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Steven Pinker and Peter Singer win Frontiers of Knowledge Award for insights into human progress and the moral consideration of animals

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences has been presented to Steven Pinker (Harvard University) and Peter Singer (Princeton University) for bringing vital questions to the mainstream of public debate: the role of rationality, scientific knowledge, and humanistic values, and the moral status of animals. Their work has had a significant influence in shaping the cultural and legal framework of today.

“Steven Pinker has combined outstanding achievements in evolutionary cognitive psychology with highly insightful analyses of the conditions of human progress. He depicts such progress from an optimistic perspective grounded in reason, science and humanism,” the committee explained.

“Peter Singer,” the committee stated, “has marked a turning point by extending the scope of ethics, providing a basis for their application to the animal domain. This signal contribution has had major consequences for international animal welfare legislation as well as for moral progress.”

Steven Pinker: the world is better than we think

Most people, Steven Pinker points out, construct their view of reality from the news stories that the media bombard them with on a daily basis – generally a succession of crimes, wars and other disasters. “It is a non-random sample of the worst things that happen anywhere on Earth on a given day. It feeds into our availability bias, namely, whatever is easily available to our mind we think is common or prevalent. So as we read about terrorist attacks and famine and wars, we think they are increasing. But if you switch your view of the world from news to data, you discover that the state of things is a lot better than you thought,” Pinker says.

Steven Pinker, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The good things,” he adds, “tend to build up gradually, like the fact that every day another 137,000 people escape from extreme poverty. And there are also things that don’t happen, like regions of the world that have not had a war, that are missed by the news but are visible with data.”

A defense of human rationality as the engine of progress is precisely the theme of the last three books published by Steven Pinker ('The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined'; 'Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress'; and 'Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why it Matters'), which have become a worldwide publishing success. In these works, Pinker points out the advances made over past centuries in all major indicators of human wellbeing.

“What I have tried to show is that progress is something real and measurable that is clearly evidenced by the main historical trends regarding the human condition,” Pinker explains. “But progress is not a force of nature, it is something that came about thanks to the core ideals of the Enlightenment, with their focus on using knowledge to improve human wellbeing through science.

Rationality, he says, matters not only because “it helps us make better decisions in our personal lives,” but because “it drives moral progress at the societal level,” as we can see from such milestones as the abolition of slavery or advances in the rights of women and homosexuals. This is a conclusion Pinker shares unreservedly with co-laureate Peter Singer: “The data I present in my books shows that our concern for others has expanded to all humanity, and I fully agree that we should continue extending it to all sentient beings.”

Peter Singer: widen the scope of moral consideration to other species

For Peter Singer, “the boundary of our species is not itself a morally crucial distinction,” since the other animals with whom we share the planet are also capable of feeling pleasure and pain. “The fact that they are not members of the species ‘Homo sapiens’ does not make their pain less important, ethically, than the pain of a member of our species. Pain is pain, and it’s equally bad whichever being suffers it.” This is the core idea behind his book ‘Animal Liberation,’ which rocked the foundations of ethics almost fifty years ago by expanding the scope of moral consideration to encompass other species.

Translated into over 30 languages, his work shook the world’s conscience. As the Frontiers committee notes, “the book has had major consequences for international animal welfare legislation as well as for moral progress.” Singer himself remarks that many of the practices described in the book’s first edition, like keeping hens in wire cages so small that they cannot spread their wings, or confining calves or pigs in such narrow stalls that they cannot turn round or walk more than a step, have since been banned throughout the European Union and in other countries, as well as in some U.S. states including California.

Peter Singer, BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences.

There has also been progress, the awardee points out, regarding the use of animals for scientific experimentation: “There is more control and the European Union has again been a leader, such that testing cosmetics on animals has been outlawed across its member states.”

But although much has been achieved, Singer considers that “there is still a very long way to go” to improve animal welfare. The biggest challenge he sees is to do something about the commercial raising and killing of animals for food, because that is by far the largest area of human abuse of animals. “If we just consider vertebrate animals on land,” he says, “we’re talking about something like 70 to 80 billion animals produced each year. And if we include fish as well, that would add another 120 billion to the total tally.”

He remains hopeful that technology will help by enabling animal products to be developed using cell cultures, so meat can be produced with no suffering involved and with the added bonus of mitigating climate change. “The greenhouse gas emissions of the meat industry are very significant, and if we can replace that meat with plant based foods, or with cellular meat, we will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and give ourselves more time to avoid that tipping point where the climate of the entire planet is irreparably damaged for centuries to come.”