Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.
Every day, it seems, we are informed of another mass shooting, terrorist attack, or other horrible act of violence on the news. That awful story will then be followed by another story about how our inept government is, how unequal our society is, or about how destructive social media is for our mental health. The news is basically a list of the worst things happening in the world on any given day.. We face a never-ending bombardment of bad news all day, every day, on every type of media. It really does feel like our world is getting worse and worse every day. Many people really believe our society is going off a cliff. But is our world actually getting worse? Or are we making progress?
Whether or not the human project is making progress or not is a very BIG, very IMPORTANT question. And it’s not a question for the faint of heart. This is the primary question at the core of Steven Pinker’s last two books The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). How does Pinker attempt to answer such a sweeping, broad question? What do we mean by progress, anyway?
The definition of progress is highly debatable, highly politicized, and prone to subjective interpretation. However, there are a few things that almost everyone can agree on: Longer and healthier lives, more literacy/education, less poverty, and less violence are indicators of progress. Pinker attempts to connect these near-universal indicators of progress with other data points to form a cohesive argument that the world is actually, on balance, getting better.
Part I - Have we actually made progress?
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker’s argues, rather convincingly, that rates of physical violence in virtually all forms (war, homicide, genocide, rape, assault, slavery, etc) have declined precipitously over the past 100-1000 years of human history, but especially in the last 50-100 years. Pinker argues the decline in violence may be the most important and under appreciated development in human history. Pinker backs up this bold claim with data. Lots and lots and LOTS of data.
Pinker's favorite data source appears to be Max Roser’s Our World in Data project, which he cites frequently throughout both books. And it’s easy to see why: Roser’s data is compelling, well cited, and beautifully visualized. Let's have a look at some data sets cited both directly and indirectly in the book:
Global deaths in military conflicts are near all-time lows.
Homicide rates have plummeted in Europe over the past 700 years.
This data is often very surprising to people who are conditioned by news and social media to think that the world is awful and only getting worse. It's extremely easy to forget just how violent humans were up until the very recent past. Through an 800 page odyssey, featuring over 75 graphs like the ones you just saw, Pinker makes a really convincing case that violence has declined.
But the decline in violence, is just the start. Enlightenment Now (again, with help from Roser) picks up where Better Angels left off and presents equally stunning data on how much progress humans have made in other key areas of human well-being. We humans have become much more educated, significantly longer living, more likely to live in a democratic-style government, spend LESS time working and doing chores, MORE time spent traveling and enjoying leisure., and have almost limitless access to information via the internet. Pinker argues very effectively that humans are making rapid progress, not just on violence, but progress in pretty much every quantifiable category that contributes to human well-being.
As you can see, the average human living today lives much longer than their grandparents, in a more peaceful world, with far less poverty, greater literacy and education, much better access to healthcare, more democracy and human rights, and more leisure time to spend however they wish. These facts, Pinker claims, are evidence of PROGRESS.*
Note: About the only major non-partisan issue I could find that has trended in the WRONG direction over the past few decades is opiate addiction. If anyone reading post this can find more important things that have trended badly over the past couple decades, PLEASE email me directly at: email@example.com. Assuming it's a valid criticism, I'll happily add it to the blog as an update to this post.
*Now, for an important reminder: Pinker reminds the reader repetitively throughout both books, that violence, poverty, and other bad things have NOT been fully eradicated from our civilization (duh), and that the remarkably good trends society has enjoyed are NOT necessarily guaranteed to continue indefinitely. Pinker is not claiming the world is all rainbows and unicorns, nor is he suggesting we "rest on our laurels" and ease up fighting hard for future progress yet to be made.
Part II - WHY have we made progress?
Pinker's secondary claims as to WHY humans have made progress are likely to be much more controversial than Part I, and indeed are less conclusive. Nevertheless, I will attempt to sum up three key pillars of progress that Pinker focuses on in both books:
Reason #1 - The emergence of the Nation-State, its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.
According to Pinker, the gradual rise of the consolidated nation-state (from approx. the 1600s through the 1900s) dramatically shrank the number of tiny fragmented kingdoms, principalities, and tribes that each handled local justice in their own "Wild West" sort of way. As the Nation-State rose to prominence, the State typically demanded the sole-authority to inflict deadly force. This monopoly on violence drastically reduced the incentive to commit "vigilante justice" and rates of violence declined rapidly as a result. By acting as a (semi)-disinterested 3rd party to mediate disputes, the Nation-State could, in theory, avoid the normal human desires for vengeance and escalation of hostility. The State, with its laws, police forces, and jail cells, acts like a big referee to settle disputes, issue punishments, and prevent what would otherwise be Hatfield-McCoy style violence and anarchy. This clever bit of Game Theory made non-violent cooperation the rational choice by introducing severe punishment as a disincentive for settling disputes with unsanctioned violence. Cooperation 1, violence 0.
p.s. The few places on earth with weak or non-existent States, like majorly impoverished slums and remote rural communities, are much more prone to violence than places with effective Rule of Law.
Reason #2 - The emergence of trade and commerce (positive-sum cooperation) compared to war/conquest of territory (zero sum/negative-sum coercion/violence) as a superior means of getting what you want.
