Over the past 250 years, the average human lifespan has increased dramatically. What should we make of this progress and what it means to human?
Okay, let’s begin our chapter-by-chapter discussion of Steven Pinker’s influential and important book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science Humanism and Progress. As I’ve said before, many people love this book – applauding it as the clearest and most comprehensive exposition of the tremendous amount of progress humanity has made over the past 250 years, a story everyone needs to know about. And many people hate it – criticising it as a somewhat close-minded and biased defence of the status quo, exemplifying a kind of naive optimism in the power of technological and market-based solutions to the world’s problems. This disagreement is highly politicised. It’s not obvious from some people’s reviews whether they have even read the book beyond agreeing or disagreeing with its headlines. Personally, I’m more interested in the ins and outs of what Pinker has to say. How have things improved over the course of modernity? And what more is there to say about the story of progress that Pinker tells?
The first topic Pinker looks at is “Life”. How has life expectancy changed around the world over the past 250 years? The answer is: A lot. Here’s the all-important graph:
As you can see from the graph, average life expectancy started to increase in Europe and the Americas from around 1870, and then in Asia and Africa from around 1920 onwards. In 1800, no country in the world had a life expectancy above 40. Now, global average life expectancy is above 70. That’s an astonishing improvement for what is a mere blip in human history.
Most of this progress can be put down to huge decreases in child mortality. For example, 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. This isn’t far off what life is like in hunter-gatherer societies: a fifth of children typically die in their first year, and almost a half before they reach adulthood. Although I can imagine being fairly blasé about whether I live to 70, 80 or 90 years old, I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a child under the age of 5. It is this kind of graph that we should all take heed of:
The increases in average life expectancy are not just due to these vast decreases in child mortality. Adults are also living much longer. Here’s one way of understanding this increase in the lifespan: in 1845, the average 30-year-old could look forward to another 33 years of life; in 1905, another 36 years; in 1955, another 43 years; in 2011, another 52 years. That’s a significant difference. As a 35 year old myself, I will probably live into my 80s (what a crazy thought!). But if I was living in the 19th century, I would’ve probably lived only until my 60s. The difference between living now or a couple of centuries ago is the difference between having a retirement or not.
It’s important to note that these increased years of life are typically healthy ones as well. For example, Pinker shows that, from 1990-2010, in developed countries, life expectancy increased 4.7 years, of which 3.8 were healthy years. It is not just life expectancy that’s increased, but healthy life expectancy too. We are living longer and healthier lives.
Pinker briefly ends this short-and-sweet chapter considering whether humans will continue to increase the lifespan and potentially even live forever. Although he thinks the sci-fi dream of immortality is unrealistic for a couple of reasons – both of which are fascinating, but I wont go into here – he does think we are likely to continue finding ways of increasing the longevity and quality of our lives. It’s hard to disagree with this more modest diagnosis. The question is more about how quickly this progress will continue (according to some, the first 1000 year old human has already been born), rather than when it will cease altogether.
The question I want to ask – which I’ll probably ask repeatedly in different guises throughout this series – is what impact this tremendous amount of progress has had on the way we see the world and approach our individual and collective lives? Pinker is entirely right to show the above graphs and marvel at how far we have come at staving off our untimely deaths, whether that be through the prevention of disease, hunger or violence. This is, to borrow a phrase from the late and great Hans Rosling, perhaps the “greatest story never told”. It is precisely because of its profundity, however, that we should expect it to have a major impact on how we see reality and the meaning of life.
In my book, The Happiness Problem, I argued that the past 250 years of progress has had a profound impact on the way we think. We now look out at the world and have the ability to change it. We can readily identify problems for which we have the resources and opportunities to solve. If this seems relatively unremarkable, that just shows how far we have come. Throughout the past 2500 years of human history, the idea of progress was not nearly as primary as it is in the modern era. And for good reason – it wasn’t nearly as possible. Other values that we often take for granted, such as freedom, health and happiness, have also only achieved prominence over the past 250 years.
We live in an age of unprecedented control – many people can choose and dictate the nature of our their work, relationships and home, and look after their physical health and mental wellbeing. For the first time in human history, we can realistically think about the Improvement of Everything.
Significant increases in the human lifespan epitomise the control we’ve gained over our own lives. The length of our life is no longer entirely in the hands of fate. We’re in control of our own destiny. What does this way of thinking do to us? How does it change the way we live?
The answer, I believe, is that, in an Age of Control, we start to see everything more in terms of its instrumental value – what it can do for us – rather than appreciating its intrinsic worth – caring about something in itself, regardless of how useful or productive it is. When we predominantly focus on the Improvement of Everything, most things are seen as objects that we can control and manipulate to solve our problems. People become human resources, bodies become machines, ancient rainforests become ecosystem services and animals become meat.
This is not how the world looks like when we see it for how it already is. If we are fortunate enough to have the time and space to sit still and appreciate the value of what we have, we see our lives as made up of subjects who we exist in relationship with. We are more likely to care for the people around us, our bodies and minds, our natural environments and all living things.
This matters for the way we view all this tremendous progress we’ve made over the past 250 years. From a utilitarian-greater-good perspective, things have significantly and generally improved, which is clearly a good thing. But, from an all-living-things-matter perspective, there are many more questions we need to ask. Have we made enough progress, given the resources and opportunities available? Has it been fairly distributed to all those who deserve it, including to those who are most disadvantaged and to the more-than-human world? And is the progress we’ve made sustainable for future generations, and even worth continuing given the potential risks involved?
Pinker is a scientist, not a philosopher or a politician, and so understandably stays clear of making such judgements. At several points, he states that he’s only concerned with the kind of instrumental values that everyone agrees are necessary to get by in life. For instance, he says that, “most people prioritise life, health, safety, literacy, sustenance, and stimulation for the obvious reason that these goods are a prerequisite to everything else. If you’re reading this, you are not dead, starving, destitute, moribund, terrified, enslaved, or illiterate, which means that you’re in no position to turn your nose up at these values – or to deny that other people should share your good fortune.”
Fair enough. But there’s a risk with seeing the world only in terms of instrumental values, only in terms of how to achieve the Improvement of Everything. This way of seeing reality tells us nothing about who or what should be the recipient of these goods – who or what is ultimately valuable, and why. For instance, are the dramatic increases in global average life expectancy over the past 250 years more important than the atrocities of colonialism and destruction of the environment? Well, maybe, but who’s to say? How do we decide what amount of “collateral damage”, or “necessary sacrifices”, are worth it for the “greater good of humanity”?
In the spirit of wanting to give space to the full story of human progress, I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions now – we’ve got a long way to go. Life is just the beginning.