Let there be light: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby (1768). PHOTO12/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Steven Pinker's new book is a compelling manifesto for optimism

The world is becoming a better place—despite appearances to the contrary
February 21, 2018

Let there be light: An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby (1768). Photo: 12/UIG via Getty Images

Anyone can see that the world is going to hell in a handcart. The great European project looks sick; war and fundamentalism ravage the Middle East; and we’re running out of clean water and usable antibiotics. Most worryingly, a pathological liar in the White House is taunting a nuclear-armed North Korean despot with schoolboy tweets.

But the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has a cure for your despair. In his new book Enlightenment Now, Pinker claims that in the long view things are getting better on pretty much every front. To prove his argument, he offers a profusion of graphs that show positive trends in life expectancy, crime, poverty, the global spread of democracy and all manner of other metrics of progress. For much of the world today, life is better than it has ever been. Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, reason and humanism are winning.

Pinker knows he will be derided as a Pollyanna. But if we’re gloomy, he argues, it’s because of media bias towards bad news, coupled with our innate tendency to expect the worst as an insurance policy against disappointment. In addition, our poor statistical intuition (and appetite for catastrophism) gives undue emphasis to scary but small risks such as terrorist attacks.

At first I was sceptical, but Pinker’s case is compelling. He points out that pessimism is largely western-centric. Life for the average person in China has improved vastly since the death of Mao Zedong. Yes, the air and water quality are often appalling, and the country’s economic growth has brought new pressures and inequalities—yet most Chinese people are optimistic about the future.

Over in the developed west, we have become accustomed to luxuries beyond the dreams of our grandparents’ generation. Poverty and inequality remain deplorable; but statistics show that within living memory many things were far worse.

Pinker began writing his book—a follow-up to and expansion of The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), which argued that global violence has decreased over time—before the election of Donald Trump. It would read very differently in a world in which Barack Obama had been followed by Hillary Clinton. (Some of his friends advised that he should end each chapter with a warning that Trump might undo all the progress he had just described.) Pinker, however, offers the heartening argument that Trump and his bigoted ilk are on the wrong side of history. The errant tweeter-in-chief is leading a backlash, not a trend. Like the campaign for Brexit, Trump might be bankrolled by the rich and selfish but his rise depended on an older generation alienated by change and often lacking the educational and economic resources to do much about it. Pinker recognises that populism could wreak catastrophic—even apocalyptic—damage; but history strongly suggests it will wither.

It would be easy to dismiss this important book as the product of the privileged liberal bubble of an Ivy League academic—but that bubble is partly what Pinker has in his sights. He is right to lay into the myopic solipsism sometimes apparent in the western middle classes, blind to the realities of most people elsewhere in the world struggling, and often succeeding, to lift themselves out of poverty. In this regard, Pinker is on the same page as American centrists like Mark Lilla and Jonathan Haidt. They blame the rise of Trumpism on a narcissistic left-wing campus culture that drums up outrage about minor issues such as the misuse of language on issues of cultural and sexual identity, but which demonises the really “left behind.” It is the rage of those neglected and vilified communities, they believe, that has fuelled the descent of US (and to a degree British) politics into ugly posturing.
“I can’t recall when I last read a book that made me want to punch the air in agreement and then hurl it across the room”
This is a delicate line to tread. Too easily it can end up looking like the tiresome drift of the middle-aged liberal towards conservatism, grumbling about political correctness or the academic fondness for Marxism. And sometimes that is where Pinker ends up: I can’t remember when I last read a book that made me want to punch the air in agreement on one page, and to hurl it across the room in irritation on the next. An American academic’s exasperation at the dogma that has gripped US campuses in recent times is understandable. But while the banning of yoga classes as “cultural appropriation” is indeed silly, it is the kind of trend that Pinker’s graphs show doesn’t matter much in the long run. To be fair, though, Pinker’s disgust at the venality of the political right is also visceral—climate-change deniers will find no comfort here.

