Book review

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker 

Title: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Author: Steven Pinker

Publisher: Penguin Random House

The 18th century, at least in Europe, is regarded as akin to an intellectual sunrise, where slowly but surely the world of magic, superstition and religion were increasingly complemented, if not replaced, by scientific inquiry, political discourse and an understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of human nature.

The great European universities – from Leiden to Göttingen, and Uppsala to Edinburgh – nurtured first-class thinkers such as John Locke, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Voltaire, who changed the way we look at ourselves and our world.

Although much of science and mathematics was rooted in earlier work performed in the Arab world, India or China, it was Europeans, it seemed, who put the pieces of the puzzle together and accelerated human knowledge in what is known as the Age of Enlightenment.

A modern-day thinker on a global scale, the Canadian cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has essentially written a tribute to that age with his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. The legacy of that age, he argues, is that we are now healthier, richer and safer than we have ever been.

In a way, Enlightenment Now is a sequel to Pinker’s 2011 bestseller, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In that controversial book, Pinker linked a more peaceful world to the development of the modern nation-state, yet appeared to ignore the many examples of strong central authorities encouraging rather than inhibiting mass violence.

Enlightenment Now is similarly sweeping: its central thesis is that life has improved. Pinker addresses a list of human conditions from progress (and “progressophobia”) to health, wealth, inequality, the environment, public safety (including terrorism) and democracy. There are further diversions into quality of life, happiness and existential threats. He also roots principles increasingly discussed now such as social equality, racial integration and women’s rights, in the Enlightenment. Yet today, race relations in many countries have a headline-generating fractiousness, and while the Enlightenment did provide a platform for many women of different social classes, gender equity would remain elusive for another two centuries.

The world outside Europe and America barely gets a mention. Hong Kong is praised only for its “secularization” – the tenet of social science that “irreligion is a natural consequence of affluence and education.” China is noted chiefly for its early errors: Mao Zedong is pilloried for the Great Leap Forward and its “screwball agronomic practices” and neither Deng Xiaoping nor Xi Jinping rate a mention.

Citing China as an example, Pinker observes, “Market economies can generate wealth prodigiously while totalitarian planned economies impose scarcity, stagnation, and often famine.” Market economies, he adds, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability.

The Better Angels of Our Nature established Pinker as the “Great Optimist” of human psychology and this book continues the trend. But he notes many people are pessimistic about their future, citing a YouGov poll in 2015 that showed majorities in 14 major countries and territories, including United Kingdom, the United States, France and Hong Kong, thought the world was getting worse. China was the only country in which more respondents said the world was getting better.

He dismisses these notions as “negativity bias,” using psychology jargon. “Two other illusions mislead us into thinking that things ‘ain’t what they used to be’,” Pinker writes. “We mistake the growing burdens of maturity and parenthood for a less innocent world, and we mistake a decline in our own faculties for a decline in the times. As the columnist Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, ‘Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory’.”

Written after the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump, the book shrugs off new threats to the general march of progress. Without demonizing Trump and other politicians who lean towards authoritarian populists, Pinker cautions against leadership cults. “By valorizing a strong leader, populism overlooks the limitations in human nature,” he writes, “and disdains the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.”

Author interview: Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a natural optimist, and in a public setting, he beams with hope. As a cognitive psychologist, he understands the human tendency towards despair. “From time to time we all ask some deep and difficult questions,” Pinker tells an audience in Washington, D.C. “Why is the world filled with woe? How can we make it better? How do we give meaning and purpose to our lives?”

He has come down from his usual domain, Harvard University, near Boston – where he is Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology – at the behest of the Cato Institute, the conservative think-tank in Washington, D.C., to give a lecture as part of his promotion of his book.

While Pinker eschews a traditional religious affinity – he has long identified himself as an atheist, but believes institutional religion can be a force for good – he suggests going back 250 or so years rather than 2,000 to find an appealing orthodoxy.

“Many of us are pretty clear on what we don’t believe in, but it’s harder to articulate a positive vision of what we do believe in,” he says. “In Enlightenment Now, I suggest that there is such a positive vision – an alternative system of beliefs and values.”

That vision is the Enlightenment, the rapid flowering of scientific, philosophical and cultural knowledge, centered in Western Europe, that fuelled everything from steam engines to democracy. Progress, it seems, is Pinker’s religion, who sees improvement by any metric, even meals. “The [current] abundance of calories could be considered a dubious form of progress if it simply made the fat fatter, but in fact, the benefits have accrued to the bottom.

“In 1999, about 35 percent of the world’s population was subject to undernourishment,” he says. “That has been brought down to about 12 percent.”

Pinker acknowledges his Eurocentric worldview, but is unrepentant. The data back him up. “The first regions to make the great escape from ‘universal poverty’ as [Nobel Memorial Prize laureate economist] Angus Deaton called it were Europe and the Americas,” he says. “But more recently, Asia has seen spectacular increases and Africa as well is catching up.”

Pinker says the world should not worry about China as the country becomes richer and more globally engaged. “Fears are largely misplaced,” he says. “It was when China was poor and insular that it started wars, and starved and brutalized its citizens.”

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