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Enlightenment Now

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Consider this: we need less than a third of the land to generate the same amount of food today vs. 50 years ago. “Transgenic crops are being developed with high yields, lifesaving vitamins, tolerance of drought and salinity, resistance to disease, pests, and spoilage, and reduced need for land, fertilizer, and plowing,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. Incredible. And yet, not everyone is happy about all this progress. “Like all advances, the Green Revolution came…

1: The world has reached “peak farmland,” the environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel has estimated. We may never again need as much as we use today. This reality is very good news for the planet, Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now: “Despite their bucolic charm, farms are biological deserts which sprawl over the landscape at the expense of forests and grasslands. Now that farms have receded in some parts of the world, temperate forests have been bouncing…

1: “Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated” was not supposed to happen. In 1798 Thomas Malthus famously wrote about the recurring famines of his era, which he believed were inescapable and would only get worse because “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.” “The implication was…

1: We certainly have our challenges. We are dealing with a deadly pandemic and with second and third-order effects of that pandemic, including an increase in the murder rate, drug overdoses, and alcoholism. Recent new stories detail an increase in the number of patients who are being abusive toward nurses and students who are being disruptive in the classroom. That said, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. Because the overall trends…

1: Harvard Professor and author Steven Pinker has been asked some strange questions. Over the past several decades, he has delivered public lectures on language, mind, and human nature. He’s been asked: “Which is the best language?” “Are clams and oysters conscious?” “When will I be able to upload my mind to the Internet?” “Is obesity a form of violence?” 2: The most arresting question ever directed at him followed a talk on how mental life…

1: This week we’ve been exploring the incredible medical advances against infectious diseases and the incredible increase in human health. Yesterday we looked at diseases which have been eradicated or are on the verge of eradication, including small pox, rinderpest, polio, elephantiasis, river blindness, and blinding trachoma. But there’s more good news. “Even diseases that are not obliterated are being decimated,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “Between 2000 and 2015, the number of deaths…

1: From Wikipedia: “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.” Yes, “smallpox was.” “The disease that got its name from the painful pustules that cover the victim’s skin, mouth, and eyes and that killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century has ceased to exist,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.   The last case was…

1: On April 12, 1955, a team of scientists declared Jonas Salk’s vaccine against polio, a disease which killed thousands each year, paralyzed President Franklin Roosevelt, and sent many children into iron lungs, had been proven safe.   “People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes, . . . took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or convoked fervid assemblies therein, drank toasts, hugged children, attended church,…

1: Many people believe we live in the “worst of times.” The data shows otherwise. Today we continue our exploration of the many and momentous ways life has improved over the past 200 years by looking at our health. “For most of human history, the strongest force of death was infectious disease, the nasty feature of evolution in which small, rapidly reproducing organisms make their living at our expense and hitch a ride from body to…

We are living longer.  A lot longer.  Worldwide, the average lifespan is now 71.6 years.  Infant mortality is down.  Way down.  Everywhere across the world, writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. Which brings up two questions: 1: Is the increase in life expectancy due mostly to the reduction in infant mortality? No. Those of us who survive the difficulties of childbirth and childhood live longer than our compatriots of earlier eras. No matter how old…

1: Consider this fact: Well into the 19th century, in Sweden, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, between a quarter and a third of all children died before their fifth birthday.  And, in some years the death toll was close to 40%, Steven Pinker shares in his powerful book Enlightenment Now. This week we are continuing our review of the incredible progress human beings have made following the Industrial Revolution.  Many people believe we live…

Why does it matter that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita has gone up so dramatically? After stagnating at around $500 for thousands of years, it has increased 20 fold to over $10,000 in the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution. “Though it’s easy to sneer at national income as a shallow and materialistic measure, it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing,” notes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, including “longevity, health, and nutrition”. “Less obviously,…

This week we are exploring the reasons behind the incredible drop in worldwide extreme poverty: from 90% in 1800 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to less than 10% today. And falling. The United Nations has set a target of “ending extreme poverty for all people everywhere” by 2030. What accounts for this incredible drop? Yesterday, we looked at three reasons outlined by Steven Radelet, author of The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World, as…

Today we take it for granted if we want some milk, we can walk into a convenience store and it will be waiting for us on refrigerated shelf.  We know the milk won’t be diluted or tainted.  The price will be something we can afford.  And, the store’s owner will let us walk out with it after swiping a card, even though we’ve never met, may never see each other again, and have no friends…

Today, most discussions about poverty involve who is to blame for it, observes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  This line of thinking is misguided, he believes. Poverty needs no explanation. “In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food,” Steven observes. “As Adam Smith…