The Enlightenment wars (2): the details

Are we in the best of the times, as Steven Pinker asserts? Or do we live in a ‘posthumous’ society, to say it with the favourite image of Marina Garcés? As I told in the previous entry, it is not easy to make a direct comparison between the ideas of both authors, because they follow very different argumentative strategies: Pinker’s thick book is full of data, whereas Garcés’ is a rather skimpy, philosophical pamphlet. But I shall try to do my best. Starting with the one that offers more ‘substance’ in terms of information, this is a list of the topics on which Pinker says we just cannot deny that the progress of humanity has been spectacular in the recent centuries and decades:

Life and health: At a global level, expectation of life has passed from about little more than 30 years (19th century figure in most Western countries; mid 20th century in most of the other ones) to more than 70 years now. Child mortality (percentage of born children dying before 5 years) has passed from more than a quarter to an almost insignificant figure in all the world except in the poorest countries, where now is above 10% just in a few African states. But the growing expectation of life is not just a statistical artifact of the reduction of child mortality, for it has significantly increased at all ages: for example, someone being 40 years old in 1840 might expect to live for another 25 years, contrasted to more than 35 years now. Obviously, a great part of this formidable increment in years of life has been due to improvements in health: eradication of many infectious diseases, antibiotics, generalised medical assistance in many parts of the world, and simpler things as cleaner living spaces, spread of hygienic practices, water chlorination, mosquito nets for beds, etc., but also to other causes as the one mentioned in the next points.

Reduction of famines: One of the most terrible and recurrent experiences through human history has been that of famines, the mere lack of sustain for most of the inhabitants of a region. Famines have been the effect both by political and natural causes, but the Malthusian curse of prosperity making population to grow more quickly than arable land, together with the irregularity of the climate and our grandfathers’ passion for war, has probably been the main killer of all for millennia. When I was a child, the exponential growth of the world population was seen as leading without remedy to a universal lack of food. However, though in the last fifty years the cultivated land has grown by a tiny 10 percent, the production of food has multiplied by four, mainly thanks to the ‘Green revolution’ of the sixties and to other scientific, political, economic and technological improvements. Spread of democracy and of the nets of international assistance has also acted to prevent famine in many situations that in the past would have inexorably led to it. Undernourishment has also reduced by two-thirds in the underdeveloped world (so that obesity is now a major health problem in many poor countries), from more than 35% of their population half a year ago to around a 15 %.

Economic growth and inequality: As we saw in the previous entry, extreme poverty (living with less than the equivalent to 2 US per day) affects now to around a 10 % of the world population, reversing the historical situation, in which it was a 10 % the proportion of people </span><span lang="en-GB"><i>not living </i></span><span lang="en-GB">in that misery. But, of course, the situation of the remaining 90% has in general improved much more than simply taking them out of extreme poverty. Now, the </span><span lang="en-GB"><i>median</i></span><span lang="en-GB"> of the world income distribution is about 4 times the level of income that defines extreme poverty (between 7 and 8 international per day). That’s not a big money: the median income in the UK, for example, is around 30 $ per day. But it is a big jump from the situation just four decades ago, when the world median income was around 70 cents per day (in constant dollars), i.e., ten times less than now. It is true that inequality has tended to grow within countries (not amongst countries), but in almost no country has this led to a big proportion of people coming back to a level of poverty as the one that was normal a few decades ago. Economic inequality, however, will be one of the main topics of our next entry.

The environment: Of all the items that we are listing, this is probably the one in which the progress has been less clear. It is evident that industrialisation, population growth and urbanisation came at the cost of diverting a lot of terrain to ‘non-natural’ uses, and of producing a lot of different types of pollution. Climate warming and the exhaustion of the sea ecosystems are probably the most worrying problems humanity shall have to care about in the next future. According to Pinker, in a way environmental damage is an unavoidable consequence of any kind of material progress, due to the second law of thermodynamics, so the right question to put is not whether damage can be wholly avoided, but what amount of damage is a reasonable price to pay for what amount of human progress (and, may I add, who should reasonably pay that price, and how to manage that they do). But we can also point to the fact that, since a global public ‘environmental consciousness’ raised around fifty years ago, most forms of pollution have dramatically decreased, no essential natural resource has become exhausted, and that, as more countries experience an economic transition, more and more people in those countries are demanding to their governments to take radical measures to preserve their environment.

Violence: Another recent book by Pinker was devoted just to this question (The better angels of our nature, 2011). There, he showed that all forms of physical violence had systematically decreased in the West starting from the Renaissance, and very dramatically in the last decades. A similar tendency can be observed at the global level. Of course, the two World Wars were an astounding counterexample to that tendency. The growth of street violence in many Western countries between the 1960’s and 80’s was a minor but relevant one. The war of Syria, started after the publication of the mentioned book, might be perhaps another. But the truth is that the probability of dying by being killed is now, in most parts of the world, a tiny fraction than what it was centuries ago. We have neither a convincing, definitive explanation of this trend, nor, of course, a proof that it will last forever (even with ups and downs). As for the question inspiring these entries (whether secular progress has been mainly due to the spread of the Enlightenment values), the fact that most of the areas affected by war in the present, and most of the terrorist attacks, involve the active presence of such an anti-Enlightenment movement as Islamic fundamentalism, is also a relevant fact to take into account.

