Steven Pinker
Playboy Australia|April 2018

This man is on a mission to convince you that, despite how bad it looks, civilisation is working. Who knew optimism could be such a hard sell?

Amanda Petrusich

What if all our kvetching about the sheer misery of life on Earth is, in fact, self-perpetuating hooey? What if humanity is healthier, wealthier, happier, safer, better educated and more peaceful than ever before? What if there truly is no greater time to be alive than right now?

Steven Pinker — Professor of Psychology at Harvard University in the US and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of more than 10 books about human behaviour and instinct — has written that the idea of the present as a dystopia marked only by decay and suffering is “wrong-wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.” We’re flourishing, he argues. Not only that, but our boundless cynicism has left us vulnerable to demagogues who weaponise ambient anxiety and use it to justify dangerous agendas.

Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, is an encomium for the present. Rather than blindly panicking, he suggests we focus on “the historical sweep of progress,” with an eye toward its perpetuation. “Every measure of human well-being has shown an increase,” he told me recently. “You can’t appreciate that reading the newspapers, because news is usually about things that go wrong. You never have a reporter standing in front of a school, saying, ‘Here I am, reporting live in front of a school that hasn’t been shot up today.’ ”

Taking a formal tour of the United Nations with a man who holds nine honorary doctorates (in addition to an actual doctorate, from Harvard, in experimental psychology) is surreal for a handful of reasons, chief among them being that he knows the right answer to every single question the guide asks.

Pinker, wearing black cowboy boots, jeans and a blue sweater, played it cool — he always waited to see if anyone else felt like venturing a guess first. Then he’d slowly raise a hand and deliver a casual but terrifyingly precise answer: There are 193 member nations. There have been 10 rogue nuclear tests since the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban

Treaty of 1996. The UN has identified 17 sustainable development goals to be achieved over a 15-year period that began in 2016. Our guide regarded us with suspicion. When Pinker wasn’t answering her questions, we were chattering at each other, trailing the group, pausing to take pictures — in Pinker’s words, two “bad students.”

Enlightenment Now includes dozens of charts and matrices, some of which display data collected by the UN. But it’s the organisation’s very existence that best confirms the book’s arguments. As we wandered its hallways, Pinker pointed to the UN’s sustainability goals (which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, ending gender discrimination, ensuring clean water and sanitation, and more) as evidence of a secular-humanist morality — a plain, shared sense of right and wrong that exists independent of institutions. “The concept of human rights hinges on the fact that we all have universal needs,” Pinker explained after we’d retreated to a café in the basement of the building. “We’d all prefer to be alive than dead, well-fed than starving and healthy than sick, and we all want our kids to grow up, and everyone agrees that literacy is a good thing. So if we can combine universal human interests with a universal capacity for reason, we can define a bedrock that all humans share and that you can build a morality around.”

Pinker first seeded the notion of a shared ethic in his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. “The point of that book was to push back against the idea of a blank slate, not to deny that cultures differ,” he said. “Obviously they differ, but I think beneath all of that variation there is a universal human nature given to us by evolution, and that helps ground concepts like universal human rights.”

In many ways, Enlightenment Now feels like the apotheosis of Pinker’s research. The book is in direct conversation with each of his previous titles but especially with 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in which Pinker charts massive declines in violence of all forms and suggests that we’ve finally become more valuable to each other alive than dead. Bill Gates called it the “most inspiring book” he’d ever read. Mark Zuckerberg chose it as the second selection for his book club. Enlightenment Now elaborates on — and amplifies — its premise.

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