Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now


There haven’t been any book reviews on this site before, but Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is something of a special case.  This is a political book with a message that doesn’t quite fit into the current political environment, and it includes a large body of relevant history.  Not surprisingly, Pinker finds Trump antithetical to the Enlightenment precepts he is defending.  But he also finds plenty of guilt to go around.

To start with, the book seems to have two competing objectives:

  1. Validating the fact of human progress and documenting how it has been achieved. This is really a call to action based on humanistic goals.
  2. Providing reasons for optimism about the future. This is different—good things that are going to happen for reasons such as demographics, outside the scope of specific human actors.

On the face of it, a reader expects the first subject to be primary, if only because (at this point in time) you expect any political book to end up with recommendations for what to do.  But that’s not quite where Pinker is going.  He’s trying to view history not just as a demonstration of what works, but also as a way to understand where things are going longer term.  Since the two objectives are different, it helps to treat them one-by-one.

On the first subject, Pinker does a remarkable job of demonstrating the successes that humanity has achieved—In the longer term, in the last century, and in the past few decades. This involves health, security, standard of living, and many other quantitative measures of human welfare.   Much of this is unfamiliar because, as he says, this kind of thing just doesn’t make news.  The book is worth reading for this part alone.  Pinker does a good job of demonstrating progress and what is responsible for that progress:  science, rationality, and a broad-based desire to create a better world for everyone.  It is hard to argue with the historical fact that prosperity is not a zero-sum game.

In passing Pinker tries to dispose of past arguments against enlightenment humanism.  As examples:  Humans are inherently irrational (except when they want to make a point).  Humanism is a white racist production (its advocates were on the anti-imperialist side).   Science ignores human values (just plain not true).

Predicting the future is harder, and overall I’d say that Pinker is not well-served by his desire to make things look positive.  He tries to say that nuclear war is improbable, but we know that just one outlier is bad enough.  He treats the climate change movement as a kind of hysteria, because science will just take care of it in time (based on mostly anecdotal evidence).  He views the populist phenomenon as a brief episode of backsliding until more liberal generations take over from the ones now on the verge of dying out.

So in the end it seems a shame that the future predictions tend to dominate discussions of the book, when it’s the first part—the defense of progress—that is its greatest contribution.

And then there is the question of the call to action.  What Pinker espouses is humanism—the broad-based, rational process that has delivered progress.  The problem is that humanism doesn’t have a political party.

Pinker points out that much of the political process just doesn’t work:  Issue-based movements systematically deny progress for fear of losing momentum (even though that means they frequently get caught in the bind of asking for more money to continue going nowhere).  Discussion of issues is based on faulty statistics and dishonest patterns of argument.  Democracy as a whole is not as rational or responsive as we would like to think (the chapter on that subject is well worth reading).  He gives plenty of examples of bad behavior on both the left and the right.  Both sides contributed to the grim view of reality that was instrumental in producing Trump.

So where do we go from here?  Individuals can learn to be more rational in their behavior and in their evaluation of what they see and read.  They can work with the flawed organizations that are fighting bad actors such as Trump.  They can involve themselves with specific issues and help to push them along.  All told—incremental change but no miracle solution.

That’s actually the optimism of the book.   There’s no silver bullet, but the process has worked thus far.  And hopefully we will keep it going.

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