This man is on a mission to convince you that, despite how bad it looks, civilization is working. Who knew optimism could be such a hard sell?
What if all our kvetching about the sheer misery of life on Earth is, in fact, self-perpetuating hooey? What if humanity is healthier, wealthier, happier, safer, better educated and more peaceful than ever before? What if there truly is no greater time to be alive than right now?
Steven Pinker—professor of psychology at Harvard University, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of more than 10 books about human behavior and instinct—has written that the idea of the present as a dystopia marked only by decay and suffering is “wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.” We’re flourishing, he argues. Not only that, but our boundless cynicism has left us vulnerable to demagogues who weaponize ambient anxiety and use it to justify dangerous agendas.
Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, is an encomium for the present. Rather than blindly panicking, he suggests we focus on “the historical sweep of progress,” with an eye toward its perpetuation. “Every measure of human well-being has shown an increase,” he told me recently. “You can’t appreciate that reading the newspapers, because news is usually about things that go wrong. You never have a reporter standing in front of a school, saying, ‘Here I am, reporting live in front of a school that hasn’t been shot up today.’ ”
Taking a formal tour of the United Nations with a man who holds nine honorary doctorates (in addition to an actual doctorate, from Harvard, in experimental psychology) is surreal for a handful of reasons, chief among them being that he knows the right answer to every single question the guide asks.
Pinker, wearing black cowboy boots, jeans and a blue sweater, played it cool—he always waited to see if anyone else felt like venturing a guess first. Then he’d slowly raise a hand and deliver a casual but terrifyingly precise answer: There are 193 member nations. There have been 10 rogue nuclear tests since the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996. The UN has identified 17 sustainable development goals to be achieved over a 15-year period that began in 2016. Our guide regarded us with suspicion. When Pinker wasn’t answering her questions, we were chattering at each other, trailing the group, pausing to take pictures—in Pinker’s words, two “bad students.”
Enlightenment Now includes dozens of charts and matrices, some of which display data collected by the UN. But it’s the organization’s very existence that best confirms the book’s arguments. As we wandered its hallways, Pinker pointed to the UN’s sustainability goals (which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, ending gender discrimination, ensuring clean water and sanitation, and more) as evidence of a secular-humanist morality—a plain, shared sense of right and wrong that exists independent of institutions. “The concept of human rights hinges on the fact that we all have universal needs,” Pinker explained after we’d retreated to a café in the basement of the building. “We’d all prefer to be alive than dead, well-fed than starving and healthy than sick, and we all want our kids to grow up, and everyone agrees that literacy is a good thing. So if we can combine universal human interests with a universal capacity for reason, we can define a bedrock that all humans share and that you can build a morality around.”
Pinker first seeded the notion of a shared ethic in his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “The point of that book was to push back against the idea of a blank slate, not to deny that cultures differ,” he said. “Obviously they differ, but I think beneath all of that variation there is a universal human nature given to us by evolution, and that helps ground concepts like universal human rights.”
In many ways, Enlightenment Now feels like the apotheosis of Pinker’s research. The book is in direct conversation with each of his previous titles but especially with 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in which Pinker charts massive declines in violence of all forms and suggests that we’ve finally become more valuable to each other alive than dead. Bill Gates called it the “most inspiring book” he’d ever read. Mark Zuckerberg chose it as the second selection for his book club. Enlightenment Now elaborates on—and amplifies—its premise.
“Once you take a quantitative mind-set instead of basing your view of the world on headlines, it’s not just violence that’s in decline; all these other measures of human well-being have improved, like life span, like poverty,” Pinker said. “Very few people are aware that the percentage of the world that’s in a state of extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent of the world being poor 200 years ago to 10 percent today.”
The book was conceived and partially written before the 2016 election, but the rise of Donald Trump is predicted in its pages. Pinker believes the ideas that inadvertently helped the current administration take office—that the world is in terrible shape, that the whole system deserves to crumble—are perpetuated by both the left and the right. Those ideas include “pessimism about the way the world is heading, cynicism about the institutions of modernity, and an inability to conceive of a higher purpose in anything other than religion,” he writes. Trump both proves Pinker’s point—this is what happens when we’re subsumed by fear—and makes it harder to argue that the present moment is actually a victory.
“November 8, 2016 did require something of a rethink of the book,” Pinker admitted. “I was in the middle of writing it. I’d conceived it back when Donald Trump was just kind of a joke, a reality-TV star. I could not have dreamed he would be president, and it certainly meant that any narrative that said we’re in the midst of a period of progress needed a bit of qualification.” He described Trump’s agenda as “almost the opposite of the dream of the Enlightenment as manifested in the United Nations, among other things—namely, that we’re all human, nations and governments are just conveniences, we’re not primarily Frenchmen or Americans or Russians but human beings and that what we each want as individual humans we can only achieve if we cooperate on a global scale. Donald Trump hates the UN. His idea is that America comes first and every nation is in a zero-sum conflict with every other nation.”
Pinker was born in 1954 in a Jewish community in Montreal. He got his bachelor’s degree at McGill University and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts for graduate school in 1976. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard, he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and ended up teaching there for 21 years. (In 2003 he left MIT for his current position at Harvard.) He married his third wife, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, in 2007 and now has two stepdaughters.
He has a distinctive puff of curly white hair and blue eyes, and is recognized more or less constantly as we navigate various areas of the UN—by the uniformed security guard manning the metal detectors, by a young Norwegian man on our tour, by an employee who tentatively but excitedly scurries over while we’re drinking coffee and eating crumb cake near the gift shop. Part of this, he assures me, is because of YouTube. Many of his lectures and talks are archived online. (A video in which he describes language as “a window to understanding the brain” has been viewed nearly a million times.) During each encounter, his acolytes appear dazed and then deferential. It is as if they believe they’re meeting the man who can save them.
