When we see problems in the world, we're quick to blame someone—anyone—who should be providing peace, love, and harmony. But the universe actually bends toward chaos and decay.
When we see problems in the world, we're quick to blame someone—anyone—who should be providing peace, love, and harmony: politicians, celebrities, parents, etc. But the universe actually bends toward chaos and decay. That's the second law of thermal dynamics. And the most we humans can do is stave off the inevitability of decline through the organization of resources and information. So next time you're feeling particularly outraged, just remember that it's an uphill battle that civilization is fighting. And the more plentiful resources and information become, the more secure we are from a nature that's red in tooth and claw.
It might seem like humanity disagrees over basic values, but the data is in: we actually don't.
Is conflict humanity's natural state? Could we ever agree on a set of values? The knee-jerk response for any student of history would be 'no', but the data tells a different story. Psychologist and author Steven Pinker offers proof in the form of Wagner's law: "One development that people both on the Left and the Right are unaware of is almost an inexorable force that leads affluent societies to devote increasing amounts of their wealth to social spending, to redistribution to children, to education, to healthcare, to supporting the poor, to supporting the aged." Until the 20th century, most societies devoted about 1.5% of their GDP to social spending, and generally much less than that. In the last 100 years, that's changed: today the current global median of social spending is 22% of GDP. One group will groan most audibly at that data: Libertarians. However, Pinker says it's no coincidence that there are zero libertarian countries on Earth; social spending is a shared value, even if the truest libertarians protest it, as the free market has no way to provide for poor children, the elderly, and other members of society who cannot contribute to the marketplace. As countries develop, they naturally initiate social spending programs. That's why libertarianism is a marginal idea, rather than a universal value—and it's likely to stay that way. Steven Pinker is the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
"The starting point for understanding inequality in the context of human progress is to recognize that income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being."
The starting point for understanding inequality in the context of human progress is to recognize that income inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being. It is not like health, prosperity, knowledge, safety, peace, and the other areas of progress I examine in these chapters. The reason is captured in an old joke from the Soviet Union. Igor and Boris are dirt-poor peasants, barely scratching enough crops from their small plots of land to feed their families. The only difference between them is that Boris owns a scrawny goat. One day a fairy appears to Igor and grants him a wish. Igor says, “I wish that Boris’s goat should die.”
Steven Pinker believes there's some interesting gender psychology at play when it comes to the robopocalypse. Could artificial intelligence become evil or are alpha male scientists just projecting?
Robots taking over has been a favorite sci-fi subgenre for ages. It’s a subject that has caused fear in movies, books, and real life for about as long as there have been computers in the first place. Now that there are things like predictive text and self-driving cars, modern culture seems to be edging closer and closer to real-life intelligent computers that could indeed take over the world if we don’t safe guard ourselves. There are already debates about the morality of self-driving cars. It’s sure to follow into the world of future organically ‘thinking’ computers.
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his Ph.D. from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications.