This piece is from the Templeton Ideas archives. It was originally published in 2021.
What role did science play in the emergence of optimism? Join us in conversation with the Columbia University professor and chair of biology, Dr. Stuart Firestein. Author of two trade books on the surprising role of ignorance and failure in science, Dr. Firestein is at work on a new book on optimism, from which he shares a preview in this exclusive discussion with the John Templeton Foundation.
His bold argument makes the sweeping claim that it was the emergence of science, and its discovery of technologies that enabled rapid improvement in quality of life, that first allowed people to feel optimistic about the future.
“I think that science invented optimism, or a certain kind of it,” says Firestein. “It brings an optimistic outlook to societies where it has been embodied in the lives of citizens.”
Contrary to some evolutionary accounts of optimism as a hard-wired part the human brain, Firestein believes that it emerged from the cultural changes brought by the Scientific Revolution. The word “optimism” only appeared in 1789, he notes, when Voltaire coined it in his satirical novel, Candide. “Where does optimism come from?… It comes from the idea of progress,” he says — an idea that arose from the swift technological change enabled by science.
These changes were accompanied by a “cognitive revolution” that accelerated the rate of progress, he says, highlighting five “big ideas” essential to this process:
With these ideas, a “new species had arrived on planet Earth,” he said, citing writer and essayist Arthur Koestler.
Do you agree? Watch the full video above or on our YouTube channel and make a comment to share your thoughts.
Watch our other thought-provoking Templeton Foundation Speaker Series videos:
Economist Tyler Cowen on how scientific funding moves too slowly, and what he’s doing about it
Physicist Alan Lightman on how he found meaning at the bottom of a rowboat, and how it’s changed his view of reality.
Explore Prof. Michael Milona’s deep-dive into the science and philosophy of Hope & Optimism in this Templeton research study.