entropy rules. In short, what that means socially for human life is that unless there is a force (or energy) creating a useful order, a million different disorderly outcomes are more likely. A building left without maintenance will disintegrate, just as heat will dissipate from a cup of coffee left on the table. A key point to learn from this is that there can be no such thing as “social justice”, because there is no natural just social condition. The poor was not once rich and then had their money or property taken away from them. Indeed, the natural state of human kind is one of poverty, illness, cruelty and early death. As Pinker says,
“Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth. Yet even today, when few people believe that accidents or diseases have perpetrators, discussions of poverty consist mostly of arguments about whom to blame for it.” (P. 25).
What then are the causes of wealth? Quite contrary to what Luddite left-wingers or protectionist right-wingers might think, global free trade has not made the world more unfair, unequal or worse off.
According to Pinker, statistics inform us that globally we are becoming richer, more equal and happier, and that global starvation and poverty is fast becoming a part of history.
“The international and global Gini curves show that despite the anxiety about rising inequality within Western countries, inequality in the world is declining. That’s a circuitous way to state the progress, though: what’s significant about the decline in inequality is that it’s a decline in poverty.” (Page 105)
Capitalism – free trade – has achieved more than the wishful thinking set out in the UN’s Millennium Goals, and five years ahead of schedule, (p 122).
“By 2008 the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to that of Western Europe in 1964. And no, it’s not just because the rich are getting even richer (though of course they are, a topic we will examine in the next chapter). Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.” (P. 86)
The claim that we are becoming more unequal is simply not true; or certainly not the whole truth, and it is not supported by a fair reading of all available data.
So why do left-wing intellectuals, politicians and protesters counterfactually claim that it is? Pinker attempts to explain this phenomenon:
“Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress . […] It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class — the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.” (P. 39)
Pinker’s criticism of some intellectuals’ “progressophobia”, as he calls it, has something in common with a point Roger Scruton makes in the chapter Extinguishing the Light in the book A Political Philosophy – Arguments for Conservatism:
“The most striking feature of the postmodern curriculum however, lies in its explicit rejection of Enlightenment, its disposition to treat reason as a parochial concern of Western culture and to place ‘truth’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘impartiality’ in inverted commas.” (Scruton, p. 112).
But it is not only the intellectuals that think the world is going to hell in a handcart, whilst things are evidently becoming better all around them. Another reason Pinker points to for the pervasive negative view many people hold of their contemporaneity, is the phenomenon known as availability heuristic – the tendency to think that frequency of learning about events equates to increased probability of such events to happen. Together with the negativity bias of the media (if it bleeds it leads) this adds up to a warped view of reality that does not tally with the actual state of things.
“People rank tornadoes (which kill about fifty Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than four thousand Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.” (P. 42).
This can have dangerous consequences, whether it is people voting for “populists” (whatever that is) who will cure imagined ills, or young people, as reported from Scandinavia, who are now suffering from anxiety and depression, because of the media’s reporting around the issues of climate change. In the article I link to, it is interesting to note that the campaign slogan “climate crisis” is being used as if it were an objective term of description, no doubt further contributing to the feeling of mindless dread and powerlessness by the readers.
Simplistic On Nationalism
The academic John Grey, who incidentally fits the above-mentioned category of modern intellectual, criticises the book for being simplistic about what the Enlightenment was and is, preachy about its liberal values and overly optimistic in a scientistic, humanistic sort of way. “The message of Pinker’s book is that the Enlightenment produced all of the progress of the modern era and none of its crimes“, he says in a review of the book in The New Statesman.
I think Grey is missing the point. What Pinker is trying to set out is how the Enlightenment ideals were different and unique from what had gone before, and how the modern world – in many areas – are a lot better off than it could have been, precisely because of those unique ideas.
Karl Marx, for example, is regarded as standing in the Enlightenment tradition, and called his theory “scientific” – as Scruton points out, many “…Enlightenment thinkers have been tempted by the idea of a planned society […]” (p. 174, A Political Ideology – Newspeak and Europspeak). But the fact that Marx’ particular ideas were so bad that they led to mass murder and destruction on an unparalleled scale of enormity, is not the fault of the Enlightenment ideals per se, any more than a particular malfunctioning car is the fault of the principle of the internal combustion engine.
I agree with Grey that Pinker is perhaps a little simplistic in his analysis of counter-Enlightenment thinking, pinning most of the blame on Nietzsche. Pinker’s offhandish rejection of nationalism and uncritical lionising of international institutions certainly put him at odds with Yoram Hazony, whose book on nationalism I review in another place on this blog. Pinker seems a little too happy to throw all the stuff he likes into the bag labelled “Enlightenment” (including all kinds of international organisations and institutions) whilst all the things he doesn’t like must languish in the darkness outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“A second counter-Enlightenment idea is that people are the expendable cells of a superorganism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up. An obvious example is nationalism, in which the superorganism is the nation-state, namely an ethnic group with a government.” (Pp. 30-31).
Not that this is merely a right-wing problem:
“But not so long ago the left was sympathetic to nationalism when it was fused with Marxist liberation movements. And many on the left encourage identity politicians and social justice warriors who downplay individual rights in favor of equalizing the standing of races, classes, and genders, which they see as being pitted in zero-sum competition.” (P. 31).
But the nation state does not necessarily conflict with the Enlightenment project – a supranational imperialist project just as can easily come in conflict with Enlightenment values. As Hazony points out in his book, surely there is enlightened nationalism, which is not about racial or national superiority and attempts at dominating others, but which is about preserving a nation’s unique character and keeping its leaders accountable to the citizens.
Pinker does not discuss this in any depth, just as he fails to discuss how the excessively mechanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment period fed the emergence of subjectivism, such as that expressed by Kant (mentioned as an Enlightenment thinker) in his famous dictum, das ding an sich – the thing in itself as opposed to how the thing appears to me. This shift in thinking not only fuelled the Romantic movement within art, but also lit the fuse of the extreme subjectivism that exploded in 20th century philosophy, not least in the post-modern thinking that Pinker appears to be criticising.
The miracle of this book is that it achieves to present facts and statistics and yet be a highly readable text – indeed eminently enjoyable. And despite some of the minor shortfalls as mentioned above, the facts and figures require a reaction. They require a reaction because they gainsay some of the doom and gloom we are currently surrounded with from both left and right: a two-headed monster ceaselessly shrieking its latter day apocalyptic warnings for very different reasons, its ears deaf with wilful ignorance. For this reason, and many others, the book is essential reading to anyone who wishes to think rationally about societal issues, whether political or more broadly.
Now, back to the question I started with: what is the average global life expectancy? What was your guess, then? 40? 58? 65? I shall let professor Pinker provide the answer:
“How long do you think an average person in the world can be expected to live today? […] The answer for 2015 is 71.4 years.”
Happier, wealthier, healthier, more equal, and living longer. Let the Enlightenment-tree be known by its fruit, seems to be the message Steven Pinker wishes to give the reader in this engaging and surprisingly easy to read book.
If you haven’t yet decided on your light summer reading, you could do a lot worse than lifting your spirit with this dive into fact-based optimism.
Except where otherwise stated, the quotes are from Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now . Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Although I used a Kindle edition for this article, I bought my paper copy from the local #bookstore in Colchester: Red Lion Books.