Chancellor’s distinguished speaker talks about human progress in his book “Enlightenment Now”

By Miguel Lopez

Harvard Professor Steven Pinker spoke at the Irvine Barclay as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker series on Oct. 17. Pinker brought concepts from the Age of Enlightenment, reason, science, naturalism, and humanism, together arguing that “progress is a demonstrable fact,” topics he covers in his book “Enlightenment Now.”


But why would progress be denied in the first place? Professor Pinker provided an equation for this problem: nature of cognition + nature of news = progress denial. Negativity bias coupled with the intense reporting of negative news, Pinker argues, has lead people to question whether progress is unattainable. For Pinker, this pessimism is dangerously misinterpreted as caution in order to make it justified.


Pessimists take in the state of the world as it is now and point to the despair in order to refute hope, but Pinker doesn’t see that line of thinking as particularly productive. While he advocates for healthy skepticism, he stresses the importance of accuracy over personal feelings.


“Isn’t it good to be pessimistic? No… be accurate,” Pinker said.


Pinker also utilized various graphs to illustrate how progress has been taking place throughout the course of human history. He showed a multitude of diagrams with data on various topics such as increased prosperity, improving physical health, increasing life expectancy and decreasing violence, among other things. In each of these graphs, an evident trend toward the positive was showcased. Human beings are living well past their 30’s —  the standard life expectancy range in the 17th century — and into their 70’s. Since then, according to Pinker’s research, there has also been a decline in life-shattering diseases, a continuously improving education system, and an almost boundless access to information. All of these individual examples of progress showcased by Pinker point toward collective progress.


Still, Pinker said that progress is not inevitable. There have been many times throughout human history that have challenged or set back progress, for example, world wars, AIDS, and the opioid epidemic. He says one of the biggest threats to progress in our time is climate change which has the real opportunity to bring on another wave of increased disease through pollution and, if left untreated, it could decimate our sources of clean food and water. Through this, he spoke optimistically of the human spirit to persevere because, at the end of the day, we know that “life is better than death.”


Students who attended the talk, like Jin Li and Alex Yi who, already familiar with Pinker’s research on language, came because they wanted to learn more about the progress humanity has made. Criminology, Law, and Society major Alexis Lewis, who says she believes in Pinker’s inspirational message of science-backed hope, had been anticipating this talk from the second she learned Pinker would be coming to UCI.


During his lecture, Pinker chose President Obama’s 2016 commencement speech to the graduating class of Howard University as the quote that best encapsulated his book, “Enlightenment Now”: “If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be… you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now.”