Analysing Progress

Ambi Parameswaran learns the reason behind the rise of prosperity and knowledge in Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

Published 5 years ago on Nov 17, 2018 4 minutes Read

The daily newspaper delivers its share of bad news from around the world. Even closer home, as I was told at a panel discussion recently, things in Kashmir can never get better. And one of the panelists opined that it will take China to sort out the problem between India and Pakistan, with reference to Kashmir. We are always led to believe that things were so much better in the past.

Some of the readers who may have seen Woody Allen’s film Midnight In Paris can empathise with this feeling:  the movie takes an aspiring young writer into a time warp in Paris, where he meets luminaries of the past, writers, artists, musicians, who were longing for the ‘golden times’, lamenting their present state.

Were things really better in the past? Are things really that bad in the present?

Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University is the father of what is known as the ‘Evolutionary Psychology’ movement. His past books have explored psycholinguistics, language and communication.

In his latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress he takes an expansive look at the world post the ‘Enlightenment Movement’.

In the book, with its three sections, Prof Pinker presents the basic tenets of the Enlightenment movement in Section I, then presents the Progress we have achieved across multiple dimensions in Section II and concludes in Section III with a plea for Reason, Science and Humanism.

So what is the Enlightenment Movement? Prof Pinker points to a 1784 essay by Immanuel Kant: “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity, its lazy and cowardly submission to dogmas and formulas or religious or political authority."

Prof Pinker presents his argument that the world is a better place ever since we embraced ‘Enlightenment’. Through data and research he shows how the human race has made dramatic progress across all major development parameters. For instance, life expectancy has moved up from around 30 years in the late 1780s to more than 70 years in 2000; it is commendable that this increase has happened across the world with Africa too moving up from the higher 20s to 60+ in the same period. What about food? Calories consumed per person per day has moved up from around 1600 in the 1700s to 3500 in the 2000s in France; even taken as a whole, the world consumption of food has moved from 2000 calories in 1940s to 2500 in the 2000s. People living in extreme poverty has dropped dramatically from just a small percentage in the year 1820 to almost 85% in the 2000s.

The book explores in the vast Section II various dimensions of progress: Life, Health, Sustenance, Wealth, Inequality, Environment, Peace, Safety, Terrorism, Democracy, Equal Rights, Knowledge, Quality of Life, Happiness, Existential Threats. It is not that Prof Pinker is wearing pink colored lenses in his world view. There are areas where he has called out for caution; Environment is one such call out topic. But he strongly feels that threats like Terrorism are deeply overblown; more people die in car crashes than through terror attacks, he points out.

The book is a heavy read at 450+ pages, not including the appendices. But it is not without its occasional gems, or quotes drawn from the vast and deep knowledge of Prof Pinker. Let me just share one: ‘In 1976 Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died’ - Steven Radelet.

The author unfortunately glosses over two big events or three that did derail the progress train: World War I, World War II and much later 9/11. Is there a guarantee that these may not happen? The author has presented a strong case that these will not recur, current global discourse on nation state notwithstanding.

The book is a great read with numerous references and cross references; definitely not something to carry on your next Mumbai – Delhi flight [given its size it will add a significant weight to your carry-on baggage. But it is a book that you will long savour months after you have finish reading it. Here is a closing comment from the author, "I have made my own best case for progress and the ideas that made it possible, and have dropped hints on how journalists, intellectuals, and other thoughtful people including readers of this book might avoid contributing to the widespread heedlessness of the gifts of the Enlightenment."

If only I can make that panel I heard in Mumbai read this book!