Stephen Pinker, Harvard savant and current leader in the Candide impersonator contest, was up to his usual tricks at the Long Now forum on Tuesday night.  Most recently known for his Better Angels argument that violence in the human world has decreased measurably and mightily since our ancestral days, he carries the argument forward in his new book Enlightenment Now. The forty-five minute lecture was a warp-speed review of his data-supported, screen-flashed arguments.

The rise in literacy around the world, especially among girls, is well documented.  Death by contagious disease or famine is down, markedly.  Oil spills, battle deaths and even deforestation are trending down and have been for decades.  Despite up-spikes for a few years in several categories, the overall trend in human depredation is down.  To our great surprise.

I went to the lecture skeptically. Pinker is well covered in journals and magazines, popular and academic.  Better Angels was a surprising 2017 best-seller, so his counter-current optimism is well-known. For many, however, it has been hard these recent years to keep the notion of progress in mind; technical yes, moral not so much.  I came away still skeptical but impressed that I could be wrong.  The data he presents is eye-opening.  Though death-rates in pre-agricultural societies– as argued in Better Angels of our Nature–  are based on very skimpy evidence and are quite contestable, death rates of women in child-birth, or children at birth are not.  Records have been kept. Ditto car accidents, GDP growth and any number of things he surveys.

The book from which he put together his lecture has some 70 charts and tables, sourced to serious, professional research, not simply Wikipedia pages.  More than being simply a data dump to show us how wrong we are in our pessimism, he makes  the argument that Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism and progress are what got us here and that we undo them at our peril.

The Enlightenment, however, has brought many things with it, not all so identified with human, much less worldly, well-being.  A few wwriters, such as Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens,) have argued that the “best of all possible worlds” was in the days of scavenging, gathering hunters; it has been all down-hill since then.  Long Now‘s speaker of several weeks back, Charles Mann, took a long worry at man’s incipient over-running the petri-dish of life.  Even when Pinker is right in showing  us that much of our pessimism is rooted in shallow thinking there is a strong whiff of “not my problem” in what he says. Not that he, himself, believes that all is good. There is plenty to worry about and to go to work on.  However, learning that world-wide famine has been decreasing steadily can’t help but stir doubt into the passion of sympathy for today’s Southern Sudan. Though our contemporary world is the result of migrations, mass and otherwise, through the millennia the contemporary exodus from Africa and Syria is not therefore an extension of the usual. His exuberance in revealing the trends of the “long now” has the effect of throwing glitter over the right here and right now.

There are plenty of smart and ready people to take issue with Pinker, his data, his interpretation and his analysis of contemporary society, David Bell at the Nation, and John Gray at the Guardian for example.  I leave it to them and others to sort out the possible configurations of what has been done and what can be done, leaving me to stop in from time to time to see where things stand.  Meanwhile, it is useful to remind ourselves that just because we believe a thing to be so, does not make it so, just because we’ve heard it said does not make it true, just because we are fearful does not prove that fearsome beings are at hand. Reading Pinker can at least send us back to our accreted assumptions to ask where they have come from, and how long ago. Facts accumulate,new patterns emerge, paradigms shift.  While we may not be living in the most wonderful of worlds as some are claiming, perhaps it is not as irredeemably bad as we sometimes think. Reevaluating the  terrain of worry and work may lead to better recognition of where we might be most effective.

The Long Now series of speakers, not to mention their underlying thesis of long-term thinking, is impressive.   Membership is encouraged and recorded pod-casts of the lectures are available on-line, here. (Pinker isn’t up as of posting, but check back.)

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