You gotta love Steven Pinker. He puts such high polish on the gruesome aspects of our world; he makes me believe there’s hope.
For those of us who may not be familiar, Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard whose research focuses on language, cognition, and social relations. He’s written twelve books, which collectively form a sort of positive humanity manifesto. The books are well researched and thought provoking, yet by academic standards, easy reads. Think Malcolm Gladwell with greater heft and a persistently upbeat perspective.
I first came to Pinker through Angels of Our Better Nature (2011) a fascinating romp through human history predicated on the idea that humans are evolving into more just, peaceful creatures. There’s much merit in the argument: we no longer burn people at the stake, or turn guillotine executions into public spectacle. However, our bloodiest century, by far, was the one we recently completed. Twentieth-century wars witnessed over a hundred million people dead from direct combat, battle-inflicted wounds, or collateral civilian damage. Plus six million Jews and other undesirables: gassed. Mr. Pinker may be correct in that we may have become more ‘humane’ in how we kill each other, but the scale of 20th century atrocities places humans far removed from angels.
War dead notwithstanding, the 20th century ushered in remarkable social and economic advances. Never had so many enjoyed so much opportunity. Living standards soared, life expectancies soared, political access soared. Not for all, by any measure; but for more than ever in human history.
Mr. Pinker’s optimism rose again with Enlightenment NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). The title alone is giddy with potential. Here, Pinker’s humanist creed is stronger. He doesn’t—quite—accuse traditional religion of holding us back, but the undercurrent is there.
Last year, Steven Pinker published his latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. A title less bombastic than Enlightenment NOW, as if the pandemic made even the most optimistic surveyor of our world pause, perhaps even retrench.
I went to hear Steven Pinker speak about his latest book, in a crowded lecture hall at the Harvard Science Center. The man gives good lecture. Graphics, humor, documentation, insights. Pinker makes the case that humans are fundamentally rational beings, and that our rationality will ultimately be our path to resolving political discord, religious fanaticism, economic inequality, even environmental disaster.
“Those following rationality do not wish anything for themselves that they do not wish for others.”
Such a noble idea. An extension, really, of the Golden Rule. That our humanity is not simply what we ‘do’ to and for each other; rather it’s what we ‘wish’ to and for each other. Steven Pinker imagines a world where eight billion people wish for all others everything they wish for themselves. If only wishing made things true.
Steven Pinker’s talk was steeped in humanist philosophy: treating all humans as a unified group; undifferentiated by age, wealth, race, or creed; all rowing together towards the same goal in the here and now. He appears to assume that people will abandon beliefs in an after-life simply because the sectarian strife that religion creates here on earth is so caustic. He also seems to discount the reality that not all humans view all others as equal. We are rooted in tribes of family, village, and nation. We honor those within our tribes over those beyond. Who among us will work to provide the same food, shelter and opportunity to an unnamed child on another continent that we will provide our own children? None.
I love and respect Steven Pinker because his worldview of human potential surpasses my own. I acknowledge our tribal nature, our religious fixations, and strive to see how we can coexist in peace. He operates on a whole other plane: where humankind’s commonalities and rational capabilities overcome all of our differences. I look forward to the day when his brilliant optimism eclipses my limited vision.
All Hail! Steven Pinker!