Book review: ‘Enlightenment Now’ by Steven Pinker

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Steven Pinker makes a case for reason, science, humanism and progress, in this robust rebuke to the naysayers and doom-mongers who think civilisation is going to hell in a handcart.

Back in 2015, when stories were breaking about qualified physicians, straight-A schoolgirls and affluent young men fleeing the UK to join Islamic State, some security insiders expressed exasperation that the terrorists seemed to be better propagandists than the British government and its European allies.

How, they asked, had prevailing narratives about people’s futures in the world’s great liberal democracies become so limp and uninspiring that apparently well-adjusted teenagers born and bred in the UK were now fleeing because they found the idea of life under a brutal medieval theocracy preferable to life in modern Britain? How could anyone – let alone clever youngsters at good schools who had their whole lives ahead of them – be seduced by ideas that were so patently barbaric and irrational? How could they choose Islamic State ahead of the heirs of the Age of Enlightenment?

I pondered this afresh as I read cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book, ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress’ (Allen Lane, £25, ISBN 9780241004319). The Enlightenment is, of course, a school of European philosophy regarded as having vanquished superstition and myth in favour of reason and logic.

The book is a weighty and at times polemical tome containing much that will interest engineers – from pragmatic advice about limiting climate change (examples: build more nuclear power stations and make agriculture more intensive) to predictions about artificial intelligence (no, the robots will not enslave us all, so stop worrying).

It's a call for everyone (but most of all newspaper columnists) to embrace scientific and technological progress and to stop being such moaning minnies about everything from gene editing to fracking to GM crops. This ‘Let us face the future’-style optimism is a tonic for the troops and I, for one, felt fired up by it.

It’s not until the final chapter that Pinker fully turns his attention to faith and contrasts the “stranglehold of the Islamic religion” over government institutions in Muslim countries with the separation of church and state that exists in Europe. Religion, he argues, has impeded Muslim countries’ economic, political and social progress, but he expresses optimism that Western ideas and values will “trickle, flow and cascade outwards,” in spite of the fact that many Western intellectuals have become “strange apologists” for misogyny, homophobia and repression in the Muslim world.

Pinker’s hopefulness about the future of a world guided by reason, science and humanism has been criticised, predictably enough, by newspaper columnists – among them Jenni Russell, who in her Times column wrote that Pinker was complacent about supposed catastrophes ranging from social media “bile” to Brexit, and John Harris, who complained in The Guardian that Pinker “tends to represent the world either in graphs or the kind of bromides that suggest someone glancing at the world from a speeding Prius, en route to a TED talk”.

Fundamentally, this book deserves praise for its assertion that, far from being bent on a trajectory of decline, what we might call ‘Western civilisation’ contains wonders that far surpass anything enjoyed either by our forebears or our counterparts in poorer parts of the world. Taking the long view, we are, in general, safer, freer, healthier, richer and better fed than ever before. Obesity, by the way, might be regarded as a good problem to have. As the comedian Chris Rock observed, “This is the first society in history where the poor people are fat.”

Globally, the percentage of people who are undernourished has been steadily falling for the past four decades – despite population rises. Childhood deaths from infectious diseases have been declining, too. Contrast that with the situation during the bulk of human history, when starvation and infant mortality were basic facts of life in even the richest parts of the world.

People are, of course, perfectly entitled to criticise capitalism and industrialisation, but when they overdo the rhetoric by damning the entire Western system and branding all politicians corrupt, they do us all a dangerous disservice by allowing cynicism to breed. That’s why Enlightenment ideas must be defended. It may be unfashionable to sing the West’s praises in this era of post-colonialism, but Pinker doesn’t seem to care – and good on him.

He is similarly unconcerned about offending liberal sensibilities. For example, he is contemptuous of the leftish obsession with reducing economic inequality, asserting that eliminating poverty - a different thing entirely - is actually far more important. While he is clear-eyed about the risks from climate change, he attacks environmental “greenism” for its “indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet”. And he has little time for identity politics, proponents of which are incentivised to see discrimination everywhere.

“An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist and homophobic society – which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle,” he writes, witheringly.

Amid the ongoing culture wars, there are certain basic principles that we can almost all agree on, he believes. These include “Life is better than death,” “Health is better than sickness,” “Abundance is better than want” and “Knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.” He wants us to use data, evidence and rational scientific inquiry to construct a society based on these principles. He is utterly contemptuous of ideology.

It is sometimes pointed out by critics of this sort of grand vision that Nazism and Soviet Bolshevism both sought to use scientific theories to justify their disastrous political experiments. However, Pinker rejects this line of thinking, maintaining (tendentiously perhaps) that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and his “genocidal ravings” had a lot to answer for in this regard.

‘Enlightenment Now’ will no doubt continue to be picked over by hostile commentators and it does admittedly contain some questionable passages. At one point, Pinker rhapsodises about how wonderful it is that, with the rise of air travel, long-distance lovers can now spend time together. Well, maybe, but the problem of being separated from your boyfriend on the other side of the Atlantic presumably did not arise much before the era of air travel, when most people did not leave the village or town of their birth.

Quibbles aside, I commend ‘Enlightenment Now’ for providing a robust rebuke to the naysayers and doom-mongers who think our civilisation is going to hell in a handcart. Pleasingly, it turns out things aren’t so bad after all - and we shouldn't be so shy about saying so.

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