Mass Extinctions


“There’s no doubt any longer. The Earth has entered the sixth great extinction in its 4.5-billion-year history.

“Species are disappearing 100 times faster than the background rate — normal rate between mass extinctions — a pace unparalleled since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. And the reason is not asteroids, volcanic eruptions, or massive tectonic movements. It is us — human beings.” (Here)

Contra Pinker et al

Andrew Sullivan:

“Earlier this week, I went to a lecture given by Steven Pinker on his latest book, Enlightenment Now. I’m a huge and longtime fan of Pinker’s, and his book The Blank Slate was, for me, a revelation. He’s become a deep and important critic of the visceral hostility to nature and science now so sadly prevalent on the left and right, a defender of reason and the Enlightenment against the “social justice” movements on campus, and his new book is a near-relentless defense of modernity. I sat there for an hour slowly being buried in a fast-accumulating snowdrift of irrefutable statistics showing human progress: the decline of violence and war, the rise and rise of democracy, the astonishing gains against poverty of the last couple of decades, the rise of tolerance and erosion of cruelty, lengthening lifespans, revolutions in health, huge increases in safety, and on and on. It was one emphatic graph after another that bludgeoned my current depression into a kind of forced rational cheeriness. There were no real trade-offs here; our gloom is largely self-imposed; and is entirely a function of our media and news diets.

“At the same time, I was finally reading another new book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen. If you really want a point of view that is disturbingly persuasive about the modern predicament and yet usually absent from any discussion in the mainstream media, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A short polemic against our modern liberal world, it too is relentless. By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.

“As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature. This is the core of Deneen’s argument, and it rests on a different, classical, pre-liberal understanding of freedom. For most of the Ancients, freedom was freedom from our natural desires and material needs. It rested on a mastery of these deep, natural urges in favor of self-control, restraint, and education into virtue. It placed the community — the polis — ahead of the individual, and indeed could not conceive of the individual apart from the community into which he or she was born. They’d look at our freedom and see licentiousness, chaos, and slavery to desire. They’d predict misery not happiness to be the result.

“Pinker’s sole response to this argument — insofar as he even acknowledges it — is to cite data showing statistical evidence of rising levels of a sense of well-being in one’s life across the world. And this is a valid point. But Pinker seems immune to the idea of paradox, irony, or unintended consequences. He doesn’t have a way of explaining why, for example, there is so much profound discontent, depression, drug abuse, despair, addiction, and loneliness in the most advanced liberal societies. His response to the sixth great mass extinction of the Earth’s species at the hands of humans is to propose that better environmental technology will somehow solve it — just as pharmaceuticals will solve unhappiness. His general view is that life is simply a series of “problems” that reason can “solve” — and has solved. What he doesn’t fully grapple with is that this solution of problems definitionally never ends; that humans adjust to new standards of material well-being and need ever more and more to remain content; that none of this solves the existential reality of our mortality; and that none of it provides spiritual sustenance or meaning. In fact, it might make meaning much harder to attain, hence the trouble in modern souls.”

I have a very similar take on Pinker’s argument. In the past few years, Pinker has made a compelling case that the world is actually getting better in a number of important respects: violence is declining, life expectancy is increasing, and extreme poverty is way down.  His data is good, and these trends should be celebrated, obviously.  Pinkerian optimism is correct, as far as it goes.  But it has an incomplete picture of our world.  Here is a summary of what I see as the complete picture: the modern world has unleashed economic, social, and political forces that are resulting in a widespread decrease in pain, but those same forces are also resulting in a widespread decrease in meaning.  Democracy, liberalism, and capitalism have reduced the incidence of interstate wars (at least for now).  Modern medicine has helped extend human life, and the latest developments in the medical field give serious hope for the eventual end in the near future of many of our major maladies, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, and Alzheimer’s.  Modernity’s battle against the sources of human pain and misery has been impressive, and these trends are only accelerating.  I cheer on these trends, with everyone else.  But let’s be clear: a life without pain is not the same as a richly meaningful life.  While a life full of pain and suffering can make it hard to find meaning, a life free of pain and suffering is not automatically a life full of meaning.  And here is the problem: living a richly meaningful life requires access to things that are themselves being dissolved by the acids of modernity – the forces of modernity have slowly undermined religion, vocation, family, community, local ties, rootedness, and nature.  This, then, is the utopian/dystopian end of modernity: life without pain – and without meaning.  Modernity’s triumph will mean that cancer and dementia will soon be ailments of the past – and in its place we will have an epidemic of depression, loneliness, and despair.