Steven Pinker’s book is a welcome antidote to the Trump era, when we are inundated, daily, with an avalanche of negative and disturbing stories.
Enlightenment Now, The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker, Penguin Random House, 556 pages. $35.
By Ed Meek
In our age of specialization, Steven Pinker (of Harvard and MIT) stands out as an impressive thinker who can draw from a number of disciplines, including science, philosophy, psychology, history, literature and politics. Yet he is an accessible writer with an engaging voice. As the title of this latest book suggests, Pinker is a proponent of the Enlightenment and of science. Pinker is refreshing because rather than being a voice of doom from the academy, he proffers a very positive view of the state of the world as well as the direction in which we are heading. At the same time, he is no cockeyed optimist. He backs up his arguments with facts. His book will probably surprise you, since if you watch the news and read the papers, you might just believe the world is going to hell in a climate-changed hand-basket.
Pinker spends the first few chapters laying the groundwork to explain how we are still children of the Enlightenment and that this leads us to think things are much worse than they actually are. He talks about the second law of thermodynamics, entropy: the nature of all systems to run down and decay, to move from order to disorder. We’ve made a lot of progress fighting entropy in the past 150 years or so, but many of us think that entropy has the whip hand. In fact, in the early 1900s many believed that the world was running down. “This is the way the world ends,” as T.S. Eliot put it. One hundred years later, many of us are still saying the same thing though for different reasons.
Pinker goes on to point out just how much progress we’ve made regarding minimizing poverty, disease, and death. Humans now live over twice as long as we did 200 years ago. In that same span of years, child mortality has “plunged a hundredfold.” Women used to die giving birth, a rare phenomenon today. Not only do we live longer, we are much healthier and there are fewer diseases. There is enough food produced to feed everyone in the world, thanks to the Green Revolution with its higher yields and genetically modified crops. Food has become cheaper and distribution more efficient. In fact, in many countries, including our own, our problem is not scarcity of food but obesity. In addition, we have nearly eliminated poverty. Pinker refers to “Our World in Data” to dramatize the increase in world-wide GDP and nation by nation GDP to argue that the world has created enough wealth to raise standards for everyone. He also attacks current fears of inequality with studies that suggest it is going down, not up. As long as overall wealth is rising, Pinker insists, inequality isn’t really a problem.
At the same time that overall wealth has increased, social spending world-wide has increased too. So, to take the US as an example, there are far fewer poor people in the US today than there were in the 1960s, and those who are poor, are less poor, partly due to social spending and partly due to global trade and technological developments that have made products cheaper. Pinker goes from there to argue that we are much safer, live in a relatively peaceful world, and that we have a better quality of life, and are, for the most part, happier.
So, why do we all feel as if the world is falling apart? Pinker offers a few reasons. For one, a lot of these developments have happened in our lifetime, and we haven’t really processed the information. Moreover, this progression is not what we see in the news. Instead “if it bleeds, it leads.” Our mainstream media, predicated on sales and market share, promotes the news as if it is a suspense novel full of drama and fears, conflicts and titillation. Shootings, scandals, and catastrophes cultivate high ratings. An example: people in rural America are worried about terrorist attacks and support a law and order candidate dedicated to stopping violence in the cities despite the fact that urban crime has gone down, not up.
Pinker also lays the blame on pessimistic intellectuals, especially those Marxists roaming the halls of the humanities who fell under the spell of deconstruction and post-modernism. According to them, all knowledge is suspect and the line between what is real and what is not depends on ideological perspective. French philosopher Jacques Derrida unmercifully picked apart statements like ‘This is good.’ You can’t really define the word ‘good’ in the abstract. You have to define it in context. But if you try to do that, you find that the context has no boundaries — skepticism never ends. The result: there really is no way of determining what’s good.
Pinker goes on to argue for reason, science, humanism, and progress. As a whole, the book is stronger in its first section, when Pinker relies on hard data, than when it takes on subjects like happiness and religion. He tackles climate change and says he is sanguine that we will come up with ways to deal with it. He is a fan of nuclear power, arguing persuasively that it is safe. He doesn’t think artificial intelligence or technology will present problems for us but, au contraire, will continue to further our progress.
Enlightenment Now is a provocative book and well worth reading. If nothing else, the volume is a welcome antidote to the Trump era, when we are inundated, daily, with an avalanche of negative and disturbing stories In his conclusion, Pinker proclaims that “there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” In a funny way, Pinker’s view confirms the intuitive experience of at least some of us — if we separate ourselves from the profitable (for the mainstream media) despair of the news. We’re pretty healthy; we have enough to eat; it’s safe where we live. We’re doing ok, right?
Ed Meek is the author of Spy Pond and What We Love. A collection of his short stories, Luck, came out in May. WBUR’s Cognoscenti featured his poems during poetry month this year.