About rocks that move and what Grandpa never talked about

Snowballs in Hell

Not long ago I was invited to the five-star Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh to present to a gathering of capital managers and their wealthiest clients. As I set up my equipment in the magnificent high-ceilinged ballroom, I couldn’t help feeling a bit small, and I asked myself why a wealthy financial institution would want its clients to hear from a Swedish professor of public health. I had been carefully briefed weeks earlier, but to feel sure, I asked the conference organizer again as I got onstage for a final rehearsal. He had a straightforward explanation. He was having a hard time making his clients understand that the most profitable investments were no longer to be found in European capitals boasting medieval castles and cobbled streets, but in the emerging markets of Asia and Africa. “Most of our clients,” he said, “are unable to see or accept the ongoing progress in many African countries. In their minds, Africa is a continent that will never improve. I want your moving charts to change their static view of the world.”

My lecture seemed to go well. I showed how Asian countries like South Korea, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore, which had surprised the world with their economic progress over the past decades, actually had made steady social progress during the decades before their economic growth. I showed how the same process was now unfolding in parts of Africa. I said that the best places to invest right now were probably those African countries that had just seen decades of rapid improvements in education and child survival. I mentioned Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana. The audience listened hard, eyes wide, and asked some good questions.

Afterward, as I was packing away my laptop, a gray-haired man in a lightly checked three-piece suit walked slowly up to the stage, smiled sweetly, and said, “Well, I saw your numbers and I heard what you said, but I’m afraid there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Africa will make it. I know because I served in Nigeria. It’s their culture, you know. It will not allow them to create a modern society. Ever. EV-ER.” I opened my mouth, but before I had figured out a fact-based reply, he had already given my shoulder a little pat and wandered off to find a cup of tea.

The Destiny Instinct

The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change. This instinct makes us believe that our false generalizations from chapter 6, or the tempting gaps from chapter 1, are not only true, but fated: unchanging and unchangeable.

It is easy to see how this instinct would have served an evolutionary purpose. Historically, humans lived in surroundings that didn’t change much. Learning how things worked and then assuming they would continue to work that way rather than constantly reevaluating was probably an excellent survival strategy.

It’s also easy to understand how claiming a particular destiny for your group can come in useful in uniting that group around a supposedly never-changing purpose, and perhaps creating a sense of superiority over other groups. Such ideas must have been important for powering tribes, chiefdoms, nations, and empires. But today, this instinct to see things as unchanging, this instinct not to update our knowledge, blinds us to the revolutionary transformations in societies happening all around us.

Societies and cultures are not like rocks, unchanging and unchangeable. They move. Western societies and cultures move, and non-Western societies and cultures move—often much faster. It’s just that all but the fastest cultural changes—the spread of the internet, smartphones, and social media, for example—tend to happen just a bit too slowly to be noticeable or newsworthy.

A common expression of the destiny instinct is my Edinburgh gentleman’s idea that Africa will always be a basket case and will never catch up with Europe. Another is that the “Islamic world” is fundamentally different from the “Christian world.” This or that religion or continent or culture or nation will (or must) never change, because of its traditional and unchanging “values”: again and again, it’s the same idea in different costumes. At first sight there appears to be some analysis going on. On closer inspection, our instincts have often fooled us. These lofty statements are often simply feelings disguised as facts.


Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?

A: 9 years

B: 6 years

C: 3 years

By now I hope you have worked out that the safest thing to do in this book is to pick the most positive answer. Thirty-year-old women have on average spent nine years in school, just one year less than the men.

Many of my fellow Europeans have a snobbish self-regard built on an illusion of a European culture that is superior, not only to African and Asian cultures, but also to American consumer culture. When it comes to drama, though, I wonder who consumes the most. Twenty-six percent of the US public picked the right answer, compared with 13 percent in Spain and Belgium, 10 percent in Finland, and just 8 percent in Norway.

