Is Life Improving? Documenting the Remarkable Progress of Humankind

The rise of populism has been fueled by rhetoric bemoaning the downward plight of the middle class, and that chorus has been joined by many from the left. But are we really worse off than we were a generation or a century ago? Not according to Steven Pinker, whose new book documents the dramatic improvement in lives across the globe.

Pinker, a psychologist and linguist and the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, has written an entertaining and challenging follow-up book: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. In his latest volume, Pinker makes the case that, in Barack Obama’s words, “if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one. Right here...right now." Bill Gates calls Enlightenment Now his “new favorite book of all time.”

Enlightenment Now (he should have worked harder on the title) is so well known and widely discussed by now that I don’t have to describe it here in more than summary form. If you’ve read the works of Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, Deirdre McCloskey, and Angus Deaton, heard Hans Rosling’s spirited TED talks, or for that matter read Pinker’s last book, you already know the basics: health, wealth, longevity, nutrition, literacy, peace, freedom, and just about all other indicators of human well-being have been dramatically improving over the last 250 years.

Deaton dates the beginning of this “great escape” from near-universal poverty to a time that most economists associate with the first Industrial Revolution. However, Pinker identifies that era as the Enlightenment, the sharp turn toward reason and science – and away from faith and tradition – that captured the Western world in the eighteenth century.

Hello from Hell

I don’t usually read, much less comment on, other reviewers. But the New York Times review of Enlightenment Now is so telling in its two-faced appraisal of the book that I can’t stop myself.

Sarah Bakewell’s review is quite positive. But the illustration intended to draw the reader’s attention to the review is an updated version of one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of Hell, complete with skull, rat, cockroach, vulture, strangulating bird, and, yes, hell fires. Across the panorama stretches a huge, grotesque smile, as if the Times wanted to warn its readers, “Don’t believe anything in this review – or in Pinker’s book. Life sucks.” Apparently, that is what the pooh-bahs who run the Times believe.

The psychological roots of progressophobia

Why is it so hard to believe one of the most obvious facts of our existence – that it’s pretty good? And that it’s dramatically better than the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives of those who went before us? Don’t we know that a relatively poor American can do many things that Catherine de’ Medici couldn’t – flush the toilet, take an antibiotic pill, or make a phone call?

Pinker says the reason is as follows:

The psychological roots of progressophobia run [deep]…How much better can you imagine yourself feeling then you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling? … [T]he answer to the second one is: it’s bottomless... People dread losses more than they look forward to gains, [and] dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune.

Then why are the good old days so often perceived as better than the present, even if they’re not?

One exception to the Negativity bias is found in autobiographical memory… [T]he negative coloring of the misfortunes fades over time. As the columnist Franklin P. Adams pointed out, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

We also confuse our own situation with that of the commons. Beyond a certain age, life becomes a race against diminishing capability. As Pinker says, “we mistake a decline in our faculties for a decline in the times.” Each of us is getting closer to death each year. But society isn’t getting closer; because of increasing longevity, it is actually getting farther away from death.