Steven Pinker + George Monbiot = Aha!

Moments of clarity occur when you ask “Is it possible…?”

“It is not easy to convey, unless one has experienced it, the dramatic feeling of sudden enlightenment that floods the mind when the right idea finally clicks into place. One immediately sees how many previously puzzling facts are neatly explained by the new hypothesis. One could kick oneself for not having the idea earlier, it now seems so obvious. Yet before, everything was in a fog.” ― Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit. Image courtesy Mike Rohde.

Steven Pinker is an evolutionary professor and psychologist and author of The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (1999), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought (2007), The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). In his latest book he makes the case that the Enlightenment is not some distant era, of interest only to historians and philosophers, but instead the foundation for all the many benefits and advantages to which we scarcely give a second’s thought in the 21st century.

Although many of his views are controversial, he has earned the praise of Bill Gates, Richard Dawkins, Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks of the New York Times and a wide range of reputable publications.

“[Pinker] makes a powerful case that the main line of history has been, since the Enlightenment, one of improvement.”— Scientific American

Pinker also has scathing critics, chief of whom is George Monbiot, who says of Pinker’s latest book:

“Rosy worldviews that rely on avoiding inconvenient truths should always set alarm bells ringing.” — George Monbiot

[Update, June 2018: Another scathing critic of Pinker’s work is Jeremy Lint, author of The Patterning Instinct, who writes Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed.]

The main area of disagreement seems to be that of selective use of data. Pinker presents vast numbers of graphs that show that in almost every area, life has consistently improved since the Industrial Revolution. Monbiot, too, references many data points showing that the current environmental crisis cannot be easily dismissed. He then states the case that the undeniable environmental crisis threatens Pinker’s argument that life is steadily improving.

So who is correct, Pinker or Monbiot? Since both views are diametrically opposed, they can’t both be right, can they?

In an attempt to answer that question, I recently listened to an hour-long talk and Q&A session by Pinker in which he expands on data from his book showing how — globally — there have been improvements in length of life, health, food, prosperity, education, human rights, freedom from violence and accidents, leisure and happiness. Sometimes it helps to hear the author’s thoughts expressed verbally rather than in writing:

I have to admit, though, Pinker’s talk made me extremely uncomfortable. While Pinker may have a point about the distant past, he continually seems to dismiss the reality of the present. He never implies this, but I get the distinct impression that his worldview is one of “things can’t be so bad — look at what this carefully cherry-picked selection of data tells us.” He completely ignores humanity’s current condition, which saddens me, because things are far from Pinker’s rosy outlook.

And that’s when the question dawned on me: Is it possible that both Pinker and Monbiot are right?

I was so incensed by the talk that I could find no immediate answer, and so retired to bed.

Fortunately, as is so often the case when the sub-conscious sets to work, the answer dawned on me during the night.

What if Pinker’s perspective was that of an older man, reaching the end of a long life filled with accomplishments, with no real concern for a future he won’t be a part of? What if Monbiot’s perspective was that of an adolescent, about to step into the big, wide world, absorbing everything that needs to be done and very concerned about the future? Both are right, since it’s simply a matter of perspective.

What if we viewed the whole of humanity, not as a tired, used-up and about to expire entity, but as an entity full of the energy of an adolescent — a millennial, if you wish? Both perspectives are neither right nor wrong — it’s just that one perspective holds far more hope than the other.

What if we viewed the collective of humanity as a teenager about to leave home for the first time? We’ve been mollycoddled by a set of rules and regulations in much the same way that parents impose rules on their kids. Now, however, finally, we’re ready for independence and the freedom we’ve heard about for so long. Of course we’ll miss some of the creature comforts of home, but we can always pop in for quick visits.

With this image of a teenager leaving home as backstory, I wondered if the stages of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood) could be applied to the evolution of humanity as a collective. Turns out, they can. This isn’t meant to be scientifically accurate, and of course there’s no way of validating this approach, but it does seem to help with perspective when we add a quality called ‘Maturity’ to the Model of Humanity’s Evolution. The full updated model can be viewed here:

Here’s the summary:

What are your thoughts? Is it useful to view humanity as transitioning from adolescence to adulthood? Are you aware of any publications that cover this, specifically from the perspective of blockchain and decentralisation? I’d love to hear your feedback.