ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Steven Pinker - Psychologist
Steven Pinker is a professor of cognitive science (the study of the human mind) who writes about language, mind and human nature.

Why you should listen

Steven Pinker grew up in the English-speaking community of Montreal but has spent his adult life bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT. He is interested in all aspects of human nature: how we see, hear, think, speak, remember, feel and interact.

To be specific: he developed the first comprehensive theory of language acquisition in children, used verb meaning as a window into cognition, probed the limits of neural networks and showed how the interaction between memory and computation shapes language. He has used evolution to illuminate innuendo, emotional expression and social coordination. He has documented historical declines in violence and explained them in terms of the ways that the violent and peaceable components of human nature interact in different eras. He has written books on the language instinct, how the mind works, the stuff of thought and the doctrine of the blank slate, together with a guide to stylish writing that is rooted in psychology.

In his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, he writes about progress -- why people are healthier, richer, safer, happier and better educated than ever. His other books include The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human NatureThe Stuff of Thought, and The Better Angels of Our Nature.

More profile about the speaker
Steven Pinker | Speaker | TED.com
TED2018

Steven Pinker: Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers

Filmed:
3,167,842 views

Was 2017 really the "worst year ever," as some would have us believe? In his analysis of recent data on homicide, war, poverty, pollution and more, psychologist Steven Pinker finds that we're doing better now in every one of them when compared with 30 years ago. But progress isn't inevitable, and it doesn't mean everything gets better for everyone all the time, Pinker says. Instead, progress is problem-solving, and we should look at things like climate change and nuclear war as problems to be solved, not apocalypses in waiting. "We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one," he says. "But there's no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing."
- Psychologist
Steven Pinker is a professor of cognitive science (the study of the human mind) who writes about language, mind and human nature. Full bio

Double-click the English transcript below to play the video.

