Humans Are Optimizers

On average, the present is better than the past, even if common sense might not like to admit it. Many people feel like the world is getting worse and worse, but the statistics don’t back that up. All you need to do is click on that link to see well-documented evidence that there is less poverty and hunger in the world than ever before, as well as lower death rates and less violent crime. Meanwhile literacy, leisure time, and clean energry are all the highest they’ve ever been. You can see more such statistics at Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. The present has many problems, I won’t dispute that for a moment, but all it takes is a cursory examination of history to see that the past was much, much worse.

In the past, there was no anasthesia for surgery or dentistry. In the past smallpox existed, and killed millions indiscriminately. In the past very few people had access to education, fewer and fewer as you go back in time. In the past there were more wars, and fewer rights and freedoms. In the past, women were considered chattel and people of color were slaves. Though we may look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, the fact of the matter is that the present is much, much better.

There is a simple and obvious reason for this: humans want to improve things. When given a choice between something that would seem to make their lives better, and something that would seem to make their lives worse, humans will choose the thing that makes their lives better, however they define “better”, be it as increased wealth or feeling secure that they are a good person, or anything else.

Humans have made grevious missteps as part of this process, but generally we’re pretty good at figuring out what would make our lives better. Some people choose to make things better just for themselves, and not for everyone, which leads to inequality and strife. This is not a perfect process. But through trial and error, with everyone working independently in their own best interests, we have raised humanity from sitting shivering in caves without even the benefit of a fire to warm themselves by, to the heights of civilization.

Humans are optimizers; which just means they improve things. The trend is obvious and undeniable – on average, on a societal level, humans have improved their own lives. And that, to me, is one of the biggest reasons to be hopeful about the future.

Because it’s not like we stopped working as optimizers as soon as we got to the present. We’re still, every one of us, trying to improve our lives. I can’t promise that the future will be good, will be more fair and just and joyful than the present, but I can point to a good reason why every single person on Earth is, however indirectly, working towards making the future better than the present, at least for themselves. And we have the data to show a strong, consistent trend over time: when people work to make life better for themselves, the net affect of all these people working at cross purposes is that, in general, things get better for everyone.

One thought on “Humans Are Optimizers

  1. Another gem! Yes, I’m a regular reader and big fan of this blog but have to say the quality seems to keep going up. Anyway, just wanted to drop a quick note to let you know how much I enjoyed it!


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