Pinker, Progress, and Pandemics

How the promise of unlimited betterment shapes our response to COVID-19

Tim K
7 min readMar 22, 2020


With apologies to Pinker for my alliteration.

I’ve been trying to write something about the Coronavirus for a few days now. Writing has been a wonderful outlet for stress and upset, but I’ve struggled to piece anything together for over a week. Most of what’s worth saying has already been said — and much that isn’t worth saying has been said in abundance.

Given how much the world is hurting right now, I’d like to try and not add to that. So, if you’ll give me the honor of your time, I’ll share with you a little story, and my observations.

A few years ago, Steven Pinker gave an incredibly well received TED talk, titled “Is the world getting better, or worse? A look at the numbers”. Though I agree with many of Pinker’s observations, I disagree with his conclusion. Regardless, I strongly encourage you to watch his talk. I think it gives great insight into this generation’s beliefs, and why we’re responding so poorly to this pandemic.

In his talk, Pinker makes a compelling statistical argument that the world is getting better. Statistics like infant mortality and poverty are decreasing, while literacy and leisure time are increasing. Pinker shows graph after graph of wonderful things. Poverty in decline, life expectancy going up. Ironically, he observes, no one seems to appreciate this progress.

Although things are getting better, the news frequently broadcasts that things are getting worse — presumably because no one would want to read the breaking news about a country that had been at peace for 40 years. As the old saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Pinker argues that it is irrational to think things are getting worse. Human nature is causing us to believe things are worse than they really are.

Towards the end of his presentation, Pinker delivers an affectionate narritive of human progress. He lauds that though we are flawed beings hewn from crooked timber, humanity faces an uncaring universe and adapts to the problems it faces. Progress, Pinker argues, is no accident. Neither is it inevitable, nor a miracle. The progress we enjoy was hard fought for by human effort, reason, skepticism, and enlightenment principles like the scientific method.

Pinker wisely cautions us to not view progress with blind optimism.

“Progress does not mean that everything becomes better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would be a miracle, and progress is not a miracle but problem-solving. Problems are inevitable and solutions create new problems which have to be solved in their turn. The unsolved problems facing the world today are gargantuan, including the risks of climate change and nuclear war, but we must see them as problems to be solved, not apocalypses in waiting […]

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there’s no limit to the betterments we can obtain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.”

Today, with the threat of COVID-19 looming over civilization, many of Pinker’s reassurements ring tragically hollow. Pinker, an atheist, boasts that deaths due to droughts, floods, storms, earth quakes, meteor strikes, and other “acts of God” are decreasing. “Presumably,” he joked, “not because God has become less angry with us, but because of improvements in the resilliance of our infrastructure.” And here we are, struggling to to find toilet paper in the midst of this pandemic.

Indeed, many of the things that Pinker observed improving are underappreciated. No one could argue that lower infant mortality rates and increased literacy are a bad thing. Truly, these should be celebrated! But Pinker’s promise of unlimited betterment is empty. In the face of immovable problems, his charge to find a solution leaves us pointing fingers and assigning blame.

There are better ways to handle this pandemic! If only China had… If only Trump had… It’s people who won’t self quarantine on spring break! It’s the people hoarding toilet paper! It’s the people who don’t believe in science, or the senators who sold stocks instead of warning us! We can’t lose ground, we must progress onward! We can solve this, we just need to…

Maybe we can overcome the threat of millions of deaths due to COVID-19, maybe we can’t. But there’s one thing for certain: Pinker’s confidence in the resilliance of our infrastructure was gravely misplaced.

When I was fourteen, I had the opportunity to live on a sheep farm in New Zealand for a week. John, the farmer, was an old friend of our family. He and his wife were true “salt-of-the-earth” type people. I could write for hours about memories from their beautiful farm, and the menagerie of animals they cared for. I watched Gloria call a bird out of the sky to feed it breakfast. She had nursed it back to health as a chick, and it would return to visit daily. Or how John would read aloud from the Bible at breakfast, as he had every day since he married his wife.

I got to follow John around the farm to help him with his daily tasks. He was a wonderfully patient man. He seemed to understand that I came from an entirely different world, and many of the things that were common knowledge to children from New Zealand were foreign to me. He’d lovingly answer my questions without a word of judgement, even when it exposed the depths of my ignorance about simple farm life.

One day, in the shearing shed, I asked him about the wool baling machine. I don’t remember the propper name for it, but it was a wooden box about six feet tall, and three feet wide on each side. John told me that you would fill it with wool, and then use a long bar to turn a ratchet which compressed the wool down into a bale for shipping.

Now, parts of this memory are fuzzy, and you’ll have to forgive me for not being able to remember the specifics. John told me that a man he once knew was killed by one of these machines — perhaps it was this one. The latch on the ratchet broke, and the lever bar swung around and struck him in the head. I don’t remember many specifics of the story, but I seem to remember John was with the man when he died.

The story itself was stunning, but what stuck with me was how John told it. I wish I could describe it properly, but my words fail me. He didn’t struggle to tell me the story, but he didn’t tell it with callous indifference, either. He didn’t indulge in unnecessary detail, or hide things that would have been upsetting. He didn’t try to take responsibility for what was clearly an accident, and he didn’t assign blame to anyone.

John simply gave me this story, and let me hold it. It was weighty. It was old. It was delicate. It was costly. Silently, he waited to answer my questions, but to ask them would have been wrong. Without words, John had already told me everything I needed — and wanted — to know.

I will leave you with two quotations.

The first comes from Abraham Lincoln, and is for those of us sold on Pinker’s promise of unlimited betterment, should we only find the solution.

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power. … But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

Abraham Lincoln
“A National Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer.”
Proclamation March 30, 1863

Recently, The Gospel Coalition popularized an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age”. (You can listen to the full essay on YouTube by following the link.) It begins to investigate why John was able to tell the story the way he did.

What the wars, and the weather — are we in for another of those periodic ice ages? — and the atomic bomb have really done, is to remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in; and which, during the prosperous period before 1914, we were beginning to forget.

And this reminder is (so far as it goes) a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities. We see at once, when we have been waked, that the important question is not whether an atomic bomb is going to obliterate civilization. The important question is whether nature, the thing studied by the sciences, is the only thing in existence. Because if you answer yes to the second question, then the first question only amounts to asking whether the inevitable frustration of all human activities may be hurried on by our own action, instead of coming at it’s natural time.

That is of course, of course, a question that concerns us very much. Even on a ship which will certainly sink sooner or later, the news that the boiler might blow up now would not be heard with indifference by anyone. But those who knew that the ship was sinking in any case, would not, I think, be quite so desperately excited as those who had forgotten this fact, and were vaguely imagining that it might arrive somewhere.

It is then, on the second question, that we really need to make up our minds.



Tim K

Tim builds circuit boards in Virginia Beach, and enjoys writing about current events, history, theology, and philosophy.