The human race: are we getting better?
A new book makes the claim that human nature is getting better.
New Atheist author Steven Pinker claims in ‘Enlightenment Now’ that the world is becoming more wonderful because human nature is constantly improving.
His book was reviewed in The Guardian, which referred to it as a manifesto for progressives. The review criticised the author’s often dismissive approach and his unsubstantiated claims at times.
It said: “With some deft intellectual moves, he manages to position ‘enlightenment’ and ‘science’ on the right side of every argument or conflict, while every horror of the past 200 years is put down to ignorance, irrationality or ‘counter-enlightenment’ trends.”
He lauds increasing secularisation within societies, which he closely associates with human progress, while describing religious belief as the “most obvious” obstacle to improvement.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme debated his arguments with Times columnist Jenni Russell and Rohan Silva, a former adviser to David Cameron.
Russell was quick to say that “in many ways the world is improving”. But she disagreed with Pinker’s proposition that this is because human nature is improving, as in many instances the world is getting worse.
She said: “It’s not that human nature is changing – human nature hasn’t changed at all – the only way the world improves is when we evolve institutions that contain our worst instincts”, adding “we’re just the same angry, aggressive people we always were”.
Joining the discussion, Rohan Silva pointed to statistics to show declining global poverty, alongside rising literacy levels in Africa. He agrees with Pinker’s book that trade and technology have led to great advances around the world.
However, Silva accepts technology can also “very much exacerbate the worst side” of humanity.
Heart of the problem
In short, the two studio guests on the Today programme were in agreement. The world’s improvements are not the result of improving human nature. Instead they recognise humanity’s sinful, fallen nature as the cause of so many of the world’s problems, even if they would not describe it in those terms.
Silva noted: “You’ve got to be a real sort of utopian thinker to assume that human behaviour can be perfected”.
Like everyone else, Christians applaud the great gains brought by technology, trade, and better literacy. But our same old human nature still has a constant tendency to rear its ugly head.
New technology brings wonderful benefits, but is also routinely used to exploit people through pornography, crime and violence. In the same way literacy can be used to promote what is good, but also what is bad.
The law, the police and the institution of marriage can all do good by restraining our worst instincts. No area of life is immune from a potential either for good or ill. All this is because the heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart.
This is why the world is as it is – it’s not as it was designed to be – and it’s why we are in need of a Saviour.