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Steven Pinker's Radical Brand of 'Contingent Optimism'

The Harvard University psychologist argues humans have the capability to deal with the huge challenges we face. But will we? That's a different question.
Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker.

Today, being an optimist also means being a target. Just ask Steven Pinker. The Harvard University psychologist's new book, Enlightenment Now, which argues the quality of human life has improved enormously over time, and can continue to do so if we embrace science and eschew superstition, has become an instant best-seller in spite of dismissive reviews from publications across the political spectrum.

"A profoundly maddening book," writes the New York Times. "A feeble sermon for rattled liberals," huffs the New Statesman. "An oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history," adds The Nation.

Perhaps that's why he rejects the label of optimist. Pinker prefers "possibilist."

"The existence of progress doesn't mean everything is getting better for everyone all the time, in every aspect," he insisted in a recent interview with Pacific Standard. "It's undeniable that we continue to live longer, we're less likely to be killed in an accident, we have more leisure time, more of us go to school. But that doesn't mean everyone is experiencing constant improvement."

Pinker is an evangelist for Enlightenment values, arguing that the philosophers of that era laid the groundwork for the scientific and social breakthroughs that have lifted millions out of poverty and created a healthier, wealthier world. At a time when it often feels like we're backsliding, his argument has found a receptive audience. Our conversation is below.


Do you suspect the backlash to your book is partly due to the fact it's hard to be upbeat at this particularly point in history, when the Western social order seems rather shaky due to the rise in nationalism, tribalism, and authoritarianism?

I do think that's a good part of it. One of the common comments I get is, "It sure doesn't feel like we're making progress." People forget how dire events were in the recent past. Not so long ago, we had a horrible war between Iran and Iraq, double-digit inflation, lines around the block to buy gasoline, and a genocidal totalitarian dictator in China, namely Mao.

Perhaps I'm infected with the negativity bias you argue is prevalent among Western elites, but in recent years my own thinking has been trending in the opposite direction of yours, to the point where I wonder if I have willed myself into seeing progress when, in fact, things are more cyclical. I thought the power of religious fundamentalism had declined, and then came 9/11. I thought the appeal of authoritarianism had lessened, and then came Donald Trump. Aren't these basic human drives that keep recurring, that we have to keep beating back if we're to have an open, liberal society?

Very much. The appeal of authoritarianism and tribalism will always be with us. But that doesn't mean human well-being is cyclical. Sadism is part of our nature, but we haven't seen a recurrence of public disembowelments and burnings at the stake. We have the same superstitious impulses as our ancestors who practiced human sacrifice, but once that practice was abolished, it stayed abolished.

We will always be vulnerable to urges like revenge, anecdotal thinking, and demonization. The question is whether our institutions and norms can keep them at bay.

Well, that's part of what many of us find disconcerting about the present time. Under President Trump, our institutions and norms are being tested as they seldom have. Are you confident this is a blip rather than a retreat?

I would not say that I'm confident. But nor do I think that the Enlightenment had its moment, and is now going to cede the stage to resurgent populism and nationalism. Support for authoritarian values is not coming from the growth sectors of the world. They're concentrated in rural areas; the world is urbanizing. They're concentrated among the less-educated; the world is becoming more educated. And they're concentrated among the old. Support for Trump, Brexit, and European populist parties all sharply decline among the young.

To that point, you write about the fact wars occur less frequently than they once did. But of course the "long peace" began with the Hiroshima bombing, when superpower conflict became unthinkable. Since World War II is no longer part of the memories of most living people, there's a school of thought that it is becoming thinkable again. Trump certainly seems to consider it an option. Aren't we skating on a precipice here, given that nuclear war could be one of the greatest catastrophes of all time?

That would only be literally true if there was an all-out exchange involving hundreds of weapons. According to recent analyses of the very real risk of war with North Korea, there's a horrific scenario in which two million people would be killed. But more than two million people were killed during the war in Vietnam, if you include civilian deaths from disease and hunger together with direct war deaths. There was a civil war in China in the 19th century that killed 20 million people. A nuclear war that killed two million people would be a catastrophe, but that doesn't mean scares like North Korea are qualitatively different from what we've seen in the past.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

We tend to focus so much on the risks of the day that we forget the risks of yesteryear, and falsely conclude the world is getting worse. We shouldn't minimize or ignore the risks we face, but we shouldn't conclude we're heading in the wrong direction. The habits of journalism are to always focus on the present. We can be misled by the availability and vividness of current news, and the fading of bad memories, into an inaccurate picture of which way the world is going.

You argue there is a cost to that.

I do. The person sitting in the Oval Office right now is a great danger. By temperament, this is the last person you want in charge of the nuclear arsenal. But one reason we got to this point is Trump offered a dystopian narrative about our current situation—that you can't walk down the street without getting shot—and the opposition unilaterally disarmed. It didn't offer a counter-narrative that there are problems, but we've made progress, and we can't give up on the institutions that made our progress possible. I think a relentlessly negative view of the world can blow back by seeding the political ground for populists and demagogues.

Trump successfully manipulated racial resentment in a significant portion of the population. Has a nation or society ever successfully transformed itself from one where there is one dominant race or ethnicity to one that is truly multicultural without tearing itself apart? Are you confident that the traditional power structure believes upholding the rule of law and the sanctity of democracy is more important than holding onto power?

That ideal is being profoundly stressed. The mechanisms of democracy, including voting access and the independence of the judiciary, ought to be sacrosanct. Although I'm a political centrist, I apportion the lion's share of the blame for the challenging of those norms to Trump and the Republican Party. The Trump administration is unprecedented in the norms it has broken, which is great cause for concern. Whether this is going to govern our politics from now on is less clear, and, as I mentioned, there are some reasons to think that it won't.

I recently interviewed Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford University biologist, who argues that the us/them distinction is "a fundamental fault line in our brains." It's safe to assume that tribalism and tribal loyalty predates intellectual reasoning in our evolutionary history. Can rational thought really override fear and hatred of the other, especially given the fact people tend to place a high value on their gut instincts?

Yes. We know that it can, and it has. I agree that the us/them distinction is extremely salient, but who counts as "us" can change. As nations form tribes, and as an international community is formed out of nations, we can expand our circle of who counts as "us," and consider allies people who not so long ago would have been viewed as enemies.

But isn't the opposite happening internally, with our nation breaking up into tribes?

There has been an increase in left-right polarization and animus in the United States. I agree that's a problem. There has been a misperception of the argument in Enlightenment Now regarding optimism. The key point of the book is that the values of the Enlightenment embolden us to solve problems. Human nature allows for the possibility of cumulative improvement, even as it faces the constant drag of primitive impulses that work against it. It's an ongoing struggle.

Speaking of struggles, you acknowledge climate change is a huge challenge, but are confident technological fixes are possible. It seems to me it's an open question whether that's really true, and, if so, whether we have the political will to make it happen.

If you believe it's impossible to solve the problem, then, logically, you should be against any mitigation efforts or policy changes, because they're not going to make any difference. The position that we can't solve the problem is completely consistent with the denialist position that nothing should change whatsoever. Different premises, but they reach the same conclusion.

My argument is the problem is solvable, but not easily solvable. If we implemented technological improvements and necessary policies, including putting a price on carbon emissions and pursuing low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, a solution is possible. Mine is a contingent optimism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.