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Steven Pinker’s Two-Minute Case for Optimism

When we profiled Steven Pinker earlier this season, he challenged us to re-think the popular notion that humans are simply screwing things up.

Now, he’s taking his passionate plee for optimism to a Chipotle bag near you.

Check out his essay below, and revisit our profile of Pinker here.

A Two-Minute Case for Optimism

By: Steven Pinker

It’s easy to get discouraged by the ceaseless news of violence, poverty, and disease. But the news presents a distorted view of the world. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. You never see a TV crew reporting that a country isn’t at war, or that a city hasn’t had a mass shooting that day, or that millions of 80-year-olds are alive and well.

The only way to appreciate that state of the world is to count. How many incidents of violence, or starvation, or disease are there as a proportion of the number of people in the world? And the only way to know whether things are getting better or worse is to compare those numbers at different times: over the centuries and decades, do the trend lines go up or down?

As it happens, the numbers tell a surprisingly happy story. Violent crime has fallen by half since 1992, and fiftyfold since the Middle Ages. Over the past 60 years the number of wars and number of people killed in wars have plummeted. Worldwide, fewer babies die, more children go to school, more people live in democracies, more can afford simple luxuries, fewer get sick, and more live to old age.

“Better” does not mean “perfect.” Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress we’ve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.

Via Cultivating Thought.

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.


Seandor Szeles

    Seandor Szeles is the co-editor of the Secret Life Blog. He is most interested in the human side of science and providing take-away for educators.

    • Deborah Chelette-Wilson

      Bless you.

    • GalacticMuffin

      I was arguing with people on youtube who were saying aweful things like “I Love animals and hate humanity” and “I wish all humanity would just die” and i just couldn’t stand it. I knew they were being swayed by the media giving an un-acurite interpretation of humanity. Then I read the Chipotle bag and I yelled out “this is it! this Chipotle bag is the only thing aware of what it means to be human!” out loud while sitting in the restaurant. Suffice to say I got a few odd looks. 😛

    • DonnaBianca

      This essay might have given me a tiny lift of optimism — and perhaps even put a dent in my growing misanthropy — if only he had spent a few seconds of that two minutes discussing the welfare of our fellow animals of other species.

      As it stands, the essay reads like a textbook case of human supremacism and anthropocentrism. Humans are only one species of many on planet Earth, and yet we have made ourselves a plague of vermin — breeding to the point of terrible overpopulation, crowding out all of Nature, destroying wilderness habitat and pushing so many other animal species to extinction.

      This holy planet does not belong to us. We belong to the planet that created us, and that we share with billions of other Earthling animals. I would have more respect for Pinker — and maybe even a bit more trust in his optimism — if he were willing to recognize and acknowledge that.

      • Vince

        You do realize that Pinker is a huge proponent of vegetarianism and animal rights? He is one of the best advocates for responsible citizenship of this planet. I think that your comment is somewhat uninformed. Steven Pinker is not an anthropocentric thinker; he believes in the rights and the betterment of life for all living beings.

        • DonnaBianca

          I’ve read some of Pinker’s other stuff for philosophy classes. My comment here was specifically on the ESSAY — not on Pinker himself.

          IF he wants to write an essay to make the case for optimism, then he needs to include the environmental and animal welfare issues. (And especially the issue of human overpopulation, which is the single most destructive and depressing trend of all — and apparently unstoppable, unless we start being reasonable and get rid of the antiquated notion that people have the innate “right” to bear as many children as they want.)

          • GalacticMuffin

            Nobody is claiming ownership of the planet, rather, we are assuming our responsibility to protect it. It’s simply our part based on our biological makeup. What Pinker is saying in this is statically, we are slowly improving in our responsibilities. We aren’t to take ownership of the world but just as a tree has leaves that gives the world oxygen, humans have brains that can give the world growth, compassion and love. The essential elements that can bring preservation and peace.