Whether or not you find his overall case convincing, it is hard to argue with a plea for debate to be objective, respectful and guided by evidence and data. All too often, Pinker says, political and intellectual life becomes a matter of signalling: people adopt views as indicators of group membership rather than on their merits. Someone’s views on certain social or moral issues are well predicted by his or her views on ostensibly unrelated ones: notoriously, support for the death penalty is a reliable indicator of having voted for Brexit. Ideological biases on both left and right distort the ability to reason even among the well educated—as Pinker was reminded to his cost when there was a social media storm about comments he made about the alt-right on a recent discussion panel that were edited to make him sound like a convert to their cause.

We can be heroes: Voltaire (below) and Steven Pinker. Photo:  ALAMY, REX SHUTTERSTOCK We can be heroes: Voltaire (below) and Steven Pinker. Photo: ALAMY, REX SHUTTERSTOCK

We can be heroes: Voltaire (below) and Steven Pinker. Photo: ALAMY, REX SHUTTERSTOCK

Studies of how we make decisions are hair-raising: people are easily misled by cognitive rules of thumb that undermine our ability to process facts and numbers; we take contradictory views without noticing; we vote for candidates who hold beliefs opposite to ours for “reasons” that have nothing to do with their policies.

In other words, democracy isn’t what it is supposed to be—a way to reach good decisions—and it never has been. It is only useful as a way of removing bad leaders. There is no dependable wisdom of the crowd. Even the notion that western-style democracy is the least bad system is open to question: rational folk in Singapore or China might question my intuitive bias about that.

But if even the best-informed of us tend to reason badly, how we can hope for Enlightenment values—and informed democracy—to prevail? Pinker says we should start by acknowledging what we have already achieved. We don’t actually do so badly overall. We make institutions that work, on the whole; we’ve managed to use science and technology to improve living standards and boost longevity. We’ve sent men to the Moon and found treatments for Aids. Americans (at least) have become more tolerant of homosexuality and inter-racial relationships, and commit less domestic abuse. We might do a lot of dumb things, but we deserve some credit.

Pinker says that the biggest obstruction to rationality is not ignorance but ideology. He concludes that “a challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than by tribalism and mutual reaction.”

Well, amen to that. But this laudable goal could benefit from a bit more historical nuance. Graphs smooth over a whole lot of contingency; ironically, indeed, they put a deterministic, quasi-Marxian complexion on the way the world changes. Sometimes it’s important to know exactly why things happened, rather than to subsume them into statistics. When Pinker says, for example, that the totalitarian states of the 20th century were simply “imposed by fanatical ideologues and gangs of thugs,” you can’t help feeling alarmed that a Harvard intellectual in Trump’s America seems so uninformed about the rise of Nazi Germany. (I was reminded of the popular comment in post-war Germany: isn’t it amazing that Hitler became so powerful with only a handful of supporters?) We can’t learn from trends unless we can grasp why, historically, they happened.
“For so careful a writer, Pinker has a heroes-and-villains view of intellectual history”
Which brings me to Pinker’s Enlightenment fixation. For so careful and erudite a writer, he seems to have an oddly reductive heroes-and-villains view of intellectual history. It would be easy to suppose on his account that the past should be divided into two distinct realms: a pre-Enlightenment era of ignorance and superstition, which was later banished at a stroke by the likes of Hume, Kant and Voltaire. These Enlightenment heroes can be excused their racism, sexism, contempt for the masses and horror of atheism on the grounds that they were men of their times. The rest get no such exculpation.

Pinker fails to persuade that all the gradual positive trends he identifies over two centuries or more can be attributed to the values laid down by a few great men in the 18th century—that our current good fortune is the result of some distant injection of Enlightenment juice. He supplies no historical support for his contention that Kant’s 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace” was a pivotal influence on the emergence of co-operative internationalism in the 20th century. And you don’t need to turn the age of empire into a whipping boy for all the world’s current ills to acknowledge that the spread of Enlightenment values beyond Europe via imperialism has, at best, a mixed legacy.

