When we look beyond the headlines to the trend lines, we find that humanity overall is healthier, richer, longer-lived, better fed, better educated, and safer from war, murder, and accidents than in decades and centuries past.
Having documented these changes in two books, I’m often asked whether I “believe in progress.” The answer is no. Like the humorist Fran Lebowitz, I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in.
Although many measures of human well-being, when plotted over time, show a gratifying increase (though not always or everywhere), it’s not because of some force or dialectic or evolutionary law that lifts us ever upward. On the contrary, nature has no regard for our well-being, and often, as with pandemics and natural disasters, it looks as if it’s trying to grind us down.
“Progress” is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe. It is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.
The explanation is rationality. When humans set themselves the goal of improving the welfare of their fellow beings (as opposed to other dubious pursuits such as glory or redemption), and they apply their ingenuity in institutions that pool it with others’, they occasionally succeed. When they retain the successes and take note of the failures, the benefits can accumulate, and we call the big picture “progress.”
Here are four areas of great progress we have made together. With this in mind, perhaps the future isn’t as dire as doomsayers might imagine. In fact, we have much to hope for as we look to the future.
We live longer.
Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, life expectancy at birth rose from its historic average of around 30 years and is now 72.4 years worldwide—83 years in the most fortunate countries. This gift of life was not dropped onto our doorsteps. It was the hard-won dividend of advances in public health (motto: “Saving lives, millions at a time”), particularly after the germ theory of disease displaced other causal theories such as miasmas, spirits, conspiracies, and divine retribution. The lifesavers included chlorination and other means of safeguarding drinking water, the lowly toilet and sewer, the control of disease vectors such as mosquitoes and fleas, programs for large-scale vaccination, the promotion of handwashing, and developments in basic prenatal and perinatal care such as encouraging nursing and body contact.
“Progress consists of more than gains in our safety and material well-being. It consists also of gains in how we treat each other.” —Steven Pinker
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