Safety: Contemporary societies are much safer, not only thanks to the declining of direct violence, but also to the reduction of a lot of other types of accidents. For example, in the US, in one century (i.e., since motor vehicles became the most common transportation medium) the death rate from car crashes has declined by a factor of almost twenty-four: from about 24 deaths per 100 million miles, to about just one death (by the way, the fatality rate of transport by horse was historically higher than by car). This is just an example, but the death rate of almost any other usual form of accident has experienced a similar decline: pedestrian run-overs, plane crash deaths, drowning, fires, falls, poison, etc. Public consciousness of safety measures, better medical assistance, engineering progress, better legislation, etc., all have surely contributed.

Democracy and human rights: Though the fact that a country is run through a democratic process will not make rise an eyebrow in the ‘progressophobs’ (to use Pinker’s term), and though philosophers like Adorno and Foucault have taught many to distrust the apparent respect to human rights a country might exhibit, it cannot be denied that growth of democratisation and human rights respect at the global level is, at least, apparent. More countries than ever are democratic (even taking into account the different levels of democracy considered by the international observing agencies), and more and more we observe that all forms of discrimination are condemned, or, at least, more difficult to implement for most of the states, companies or groups that try to do it. The acceptance of gay rights, for example, though very far from universal, has got levels in many countries that no one would have believed a mere fifty years ago, which is nothing in historical terms.

Quality of life: One might wonder whether the progress in all the dimensions examined up till now is more quantitative than qualitative, i.e., whether, in spite of living more, having more money, and suffering less violence and discrimination, perhaps we do not live “better” than our grandparents, which probably were wiser than us and knew how to get more happiness from the much more meagre wealth they had. Well, Pinker also takes into account this possibility, and devotes several chapters to counter such an argument. First, people have now much more education: illiteracy is almost non existent in the developed world, and has decreased spectacularly in the underdeveloped countries within the last few decades; years of schooling have also increased worldwide; and access to information has not just increased, but experienced a Big Bang thanks to internet (e.g., more than one half of citizens in Africa get now a smartphone). True, information is not the same as wisdom; but lack of information (forced ignorance) is an extreme type of misery, and wisdom… well, nobody really knows what it really is. Second, many other measurable items having to do with quality of life have also experience a sensational improvement: total time in life not necessarily devoted to work (by having less work hours per week, more holidays, more education years, and earlier retirement), time spent with family and friends (yes, it has increased, at least in the countries capable of running such statistics), percentage of income or time that is not necessarily spent in basic goods like food, light, heath or housework (housing itself is a different question, for building space in cities is fundamentally more limited than the other types of goods), time spent doing tourism, etc. Third, wellbeing as measured not by rough economic factors, but through more ‘enlightened’ variables like ‘fundamental capabilities’ (e.g., Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum) or ‘human development’ (e.g., the Spanish economist Leandro Prados de la Escosura), has also grown in a significant way in most of the world. Fourth, and last, psychological measures of wellbeing, in the countries were statistics are available, do not support the existence of the so-called ‘Easterlin paradox’ (that economic growth is not accompanied by a higher degree of happiness): the long-term trend seems to be, rather, that more people is answering in the polls that they are ‘satisfied’ of ‘very satisfied’ with their lives, and this correlates with statistics of economic growth; suicide rates are not growing worldwide, and in many countries are decreasing; and other symptoms of mental ‘discontent’ (the Freudian Kultur Unbehangen) are also not increasing in a significant way, in spite of the contrary public opinion.

It seems, however, that for people of which the philosopher Marina Garcés may be a representative, all these dimensions of human progress count next to nothing. According to her, there is “an exploding disillusionment for the destructive effects of modernisation and of its fraud in the goal of building up more just and more free societies” (p. 44), though she does not bother in detailing what are exactly those ‘destructive effects’, or why she thinks (or thinks that people think) that contemporary societies are actually not ‘more just and more free’ than past ones. Expansion of culture, literacy and information counts also nothing, because “we know a lot, but we can very little… we live in times of enlightened illiteracy” (p. 45; my italics). What Garcés does mention are some factors that contribute to the presumed ineptitude of our knowledge: its gigantic amount, that precludes integration and intercommunication between the segmented fields; its ‘standardisation’ (in the sense of being produced and evaluated through mere formalistic procedures that don’t need to care about the content); and what she calls the ‘delegation of intelligence’, the idea that all problems can be solved thanks to some computer application or another. I confess I cannot see that any of these ‘problems’ are real existential threats (instead of just an intellectual mannerist’s exaggeration of minor troubles), but even if they were (what I doubt), in comparison with the astonishing advance experienced by humanity in all the other regards considered in this entry, they make me feel a little bit like if, after attending a magnificent interpretation of one Beethoven sonata, someone complained that the pianist wore each sock of a different colour. Actually, I am sure that the humankind has to face other much more serious problems, as we will see in the next entry.


Garcés, Marina, Nueva ilustración radical. Anagrama, 2017.

Pinker, Steven, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin, 2011.

Pinker, Steven, Enlightenment now. The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Viking, 2018.

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