Steven Pinker – Enlightenment Now (2018) Review

enlightenment now

“My attempt is to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century.”

That’s Steven Pinker’s own stated goal for this book, which is sort of a sequel to his highly appreciated book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). That book quite convincingly (in my opinion) showed how violence, in almost all its appearances, has declined over the centuries and decades, and how we are now living in the safest age that there ever was. Pinker now continues this discussion on the leading ideas and ideologies behind all this human progress, and expands his topics from violence to all sorts of important metrics of progress and happiness.

So, the ideals of the Enlightenment. And he holds them up against todays trend in politics of looking backwards and against the permanent state of fear and crisis that modern media fuels in us. And instead of simply repeating what 18th and 19th century philosophers have once said, he takes “data” as the language of today. Trying his best to quantify his story, Pinker wants to provide evidence for the positive effects of two centuries of Enlightenment ideals on the quality of our lives.

In a short but very lucid first part, Pinker quickly sets down where we are as a species, how we are trying to survive in this universe and how the ideas of science and humanism impacted the way we think about these matters. Like a very short summary of Yuval Noah Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus and written in the same conversational, eloquent way.

Before saying that this is a worthwhile book that might change your outlook on the modern world, I have some criticism to state.

The bulk of the book sounds like a TED talk by Hans Rosling. In about 75 or so graphs, Pinker shows how the world has become a better place in many, many ways, but really, all of this content sounds divorced from the political frame of championing “the case for reason”. Most chapters don’t even use the words “reason” or “humanism” or make a strong link to what the introduction said is the main topic of the book. In fact, it boggles my mind why he framed his book as a case for Enlightenment, as he could have just titled it “Why the world is getting better” or something of that sort.

It pains me to notice that Pinker has become more and more… political. His earlier books were much more focused on science alone, but for his new book he provides a political justification in that he feels the ideals of the enlightenment to be under attack. Not for nothing does the second title start with “The case for…” He cites American presidents and becomes more outspoken and salty against religion. I hope that Pinker is not going down the same path as Richard Dawkins went, who also wrote some brilliant scientific books earlier in his career but then turned into a harsh activist. Neither Dawkins nor Pinker approach political and religious topics with the sensitivity that, say, Carl Sagan showed, and I wish they would just go back to pure science communication. That might even make Pinker’s point stronger, because arguing from a political standpoint just raises mistrust.

But that’s my personal opinion, because I don’t like science being muddled up with political aims. Prof. Pinker can of course shape his career any way he likes. I suppose my greatest criticism is that the shell of social commentary around the scientific core feels too blunt, with too much historical framing and a dismissal of everything that isn’t “reasonable” as “folly”. It is, however, just as much a humanist thought that people are free to give meaning to their lives whatever way they see fit.

In any case, Pinker takes his claim of reason being under attack as self-evident, and doesn’t direct his research towards that, and to me that is another sign of the book making overblown statements for marketability. It is also very American-centered. The world has never delivered so many scientists and educated people.

His chapters on income inequality and the environment are bound to be the most controversial. Here he doesn’t want to claim that all trends are positive, but wants to present other ways of looking at them. Inequality in itself, he explains, is not necessarily a bad thing, and taking the larger global view, living standards as a whole have raised. The future is however very uncertain for many lower income families.

As someone who holds a PhD in environmental sciences, there are trends that Pinker brushes over that cannot be fixed. For my own work I have often cited ecological analyses that show endless downward trends in biodiversity everywhere; the mass extinction is well underway, both on land in the sea. When species are lost, they are practically lost forever. On top of that, Pinker talks about acceptable levels of degradation and pollution, while tastelessly mocking the idea of sustainability on the next page. But all that pollution isn’t going to fix itself if our ecosystems lose their resilience to those impacts. Also, the effects of climate change make all these issues even more pressing.