This black-and-white picture also forces Pinker to cherry-pick among his champions of Enlightenment. Both Hobbes and Hume get the thumbs-up—elsewhere Pinker has, bizarrely, made them honorary scientists avant la lettre, even though their views on fundamental human nature could hardly be more different, let alone grounded in any “scientific method.” But Marx, the favourite of those left-wing humanities professors, is barred from Pinker’s elite club even though it is hard to imagine his eminently secular and rational political philosophy without the Enlightenment. Freud too might have been wrong on many things, but he was as rational and as “scientific” as many of his times. Yet even his savaging of religious delusion in Civilisation and its Discontents is not enough to overcome Pinker’s aversion. Tribalism, anyone?

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Reason and tolerance were not Enlightenment inventions. Do we ignore the progressive thinkers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance because they believed in God or the humoral system of medicine? Arguably, medieval advocates of reason like Peter Abelard, Bernard of Chartres and Nicholas of Cusa deserve more credit because they had to swim against a stronger tide. But one of the only pre-Enlightenment thinkers Pinker mentions is the 16th-cetury mystic Giordano Bruno, who challenged conventional thinking about cosmology—but hey, he was burnt by the Church and so has become a favourite pseudo-martyr of science.

All this is a Whiggish reinvention of the past. To say that Galileo personified the incompatibility of science with religion would have surprised the man himself. And to suggest that religion is incompatible with Enlightenment values is to tell Hume and Kant what they really meant to say. Pinker’s book is laced with elegant wit, but it only made me laugh out loud accidentally, when Nietzsche gets yoked together with a complaint about “suffocating political correctness” in a cut-and-paste list of Pinker’s pet peeves. Later, the philosopher becomes the begetter of Hitler, as if the massive literature debunking that notion does not exist.

Still, Pinker is surely clear-sighted enough about cognitive biases to acknowledge that he has his own. They’re more or less what his readers should expect: he makes straw men, for example, of religion (his default version is that of the fire-and-brimstone Republican politician Roy Moore, not the sophisticated Rowan Williams variety), historians of science (relativists!), feminist theory and “science and society” studies. Most suspect of all is his critique of bioethics. Some of the arguments obstructing medical advances by self-styled bio-ethicists are every bit as shabby and shallow as Pinker says; but to imply that the field is worthless—as though ethical deliberation on biomedical advances is merely unnecessary obstruction—is careless, bordering on irresponsible.

Pinker’s call for the humanities to embrace science, meanwhile, has more substance than a similar proposal by Harvard biologist EO Wilson, but still suffers from a scientist’s aversion to anything subjective—as though critical analysis in the arts were nothing but an untestable claim to be right. Like many cross-disciplinary adventurers, he arrives looking for questions he has the tools to answer rather than with curiosity about what questions existing practitioners in those fields find interesting, and why.

Pinker would, it seems, demand general laws and regularities in the humanities: not qualities but quantities—or perhaps quantitative measures of qualities. Not opinion either—a critic’s ability to make us see a picture or a text in interesting new ways, say—but what can be undeniably proved about it. He hates the word “scientism,” but it was coined for a reason.

And if we are going to value calm reason—as I hope we will—over emotive cant, it seems regressive for Pinker to wind up proceedings by saying that “we are born into a pitiless universe [and] shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive.” That “pitiless,” that “ruthlessly” both set humans in conflict against an unnecessarily personified nature. Things are what they are: why make them malevolent? Perhaps the habits he deplores run deeper than he thinks.

Still, no one could lay out a canvas this broad without smudging a few details—or indeed betraying his own biases. There’s plenty to argue with in Enlightenment Now, but lots too that is productive and valuable. Pinker is sure to get it in the neck from many quarters—but right now a manifesto for optimism doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker is published by Allen Lane, £25