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'Enlightenment Now' says human progress is real, remarkable, and yet often unacknowledged

Steven Pinker marshals data from detailed studies that show the stirring extent of progress human beings have achieved since the 18th century.

Enlightenment Now By Steven Pinker Penguin Publishing Group 576 pp.
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  • Rayyan Al-Shawaf

If the boy who cried wolf were around today and given to warning us that the world is on the verge of annihilation, he wouldn’t have to worry about being ignored, however many times the alarm turns out to be false. Pessimism regarding the fate of the planet and its inhabitants is all the rage. Indeed, should you make known a belief that things are tending in the right direction, and that those that aren’t can be gotten back on track, you’re likely to suffer public ridicule and worse.

Don’t despair, though, because vindication has arrived in the form of Steven Pinker’s latest book. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is remarkable, heart-warming, and long overdue.

Of course, the author, a Boston resident and professor of psychology at Harvard University, is no stranger to charges of pie-in-the-sky thinking. Though it was informed by a host of reliable studies and became a bestseller, some readers (and critics) simply could not digest Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” due to a visceral conviction that the world is as blood-soaked – if not more so – than ever.

Undeterred, Pinker is back. In fact, he’s upping the ante. In his new book, he situates the decline of violence within a broader phenomenon, encapsulated thus: “The Enlightenment has worked – perhaps the greatest story seldom told.”

The author marshals data from detailed studies that show (often in easy-to-understand line graphs reproduced throughout the book) the stirring extent of progress humans have achieved since the 18th century, when, across Europe, reason and science made great strides, the influence of hierarchical religion receded, and a host of longstanding superstitions lost their luster. The phenomenon spread, and today many countries the world over have democratized, abolished slavery, fully or partly emancipated women, and recognized a broad spectrum of human rights.

And in addition to our living longer, by every important measure of the quality of life – health; access to food, water, and shelter; personal safety; literacy and education; real monetary income; access to information and leisure time – humanity as a whole is better off now than at any point in the past.

To be sure, Pinker’s interest in the Enlightenment owes more than a little to its perceived utility; he wants to turn it into a lodestar that might guide humanity. As such, he presents an idealized version of the era, one packaged altogether too neatly in a box bearing the label “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” To his credit, however, he acknowledges that “[t]he Enlightenment thinkers were men and women of their age, the 18th century. Some were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders, or duelists.”

At any rate, there’s no question that reason and science constitute choice takeaways from what we have come to term the Age of Enlightenment, both because of their intrinsic value and the fact that, unlike closed systems of thought, they are constantly pushed forward by new findings. And when employed in the service of humanism, which the author defines as “[t]he goal of maximizing human flourishing,” reason and science facilitate tangible progress of the kind measured in quality of life indices.

Yet in an ironic lapse into a variation on the very alarmism he rightly dismisses, Pinker claims that “these [Enlightenment] ideals are treated by today’s intellectuals with indifference, skepticism, and sometimes contempt.” Even worse, we face a “threat to human progress” in the form of “a political movement that seeks to undermine its Enlightenment foundations.”

That (admittedly disturbing) movement is authoritarian populism, and its political parties or factions thereof have recently attained varying degrees of power in several Western countries, including the US. The foot soldiers of this (right-wing) political movement, and the acolytes of the (very different, often left-wing) intellectuals who spurn Enlightenment ideals, are ordinary people. But they are ordinary people at the mercy of their cognitive biases and general innumeracy, or motivated by ideology. Sometimes they’re both.

One of this book’s strongest features will strike many as counterintuitive; Pinker affirms that the world does in fact face existential threats. The first is climate change. If we don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, which result from our widespread use of fossil fuels, catastrophe becomes inevitable. Yet, as the author notes, there is reason for optimism – on condition that we continue to cut down on those emissions (they’ve declined steadily, thanks to a worldwide effort). This entails opposing President Trump’s policies on the matter, which Pinker characterizes as a setback, though not one that will in and of itself reverse a global trend.

Of course, the challenge presented by human-made climate change will remain formidable, in large part due to “the denial of the problem by energy corporations and the political right,” as well as “the hostility to technological solutions from traditional Greens and the climate-justice left.”

The technological solutions to which Pinker refers can be achieved by harnessing nuclear power. The subject of popular resistance to such a project provides a segue to that other existential danger we must confront: the possibility of nuclear devastation. In the past, a combination of jingoism and fear of the opposing side in the Cold War led large numbers of people to champion the maintenance and even expansion of already large nuclear arsenals whose missiles were equipped with a “launch on warning” mechanism. Thankfully, support for such terrifying measures has dwindled since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and though you may not have heard about it, many countries have taken the logical next step: “Few people are aware of how dramatically the world has been dismantling nuclear weapons,” notes the author.

The problem is the widespread conflation of the threat of nuclear war with that of radiation from nuclear power plants. And the irony, says Pinker, is that many of the people who’ve led the fight against nuclear weaponry (which poses a diminishing but still very real threat to humanity) simultaneously constitute a major obstacle in the way of our utilizing nuclear power, the dangers of which – given today’s ironclad safeguards – are minimal.

In other words, if we remain dependent on fossil fuels, we will eventually subject the planet and its denizens to the threat of mass destruction, but, according to misinformed activists, if we ramp up our harnessing of nuclear power, we will be doing the same thing. 

So what does all this mean? Does the author consider it futile to reason with those who maintain that the world is going to hell in a (non-biodegradable) handbasket? Hardly.

Pinker reminds us that most people remain receptive, at least to some degree, to logic and fact. Of course, a religious fundamentalist will not immediately take to scientific findings that disprove a literal interpretation of his or her religion’s sacred texts. And a devotee of postmodernism – many of whose “luminaries,” Pinker writes, “… are morose cultural pessimists who declare that modernity is odious, all statements are paradoxical, works of art are tools of oppression, liberal democracy is the same as fascism, and Western civilization is circling the drain” – will initially sniff at evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, it requires substantial effort to change someone’s core convictions. And since “the appeal of regressive ideas is perennial,” it follows that “the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made.” How to go about making that case? Well, you could start by arming yourself with the arguments in “Enlightenment Now.” Consider, also, keeping an extra copy of the book on hand – for anyone who expresses a willingness to read it.

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