I get the impression that the scientific research in this book is nevertheless solid and up to date, if somewhat cherry-picked, but the scope is so enormous that Pinker hardly escapes dealing in generalizations. You could write a book about each chapter (which Pinker has already done with the topic of violence and war and that turned out a massive tome), so it is hard to make his arguments very explicit, and the decades of scientific research underlying many conclusions are not visible, unfortunately. The result is the feeling that a professor is lecturing about the way things are, and we have to take much of the generalizations on authority (he does mention his sources, of course).

But Pinker makes some really good points. And it is not as if he came up with all these graphs and conclusions himself; all he did was collecting the data and referring to what other people have already concluded in their own respective fields of research. He wouldn’t want people to take it on his authority, because that is exactly the sort of fussy thinking that he rails against. What Pinker adds through this book is the grand overview. The impression that so much has been improving indeed, and the historical causes are openly available for investigation. But for many of these topics I find it much more valuable to look at “recent” causes than to look two centuries back to the start of the Enlightenment, and every problem has its own particular solutions which only came to light in the last century. True, science and a sense of compassion underlie many of those solutions, so I wholeheartedly agree with Pinker that we should support these.

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13 Responses to Steven Pinker – Enlightenment Now (2018) Review

  1. bormgans says:

    I’ve read a review of this I can’t find anymore, saying a) the philosophical foundations of this book (on enlightenment) are really shaky, and b) it’s badically just an American liberal patting himself on the back ‘all is fine’ while catastrofe is actually looming (environmental issues, inequality, decline of the Middleclass, rise of authoritian politics, etc). ‘Better Angels’ also got a lot of statistical flack btw, I’m not sure how many people take it serious anymore aside from NYT columnists.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t that’s fair either. He agrees that not all is fine and that’s one of the reasons why he wants to make a “case for…”. But he is looking at trends from the perspective of decades and centuries, and compared to 50 or 100 years ago, we have definitely made progress. I got the impression that the research was solid. Pinker would be the first to say that science is free to refute everything he says, since the data is openly available. He didn’t pull it out of his ass, but stood on a mountain of research done by many other scientists. The only thing I really do not agree with is how easily he skims over environmental issues.

      Liked by 2 people

      • bormgans says:

        That’s a fair remark, I haven’t read the book myself, I was just echoing that review I can’t find – and it’s other main point was that books like these are used apologetic to justify the status quo.

        The environmental issues you say he skims over are crucial imo, and will also affect violence, poverty, etc. in the future, as it is probably already affecting it atm (I’ve read Syria’s civil war is directly related to a few years of harvest failures in Russia, probably caused by climate change, causing the bread price to rise). So I’m not sure about progress in the long term – we’ll have to wait and see.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I agree that the environmental issues are crucial and he is far too dismissive about the effects of pollution and climate change and ecosystem degradation. The causal chains are complicated and they affect everything. Floods and droughts may lead to enormous refugee movements and so on. Desertification… the environmental issues are too many to list.

          I can say after reading this book that it is really not trying to justify the status quo. Pinker wants to underline what we have been doing right and identify scientifically what worked, so that we can do more of it.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. bormgans says:

    Also: the number of people living in dire poverty today is bigger than the total number of people on the planet at the end of the 19th century. That’s not progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think that is fair. You’ve got to look at the percentages. What is the percentage of people living in dire poverty compared to the percentage of people who don’t, at a particular moment in time. Given that we have had a huge burst of population growth compared to the 19th century (we may have seven times the amount of people or something in that order), the absolute number may be higher but the percentage has dropped dramatically. And, the fact that we have had a lot of population growth, that makes the drop in relative poverty even much more impressive, because we have had to generate so much more wealth to achieve that.

      Liked by 2 people

      • bormgans says:

        Yes that’s one approach obviously, and I agree 100% we have come a long way, but at the same time our population increase has added a whole lot of other problems too.

        The point of looking at absolute numbers instead of percentages is to show the human suffering behind the numbers. Just looking at the percentages doesn’t give the full story: try telling it to the 2 billion people in poverty that their percentage is “relative” to what it you used to be. I believe both perspectives are crucial, and the absolute numbers are often forgotten in debates like this – especially when compared to a century ago.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Yuval Noah Harari – 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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