00:13
Many people face the news each morning
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with trepidation and dread.
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Every day, we read of shootings,
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inequality, pollution, dictatorship,
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war and the spread of nuclear weapons.
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These are some of the reasons
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that 2016 was called
the "Worst. Year. Ever."
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Until 2017 claimed that record --
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(Laughter)
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00:39
and left many people longing
for earlier decades,
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when the world seemed safer,
cleaner and more equal.
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But is this a sensible way
to understand the human condition
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in the 21st century?
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As Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out,
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"Nothing is more responsible
for the good old days
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than a bad memory."
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00:58
(Laughter)
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01:01
You can always fool yourself
into seeing a decline
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if you compare bleeding
headlines of the present
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with rose-tinted images of the past.
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01:10
What does the trajectory
of the world look like
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01:13
when we measure well-being over time
using a constant yardstick?
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01:17
Let's compare the most recent
data on the present
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01:20
with the same measures 30 years ago.
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Last year, Americans killed each other
at a rate of 5.3 per hundred thousand,
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had seven percent
of their citizens in poverty
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01:31
and emitted 21 million tons
of particulate matter
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and four million tons of sulfur dioxide.
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01:38
But 30 years ago, the homicide rate
was 8.5 per hundred thousand,
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poverty rate was 12 percent
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01:44
and we emitted 35 million tons
of particulate matter
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and 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
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What about the world as a whole?
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Last year, the world had 12 ongoing wars,
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60 autocracies,
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10 percent of the world population
in extreme poverty
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and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons.
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02:05
But 30 years ago, there were 23 wars,
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85 autocracies,
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37 percent of the world population
in extreme poverty
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and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.
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True, last year was a terrible year
for terrorism in Western Europe,
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with 238 deaths,
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but 1988 was worse with 440 deaths.
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What's going on?
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Was 1988 a particularly bad year?
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02:33
Or are these improvements a sign
that the world, for all its struggles,
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gets better over time?
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Might we even invoke the admittedly
old-fashioned notion of progress?
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To do so is to court
a certain amount of derision,
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because I have found
that intellectuals hate progress.
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02:53
(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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02:57
And intellectuals who call themselves
progressive really hate progress.
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(Laughter)
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Now, it's not that they hate
the fruits of progress, mind you.
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Most academics and pundits
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would rather have their surgery
with anesthesia than without it.
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It's the idea of progress
that rankles the chattering class.
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If you believe that humans
can improve their lot, I have been told,
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that means that you have a blind faith
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and a quasi-religious belief
in the outmoded superstition
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and the false promise
of the myth of the onward march
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of inexorable progress.
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You are a cheerleader
for vulgar American can-doism,
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with the rah-rah spirit
of boardroom ideology,
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Silicon Valley
and the Chamber of Commerce.
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03:45
You are a practitioner of Whig history,
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a naive optimist, a Pollyanna
and, of course, a Pangloss,
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alluding to the Voltaire
character who declared,
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"All is for the best
in the best of all possible worlds."
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Well, Professor Pangloss,
as it happens, was a pessimist.
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A true optimist believes
there can be much better worlds
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than the one we have today.
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But all of this is irrelevant,
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because the question
of whether progress has taken place
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is not a matter of faith
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or having an optimistic temperament
or seeing the glass as half full.
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It's a testable hypothesis.
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For all their differences,
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people largely agree
on what goes into human well-being:
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life, health, sustenance, prosperity,
peace, freedom, safety, knowledge,
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leisure, happiness.
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All of these things can be measured.
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If they have improved over time,
that, I submit, is progress.
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Let's go to the data,
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beginning with the most
precious thing of all, life.
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For most of human history,
life expectancy at birth was around 30.
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Today, worldwide, it is more than 70,
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and in the developed parts of the world,
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more than 80.
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250 years ago, in the richest
countries of the world,
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a third of the children
did not live to see their fifth birthday,
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before the risk was brought
down a hundredfold.
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Today, that fate befalls
less than six percent of children
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in the poorest countries of the world.
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Famine is one of the Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse.
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It could bring devastation
to any part of the world.
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Today, famine has been banished
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to the most remote
and war-ravaged regions.
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200 years ago, 90 percent
of the world's population
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subsisted in extreme poverty.
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Today, fewer than 10 percent of people do.
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For most of human history,
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the powerful states and empires
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were pretty much always
at war with each other,
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and peace was a mere
interlude between wars.
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Today, they are never
at war with each other.
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The last great power war
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pitted the United States
against China 65 years ago.
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More recently, wars of all kinds
have become fewer and less deadly.
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The annual rate of war has fallen from
about 22 per hundred thousand per year
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in the early '50s to 1.2 today.
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Democracy has suffered obvious setbacks
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in Venezuela, in Russia, in Turkey
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and is threatened by the rise
of authoritarian populism
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in Eastern Europe and the United States.
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Yet the world has never been
more democratic
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than it has been in the past decade,
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with two-thirds of the world's people
living in democracies.
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Homicide rates plunge whenever anarchy
and the code of vendetta
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are replaced by the rule of law.
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It happened when feudal Europe was brought
under the control of centralized kingdoms,
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so that today a Western European
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has 1/35th the chance of being murdered
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compared to his medieval ancestors.
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It happened again in colonial New England,
