Review: Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”

by Miles Raymer


Steven Pinker was one of the first writers to kindle my passion for scientific thinking. When I read The Blank Slate in 2011, it exposed me to a host of intellectual disciplines that my undergraduate training in philosophy had neglected––most notably evolutionary psychology, skepticism, and the empirical foundations of human nature. Nearly a decade later, I am thrilled not only to have another opportunity to journey through Pinker’s impressive mind, but also that his chosen message is rooted in data-driven, responsible optimism. Given the psychological and political difficulties of 2017, I was on the verge of thinking that such optimism was nothing more than shrugging in the face of inevitable doom. But Enlightenment Now turned my frown upside down, made me feel good about being human again, and restored much of my belief that humanity still has a bright future (or many possible bright futures) ahead.

If I could rename this book without worrying about marketing, my chosen title would be: Everybody Calm the Fuck Down: The Case for Sanity, by Steven Pinker. At a moment in global and American history when many citizens feel like the sky is continually falling, Enlightenment Now provides a hard-nosed critique of our tendency to indulge our inner Chicken Littles. Instead of taking the in vogue route of mining for new reasons why human civilization is inherently dishonorable and teetering on the brink of destruction, Pinker argues the exact opposite. To make his case, Pinker demonstrates that the Enlightenment, the great intellectual movement that precipitated the rise of modernity, has been a rollicking success:

This book is my attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century. I will first lay out a framework for understanding the human condition informed by modern science––who we are, where we came from, what our challenges are, and how we can meet them. The bulk of the book is devoted to defending those ideals in a distinctively 21st-century way: with data. This evidence-based take on the Enlightenment project reveals that it was not a naïve hope. The Enlightenment has worked––perhaps the greatest story seldom told. And because this triumph is so unsung, the underlying ideals of reason, science, and humanism are unappreciated as well. Far from being an insipid consensus, these ideals are treated by today’s intellectuals with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt. When properly appreciated, I will suggest, the ideals of the Enlightenment are in fact stirring, inspiring, noble––a reason to live. (5-6, emphasis his)

This passage reveals both the considerable strengths and non-negligible weaknesses of Pinker’s position. Since I agree with Pinker’s outlook and think this book represents a hugely valuable contribution to the modern moment, I’ll deal with the chinks in his armor first and follow with praise. First, Pinker’s characterization of the Enlightenment’s success as “the greatest story seldom told” is an overstatement. I’d like to say it’s an overstatement that isn’t repeated in the rest of the text, but that wouldn’t be an honest appraisal. It’s my feeling that the Enlightenment-rejecting “intellectuals” in Pinker’s crosshairs––frustrating and myopic as they may be––do not represent a majority opinion in America or anywhere else. In fact, as Pinker points out, they do not even represent a majority of intellectuals:

During the 20th century, the landscape of human knowledge was carved into professionalized duchies, and the growth of science (particularly the sciences of human nature) is often seen as an encroachment on territories that had been staked and enclosed by the academic humanities. It’s not that practitioners of the humanities themselves have this zero-sum mindset. Most artists show no signs of it…Nor is the anxiety expressed by the scholars who delve into the historical epochs, genres of art, systems of ideas, and other subject matter in the humanities, since a true scholar is receptive to ideas regardless of their origin. The defensive pugnacity belongs to a culture: Snow’s Second Culture of literary intellectuals, cultural critics, and erudite essayists. (389-90, emphasis his)

This Second Culture is Pinker’s true enemy, and while he does a good job of calling them out directly in the latter chapters, some of his earlier assertions belie the genuine nuances that bolster the rest of the text. For example, the opening sentences of a chapter called “Progressophobia” read thus: “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress” (39, emphasis his).  Such sweeping statements needlessly open a path for critics to characterize Pinker as nothing more than a Panglossian apologist for modernity; sadly, this path will be well-trodden given how Pinker has been villainized by the Second Culture and its acolytes (this review is a good example). Here we find the downside of Pinker’s iconoclastic nature, which is not only the source of his intellectual vitality and undeniable wit, but also his most significant vulnerability.

My other worry about this book is that, despite Pinker’s repeated claims that the Enlightenment’s success is not a justification for complacency in the face of extant problems, it may nevertheless end up playing that role in cultural and political discussions, as well as in the hearts and minds of readers. Over and over, Enlightenment Now caused me to take a deep breath and remind myself that things aren’t so bad, which is terrific for my personal health and state of mind, but probably not the best way to get me into the proverbial trenches solving humanity’s most difficult challenges. Of course, one of Pinker’s central claims is that the best way to fight those battles is to eschew unnecessary excitation in favor of calm calculation and reasoned negotiation. But I still worry that readers like myself––privileged first-worlders for whom modernity is working just fine––may utilize this perspective to thicken our own socioeconomic and ideological bubbles instead of heeding Pinker’s call to action. The lesson here is that Enlightenment Now represents just one important perspective amongst others, and should not be treated as a comprehensive guide to the world’s present state. In other words, it’s like any other intellectual endeavor.

Okay, now for the fun stuff! As ever, Pinker has crafted a book that is engaging, cleanly written, and packed with dense and fascinating thoughts. Since this is a book about progress, we should start with Pinker’s chosen definition:

What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress. (51)

Pinker is not posturing when he claims that these indicators of progress can be measured. His commitment to empiricism runs much deeper than that of most public intellectuals, as evidenced by the 70+ graphs/charts and 100 pages of notes/references that accompany his superb argumentation. While he is well aware that data generation is a flawed human process (404), the raw power of evidentiary convergence becomes increasingly undeniable as Pinker’s explication of progress unfolds over about 300 pages.

