Munk Debate: Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead

Harvard’s Steven Pinker and science writer Matt Ridley went head-to-head with essayist Alain de Botton and author Malcolm Gladwell in the Canada-based Munk Debates on the subject of human progress: “Be it resolved that humankind’s best days lie ahead.” Given Pinker and Ridley’s past books, they were obviously on the PRO side. A portion of the debate can be found below:

I came into this debate heavily biased, but I still think Pinker and Ridley wiped the floor with their opponents. Here are some highlights:

Pinker argues that the world is getting better based on 10 major factors of human well-being:

  1. Life itself: lifespan is increasing.
  2. Health: diseases are declining.
  3. Prosperity: the world is wealthier and extreme poverty is continually declining.
  4. Peace: wars are becoming less frequent.
  5. Safety: global rates of violent crime are falling.
  6. Knowledge: the percentage of people with a basic education is increasing.
  7. Freedom: democracy overall is expanding worldwide.
  8. Human rights: the amount of rights and campaigns in favor of them have increased.
  9. Gender equity: women are better educated and hold more positions of power and influence.
  10. Intelligence: IQ scores continue to increase in every country.

He concludes,


A better world, to be sure, is not a perfect world. As a conspicuous defender of the idea of human nature, I believe that out of the crooked timber of humanity, no truly straight thing can be made. And, to misquote a great Canadian, “We are not stardust, we are not golden, and there’s no way we’re getting back to the garden.” In the glorious future I am envisioning, there will be disease and poverty, there will be terrorism and oppression, and war and violent crime. But there will be much, much less of these scourges, which means that billions of people will be better off than they are today. And that, I remind you, is the resolution of this evening’s debate.


Ridley argues for the why behind these dramatic improvements:

But, my optimism about the future isn’t based on extrapolating the past. It’s based on why these things are happening. Innovation, driven by the meeting and mating of ideas to produce baby ideas, is the fuel that drives them. And, far from running out of fuel, we’re only just getting started. There’s an infinity of ways of recombining ideas to make new ideas and we no longer have to rely on North Americans and Europeans to come up with them. The internet has speeded up at the rate at which people can communicate and cross-fertilize their ideas.

In response to de Botton’s focus on what he himself labels as the “first-world problems” of Switzerland, Pinker says,

Are you saying that you willing to go to a peasant in Cambodia, or Sudan, or Bangladesh, or Afghanistan and say, “Listen, I’ve been there. You worry about your child dying, your wife dying in childbirth, you’re full of parasites, you don’t have enough to eat but, you know, trust me, it’s no great shakes to live in a country like Switzerland. True, your child might not die in the first year of life but, you know, when they’re a teenager they’re going to roll their eyes at you. And you may not have to live under the shadow of war and genocide but people will still make bitchy comments. And you may not be hungry but, you know, sometimes the wine will have a nose that’s a bit too fruity.”

Ridley adds to this:

This world isn’t perfect, definitely not. That’s the whole point of optimism…It means you don’t think the world is perfect, you want to improve it. And if, along the way, that means that when we get to Switzerland, we stop being able to appreciate flowers and we lose our sense of humour [a jab at de Botton], well, maybe it’s a price worth paying.

In response to the problem of “unhappiness,” Ridley correctly points out that “happiness correlates with wealth, between countries, within countries and within lifetimes. It’s perfectly true that you can be very wealthy and very unhappy. But, that’s all right, because it cheers up other people, so…” Pinker backs him up by explaining that “the Easterlin Paradox has been resolved. I think you’re [de Botton] a decade out of date. The idea that wealth does not correlate with happiness, which is what the Easterlin Paradox was, has been resolved.”

On the topic of climate change and Gladwell’s somewhat disparaging remarks about economists, Pinker states,

I certainly agree that economists are an inviting target and one can always get a laugh by making fun of economists. But the problem of climate change is an economic problem. All the projections of the worst case scenarios all depend on calculations of economists, namely how many people will burn how many units of fossil fuels…Both the analysis of climate change and the possible solutions are economic problems. We know that we can have solar panels, the question is will there be enough solar panels to reduce fossil fuel use? We know that nuclear power can cut into carbon emissions, by how much. We know that people could reduce their consumption enough to mitigate the problem. Will they? Under what kind of incentives…So, it’s very much a problem of economics.