The question is about gender inequality, which is currently discussed in the Scandinavian media on a daily basis. We see constant examples of the brutal violence committed against women out there, mostly elsewhere, in the rest of the world, as well as reports from places like Afghanistan, where many, many girls are out of school. These images confirm a popular idea in Scandinavia that gender equality elsewhere has not improved—that most other cultures are stuck.

How the Rocks Move

Cultures, nations, religions, and people are not rocks. They are in constant transformation.

Africa Can Catch Up

The idea that Africa is destined to remain poor is very common but often seems to be based on no more than a feeling. If you like your opinions to be based on facts, this is what you need to know.

Yes, Africa is lagging behind other continents, on average. The average lifespan of a newborn baby in Africa today is 65 years. That’s a staggering 17 years less than a baby born today in Western Europe.

But, first of all, you know how misleading averages can be, and the differences within Africa are immense. Not all African countries are lagging the world. Five large African countries—Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Egypt—have life expectancies above the world average of 72 years. They are where Sweden was in 1970.

Those despairing for Africa may not be convinced by this example. They may say that these are all Arab countries on the north coast of Africa and therefore not the Africa they had in mind. When I was young, these countries were certainly seen as sharing Africa’s destiny. It is only since they made progress that they have been held to be exceptional. For the sake of argument, though, let’s put these North African countries to one side and look at Africa south of the Sahara.

In the last 60 years the African countries south of the Sahara almost all went from being colonies to being independent states. Over that time, these countries expanded their education, electricity, water, and sanitation infrastructures at the same steady speed as that achieved by the countries of Europe when they went through their own miracles. And each of the 50 countries south of the Sahara reduced its child mortality faster than Sweden ever did. How can that not be counted as incredible progress?

Perhaps because though things are much better, they are still bad. If you look for poor people in Africa, of course you will find them.

But there was extreme poverty in Sweden 90 years ago too. And when I was young, just 50 years ago, China, India, and South Korea were all way behind where sub-Saharan Africa is today in most ways, and Asia’s destiny was supposed then to be exactly what Africa’s destiny is supposed to be now: “They will never be able to feed 4 billion people.”

Roughly half a billion people in Africa today are stuck in extreme poverty. If it is their destiny to stay that way, then there must be something unique about this particular group of poor people compared with the billions across the world, including in Africa, who have already escaped extreme poverty. I don’t think there is.

I think the last to leave extreme poverty will be the poorest farmers stuck on really low-yield soils and surrounded by or close to conflicts. That probably accounts today for 200 million people, just over half of whom live in Africa. For sure they have an extraordinarily difficult time ahead of them—not because of their unchanging and unchangeable culture, but because of the soil and the conflicts.

But I hold out hope even for these poorest and most unfortunate people in the world, because this is exactly how hopeless extreme poverty has always seemed. During their terrible famines and conflicts, progress in China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam seemed impossible. Today these countries probably produced most of the clothes in your wardrobe. Thirty-five years ago, India was where Mozambique is today. It is fully possible that within 30 years Mozambique will transform itself, as India has done, into a country on Level 2 and a reliable trade partner. Mozambique has a long, beautiful coast on the Indian Ocean, the future center of global trade. Why should it not prosper?

Nobody can predict the future with 100 percent certainty. I’m not convinced it will happen. But I am a possibilist and these facts convince me: it is possible.

The destiny instinct makes it difficult for us to accept that Africa can catch up with the West. Africa’s progress, if it is noticed at all, is seen as an improbable stroke of good fortune, a temporary break from its impoverished and war-torn destiny.

The same destiny instinct also seems to make us take continuing Western progress for granted, with the West’s current economic stagnation portrayed as a temporary accident from which it will soon recover. For years after the global crash of 2008, the International Monetary Fund continued to forecast 3 percent annual economic growth for countries on Level 4. Each year, for five years, countries on Level 4 failed to meet this forecast. Each year, for five years, the IMF said, “Next year it will get back on track.” Finally, the IMF realized that there was no “normal” to go back to, and it downgraded its future growth expectations to 2 percent. At the same time the IMF acknowledged that the fast growth (above 5 percent) during those years had instead happened in countries on Level 2, like Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya in Africa, and Bangladesh in Asia.

