Much of Pinker’s talk was devoted to showing how most of the things than humans 
care about (except climate) have been getting drastically better over the last 
few centuries and decades.  The roster includes length of life, health, food, 
prosperity, education, human rights, freedom from violence and accidents, 
leisure, and happiness—world wide.

That good news is surprising to many and unwelcome to some, who fear it could 
foster complacent optimism.  “While pessimists sound like they’re trying to 
help you,“ Pinker noted, “optimists sound like they’re trying to sell you 
something.”  So Pinker explored the specific causes of progress in each domain 
and what it will take to keep the progress going over the coming decades and 
centuries despite inevitable setbacks and new threats.

The main roots of continual advance Pinker sees as the values pushed by the 
18th Century Enlightenment—reason, science, humanism, and progress.  Those 
values can’t be taken for granted because they are far from universal.  From 
the 18th Century to this day, they are opposed and sometimes defeated by 
authority, tradition, faith, mysticism, intuition, ideology, romanticism, and 

Human nature doesn’t change much, but progress can proceed anyway thanks to 
benign institutions such as democracy, markets, a free press, schools and 
universities, scientific societies, declarations of rights, and global 
organizations for cooperation.  Their job is to apply knowledge and sympathy to 
enhance human flourishing.  It is no accident that “Secular liberal democracies 
are the happiest and healthiest places on Earth.”

What is the program for continued progress?  Don’t treat every problem as a 
sign that we should burn down our institutions and hope for something better to 
rise out of the ashes.  Nor should we treat progress as a mystical force 
guaranteed to lift us ever upward.  Progress is the result of human effort, 
guided by an idea: that if we apply reason and science to make a better world, 
we can gradually succeed.  If we continue to embrace that idea, Pinker 
concluded, it’s reasonable to expect progress to continue.  If we don’t, it may 

                                                —Stewart Brand <>

[Go here <> for a 
podcast of the whole talk and video of tjust he 45-minute Question & Answer 
section.   (Video of the full talk will be posted later.)  For a linkable, 
illustrated version of this summary, go to Medium 
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