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576 pages, Hardcover
First published February 27, 2018
[You have] the ability to like, love, respect, help and show kindness--and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues ... You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace.Pinker writes that the Enlightenment helped us escape from superstition and ignorance. It increased our understanding of ourselves through science. Also, Humanism is a secular foundation for morality. And, it is individuals who are sentient, not the tribe. The Enlightenment helped to abolish cruel punishments and slavery. Also, Humanism helped bring about an increase in peace.
In 1976, Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died.
American conservative politics has become steadily more know-nothing, from Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump.Pinker lists all of the ways in which President Trump has resisted progress, and backtracks to a less advanced way of life: Reversal of health care, reversal of globalism, reversal in the growth of wealth, reversal of the environment, safety, law and order, international trade, equal rights, tolerance, and the judicial system. The president has all the hallmarks of a dictator; he is impulsive and vindictive.
Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom—desire coordinated in the light of all experience—can tell us when to heal and when to kill.
~ Will Durant
But even if they are not wiped off the face of the earth, they can be reduced further, including violence against women and children, hate crimes, civil war, and homicide.
MaterialismMy complaint has broadened in the eight years since I reviewed that book, because it has been informed by the social crises we face today, especially regarding how social identity in the modern world has become a more salient dividing point between populations, despite the astonishing fact that it is often quite arbitrary. Modernity has a whole host of problems which are becoming ever more germane.
Ridley points out that humans have evolved into incredibly efficient organisms at solving the problems our paleolithic ancestors faced. Most humans alive today have access to food, health and a length of life that would astonish even our great-grandparents.
And given how important those things are in our life, I’m also optimistic that we’re going to keep getting better at them. Given the staggering amount of research that’s going on, it would be very surprising if the coming decades don’t provide continuing delights at keeping people healthier and living longer.
But here’s the problem: when I look around me, most of the people I see are already pretty satisfied on those counts. Sure, it’ll be really sweet when we finally cure cancer, and when we can reliably prevent Alzheimer’s, etc., etc. But the existential threats that drove paleolithic existence aren’t reflected on most folks’ day-to-day anxiety list, are they?
The upshot of this is a little tricky: if the existential threats present during evolutionary time aren’t what drives us today… what does? Something I think is important to realize is that no matter what the answer is to that question, it isn’t embedded in our nature, at least certainly not in the same way as the old threats. Which means it is a very flexible thing, informed by culture, preference, and contingency. And that means individual and societal choices will vary widely, and might often contradict each other. I can easily imagine some of those drives being cause for pessimism — whether they be growth-for-growth’s sake of the capitalist, or the holy wars of various religious extremists. Those mimetic constructs could, in turn, put a damper on the pollyannaish future presented here.
Since Ridley merely examines how good we are at meeting the materialistic goals of cavemen, he really never gets it. The pessimism of the post-modern isn’t about Malthusian crises, but about the lack of focused direction for our post-materialist civilization to take.
Ridley doesn’t see that problem, and his book is fundamentally flawed.