Do Humankind's Best Days Lie Ahead?
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Do Humankind's Best Days Lie Ahead?

The Munk Debates

Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain &#100&#101 Botton, Malcolm Gladwell

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eBook - ePub

Do Humankind's Best Days Lie Ahead?

The Munk Debates

Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Alain &#100&#101 Botton, Malcolm Gladwell

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Progress. It is one of the animating concepts of the modern era. From the Enlightenment onwards, the West has had an enduring belief that through the evolution of institutions, innovations, and ideas, the human condition is improving. This process is supposedly accelerating as new technologies, individual freedoms, and the spread of global norms empower individuals and societies around the world. But is progress inevitable? Its critics argue that human civilization has become different, not better, over the last two and a half centuries. What is seen as a breakthrough or innovation in one period becomes a setback or limitation in another. In short, progress is an ideology not a fact; a way of thinking about the world as opposed to a description of reality.

In the seventeenth semi-annual Munk Debates, which was held in Toronto on November 6, 2015, pioneering cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and bestselling author Matt Ridley squared off against noted philosopher Alain de Botton and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell to debate whether humankind’s best days lie ahead.

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Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?
Pro: Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley
Con: Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell
November 6, 2015
Toronto, Ontario
do humankind’s best days lie ahead?
Rudyard Griffiths: Good evening, everybody. My name is Rudyard Griffiths and I’m the chair of the Munk Debates. It’s my privilege to have the opportunity to moderate tonight’s contest.
I want to start this evening by welcoming the television audience across North America tuning into this debate, everywhere from CPAC, Canada’s public affairs channel, to C-SPAN across the continental United States. A warm hello, also, to our online audience watching this debate right now on www.munkdebates.com. It’s great to have you as virtual participants in tonight’s proceedings. And, finally, hello to you, the more than 3,000 people who have sold out Roy Thomson Hall for yet another Munk Debate just weeks after our much acclaimed Canadian federal election debate. It’s terrific to have all of you here tonight.
Tonight’s debate is a bit of a departure for us. We’re not going to be talking about a specific geopolitical issue or cultural debate. Instead, we’re going to think bigger. We’re going to reflect on the nature of our society, its most deeply held beliefs, all in the context of the question we’re posing tonight: Is humankind progressing? Do our best days lie ahead?
To reflect on this big question, a debate that has raged in our society and our civilization for more than two centuries, we’ve brought four people here to this stage in Toronto — people we think are some of the sharpest minds and brightest thinkers in their respective fields.
But before we get to that, I want to mention that none of these debates would be possible without the generosity, support, and vision of our hosts tonight. Please join me in an appreciation of Peter and Melanie Munk and the Aurea Foundation. Thank you. Bravo.
Let’s get our debaters out here on stage and our debate underway. Our resolution is, “Be it resolved: humankind’s best days lie ahead.” Please welcome, speaking for the “pro” team, Montreal native, pioneering cognitive scientist, and internationally renowned writer and scholar Steven Pinker.
Steven’s teammate is a member of the British House of Lords. He’s a storied journalist, a contributor to the Times of London, and the author of a string of big, internationally bestselling books on the intersections of evolution, ideology, history, and progress. We know him as Matt Ridley. Matt, come on out. Great to have you here.
Well, one great team of big-thinking debaters deserves another. Please welcome the celebrated U.K.-based author, broadcaster, and thinker, one of the leading public philosophers of his generation, Alain de Botton.
Alain’s debating partner is someone we love to read regularly in the New Yorker, where he’s a staff writer. We’ve also read a few of his books. I hear there are over ten million in print. Ladies and gentlemen, Canada’s Malcolm Gladwell.
Let’s quickly run through our pre-debate checklist. First: our lovely countdown clock. This is going to keep our debaters on their toes and our debate on time. To those of you who are new to the Munk Debates, when you see this clock get to zero, please join me in a round of applause for our debaters, which will let them know that their allotted time has been used up.
Next, I want to review the poll results from the start of this evening. All 3,000 of you coming into this auditorium tonight were asked to vote on the resolution, “Be it resolved: humankind’s best days lie ahead.” The results are interesting: 71 percent of you agree, 29 percent disagree. The cup is definitely half full for this group.