The first or second lesson in any Economics 101 class is that there are major gains from trade. The great non-economic insight of gains from trade is that it makes strangers worth more to you alive than dead. Once humans realized (possibly subconsciously at first) that advanced commerce was almost always a better long-term strategy for amassing wealth than pillaging/conquest, the incentives to commit acts of violence became drastically reduced. For example, if your neighboring tribe makes great beaver pelts and trades them for your excess fishing hooks, you mutually benefit from the exchange. Killing your neighbor ends that benefit, so instead of killing you decide to be nice to your neighbor out of rational self-interest. Click here for an awesome, interactive illustration of this concept.
Looking towards the future, it's critically important to remember that the inverse is also true. Diminished trade reduces the incentive to be peaceful. This is one (often overlooked) benefit of globalized trade networks. If global trade ever gets truly fucked up, (say due to protectionist trade wars, reckless Wall Street speculation, or anti-capitalist revolution) you could logically expect a big increase in violence. This double whammy of increased poverty and violence would be very bad for human well-being.
Reason #3 - The emergence of "Enlightenment values" of freethought, reason, science, and humanism over religion, superstition, tradition, tribalism, and authoritarianism.
The increase in literacy in the post-printing press world led to the free exchange of ideas between regular working-class people, and in doing so, dealt a crushing blow to the moral authority of church and tradition. Growing economies and declining faith in superstition fueled revolutions in science, technology, and moral philosophy, which in turned allowed individual human rights to flourish in a way that was not previously possible. Pinker suggests (and I wholeheartedly agree) that this (continuing) shift from religio-traditional authority to secular humanism/liberal democracy is a key component in the radical improvement of the human condition over the past 300 years.
Open, scientific, secular democracies tend to treat their citizens much better (in terms of killing and/or intentionally harming their own people) compared to closed, theocratic, authoritarian type states. Additionally, open, secular societies have the capacity to be self-correcting after making socio-political mistakes. Closed, authoritarian societies, without free and open debate, are much less likely to self-correct when they make mistakes.
Part III - Why progress doesn't feel like progress
In the opening paragraph of this post, I referenced the phenomenon of the world feeling like it's getting worse. The reason for this seems to be that humans have evolved to respond more strongly to stimuli that elicit emotions of fear and danger than to those that elicit happiness and security. This is why bad news gets rewarded with better ratings (and more $) than good news, and why negative people on social media tend to be rewarded as well. So, likely due to these psychological quirks that helped our ancestors survive on the African Savannah, we are now subject to a 24 Hour News Cycle and globalized social media that both bombard us with extremely negatively biased content. Violence, scandal, outrage - that is what sells - that is what the consumer demands.
For example, between the year 2000 and 2015, over 1 billion humans (net) were lifted out of extreme poverty. During that time, the NY Times could have posted the following headline "Approximately 175,000 Humans Lifted Out of Extreme Poverty Today" and they could have kept that headline EVERY SINGLE DAY and been essentially correct. However, as we know, progress doesn't sell many newspapers.
Part IV - Why it's so important that we acknowledge the progress we're making as a species
So far we've discussed progress, potential reasons for progress, and the fact that progress doesn't seem to feel like progress. That's all fine and dandy, but WHY should you care? What's the harm if no one realizes we're making progress?
The reasons this is important (and the reason I wrote this post) is because believing the world is getting worse (when it's not actually getting worse) can be really, really, really dangerous.
Extreme ideologies HATE the idea of progress because it undermines the urgency for radical change that extreme groups tend to advocate for. Therefore, extreme groups rely heavily on a dogmatic belief that society is awful, completely broken, and only getting worse. While there ARE real issues to be resolved, and there IS justifiable reason to be angry, rampant, fatalistic, pessimism is fertile ground for increased violence and extremism.
When people harbor the false notion that the world is getting worse everyday, when they believe, falsely, that our current system of peace, globalized trade, and multicultural liberal democracy are utter failures, they become open to the option of burning the entire system to the ground.
Like your frustrated sibling during family game night, if people believe all hope of a successful outcome for our country/world is lost, they are prone to "flip the monopoly board." The problem with flipping the global monopoly board, of course, is that many millions would die and virtually everyone would become worse off financially, intellectually, and health-wise. Plain and simple, life would suck. Don't flip the monopoly board.
Despite its many, MANY flaws, the current system of globalized trade and multicultural liberal democracy IS moving humanity in the right direction. This is not merely Whig history, this is a factual recognition that life has gotten better for the vast majority of humans on Earth over the past few hundred years. While we'll obviously need to make significant tweaks to continue to create a better world, we should not welcome sudden, violent revolutions that would significantly risk the gains we've made in peace, life expectancy, wealth, democracy, and overall quality of life over the last few decades. Nothing crushes human well-being so much as tyranny, poverty, and violence. We must preserve the key pillars that keep civilization civilized: the free exchange of ideas, globalized trade, and most importantly global peace and cooperation between all countries. We can continue to make rapid gains in human well-being from within the current system through improved laws, regulations, and norms. Burning the system down would almost certainly make life much worse for the vast majority of humans.
This is why Pinker's books Better Angels and Enlightenment Now are so important. If people on all ends of the political spectrum can acknowledge the real progress our species has made in the last 100 years, rather than fall prey to rampant pessimism, it would greatly help diffuse the growing political powder keg that continues to build in today's popular culture. Pinker's work is the antidote to the rising extremism in the USA and Europe.