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in the American Wild West
when the sheriffs moved to town,
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and in Mexico.
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Indeed, we've become safer
in just about every way.
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Over the last century,
we've become 96 percent less likely
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to be killed in a car crash,
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88 percent less likely
to be mowed down on the sidewalk,
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99 percent less likely
to die in a plane crash,
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95 percent less likely
to be killed on the job,
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07:11
89 percent less likely
to be killed by an act of God,
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such as a drought, flood,
wildfire, storm, volcano,
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landslide, earthquake or meteor strike,
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presumably not because God
has become less angry with us
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but because of improvements
in the resilience of our infrastructure.
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And what about
the quintessential act of God,
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the projectile hurled by Zeus himself?
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Yes, we are 97 percent less likely
to be killed by a bolt of lightning.
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Before the 17th century,
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no more than 15 percent of Europeans
could read or write.
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Europe and the United States
achieved universal literacy
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by the middle of the 20th century,
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and the rest of the world is catching up.
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Today, more than 90 percent
of the world's population
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under the age of 25 can read and write.
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In the 19th century, Westerners
worked more than 60 hours per week.
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Today, they work fewer than 40.
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Thanks to the universal penetration
of running water and electricity
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in the developed world
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and the widespread adoption
of washing machines, vacuum cleaners,
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refrigerators, dishwashers,
stoves and microwaves,
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the amount of our lives
that we forfeit to housework
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has fallen from 60 hours a week
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to fewer than 15 hours a week.
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Do all of these gains in health,
wealth, safety, knowledge and leisure
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make us any happier?
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The answer is yes.
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In 86 percent of the world's countries,
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happiness has increased in recent decades.
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Well, I hope to have convinced you
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that progress is not a matter
of faith or optimism,
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but is a fact of human history,
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indeed the greatest fact in human history.
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And how has this fact
been covered in the news?
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(Laughter)
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A tabulation of positive and negative
emotion words in news stories
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has shown that during the decades
in which humanity has gotten healthier,
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wealthier, wiser, safer and happier,
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the "New York Times"
has become increasingly morose
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and the world's broadcasts too
have gotten steadily glummer.
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Why don't people appreciate progress?
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Part of the answer comes
from our cognitive psychology.
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We estimate risk using a mental shortcut
called the "availability heuristic."
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The easier it is to recall
something from memory,
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the more probable we judge it to be.
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The other part of the answer
comes from the nature of journalism,
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captured in this satirical headline
from "The Onion,"
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"CNN Holds Morning Meeting to Decide
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What Viewers Should
Panic About For Rest of Day."
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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News is about stuff that happens,
not stuff that doesn't happen.
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You never see a journalist who says,
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"I'm reporting live from a country
that has been at peace for 40 years,"
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or a city that has not
been attacked by terrorists.
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Also, bad things can happen quickly,
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but good things aren't built in a day.
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The papers could have run the headline,
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"137,000 people escaped
from extreme poverty yesterday"
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every day for the last 25 years.
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That's one and a quarter billion people
leaving poverty behind,
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but you never read about it.
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Also, the news capitalizes
on our morbid interest
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in what can go wrong,
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captured in the programming policy,
"If it bleeds, it leads."
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Well, if you combine our cognitive biases
with the nature of news,
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you can see why the world
has been coming to an end
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for a very long time indeed.
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Let me address
some questions about progress
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that no doubt have occurred
to many of you.
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First, isn't it good to be pessimistic
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to safeguard against complacency,
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to rake the muck, to speak truth to power?
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Well, not exactly.
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It's good to be accurate.
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11:08
Of course we should be aware
of suffering and danger
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wherever they occur,
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but we should also be aware
of how they can be reduced,
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because there are dangers
to indiscriminate pessimism.
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One of them is fatalism.
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If all our efforts at improving the world
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have been in vain,
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why throw good money after bad?
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The poor will always be with you.
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And since the world will end soon --
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if climate change doesn't kill us all,
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then runaway artificial
intelligence will --
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a natural response is
to enjoy life while we can,
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eat, drink and be merry,
for tomorrow we die.
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The other danger of thoughtless
pessimism is radicalism.
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If our institutions are all failing
and beyond hope for reform,
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a natural response
is to seek to smash the machine,
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drain the swamp,
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burn the empire to the ground,
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on the hope that whatever
rises out of the ashes
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is bound to be better
than what we have now.
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Well, if there is
such a thing as progress,
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what causes it?
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Progress is not some mystical force
or dialectic lifting us ever higher.
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It's not a mysterious arc of history
bending toward justice.
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It's the result of human efforts
governed by an idea,
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an idea that we associate
with the 18th century Enlightenment,
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namely that if we apply reason and science
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that enhance human well-being,
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we can gradually succeed.
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Is progress inevitable? Of course not.
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Progress does not mean
that everything becomes better
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for everyone everywhere all the time.
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That would be a miracle,
and progress is not a miracle
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but problem-solving.
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Problems are inevitable
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and solutions create new problems
which have to be solved in their turn.
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The unsolved problems
facing the world today are gargantuan,
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including the risks of climate change
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and nuclear war,
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but we must see them
as problems to be solved,
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not apocalypses in waiting,
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and aggressively pursue solutions
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like Deep Decarbonization
for climate change
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and Global Zero for nuclear war.
