On Monday night January 19 in New York City, my friend Gerry Ohrstrom hosted a book party at his home, sponsored by Reason Foundation. It was a lovely evening, made all the more lively by the magicians Gerry brought in to liven up the party, Asi Wind and Matt Holtzclaw. Among the many remarkable displays of prestidigitation, Asi Wind had Steven Pinker “pick a card, any card” and sign it, then put it back in the deck. A “free choice” of course, could change his mind any time. Right. The magician then placed the deck of cards on Steve’s hand and had him cover it with the other hand. He then asked him to think of a number between 1 and 52, and then told Steve to decide whether his card was that many from the top or the bottom of the deck. That established, the magician then had Steve count that number of cards to reveal…some random card. Oh no, the trick must have failed. Right. They then searched and searched for Steve’s signed card. It was nowhere to be found in the deck. Then, lo-and-behold, the magician tells Steve to check his watch, and there was the card, folded up and tucked underneath the watch. As you can see, Pinker and the audience were equally surprised by this feat of what cognitive psychologists call “inattentional blindness” (attending to one task blinds you to other stimuli). 

Before Pinker and I engaged in an “In Conversation” about science, reason, and moral progress, we were entertained by the science rap artist Baba Brinkman, famous for his “Rap Guide to Evolution” and, more recently, his “Rap Guide to Religion”, which is now an off-Broadway production in New York. It was a lovely performance, all the more remarkable for the fact that he wrote on the drive over to the party! Now that’s creativity on the fly. Check it out…

Lyrics for “The Moral Arc Rap”

Happy MLK day
On a veranda in Manhattan where nobody’s packin’ an AK
So what happened? Our species has never been less than
A seedy procession of guns, germs and steel, diseases and weapons
Pirates and warlords with devious ethics
This planet hasn’t always been a safe place to be skeptic
But listen, no bombs, no screams, no gunshots… Just city and silence
I’m 36 and none of my closest friends’ lives have ended in violence!
What happened is the moral arc
A species enjoying an engorgement of its moral parts
In the past it was gladiators in a pit getting getting torn apart
But now it’s a contest of wits, ideas honed and sharp
That’s how we go from the superstitions of Joan of Arc
To one day exploring the stars
And Shermer’s new book is the chart
Tracking the expansion of the moral sphere
Interchangeable perspectives are the reason that no one here
Plans to put a cigarette out in the carpet or pour their beer
Over Gerry’s head when he says something offensive to sensitive ears
It’s the golden rule, rational reverberations from the enlightenment
Or maybe it’s the fear that Gerry would stop inviting them
A leviathan system of punishment
The key to a peaceful species: we’ve been running with it ever since we discovered it
So the next time you feel like you’re drowning with no life preserver
In a civilization rife with crimes and murder, just turn to Michael Shermer
He can expose the exact stats for you and show you the ratio
He’s a beacon for reason, he’s totally stable, yo
Even though he got married and discovered ghosts in his radio
That was an aberration, he’s still a skeptic, okay? So away we go
Shermer has seen the mountaintop, a peaceful equilibrium
A future in which the Moral Arc is taught as history for at least a millennium
It’s MLK day, time for violence to vacate
Time for science to demonstrate ways to make this planet a safe space