Although his work has been widely lauded—in 2004, Time named him one of the most influential people in the world—it’s not without vocal detractors. Following the publication of The Better Angels of Our Nature, the statistician Nassim Taleb argued that what Pinker interprets as the “long peace” (a term Pinker borrowed from the historian John Gaddis) of the past several decades is really just a statistical blip and no guarantee of future safety. Taleb also lambasted Pinker for assuming “that the statistics of the 14th century can apply to the 21st.” Pinker, who does not back off from lively debate, eventually responded that Taleb had thoroughly misunderstood the book and that “accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits.”
I’d be all too happy if alt-right men checked out my book.
Others have argued that Pinker’s call for a return to the ideals of the Enlightenment, which he defines in the new book’s subtitle as “reason, science, humanism and progress,” fails to account for the atrocities the Enlightenment enabled. In a 2015 essay for The Guardian, the scholar and author John Gray writes, “You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi ‘scientific racism’ was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton.”
In January, the day before Pinker and I met, a video surfaced in which Pinker, speaking at an event at Harvard, referred to “the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right” and observed that they were both “internet savvy” and “media savvy.” That might seem innocent enough—he was merely stating that it’s dangerous to dismiss the opposition as a gang of drooling thugs—except the alt-right chose to seize on it as a benediction. The white nationalist Richard Spencer retweeted the video. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, published an article with the headline big nibba harvard jew professor admits the alt-right is right about everything. Jesse Singal, writing in The New York Times, used the kerfuffle as an object lesson about the dangers of decontextualized misinformation, perpetuated endlessly via social media. Pinker saw larger forces at play: “It really stems from a political tribalism in which each side is so convinced of its rightness and the evil of its enemy that it resorts to any tactic, including dishonest doctoring of records and vitriolic name-calling, to stoke outrage and tribal loyalty. You also see it in cable news, political rallies, books, partisan websites.”
Still, the episode had its upside. “I’d be all too happy if alt-right men checked out my book, hoping for support. At best I might deconvert some of them to classical liberalism. At worst they’d get a rude shock.”
Somehow I manage to make an absurd suggestion—let’s go ice-skating at Rockefeller Center!—seem like a reasonable follow-up to our UN visit. It was vaguely relevant, after all, to our conversation: The rink was beset by an enormous Christmas tree on one end and a golden statue of Prometheus, the mythological Greek Titan sometimes known as the God of Forethought, on the other. Pinker was down.
We laced up our rental skates in something called a “heated igloo” and shoved off. Of course, interviewing someone while cruising around a frozen puddle on sharpened metal blades is a fool’s errand, and it didn’t help that he was cutting graceful circles around the ice while I was half waddling, half lunging and frightening the small children in my path. After a few laps, we retreated to a nearby restaurant for a round of drinks. What I wanted to know was: What happens next? How do we circumvent whatever instinct causes us to crave catastrophe or at least its attendant drama?
“I think there certainly is a thirst for the dramatic, the catastrophic, but there’s also a thirst for morality tales, particularly morality tales in which one’s own tribe is on the side of the angels and there’s some evil enemy to blame misfortune on,” he explained. “There’s great satisfaction taken in comeuppance to a villain. A lot of entertainment has a hero who gets in trouble and faces an adversary. The adversary has a temporary victory but in the end is vanquished. I think we like reality that conforms to that kind of dramatic archetype.”
In Enlightenment Now, Pinker comes down with surprising force on institutions I’d previously thought of as plainly noble, including mainstream environmentalism, as conceived in the 1970s and perpetuated by figures like Al Gore (“greenism is laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens and cancer,” he writes), and contemporary journalism (“Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is”). But given an instinctive hunger for turmoil, how do we overturn the old axiom “If it bleeds, it leads”?
“A responsible journalist who believes that they have a mission to expose problems and tell of people suffering also has to include cases in which problems are solved and improvements occur,” Pinker said. “Otherwise, life sucks and then you die. Which licenses fatalism: Why try to make the world a better place if people will screw it up no matter what you do? That thinking really saps any commitment or application of ingenuity to solving problems. What I would advocate is definitely not balancing the terrorist attacks with puff pieces but rather to highlight what goes right. It’s not fluff if fewer kids are starving to death. It’s not fluff if Guinea worm is being eliminated. It’s not fluff if the rate of homelessness has gone down.”
If journalism doesn’t correct itself—and Pinker believes it can—it’s on the rest of us not to perpetuate false and hysterical ideas about the state of the world. Reorienting is a complicated and personal process but hardly impossible: “The question is not how do you make us perfect but how do you bring out the parts of us that can cooperate, can plan for the future and empathize and organize our affairs so that those parts of human nature are in control?”
As we finished our drinks, I asked Pinker if he considered himself an optimist. His work, after all, advocates for the recognition of human dexterity and wisdom—on giving equal time to all the things we get right. “I probably am, by temperament,” he admitted, then reminded me that his work is all based on data; he’s simply pointing out the facts. And the facts can change. We’re better off now, but that doesn’t protect us from setbacks and regression.
“One of the reasons I didn’t call the book Progress or A Manifesto for Progress or Three Cheers for Progress or Progress Rocks is that progress isn’t an inexorable force,” he said. “There are certain ideas and values that have given us the progress we’ve enjoyed so far, and if we redouble our efforts and our commitment to those values, then progress could continue. And if we don’t, they won’t.” With that, he drained his beer and smiled.