As de Botton continued to obsessively bring the mental states of literary characters, Pinker reminded him that “Anna Karenina didn’t actually exist…neither did Hamlet…I think if your child dies in the first year of life, that deeply concerns the human psyche. I think it’s very relevant to happiness. I think if billions of people do not see their children die, that’s a much more relevant consideration for the human psyche, for the depths of human existence than Anna Karenina…”

Given all this, I applaud Pinker’s conclusion: “It’s irresponsible enough to be a fatalist when the objective indicators say the world is getting worse, all the more so where they say the world is getting better.”

The whole thing is worth the watch.

14 thoughts on “Munk Debate: Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead”

  1. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The problem I have with this presentation is not the data, which is trending positive on a number of fronts. It’s with what they are assuming the data means: which is that the trend lines will *continue* improving indefinitely. That is, at least in my mind, an unwarranted assumption.

    There are any number of events that can bring this brave new world to its knees overnight. A massive solar flare, an EMP over the continental US, an asteroid a mile long.

    I would also argue that technological advance and sophistication doesn’t mean that we as a species are becoming *wiser* in a moral sense. Some smart folks have been making a case that despite all the heralded progress on women’s rights and humanitarian rights, we are taking steps backward on a number of other moral fronts.

    So, in my view, it’s quite a mixed bag. Yes, let’s celebrate the steep declines in world poverty. Let’s celebrate continuing advances in medical technology. Millions of aborted fetuses every year? Pardon me, but that’s a holocaust, and it’s ongoing with half the population defending it.

  2. Have any of you read End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century by Ronald Bailey?

  3. Michael: This is actually part of Gladwell’s argument, which they address. I don’t find the argument to be particularly strong.

    Pam: I own the book, but I haven’t read it yet.

  4. I’m not a science scholar or reader but the book is VERY readable. He’s a GREAT writer/ it’s easy to follow his logic and his humility, since he predicted “doom” in a previous book. The theme to me seems to be “it’s too soon to tell/ predict/ forecast” an outcome…because we are always coming up with ways to solve today’s problems and circumvent predictions we made when we didn’t know we didn’t know.

  5. Michael: My first comment was about not relying on the past as an indicator or the EMP example. I should have clarified.

    As for morality, I think there are declines in some sectors. Now, one could still hold an optimistic view of abortion based on a few points:

    1. Infanticide has declined drastically, with the value and dignity of a baby being well established. Now we argue over whether a *fetus* is a person. It is still a monstrous practice and even Pinker admits in his book that if we consider abortion to be a form of violence, then Western morality has largely collapsed. But the fact that the argument has moved from the dignity of an infant child to that of a human being at its earliest stages is arguably a sign of progress.

    2. The pro-life movement has been gaining momentum in the U.S. according to Gallup.

    3. Other developed countries, while still overly liberal in their abortion laws, continue to debate the issue and are at sometimes more restrictive than the U.S.

    4. China recently ceased its one-child policy.

    5. Abortion has (unfortunately) been coupled with women’s rights, which has expanded greatly.

    While this by no means is a reason to jump for joy on this issue, I think one could argue that we’re still moving in the right direction.

  6. I have to say, I wish abortion didn’t have such a horrible connotation and have been linked more successfully to CHOICE. The implications of NOT having that choice (if the tide turns) don’t contribute to a (or MY) sense that we are improving in this area. I often remember I HAD a choice and my mother and grandmother didn’t because we didn’t have safe birth control practices and possibilities until the 60’s….
    To me, this has been a positive improvement. To argue the value of the unborn is to me like arguing over the sound of tree falling in the forest when there’s no one there.

