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Steven Pinker: Enlightenment optimist

"We need to concentrate our efforts on how things can go right,” says the Harvard professor

    Steven Pinker
    Steven Pinker (Photo: Getty Images)

    In a world seemingly drowning with negativity, Steven Pinker is that rare specimen, the eternal optimist. “I don’t like to call myself an optimist, but a possibilist,” the evolutionary psychologist explains.

    His latest book, which he has been busily promoting in the UK, encapsulates this world view. Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress is his answer to the inevitability of entropy chaos and disorder overtaking the universe.

    Pinker believes the notion of entropy gives human beings options. “Entropy is the realisation that because there are so many ways for things to be in a state of disorder, rather than order, by the laws of probability, all systems will tend towards disorder,” he explains from his study in Boston, where he is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. “That means that, without intervention of energy, or human intelligence, things fall apart: and it means that poverty, ignorance, and chaos are natural. By the laws of probability, everything will go wrong. But we need to concentrate our efforts on how things can go right.”

    The book also attempts to restate the ideals of that progressive intellectual movement from 18th-century western Europe the Enlightenment — and give those ideals relevance for the present day. “My main aim with this book is to show that the world, including ourselves, is intelligible; that beliefs should be subjected to empirical testing, rather than deduced from an ideology; that the sweep of history since the Enlightenment has shown that the application of reason, and some of the values of science, have led to enormous improvements in human welfare that most people are unaware of.”

    The 64-year-old was born into a Jewish family in Montreal, Quebec, in which, he says,“argument, debate, knowledge and disputation were highly valued.” His previous books, including The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate have all, to some degree, courted controversy.

    In The Language Instinct (1994), Pinker put forward the thesis that the ability to speak is uniquely human. He was building on Noam Chomsky’s 1957 theory that language is hardwired into the human brain and innate. Pinker backed those ideas with neuroscience.

    Most recently, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2011), claimed there had never been a safer time to be alive and that violence yielded fewer benefits in the second decade of the 21st century than at any other time in human history.

    Pinker claims his Jewish roots gave him a Jewish sense of humour, which in turn allowed him to think deeply at a distance and often in abstraction about human nature and the human condition itself, chiming with the 18th-century philosophers who led the Enlightenment.

    Indeed, as Pinker explains, one of the great beauties about the ideas of the Enlightenment is that they covered four themes: “reason, humanism, science, and progress, all of which aim to develop a science of human nature and improve human welfare.

    “The main idea about the Enlightenment is that we acquire knowledge about the way the world works, including ourselves which is defined as health, happiness, long life, knowledge, the pursuit of beauty and social connection.”

    Pinker believes our species’ saving grace can be surmised in one word: knowledge. We skilfully use knowledge with an acute awareness of our surrounding world. Crucially, this lifts us to a higher plane of consciousness. Moreover, the growth of education— and its first dividend, literacy— is the great flagship of human progress, he insists.

    Not only are millions more people around the globe becoming more literate and knowledgeable, but they also seem to be performing better in tests of intelligence. IQ scores have been rising for more than a century in every part of the world.

    “The most likely explanations are that the increase came from health and nutrition. And even more so by an increase in education.”

    One of the core themes of his book is that wealth creation prioritises the needs of human beings. As humans become wealthier — so the argument goes — they begin to think of concepts and ideas outside their own basic struggle for survival. Consequently, the scope of their concern expands in space and time.

    Here, Pinker gleans his ideas from the Scottish political economist and moral philosopher, Adam Smith. One of most influential Enlightenment thinkers, Smith argued that wealth is created primarily by knowledge and co-operation: as people combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labour.

    “For all the obsession with inequality over the last decade or so, it really is not a fundamental dimension of human well-being,” he says. “What matters, morally, is not inequality, but poverty and how well people are at the bottom.”

    “Societies in which there is inequality are societies in which the wealthy have too much political power.

    “But the problem is really about keeping the integrity of the democratic system intact, and preventing the wealthy from having too much influence.”

    Humanity is moving in a seemingly unstoppable direction, making things more efficient, technologically compatible, and smaller in the process.

    Still, for all our ingenuity, smart thinking and progress, we still can’t survive on bits of information alone.

    “We need to eat, we like to see the great outdoors, so we will remain physical objects. But the amount of stuff that we need has been decreasing [over time].”

    Progressive humans should not simply view the world in terms of primary resources, he says. “People need ideas, not just core resources. And ideas are part of an infinite universe of possibilities that never get exhausted.”

    Violence is on the decline, we are getting smarter, wealth is on the increase, countries are even getting more democratic across the globe too, Pinker insists. It’s all starting to sound rather utopian. Isn’t there anything that he worries about?

    “I would say climate change is one of the biggest threats that humanity faces,” he says, pointing out that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current path, the Earth’s average temperature could potentially rise to four degrees above the level it was before the Industrial Revolution. This will cause more frequent and severe heat waves; more floods in wet regions; more droughts in dry regions; heavier storms; more severe hurricanes; lower crop yields in warm regions; the extinction of more species; the loss of coral reefs; and the rising of sea levels from both the melting of land ice and the expansion of sea water.

    But trying to keep the rise of the world’s average temperature to two degrees or less is highly ambitious, he cautions. At the very minimum, the global community would have to reduce its emissions by half or more by the middle of the 21st century and eliminate them entirely before the turn of the 22nd.

    With the United States recently pulling out of the Paris Agreement, that kind of global consensus hardly seems realistic any time soon.

    So what to do? The basic premise, Pinker believes, is to figure out how to get the most energy with the least emission of greenhouse gases. He is an advocate for nuclear power and also argues for carbon pricing: charging people and companies for the damage they do when they dump their carbon into the atmosphere.

    “It would be great if the world’s entire energy needs could be met by renewables — solar and wind — but I’ve never seen an analysis that enables us to reduce the CO2 emissions to zero, while subsequently allowing the developing world to enjoy the middle class standard of living that people in[the west] enjoy.”

    Mining the uranium for nuclear energy leaves a far smaller environmental scar than mining for coal, gas or oil does, he explains. And the nuclear plants themselves take up just one five hundredth of the land mass needed to provide the same energy by wind or solar.

    “No technology is completely safe, but what we do know is that coal and oil are massively dangerous. You have to go down into the ground, people burn it, and that causes pollutants. And that has to be factored into the considerations as to where we are going to get our energy from.”

    It’s hard to predict how long humans will last, he says, most mammal species last only a million years, which should not leave us complacent about the real threats that we face: “It’s essential to prioritise the challenges we face. And focus our energies on the steps we can take to mitigate them.”

     

    Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker is published by Allen Lane.

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