On Pinkglossianism

Steven Pinker is not wrong to say that some things have got better – or even that some things are getting better. We live longer. We have more food. We have more medicine. We have more free time. We have less chance of dying at another’s hands. My main objection to his arguments is not that some things have got worse as well (family life, for example, or social trust). It is not that he emphasises proportion when scale is more significant (such as with animal suffering). It is the fragility of these peaceful, prosperous conditions.

Antibiotics have made us healthier but antibiotic resistance threatens to plunge us into epidemics. Globalisation has made us richer but is also a powder-keg of cultural unease. Industrialisation has brought material wealth but it is also damaging the environment. Nuclear weapons have averted international conflict but it would only take one error for them to wreak havoc.

At his best, Pinker reminds us of how much we have to treasure, then. At his worst, he is like a co-passenger in a car – pointing out the sunny weather and the beautiful surroundings as it hurtles towards the edge of a cliff.

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4 Responses to On Pinkglossianism

  1. Damian says:

    Many of the critical reviews I’ve read of Pinker’s Better Angels book (Timothy Snyder, John Gray) have also emphasized the fragility of progress.​ Not having read the book myself, I wonder: does Pinker actually endorse the robustness of progress? I’m aware that many of the book’s fans seem to have taken away the idea that there is perhaps a teleological inevitability to it, but I sometimes suspect that they’re just using what appears to be an impressive source to confirm their already-existing bias in favor of the notion.

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  2. Simon says:

    One of the main reasons that I take Pinker with so many grains of salt is that whenever he draws political conclusions from his work in either linguistics or psychology, the results end up very close to textbook Whig History repackaged for an audience who rightly consider that entire narrative discredited. As airtight as his arguments are, the conclusions give off an air of “too good to be true”.

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    • bsixsmith says:

      Yes! I suppose this is a common problem on all sides though. There was once a funny article called Why 9/12 Proves My Politics Are Correct, and I think of it after every major event.

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