Why does this matter? One reason is this: the IMF forecasters’ worldview had a strong influence on where your retirement funds were invested. Countries in Europe and North America were expected to experience fast and reliable growth, which made them attractive to investors. When these forecasts turned out to be wrong, and when these countries did not in fact grow fast, the retirement funds did not grow either. Supposedly low-risk/high-return countries turned out to be high-risk/low-return countries. And at the same time African countries with great growth potential were being starved of investment.

Another reason it matters, if you work for a company based in the old “West,” is that you are probably missing opportunities in the largest expansion of the middle-income consumer market in history, which is taking place right now in Africa and Asia. Other, local brands are already establishing a foothold, gaining brand recognition, and spreading throughout these continents, while you are still waking up to what is going on. The Western consumer market was just a teaser for what is coming next.

Babies and Religions

At the end of my opening lecture in my 1998 course on global health, most students headed for the coffee machine but one remained behind. I saw her wander slowly toward the front of the room with tears in her eyes, then, when she understood that I had noticed her, she stopped, flipped her face away, and looked out the window. She was obviously moved. I expected her to share with me a sad personal problem that was going to impede her participation in the course. Before I could say anything comforting she turned around, gained control over her emotions, and in a steady voice said something completely unexpected:

“My family is from Iran. What you just said about the fast improvements in health and education in Iran was the first positive thing I’ve heard anyone from Sweden ever say about the Iranian people.”

My student said this to me in perfect Swedish with a clear Stockholm accent: she had obviously lived in Sweden her whole life. I was stunned. All I had done was to briefly show UN data for Iran on the increase in life expectancy and decrease in babies per woman. I had mentioned too that it was quite an achievement—actually the fastest drop ever, from more than six babies per woman in 1984 down to fewer than three babies per woman just 15 years later.

It was one of several little-known examples I had shown of fast changes in middle-income countries in the 1990s.

“That can’t be true,” I said.

“It is. You said that the fast fall in the number of babies per woman in Iran is a reflection of improvements in health and education, especially for Iranian women. You also rightly said that most young Iranians now have modern values about family size and use contraception. I have never heard anyone in Sweden say anything even close to that. Even highly educated Swedes seem completely unaware of the changes that have taken place. The improvements. The modernity. They think Iran is on the same level as Afghanistan.”

The fastest drop in babies per woman in world history went completely unreported in the free Western media. Iran—home in the 1990s to the biggest condom factory in the world, and boasting a compulsory pre-marriage sex education course for both brides and grooms—has a highly educated population with excellent access to an advanced public health-care system. Couples use contraception to achieve small families and have access to infertility clinics if they struggle to conceive. At least that was the case when I visited such a clinic in Tehran in 1990, hosted by the enthusiastic Professor Malek-Afzali, who designed Iran’s family planning miracle.

How many people in the West would guess that women in Iran today decide to have fewer babies than women in either the United States or Sweden? Do we Westerners love free speech so much that it makes us blind to any progress in a country whose regime does not share our love? It is, at least, clear that a free media is no guarantee that the world’s fastest cultural changes will be reported.

Almost every religious tradition has rules about sex, so it is easy to understand why so many people assume that women in some religions give birth to more children. But the link between religion and the number of babies per woman is often overstated. There is, though, a strong link between income and number of babies per woman.

Back in 1960 this didn’t seem so obvious. In 1960, there were 40 countries where women had fewer than 3.5 babies on average, and they were all Christian-majority countries, except Japan. It appeared that to have few babies, you had either to be Christian or Japanese. (A bit more reflection even at this stage would have suggested some problems with this line of thought: in many Christian-majority countries, like Mexico and Ethiopia, women also had big families.)