  7. Pam: Abortion is the killing of a human being in one of its earliest stages of development. That’s not really controversial. That’s biology and medical science. This is why it is such a huge deal to many. Now, serious arguments deal more with the concept of “personhood” and consciousness, which is where it becomes tricky. While some people see abortion as nothing more relevant than “the sound of a tree falling in the forest,” others see it as a massacre of the most of the vulnerable among the human race. Teasing out which one is right would determine whether or not abortion is a plus.

    I included women’s liberation among my pros, which would include increasing choice for women. But I think it would need to be shown that (1) the choice is moral, (2) the amount of people making that choice is a moral good, and (3) the lack of legal ramifications for the choice is moral. The Purge trilogy depicts an America that allows one day where all things are legal: murder, rape, assault, etc. This increases choice, but I think most people would argue that this is not a good thing. So, I’m not sure “choice” is the strongest argument for a net positive.

  8. Unfortunately, that argument is so often made by the ‘male’…It may be biologically correct by one’s definition of life….but I often think about the line…”And the Word became flesh.” That does not happen without breath.To me, that’s where “life” begins….when capable of initiating that Breath.

  9. Pam: According to Gallup, about half the U.S. population is pro-life. When you split it by gender, it is virtually the same. So, it isn’t just a male thing. It gets more nuanced as you break it down further: the largest percentage (36%) of American adults think abortion should be legal, but only in a few circumstances. Plenty of those in the pro-life crowd would agree with this.

    As to your second point, I’m not sure what other accurate definition of life there is besides the biological one.

  10. Walker,

    I appreciate the feedback. I suppose that I just can’t shake a sense of profound skepticism with the notion that we’re just moving along merrily toward a singularity of awesomeness. I don’t dispute the data and the trends. I applaud them and rejoice that in some areas, things are improving. I just keep thinking, “what doth it profit a planet, if we gain the whole world, but lose our souls?”

  11. Pam –

    Women are just as likely as men to be pro-life, and women are actually more likely to be pro-life then to be pro-choice (See point #1f here:

    I am a secularist, so I admit that off the bat the “Word became flesh” argument means little to me. But I also wanted to point out that, from the biological standpoint, “breathing” is just using our lungs to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The fetus exchanges carbon dioxide for oxygem too, just via the umbilical cord and placenta instead of the lungs. I’d be curious to hear an argument for why making that exchange using the lungs instead of the umbilical cord and placenta would be morally impactful.

    And if it’s really all about gas exchange via lungs, for whatever reason, that implies that the fetus is not “alive” until birth every single time. That is, you’d have to believe that the 8 1/2 month fetus is no more relevant than the zygote, because neither of them uses lungs to breathe. To me this seems like a fairly radical position, as even the most stridently pro-choice people I know don’t think abortion should be legal until literally the moment of birth. And what are the implications for the women who have suffered miscarriages and stillbirths? Those little beings never breathed either, does that make their losses less acute?

    I’m sorry if I come out of left field with all this, but the whole “no ‘life’ until breath” argument seems hugely problematic. And, not that it should matter but, I say this as a female.

  12. I probably should have not jumped into this conversation. I don’t know my “audience” and didn’t mean for it to become a debate. I only speak for how I have defined things. Of course, a fetus is alive/ of course, it get oxygen/ etc. I have been pro-choice from my personal circumstances and experiences from BEFORE I was born (based on stories my mother told me about my own conception) and have framed that to fit what makes sense to me. My apologies if I was out of line and I wish I could retract (because of the response it generated) everything I have said today. I ask your forgiveness for whatever I said that may have not been within the bounds of this group.

  13. I think Gladwell is correct to say near the end that there isn’t enough discussion of nuclear war risk in that debate. The affirmatives make a very good case, in a sense. If no global catastrophe occurs soon, it does seem that things are likely to continue improving. On the other hand, Russia and the West are closer to confrontation than they’ve been at any point since the Cold War ended, and Russia’s nuclear safety and early warning regimens are less effective than they were during the Cold War. An accidental war is always a possibility. Things are likely to get better, but there’s a non-negligible chance that they will get very bad indeed.

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