L&C: Steven Pinker on Steven Johnson

Sometimes a good book review can save you the trouble of reading the book itself — or propel you into reading a book you might otherwise pass over.

Two weeks ago the New York Times Book Review published a review of a new book by the journalist (not a scientist himself) Steven Johnson, Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, the review by Steven Pinker. Pinker is well known for, in effect, looking o the bright side, emphasizing through voluminous tomes like THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE that the condition of mankind is far better than it was millennia, centuries, or even decades ago, but any measure you care to consider. Keeping that in mind, I’ll just quote some passages from his review.

The opening:

As you read of the many contemporary threats to life and limb, from pollution to shooting rampages, you may long for a simpler and safer yesteryear. But if the conditions of the past prevailed today, you would probably be dead. The average age of a New York Times subscriber is around 55, and for most of human history, life expectancy was around 30. At least one of your children would probably be dead, too. Until a couple of centuries ago, more than a quarter of children died before their first birthday, around half before their fifth.

In “Extra Life,” Steven Johnson, a writer of popular books on science and technology, tells the stories behind what he calls, in an understatement, “one of the greatest achievements in the history of our species.” Starting in the second half of the 19th century, the average life span began to climb rapidly, giving humans not just extra life, but an extra life. In rich countries, life expectancy at birth hit 40 by 1880, 50 by 1900, 60 by 1930, 70 by 1960, and 80 by 2010. The rest of the world is catching up.

Here’s the key point of the book, that summarizes the eight chapters:

The sin of ingratitude is said to condemn one to the ninth circle of hell, and that’s where we may be headed for our attitudes toward the granters of extra life. In the list of inventions that saved lives by the hundreds of millions, we find antibiotics (squandered to fatten chickens in factory farms), blood transfusions (condemned as sinful by the devout), and chlorination and pasteurization (often mistrusted as unnatural). Among those that saved lives by the billions, we find the lowly toilet and sewer (metaphors for the contemptible), artificial fertilizer (a devil for Whole Foods shoppers) and vaccines (perhaps the greatest invention in history, and the target of head-smackingly stupid resistance).

Note the final comment in particular.

Another crucial point for the cynically-minded, for whom scientific standards and government regulations are anathema:

Johnson shakes us out of our damnable ingratitude and explains features of modernity that are reviled by sectors of the right and left: government regulation, processed food, high-tech farming, big data and bureaucracies like the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. He is open about their shortcomings and dangers. But much depends on whether we see them as evils that must be abolished or as lifesavers with flaws that must be mitigated.

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