To the rescue of optimists everywhere come Steven Pinker and his latest book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.”
Pinker, Harvard professor of psychology and writer on cognition, language and the ways that the brain works, has become a persuasive public intellectual of the sort that seems in short supply these days. He will discuss the book Friday at the Atlanta History Center.
In this day of a reactionary desire to return to a past glory, there is no glory like the present, writes Pinker. He strives to show that the human race has made measurable progress, and will continue to do so, if reason is allowed to flourish.
To support his argument, he marshals a dizzying array of statistics on worldwide improvements in human health, food production, financial expansion and the reduction of war and violence.
Despite some blips in the chart, these are permanent steps forward, he writes. “Not even the most worrying worrywart expects a comeback for human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, chattel slavery, dueling, family feuding, foot-binding, heretic burning, witch dunking, public torture-executions, infanticide, freak shows, or laughing at the insane,” he writes.
Does this mean Pinker is an optimist? The curly-haired author addressed the question in a telephone interview at the beginning of the book tour that brings him to Atlanta. "I quote (author) Hans Rosling, who, when he was asked if he's an optimist, said, 'No, but I consider myself a very serious possibilist.' I stole that from him."
The original Enlightenment, during the last two-thirds of the 18th century, sparked a revolution in science and political philosophy, giving birth to, among other things, the American experiment.
Adoption of the scientific method meant that surgeons were, for the first time, studying germ theory, and washing their hands. Nutrition improved. Life expectancy soared. In 1800, the average world citizen died before age 40, but by 1950 lived to age 60 in Europe and America. Today it’s 71 in Sweden.
Infant mortality dropped from one-third of all births in the 1700s to 4 percent today.
We are richer, healthier, less violent and better educated. Then why are we so gloomy? Partly it’s because of our focus on what is considered news, said Pinker. “If a building blows up, that’s news,” said Pinker, “but if 138,000 people escape from poverty today, and the same thing happens day in and day out, that’s not news. There’s nothing to take a picture of.”
There are other reasons. Pitted against enlightenment ideals, he writes, are forces that favor competition over cooperation, tribalism over globalism, nostalgia over the concept of progress and a disdain for intellect and reason.
Pinker began writing his book before the 2016 election, but he saw that time as evidence of the many challenges to enlightenment ideals, with a candidate (soon to be president) promoting the consistently discredited theory that preservatives in vaccines cause autism, and declaring that climate change is a hoax.
Conservatives often resist the concept of progress, but the left has also pushed back, Pinker writes, with wrong-headed resistance to genetically modified food and the potential of small-scale nuclear power.
Improvements in health haven't been a smooth curve upward, evidenced by the current opioid epidemic. "It is a step backwards," said Pinker. "Life expectancy for middle-aged, less-educated white men has gone down, largely because of opioids. In general, you can't expect progress to consist of everyone always getting better everywhere. There are going to be nasty surprises."
But, he adds, "We have mitigated some of the earlier problems that seemed as bad as the opioid problem now, like the crack epidemic, like HIV/AIDS, which decimated entire communities in sub-Saharan Africa but which is now brought under control."
Pinker’s 556-page book (including 100 pages of footnotes) is a forceful defense of the democratic, humanist institutions that he says brought about these changes, and a declaration that reason, science and humanism can solve the problems to come.
“We just need to remind ourselves why we have values like freedom of speech, and the rule of law, and the system of the courts,” he said. “They were brought in to solve problems like lynch mobs, and world wars, and (economic) depressions. And we should not be so cynical.”
7 p.m. March 2. $10. Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-814-4000, www.atlantahistorycenter.com.