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