How does it look today? In the bubble graphs on the next page, I have divided the world into three groups based on religion: Christian, Muslim, or other. I have then shown babies per woman and income for each group. As usual the size of the bubble reflects the size of the population. Look how Christian populations are spread out on all income levels. Look how the Christian populations on Level 1 have many more babies. Now look at the other two graphs. The pattern is very similar: regardless of religion, women have more children if they live in extreme poverty on Level 1.

Today, Muslim women have on average 3.1 children. Christian women have 2.7. There is no major difference between the birth rates of the great world religions.

In almost every bedroom, across continents, cultures, and religions—in the United States, Iran, Mexico, Malaysia, Brazil, Italy, China, Indonesia, India, Colombia, Bangladesh, South Africa, Libya, you name it—couples are whispering into each other’s ears their dreams for their future happy families.

Everyone’s Talking About Sex

Exaggerated claims that people from this religion or that religion have bigger families are one example of how people tend to claim that certain values or behaviors are culture-specific, unchanging and unchangeable.

It’s just not true. Values change all the time.

Take my lovely home country, Sweden. We Swedes are known for being quite liberal and open about sex and contraception, aren’t we? Yet this hasn’t always been our culture. These haven’t always been our values.

In my own living memory, Swedish values around sex were extremely conservative. My father’s father, Gustav, for example, was born as Sweden was leaving Level 2 and was, I believe, a quite typical Swedish man of his generation. He was extremely proud of his large family of seven children; he never changed a diaper, cooked food, or cleaned the house; and he absolutely would not talk about sex or contraception. His oldest daughter supported the brave feminists who illegally started advocating the use of condoms in the 1930s. But when she approached her father after the birth of his seventh child, wanting to discuss contraception, this kind, calm man got very angry and refused to talk. His values were traditional and patriarchal. But they were not adopted by the next generation. Swedish culture changed. (By the way, he also disliked books and refused to use a telephone.)

A woman’s right to an abortion is supported by just about everyone in Sweden today. Strong support for women’s rights in general has become part of our culture. My students’ jaws drop when I tell them how different things were when I was a student in the 1960s. Abortion in Sweden was still, except on very limited grounds, illegal. At the university, we ran a secret fund to pay for women to travel abroad to get safe abortions. Jaws drop even further when I tell the students where these young pregnant students traveled to: Poland. Catholic Poland. Five years later, Poland banned abortion and Sweden legalized it. The flow of young women started to go the other way. The point is, it was not always so. The cultures changed.

I come across the values of stubborn old men like my grandfather Gustav all the time when I travel in Asia. For example, in South Korea and Japan, many wives are still expected to take care of their husband’s parents, as well as taking full responsibility for the care of any children. I have encountered many men who are proud of these “Asian values,” as they call them. I have had conversations with many women too, who see it differently. They find this culture unbearable and tell me these values make them less interested in getting married.

The Idea of a Husband

At a banking conference in Hong Kong, I was seated at dinner next to a brilliant young banker. She was 37 years old and enjoying a very successful career, and she taught me many things over dinner about current issues and trends in Asia. Then we started talking about our personal lives. “Do you plan to have a family?” I asked. I didn’t mean to be rude: we Swedes (nowadays) like to talk about these things. And she had no problem with my honest question. She smiled and looked over my shoulder at the sun setting over the bay. She said, “I am thinking about children every day.” Then she looked me straight in the eye. “It’s the idea of a husband I can’t stand.”

I try to comfort these women, to convince them that things will change. I recently gave a lecture to 400 young women at the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh. I told them about how and why cultures are always transforming, how escape from extreme poverty and women’s access to education and contraception have led to more pillow talk and fewer children. It was a very emotional lecture. The young women in colorful hijabs smiled with their whole faces.

