Steven Pinker: The human race, are we getting better?

Steven Pinker: The human race, are we getting better?
Steven Pinker: The human race, are we getting better?

New Atheist author Steven Pinker claims in ‘Enlightenment Now’ that the world is becoming more wonderful because human nature is constantly improving.

His book was reviewed in The Guardian, which referred to it as a manifesto for progressives. The review criticised the author’s often dismissive approach and his unsubstantiated claims at times.

“I think it’s not inconceivable that wars between countries will go the way of slave auctions and dueling, just be seen as too ridiculous for any reasonable country to engage in,” Pinker says in Episode 296 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And maybe that’s the natural arc of civilizations, including ones on other planets.”

But wouldn’t alien brains be so different from ours that it would make mutual understanding impossible? On the contrary, since aliens would have been subject to the same evolutionary pressures as us, they would probably possess an appreciation of science—and maybe even beauty—similar to ours.

“It’s conceivable that other intelligences have a sense of beauty that is not wildly different from ours,” Pinker says, “because they too might be expected to be attuned to counter-entropic forces and patterns in nature.”

An example of this is our appreciation of the bright colors and symmetrical configuration of many flowers. “Flowers are designed to attract bugs,” Pinker says, “but they also attract us, and our brains are pretty different from bugs’ brains.”

But there are limits. Vast differences in culture and biology would definitely lead to some significant differences when it comes to art appreciation.

“It may be pushing things to say that little green men from Alpha Centauri would groove to Thelonious Monk,” Pinker says. “I don’t think I’d push it that far.”

Steven Pinker on progress:

“Nowadays in the most conservative part of the world, namely the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, in many ways they are as liberal, even a bit more liberal, than people of the same age in, say, Sweden or Norway in the early 1960s. At first when I saw that graph I just couldn’t believe it, what are you talking about? People in Libya today are more liberal than people in Sweden in the early sixties? But if you actually think about it, if you go back to people’s attitudes in the sixties, the idea of say gay marriage—you ask a Swede in 1960 what they thought of gay marriage, they’d think you were nuts. Or women’s equality. We tend to underestimate how much the world has changed, particularly when it comes to generation by generation turnover.”


  1. I suspect “intelligence” will turn out to be an unsuccessful adaptation, as most ultra specialized adaptations are. As we “equalize” or “homogenize” we become more susceptible to a killer plague and/or environmental change. Perhaps we will be the transition species from carbon and oxygen to iron, silicon, and uranium, transferring life to the rocks.