I get asked this question more, why does rationality matter? One of the reasons that it matters is that it helps to explain phenomena that I have written about before, the science of our nature, why violence has declined and enlightenment now growing. The world data and science, humanism and progress are moving. When you look at things in the micro, meaning your own are you may feel that things are getting worse. I have look at more than 100 graphs showing the existence of progress that is plotting various bad things like deaths in war, deaths in crime of violence against women. violence against children, racism, and showing that over the course of history, those things have decreased, and lots of good things like happiness, like prosperity like freedom, like democracy, that overtime increased.
Now a question I often get is Oh, does this mean that you believe in progress? Well, I don’t believe in progress, at least not as a force in the universe. I’d like to quote the humorous friend Liebowitz. I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in. Because there isn’t any architecting toward justice. There’s no force that is lifting us ever. Quite the contrary. The universe doesn’t care about us. And it often seems to be out to get us there are pathogens or parasites that want to eat us from the inside and they are Darwinian creatures. After all, they’re just interested in surviving and we’re big, yummy hunks of meat. From their point of view, and they can evolve faster than we can. It’s just the laws of entropy. There are more ways for things to be disordered than ordered and more ways for things to go wrong and to go right so as stuff happens at random stuff is going to get worse it is human nature. We were not selected by the processes of evolution to be particularly nice. We have the capacity to be nice, but we also have the capacity for revenge and exploitation and bigotry and sadism. So that’s what’s lined up against us. All those forces are going to push against progress, but nonetheless, progress has happened. How do we explain that might seem like a miracle?
The answer is rationality. That is, we are a cognitive species. We do have the wherewithal to try to figure out how the world works. We’ve got language so we can share our insights, our discoveries, our epiphanies, our trial and error, accidents, the results of our experiments, the mistakes we hope not to repeat, and if people deploy their rationality, including their cognition, their language, with the goal of making other people better off making them live longer, happier, freer, more prosperous lives. Oh, occasionally, our species stumbles on the means to improve things to push back against all these forces that tend to make us more miserable. If we remember the ones that work, try not to repeat our mistakes. And the result over time is what we call progress.
How can we measure human progress? Well, the three great things people desire are to be healthy, wealth and wise. And so, we can start our survey in progress with those three. Health. The ultimate meaning of life is to be alive rather than dead and longevity has vastly increased. We live more than twice as long as our ancestors just a few generations ago. And this is not just true within the West, but it is true worldwide, people in the poorest countries today live longer than people in the richest countries 100 years ago. We live more than twice as long as our ancestors. So, we have not just extra life but as if we’ve been granted an extra life. That includes the stupendous gift that fewer children die. I used to be that more than a third of children to live to see their fifth birthday now that it’s in the more fortunate countries it’s less than a percentage point and worldwide, it’s still just a few percentage points still too high, but better than it used to be maternal mortality, far fewer women die in childbirth. Famines are far less common famine used to be one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
It was just something that could bring misery and death to any country following a bad harvest. But because of the agricultural revolution, the development of crop rotation and vigorous hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizer and the mechanization of agriculture and transportation networks that can bring food from one part of the world to another farm in the city don’t occur because of a shortage of food. They occur because of wars and revolutions that prevent food from being given to the people who need it. Progress with era in which it was a divine punishment that a harvest would fail, and millions of people would starve. 20 years ago, by the current definition of extreme poverty 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Today, about 9% of the world lives in extreme poverty and that proportion falls every day. Why is our natural state is illiteracy and ignorance, And until pretty recently, a small, aristocratic minority was able to read and write now it’s a majority of the world’s population 90% of the world’s population under the age of 25. And that shows which way the world is going and in almost every part of the world, girls, not just boys. So those are three big dimensions are human wellbeing. Another one would be violence. Rates of interpersonal violence are much lower now than they were in the in the Middle Ages or in any frontier region that is beyond the reach of law enforcement and a court system. Any region that’s at the frontier like the American Wild West, and since World War Two, wars have become less frequent, they become shorter, they become less, less damaging, they’ve had fewer casualties., And this hasn’t happened. In a straight line. There have been huge setbacks like the war in Vietnam, the Iran Iraq War, most recently, the most flagrant violation of this long piece, as historians have called it has been the invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is something we saw coming, but did nothing and no honest person could say how it will play out. It has been a violation of a historic process where countries are much less likely to invade each other countries are much less likely to go to war in general, countries are less likely to seize and try to annex territory and countries are more in the business of making their own citizens slaves. We don’t know how it will end up so far as tragic and criminal as the war has been. It has not taken us back to the era in which wars would kill people by the millions and we can hope that it will not turn into one now. Recently, despite some producer’s trends in the United States, which in many ways is Outlier among countries that have enjoyed progress. We are not number one in a lot of measures of human wellbeing. Western Europe and Commonwealth countries do way better than the United States. Suicide has gone down worldwide by 40%. Over the last 30 years, mental health despite some scary headlines and some worse things in some demographics, but overall, as best we can measure it, rates of mental health are constant over the last 30 years, leisure time has increased both because of the shortening of the workweek, which used to be on average more than 60 hours now. It’s less than 40 hours and the universal availability of labor-saving devices, the availability of energy and running water, the availability of stoves and refrigerators and microwaves and store-bought food. We have an additional 15 hours a week compared to just 50 or 60 years ago.
More people travel more people consume a variety of ethnic foods. More people consume a variety of music than in the past when we were kind of housebound, and people sometimes would not venture more than a few miles from their plate place of birth. So there are many other dimensions, as a decade ago if you had to choose a period of history to live in you would pick now unless you are white aristocratic ,or a southern slave owner you would pick now. I am optimistic, I am a person who looks at data rather than headlines. Headlines I guarantee to make you pessimistic, even cynical or fatalistic, because headlines are a non-random sample of the worst things happening on Earth at any given time. And most things that happen, especially things that happen suddenly and photogenic really are bad things, things blow up. There’s a shooter, there’s a terrorist, there’s a pandemic. Good things often consist of nothing happening, like I other parts of the world. There are places and segments of people that used to be at war for centuries, decades that are at peace, but those things don’t make your headlines. It’s when you plot data, which includes not only the things that happen, but also the things that don’t happen that goes into the denominator. And that includes gradual trends, things that might creep up by a few percentage points a year but that can exponentiate and transform the world. You see with your own eyes how things have gotten better as a fact about human history, not a matter of seeing the world through rose colored glasses and the glasses have full just awareness of the world that is much more complete than either the stories and headlines and images from the news or the battles and kings and revolutions from conventional history.
What I see that data is hard to quantify is the mental ego that wants a destructive effect. We are seeing or noticing the evils of man because of the enlightenment we are seeking, because we can eat. So take this fact, the more you are aware, the more you can choose to make a difference in your community, your station in life to move things forward for all people not just self.
Written by: Dr Paul Dyer