Afterward, the Afghan students wanted to tell me about their country. They told me these changes were already slowly happening even in Afghanistan. “Despite the war, despite the poverty,” they told me, “many of us young people are planning a modern life. We are Afghans, we are Muslim women. And we want a man just like you describe, a man who listens and plans together with us, and then we want two children who go to school.”

The macho values that are found today in many Asian and African countries, these are not Asian values, or African values. They are not Muslim values. They are not Eastern values. They are patriarchal values like those found in Sweden only 60 years ago, and with social and economic progress they will vanish, just as they did in Sweden. They are not unchangeable.

How to Control the Destiny Instinct

How can we help our brains to see that rocks move; that the way things are now is neither how they have always been nor how they are always meant to be?

Slow Change Is Not No Change

Societies and cultures are in constant movement. Even changes that seem small and slow add up over time: 1 percent growth each year seems slow but it adds up to a doubling in 70 years; 2 percent growth each year means doubling in 35 years; 3 percent growth each year means doubling in 24 years.

In the third century BC, the world’s first nature reserve was created by King Devanampiya Tissa in Sri Lanka when he declared a piece of forest to be officially protected. It took more than 2,000 years for a European, in West Yorkshire, to get a similar idea, and another 50 years before Yellowstone National Park was established in the United States. By the year 1900, 0.03 percent of the Earth’s land surface was protected. By 1930 it was 0.2 percent. Slowly, slowly, decade by decade, one forest at a time, the number climbed. The annual increase was absolutely tiny, almost imperceptible. Today a stunning 15 percent of the Earth’s surface is protected, and the number is still climbing.

To control the destiny instinct, don’t confuse slow change with no change. Don’t dismiss an annual change—even an annual change of only 1 percent—because it seems too small and slow.

Be Prepared to Update Your Knowledge

It’s relaxing to think that knowledge has no sell-by date: that once you have learned something, it stays fresh forever and you never have to learn it again. In the sciences like math and physics, and in the arts, that is often true. In those subjects, what we all learned at school (2 + 2 = 4) is probably still good. But in the social sciences, even the most basic knowledge goes off very quickly. As with milk or vegetables, you have to keep getting it fresh. Because everything changes.

I have been caught out by this even in my own work. Thirteen years after I first asked them, we planned to rerun my very first chimpanzee questions from 1998 to see whether people’s knowledge had improved. In these questions, I showed five pairs of countries and asked which country in each pair had the highest child mortality rate. Back in 1998, my Swedish students had answered incorrectly because they couldn’t imagine that Asian countries were better than European countries.

When we pulled the questions up, after only 13 years, we realized that it was going to be impossible to rerun the test because the correct answers had changed. Because the world had changed. How illustrative was this? Even Gapminder’s own fact questions had become outdated.

To control the destiny instinct, stay open to new data and be prepared to keep freshening up your knowledge.

Talk to Grandpa

If you are tempted to claim that values are unchanging, try comparing your own with those of your parents, or your grandparents—or your children or your grandchildren. Try getting hold of public opinion polls for your country from 30 years ago. You will almost certainly see radical change.

Collect Examples of Cultural Change

People often tilt their heads and say “it’s our culture” or “it’s their culture,” which gives the impression that it has always been that way and always will be. Then turn your head around and look for some counterexamples. We already discovered that Swedes didn’t always talk about sex. Here are a couple of others.

Many Swedes think of the United States as having very conservative values. But look at how quickly attitudes to homosexuality have changed. In 1996, a minority of 27 percent supported same-sex marriage. Today that number is 72 percent and rising.

Some Americans think of Sweden as a socialist country, but values can change. A few decades ago Sweden carried out what might be the most drastic deregulation ever of a public school system and now allows fully commercial schools to compete and make profits (a brave capitalist experiment).

I Don’t Have Any Vision

I started this chapter with a story about a well-dressed ignorant man who didn’t have sufficient vision to see what was possible in Africa. I want to end with something similar. (Spoiler alert: the ignorant man this time is me.) 

