Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress by Stephen Pinker review

On economic matters, and especially the question of inequality, he comes perilously close to defending the status quo

Steven Pinker steals a line from Swedish academic Hans Rosling to declare: ‘I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist’. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Steven Pinker steals a line from Swedish academic Hans Rosling to declare: ‘I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist’. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Sat, Feb 24, 2018, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress

ISBN-13:
978-0241004319

Author:
Steven Pinker

Publisher:
Allen Lane

Guideline Price:
£25.00

Manifestos are meant to be short and punchy. The first edition of The Communist Manifesto ran to just 23 pages. Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses were thin enough to be nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. So Steven Pinker is stretching the genre with his 450-page doorstopper Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress.

A respected linguist and cognitive scientist, Pinker has emerged in recent years as prominent defender of the West and allied scientific values, blending rhetoric and data like Christopher Hitchens with a PhD. His 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature is a bible of the New Optimists movement, a loose coalition of academics and tech-heads who think the public is far too negative about current affairs.

The first half of Englightenment Now develops that theme further. A barrage of statistics, graphs and listicles shows how life is improving under numerous headings. There are fewer wars, improved living standards and more freedoms. What’s more, a lot of the problems we complain about are symptoms of progress, eg life expectancy has risen by about 10 years in half a century (so, the implication is, stop whining about the pensions “time bomb”).

If Pinker went into politics his slogan would be along the lines of: Keep the recovery going

The stats are persuasive and quite sobering for a journalist. The media comes in for stinging and justified criticism, although Pinker makes clear negativity runs deeper in society.

A little experiment: Imagine all the good things that could happen to you today, and you’d come up with a modest list. Now, think of all the bad things; “it’s endless”, Pinker sighs. “The English language has far more words for negative emotions than positive ones”, and there is a much greater market for curmudgeons than the sort of experts Michael Gove famously disparaged in the Brexit campaign. “Experiments have shown that a critic who pans a book is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it, and the same may be true of critics of society.”

On major world challenges, like climate change, the threat of nuclear war and the march of the robots, Pinker advocates “radical incrementalism” rather than blind faith in progress. Rejecting the doom-mongers whom he believes are paralysing the public with fear, he steals a line from Swedish academic Hans Rosling to declare: “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist.”

That said, on economic matters, and especially the question of inequality, he comes perilously close to defending the status quo. Some may be alarmed to hear that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has described Englightenment Now as his “new favourite book of all time” (having got an advance copy from the author). [https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Enlightenment-Now] And if Pinker went into politics his slogan would be along the lines of: “Keep the recovery going”. Or as he puts it, in a concluding remark on financial justice: “In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.”

Perhaps it has escaped Pinker’s attention that one of the world’s most prominent critics of relativism today is Pope Francis

Had Pinker finished the book at page 345 he would have got five stars from this reviewer but, in the last section he embarks on a proselytising mission to proclaim “humanism” as the only legitimate moral framework. Pinker concedes that by humanism he means utilitarianism, and thus ignores vast swathes of secular moral theory. He then goes on to blame Friedrich Nietzsche for the emergence of both relativism (the idea that truth is whatever you want it to be) and the Nazis – committing the kind of jump in logic that he’d be quick to criticise in others. Pinker is right to highlight the “liberal” left’s infatuation with Nietzsche but his treatment of the subject is superficial compared, for example, to Richard Wolin’s excellent The Seduction of Unreason (2004).

Another black mark against Pinker is his claim that theistic morality is an “enemy of humanism”, a bit of rhetoric that he doesn’t back up with convincing evidence. Perhaps it has escaped Pinker’s attention that one of the world’s most prominent critics of relativism today is Pope Francis, a religious leader who has also spoken positively about humanism and the value of the secular state.

Religions have endured because they are stubbornly adaptive and tend to accommodate scientific truths after a time lag. If Pinker wants the revolution in reason to come about – and God knows we all need it – he and other New Enlightenment champions need to build alliances. Progress depends on talking to people outside one’s own peer group.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Allen Lane, 556 pages, £14.99