Enlightenment, Meh

Review: 'Enlightenment Now,' by Steven Pinker

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March 4, 2018

In 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard's Steven Pinker painstakingly documented the fact that violence has declined over the course of human history and explored the reasons why. The book, like most of Pinker’s prior work, was stunningly well-argued and an indispensable treatment of its subject.

We now have a follow up, Enlightenment Now, that purports to apply this same approach to pretty much every other aspect of human well-being, in fewer pages. And it's ... okay.

If there's one thing Enlightenment Now does well, it's to hammer home how awful life was hundreds of years ago and how much it's improved. This is not something people should need to be told, though it's underappreciated. So we spend much of the book learning about how medical advances have saved millions of lives; how malnourishment is falling across the globe; how the world is many times richer than it was as recently as 1850; how we're gradually learning to achieve our aims without harming the environment so much; how even accidental deaths are on the wane; how democracy, civil rights, and education are becoming the norm; and so on and so on.

Why has this improvement happened? Pinker attributes it to the ideals of the Enlightenment—reason, science, a commitment to human flourishing. Setting aside the (boring) question of whether that's really what the historical period called "the Enlightenment" was all about, it's pretty hard to deny that the modern world has benefited immensely from these values. Humanity really did take a long time to rise above a menial and cruel existence, and then improve itself rapidly when it discovered these ideas.

That's all fine. But it's not really groundbreaking—it's a decent primer for people who haven't read up on these trends before, but a lot of us know this stuff without feeling the need to scrutinize charts or think about it very much at all. So to give the book some practical value, Pinker explains how to apply Enlightenment values to our current problems and urges readers to fight counter-Enlightenment movements. But these sections, so crucial to making Enlightenment Now do anything beyond stating what should be the obvious, are generally a letdown.

Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, but he's written capably about numerous topics in the past. The beauty of Better Angels, for example, was that it drilled into its subject so deeply that the work itself demonstrated the author's command of the topic, and no one could complain that he wasn't a criminologist or historian. But here Pinker stretches his authority as a public intellectual a bit too far, penning essays on countless issues ranging from nuclear weapons to climate change to inequality to terrorism and expecting his brief reviews of the academic literature to convince us that a particular plan of action is the right one. (Continue to cut down nuclear arsenals; slash carbon emissions dramatically through better technology, including nuclear power; boost economic growth and social spending alike; keep calm and carry on in the face of terrorism, but also keep fighting the phenomenon with careful analysis and the promotion of better belief systems.) Maybe he's right about everything, for all I know, but I often got the sense that I'd rather read the thoughts of subject-matter experts than those of a generalist trying to fit all the world's biggest problems into a narrative about the Enlightenment.

And what exactly are the threats to progress we need to remain vigilant against? Donald Trump is one, naturally. In a late section, Pinker offers a couple pages, complete with bolded words, outlining how the current president undermines all the improvements in wealth and health and quality of life we just learned about. I am not convinced that cutting taxes, deregulating business, undermining a health care law that was less than a decade old, lightly pumping the brakes on trade, leaving a climate-change agreement that Congress never even okayed, and saying stupid and offensive things really mean that much for the long-term health of the human race. They might be bad (or good) ideas in the here and now, but they mostly don't even move the needle in terms of the long-term trends Pinker celebrates throughout the book.

Pinker himself isn't all that worried about Trump, when it really comes down to it. Various forces keep an American president from changing very much, he explains, and there are reasons to doubt that populist movements will be all that successful over the long term (not least the age of their supporters). Further, Trump and his overseas counterparts don't even want to reverse too much of the progress Pinker attributes to Enlightenment values.

The same goes for most of the other challenges Pinker addresses—they're usually, by his own analysis, not that great a threat to ongoing progress of the very general and noncontroversial kind he’s talking about. They might be worth fighting, but they're not going to wipe away everything humanity has labored to achieve.

Rising illiberalism on campus? This nonsense is leaking into the broader society somewhat, but social justice warriors don't even hold the levers of the political system. The Islamic world? It's lagging, but plenty of good trends are evident even there, and Pinker holds out hope for an Islamic Enlightenment.

As for religion in general, Pinker sees it as an obstacle to his determinedly secular humanism. Here he seems to be picking a fight for no good reason (though perhaps that's what I would say as an agnostic). The massive improvements in wellbeing he documents all happened in times when most people were religious believers, as they still are, and, as he notes, faith is on the decline anyhow. It's not even all that clear that declining faith is a good thing, including from an irreligious perspective. In laying out a few thoughts about Pinker's book, Tyler Cowen writes that "there is a certain amount of irreducible 'irrationality' (not my preferred term, but borrowing [Pinker's] schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be 'put somewhere,' into some doctrine or belief system." By a similar token, some have argued that as religion goes away, we might not like what replaces it—including the populism that Pinker decries.

On the whole, Enlightenment Now leaves readers underwhelmed in a way that is rare for Pinker's work. After cataloguing the elementary facts, it tosses out a scattered array of arguments that, while perfectly coherent, fail to dazzle or strongly convince.

Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

Published under: Book reviews