On May 12, 2013, I had the great privilege of addressing 500 women leaders from across the continent at an African Union conference called “The African Renaissance and Agenda for 2063.” What an enormous honor, what a thrill. It was the lecture of my life. In my 30-minute slot in the Plenary Hall of the African Union’s beautiful headquarters in Addis Ababa, I summarized decades of research on female small-scale farmers and explained to these powerful decision makers how extreme poverty could be ended in Africa within 20 years.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairwoman of the African Union, sat right in front of me and seemed to be listening attentively. Afterward, she came up and thanked me and I asked her what she thought of my performance. Her answer was a shock.

“Well,” she said, “the graphics were nice, and you are good at talking, but you don’t have any vision.” Her tone was kind, which made what she was saying even more shocking to me.

“What?! You think I lack vision?” I asked in offended disbelief. “But I said that extreme poverty in Africa could be history within 20 years.”

Nkosazana’s response came in a low voice and she spoke without emotions or gestures. “Oh, yes, you talked about eradicating extreme poverty, which is a beginning, but you stopped there. Do you think Africans will settle with getting rid of extreme poverty and be happy living in only ordinary poverty?” She put a firm hand on my arm and looked at me without anger but also without a smile. I saw a strong will to make me understand my shortcomings.

“As a finishing remark you said that you hoped your grandchildren would come as tourists to Africa and travel on the new high-speed trains we plan to build. What kind of a vision is that? It is the same old European vision.” Nkosazana looked me straight in my eyes. “It is my grandchildren who are going to visit your continent and travel on your high-speed trains and visit that exotic ice hotel I’ve heard you have up in northern Sweden. It is going to take a long time, we know that. It is going to take lots of wise decisions and large investments. But my 50-year vision is that Africans will be welcome tourists in Europe and not unwanted refugees.” Then she broke into a broad, warm smile. “But the graphics were really nice. Now let’s go and have some coffee.”

Over coffee I reflected on my mistake. I remembered a conversation from 33 years earlier with my first African friend, the Mozambican mining engineer Niherewa Maselina. He had looked at me with that same face. I was working as a doctor in Nacala in Mozambique, and Niherewa had come with us on a family outing to the beach. The coast in Mozambique is unbelievably beautiful and was still hardly exploited and we used to be almost alone there at the weekends. When I saw that there were 15 or 20 families on the mile-long stretch of sand I said, “Oh, what a shame there are so many families on the beach today.” Niherewa grabbed my arm, just as Nkosazana was to do years later, and said, “Hans. My reaction is the opposite. I feel great pain and sadness seeing this beach. Look at the city there in the distance. Eighty thousand people live there, which means 40,000 children. It’s the weekend. And only 40 of them made it to the beach. One in one thousand. When I got my mining education in East Germany, I went to the beaches of Rostock at the weekend, and they were full. Thousands of children having a wonderful time. I want Nacala to be like Rostock. I want all children to go to the beach on a Sunday instead of working in their parents’ fields or sitting in the slums. It will take a long time, but that is what I want.” Then he let go of my arm and helped my children to get their swimming gear out of the car.

Thirty-three years later, addressing the African Union after a professional lifetime of collaboration with African scholars and institutions, I was absolutely convinced that I shared their great vision. I thought I was one of the few Europeans who could see what change was possible. But after delivering the most cherished lecture of my life, I realized that I was still stuck in an old, static, colonial mind-set. In spite of all that my African friends and colleagues had taught me over the years, I was still not really imagining “they” could ever catch up with “us.” I was still failing to see that all people, families, children will struggle hard to achieve just that, so they can also go to the beach.


Factfulness is … recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because thechange is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes.

To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change.

• Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over decades.

• Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing.

• Talk to Grandpa. If you want to be reminded of how values have changed, think about your grandparents’ values and how they differ from yours.

• Collect examples of cultural change. Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will also be tomorrow’s.





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