With Just One Important Exception

Quite by accident, I finished reading this book on 7 March, the eve of the International Women’s Day. The author, Prof. Steven Pinker, is nothing if not an optimist. Perhaps one reason for this is because, as a 63-year old psychologist who teaches at Harvard and has several best-sellers to his name, he has good reason to be satisfied with life so far. Parts I and II of his latest book, Enlightenment Now, are basically a list of all the ways in which the world has been improving over the last two centuries or so. By contrast, some of part III looks—to me, at any rate—like a “philosophical” tract so confused as to be hardly worth commenting on.

Even skipping that part, though, no short review can hope to do justice to the tons of evidence Pinker produces to support his claim. Follow some highlights:

  • Starting at the end of the eighteenth century, and taking the human race as a whole, real per capita product has gone up thirtyfold. During the same period the global population has increased tenfold fro 800 million to almost 8 billion; meaning that, in little more than two centuries, total production has increased three hundred times, no less. Contrary to the fears of Malthus and others, humanity has not run out of food and other resources. To the point where many formerly hungry countries have turned to exporting food and where in quite some developed ones obesity is a greater menace than malnutrition is.
  • Taking into account qualitative advances—vastly improved nutrition and living conditions, faster and more comfortable travel, more efficient communications, incomparably cheaper data-processing, to mention but a few—the improvement in our material situation has been much greater still. Just consider that King Louis XIV at Versailles had neither electricity, nor running water, nor flush toilets. Not for nothing did visitors keep complaining about the awful way everything smelled—and this in the palace for whose owner nothing could be too good.
  • The increase in the size of human population could never have taken place without radical advances in the related fields of medicine and health. Including a vast decline in perinatal mortality (the percentage of women who die in childbirth or shortly thereafter); a vast increase in the number of children who live to adulthood; the introduction, during the second half of the nineteenth century, of sterilization and anesthetics; the complete or near-complete eradication of some of the deadliest diseases, such as smallpox and polio; and the mitigation of crises such as AIDS, SARS and the rest which, had they broken out more than a few decades ago, could well have decimated the human race in the same way as Spanish Influenza did in 1919-20. Taken together, these and other advances explain why, world-wide, life expectancy is now around seventy years. That is twice as much as at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
  • Hand in hand with the general “betterment”—a term much beloved by Pinker’s heroes, i.e. the scientists, technicians and philosophers who made the Enlightenment—went improvements in education. To cut a long story short, in all countries with hardly any exception the percentage of illiterates has gone down, whereas that of those who enjoyed a secondary or tertiary education went up. To extrapolate—and extrapolation is the method Pinker himself uses whenever he wants to look into the future—the day may indeed come when illiteracy, like the abovementioned diseases, is all but eliminated. And when, as part of the fight against discrimination, everyone over the age of twenty will be awarded the title of professor free of charge.
  • While wealth and health and education have improved, war has shrunk. Much the most radical changes took place during the decades since 1945. World War II, which was the deadliest in history, probably killed between two and three percent of humanity as it then was (consisting of somewhat more than two billion people). Since then the figures, calculated on an annual basis, have gone down to the point where they can hardly even be expressed in terms of percentages. To put it in a different way, world-wide the average person’s chances of being killed in war are lower now than they have ever been. Which is not, of course, to say that life in some countries is not much more dangerous than in others.
  • Not just war, but other forms of legal violence have greatly diminished. In many countries torture, which used to be a regular and indeed almost ubiquitous part of the justice system, has been outlawed. The same applies to the death sentence as well as other forms of what the U.S Constitution calls “cruel and unusual” punishment. Especially in the US, cases are on record when the authorities wanted to carry out death sentences but could not—because the companies that made the necessary deadly poisons were no longer prepared to supply them.
  • Another sign of the growing concern with human life is the improvement in safety. In many developed countries working accidents are way down from what they used to be only a few decades ago. Calculating on the basis of person/miles travelled per year, the same applies to traffic accidents. I myself am old enough to remember the fight over safety belts—and how, overcoming all obstacles, those who advocated them won.

Enough, and more than enough, to make many of us happy? Pinker thinks so. True, the evidence, depending as it does on the recent invention known as polls, is not as plentiful as in other fields where progress has been made. But what little of it is available suggests that more people today enjoy more happiness than was the case a few decades ago. With just one important exception: several studies, some that are listed by Pinker and others that are not, have suggested that women, at any rate women in developed counties, are less satisfied with their lot than they used to be.

Time to reconsider whether feminism is such a marvelous thing after all?