But, as we know, these debates change, they’re fluid. So we asked you: Depending on what you hear tonight, are you willing to change your vote over the next hour and a half? Ninety-one percent of you — yes, that high — would change their vote. Only 10 percent of you were committed optimists. So, we have a real debate on our hands.
I’m now going to call on our first opening statement of the evening, which will go to the “pro” team, as is custom. Steven Pinker, your eight minutes begin now.
Steven Pinker: Fellow Canadians, citizens of the world, I plan to convince you that the best days of humankind lie ahead. Yes, I said convince.
Declinists speak of a faith or belief in progress, but there’s nothing faith-based about it. Our understanding of the human condition must not be grounded in myths of a fall from Eden or a rise to Utopia, nor on genes for a sunny or morose temperament, or on which side of the bed you got out of this morning.
And it must not come from the headlines. Journalists report plane crashes, not planes that take off. As long as bad things haven’t vanished from the earth altogether, there will always be enough of them to fill the news. And people will believe, as they have for centuries, that the world is falling apart.
The only way to understand the fate of the world is with facts and numbers, to plot the incidence of good and bad things over time — not just for charmed places like Canada but for the world as a whole — to see which way the lines are going, and identify the forces that are pushing them around. Allow me to do this for ten of the good things in life.
First, life itself. A century and a half ago, the human lifespan was thirty years. Today, it is seventy, and it shows no signs of levelling off.
Second, health. Look up smallpox and cattle plague in Wikipedia. The definitions are in the past tense — “smallpox was a disease” — indicating that two of the greatest sources of misery in human existence have been eradicated forever. The same will soon be true for polio and guinea worm, and we are currently decimating hookworm, malaria, filariasis, measles, rubella, and yaws.
Third, prosperity. Two centuries ago, 85 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, that’s down to 10 percent. And according to the United Nations (UN), by 2030 it could be zero. On every continent people are working fewer hours and can afford more food, clothes, lighting, entertainment, travel, phone calls, data…and beer.
Fourth, peace. The most destructive human activity, war between powerful nations, is obsolescent. Developed countries have not fought a war for seventy years; great powers for sixty years. Civil wars continue to exist, but they are less destructive than interstate wars and there are fewer of them. This pin on my lapel is a souvenir from a trip I took earlier this week to Colombia, which is in the process of ending the last war in the Western Hemisphere.
Globally, the annual death rate from wars has been in bumpy decline, from 300 per 100,000 during World War II, to 22 in the 1950s, 9 in the seventies, 5 in the eighties, 1.5 in the nineties and 0.2 in the aughts. Even the horrific civil war in Syria has only budged the numbers back up to where they were in 2000.
Fifth, safety. Global rates of violent crime are falling, in many places precipitously. The world’s leading criminologists have calculated that within thirty years we will have cut the global homicide rate in half.
Sixth, freedom. Despite backsliding in this or that country, the global democracy index is at an all-time high. More than 60 percent of the world’s population now lives in open societies, the highest percentage ever.
Seven, knowledge. In 1820, 17 percent of people had a basic education. Today, 82 percent do, and the percentage is rapidly heading to a hundred.
Eight, human rights. Ongoing global campaigns have targeted child labour, capital punishment, human trafficking, violence against women, female genital mutilation, and the criminalization of homosexuality. Each has made measureable inroads. And, if history is a guide, these barbaric customs will go the way of human sacrifice, cannibalism, infanticide, chattel slavery, heretic burning, torture executions, public hangings, debt bondage, duelling, harems, eunuchs, freak shows, foot binding, laughing at the insane — and the designated hockey goon.
Nine, gender equity. Global data show that woman are getting better educated, marrying later, earning more, and are in more positions of power and influence.
Finally, intelligence. In every country, IQ has been rising by three points a decade.
So what is the declinists’ response to all of this depressing good news? It is: “Just you wait. Any day now a catastrophe will halt this progress or push it into reverse.” With the possible exception of war, none of these indicators is subject to chaotic bubbles and crashes like the stock market. Each is gradual and cumulative. And, collectively, they build on one another. A richer world can better afford to clean up the environment, police its gangs, and teach and heal its citizens. A better-educated and more female-empowered world will indulge fewer autocrats and start fewer stupid wars. The technological advances that have propelled this progress ...

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