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Finally, does the Enlightenment
go against human nature?
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This is an acute question for me,
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because I'm a prominent advocate
of the existence of human nature,
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with all its shortcomings
and perversities.
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In my book "The Blank Slate,"
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I argued that the human prospect
is more tragic than utopian
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and that we are not stardust,
we are not golden
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and there's no way
we are getting back to the garden.
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(Laughter)
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But my worldview has lightened up
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in the 15 years since
"The Blank Slate" was published.
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My acquaintance with
the statistics of human progress,
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starting with violence
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but now encompassing
every other aspect of our well-being,
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has fortified my belief
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that in understanding
our tribulations and woes,
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human nature is the problem,
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but human nature, channeled
by Enlightenment norms and institutions,
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is also the solution.
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Admittedly, it's not easy
to replicate my own data-driven epiphany
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with humanity at large.
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Some intellectuals have responded
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with fury to my book "Enlightenment Now,"
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saying first how dare he claim
that intellectuals hate progress,
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and second, how dare he claim
that there has been progress.
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(Laughter)
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With others, the idea of progress
just leaves them cold.
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14:35
Saving the lives of billions,
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eradicating disease, feeding the hungry,
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teaching kids to read?
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Boring.
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14:44
At the same time, the most common response
I have received from readers is gratitude,
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14:49
gratitude for changing
their view of the world
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14:51
from a numb and helpless fatalism
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14:54
to something more constructive,
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14:55
even heroic.
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14:57
I believe that the ideals
of the Enlightenment
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can be cast a stirring narrative,
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15:01
and I hope that people
with greater artistic flare
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and rhetorical power than I
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15:06
can tell it better and spread it further.
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It goes something like this.
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We are born into a pitiless universe,
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15:14
facing steep odds
against life-enabling order
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15:18
and in constant jeopardy of falling apart.
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15:21
We were shaped by a process
that is ruthlessly competitive.
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15:25
We are made from crooked timber,
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15:27
vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness
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15:30
and at times astounding stupidity.
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15:33
Yet human nature has also
been blessed with resources
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that open a space
for a kind of redemption.
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We are endowed with the power
to combine ideas recursively,
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15:42
to have thoughts about our thoughts.
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15:45
We have an instinct for language,
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15:47
allowing us to share the fruits
of our ingenuity and experience.
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15:51
We are deepened
with the capacity for sympathy,
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15:54
for pity, imagination,
compassion, commiseration.
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15:59
These endowments have found ways
to magnify their own power.
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16:03
The scope of language has been augmented
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16:05
by the written, printed
and electronic word.
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16:09
Our circle of sympathy has been expanded
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16:11
by history, journalism
and the narrative arts.
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16:15
And our puny rational faculties
have been multiplied
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16:18
by the norms and institutions of reason,
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2696
16:20
intellectual curiosity, open debate,
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16:24
skepticism of authority and dogma
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16:26
and the burden of proof to verify ideas
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16:29
by confronting them against reality.
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16:32
As the spiral of recursive improvement
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16:34
gathers momentum,
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1616
16:36
we eke out victories
against the forces that grind us down,
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16:40
not least the darker parts
of our own nature.
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3256
16:43
We penetrate the mysteries
of the cosmos, including life and mind.
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4736
16:48
We live longer, suffer less, learn more,
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16:52
get smarter and enjoy more small pleasures
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16:54
and rich experiences.
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16:57
Fewer of us are killed,
assaulted, enslaved, exploited
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17:01
or oppressed by the others.
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17:03
From a few oases, the territories
with peace and prosperity are growing
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4496
17:08
and could someday encompass the globe.
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17:11
Much suffering remains
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17:13
and tremendous peril,
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1736
17:15
but ideas on how to reduce them
have been voiced,
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17:18
and an infinite number of others
are yet to be conceived.
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17:22
We will never have a perfect world,
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17:24
and it would be dangerous to seek one.
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17:26
But there's no limit
to the betterments we can attain
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17:29
if we continue to apply knowledge
to enhance human flourishing.
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3879
17:34
This heroic story
is not just another myth.
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3136
17:37
Myths are fictions, but this one is true,
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17:41
true to the best of our knowledge,
which is the only truth we can have.
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17:44
As we learn more,
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17:46
we can show which parts of the story
continue to be true and which ones false,
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4456
17:50
as any of them might be
and any could become.
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17:54
And this story belongs not to any tribe
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17:56
but to all of humanity,
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1856
17:58
to any sentient creature
with the power of reason
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3696
18:02
and the urge to persist in its being,
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18:05
for it requires only the convictions
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18:07
that life is better than death,
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18:09
health is better than sickness,
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18:11
abundance is better than want,
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2136
18:13
freedom is better than coercion,
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18:16
happiness is better than suffering
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18:18
and knowledge is better
than ignorance and superstition.
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Thank you.
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18:23
(Applause)
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3800

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ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Steven Pinker - Psychologist
Steven Pinker is a professor of cognitive science (the study of the human mind) who writes about language, mind and human nature.

Why you should listen

Steven Pinker grew up in the English-speaking community of Montreal but has spent his adult life bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT. He is interested in all aspects of human nature: how we see, hear, think, speak, remember, feel and interact.

To be specific: he developed the first comprehensive theory of language acquisition in children, used verb meaning as a window into cognition, probed the limits of neural networks and showed how the interaction between memory and computation shapes language. He has used evolution to illuminate innuendo, emotional expression and social coordination. He has documented historical declines in violence and explained them in terms of the ways that the violent and peaceable components of human nature interact in different eras. He has written books on the language instinct, how the mind works, the stuff of thought and the doctrine of the blank slate, together with a guide to stylish writing that is rooted in psychology.

In his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, he writes about progress -- why people are healthier, richer, safer, happier and better educated than ever. His other books include The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human NatureThe Stuff of Thought, and The Better Angels of Our Nature.

More profile about the speaker
Steven Pinker | Speaker | TED.com