Is the human race on an inevitable trajectory onward and upward? Not quite, says Nick Spencer.
"We are the same species but with bigger sticks, and those sticks can be used to reach further and achieve more - but they can conversely be used to beat a lot more people. That is precisely the point. Were we to find ourselves under the same pressures of resource scarcity that our ancestors endured every single day, we would probably find ourselves less moral than we think ourselves to be."
Is the world a better place to live today than it has ever been before? Some would answer this question with a resounding yes – like Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard. His latest book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress, charts improvements over time across a whole range of markers – life expectancy, child mortality, wealth and poverty, war and violence, and more – and one of the central claims of his book is that we owe all this progress to the Enlightenment.
Nick Spencer, Director of Research at Theos Think Tank in the UK and author of The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has shaped our values, says that there’s more to the story of the human race.
"The beef I have with Steven Pinker is that he traces all good things to the Enlightenment and no bad things to it," Nick Spencer says, "and as soon as you do that, you’re almost invariably oversimplifying history for your own purposes."
In the episode, we look at the positives of the Enlightenment, as well as some of its more ambiguous elements.
"You can certainly see an enormous potential for human moral progress," he says, "but you have that twin fear of technological progress that seems to continue apace, with the more ambiguous form of moral progress that may or may not happen."
"The worst possible scenario is a coincidence of significant technological progress and development with moments of human fallibility – if you get that, which is what you did get in the 1930s and 40s, the scene is not a happy one."
But even as a self-confessed "glass half-empty" person, Nick Spencer has hope for humanity, which is rooted in his Christian faith.
"I think that the human person has a malleability, a creative fluidity … the person is responsive to love," he says. "I think, therefore, the person can be redeemed through responding to the love of God, and that means the person’s future can be redeemed and can 'progress' – it can blossom and flourish in a way that it might not otherwise."
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