In my view, Pinker’s most important insight about progress is this: “It’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come” (215). This dynamic can make progress very difficult to identify and acknowledge, since even a world that is improving will always create new obstacles during the process of rendering old ones obsolete: “Progress cannot be monotonic because solutions to problems always create new problems. But progress can resume when the new problems are solved in their turn” (44). While it may seem simplistic to some readers, I think Pinker’s characterization of the world’s difficulties as mere problems to be solved is a critical and often-elided truth that we need to rediscover. In a cultural milieu where doubling down on embattled ideological positions and demonizing one’s opponents is routine, it becomes heroic to refocus one’s attention and energy on discovering the empirical nature of a problem and following the road to solutions wherever it may lead.

Of the seventeen topics Pinker addresses in his discussion of progress, the one that most pleased me was his chapter on the environment. This is a topic that many big thinkers still neglect, even though climate change is perhaps the most ominous long-term threat to the continuance of human progress. Pinker takes up the climate problem with distinctive poise, showing how sentimental, anti-industrial positions on the political left and denialist positions on the right have both failed to provide a viable platform for global climate action. He advocates for “Ecomodernism,” a nascent field of study founded on three tenets: (1) some degree of pollution is unavoidable due to the entropic nature of the universe, (2) industrialization has generally been good for humanity, and (3) technology is the primary tool we should use to mitigate environmental damage without relinquishing the myriad benefits of modern life (123-4).

While Second Culturists will surely write Pinker off as an obsequious technocrat beguiled by the corrupt comforts of elite capitalist culture, a sober assessment of Ecomodernism reveals it as the most reasonable and realizable approach for dealing with climate change. Pinker advocates for a combination of solutions, including decarbonization, alternative energies, dematerialization, and nuclear power––no silver bullets here. His recommendations, especially on the nuclear issue, pay no heed to the entrenched ideological positions of climate warriors or denialists, but rather follow the evidence wherever it leads. Climate change is serious and daunting, but panicking and using it as an excuse to upend the economic and institutional foundations of progress is foolish. This message is starkest in Pinker’s takedown of Naomi Klein’s position that the only way to address climate change is to raze contemporary capitalism and rebuild it with a much heavier emphasis on centrally-planned economies. His critique was especially salutary for me, given that I was completely seduced by Klein’s point of view when I read This Changes Everything back in 2014. I love an opportunity to update my opinions and reflect on the informational and perspectival limitations of my past selves.

Instead of succumbing to the idea that humanity must repent for the great sin of modernity, Pinker instead demonstrates that we can approach this daunting challenge with a rational maturity:

It’s time to retire the morality play in which modern humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers who will hasten the apocalypse unless they undo the Industrial Revolution, renounce technology, and return to an ascetic harmony with nature. Instead, we can treat environmental protection as a problem to be solved: how can people live safe, comfortable, and stimulating lives with the least possible pollution and loss of natural habitats? (134)

As it has always been, the solution is to press forward using the human wellsprings of creativity and innovation; it does no good to nostalgically pine for previous eras when life for average folks and even most elites was much worse than today.

Also laudable is Pinker’s defense of rationality, which is endangered by political partisanship and religious/magical thinking. Pinker’s rejection of political partisanship, which he likens to sports fandom, is particularly valuable (359-60). He lays out a battery of research showing how ideologues bend over backwards to deny their opponents the benefit of the doubt, then ties it off with a much-needed reminder that progress is not owned by any individual or group, but is rather the collective result of countless actions and shifts over time that can come from even the most unlikely places:

It should not be surprising that the facts of human progress confound the major -isms. The ideologies are more than two centuries old and are based on mile-high visions such as whether humans are tragically flawed or infinitely malleable, and whether society is an organic whole or a collection of individuals. A real society comprises hundreds of millions of social beings, each with a trillion-synapse brain, who pursue their well-being while affecting the well-being of others in complex networks with massive positive and negative externalities, many of them historically unprecedented. It is bound to defy any simple narrative of what will happen under a given set of rules. A more rational approach is to treat societies as ongoing experiments and open-mindedly learn the best practices, whichever part of the spectrum they come from. (365)

All of us are inescapably embedded in Pinker’s “real society,” and our ability to intelligently acknowledge and navigate this messy reality can stave off madness and keep progress coming.

Enlightenment Now closes with Pinker’s celebration of humanism––a strong message that rehabilitated my humanist loyalties, which took a hit when I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus last year. I still wonder how humanism will stay relevant as we evolve into new transhuman and posthuman forms, but I’ve no doubt that Pinker’s perspective is the right one for the here and now:

The first step toward wisdom is the realization that the laws of the universe don’t care about you. The next is the realization that this does not imply that life is meaningless, because people care about you, and vice versa. You care about yourself, and you have a responsibility to respect the laws of the universe that keep you alive, so don’t squander your existence. Your loved ones care about you, and you have a responsibility not to orphan your children, widow your spouse, and shatter your parents. And anyone with a humanistic sensibility cares about you, not in the sense of feeling your pain––human empathy is too feeble to spread itself across billions of strangers––but in the sense of realizing that your existence is cosmically no less important than theirs, and that we all have a responsibility to use the laws of the universe to enhance the conditions in which we all can flourish. (434-5, emphasis his)

Rating: 10/10