- By Steven Pinker
- 576 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- March 16, 2019
Don’t buy into the gloom and doom, the author argues. Things are better than they’ve ever been.
Steven Pinker wants us to stop being so pessimistic.
While it’s true that we are besieged every day by voices trumpeting the many ways things are bad and getting worse, Pinker makes a compelling case for why we need to adopt a more constructive outlook.
First, to believe that things are worse than ever is objectively wrong; second, by over-focusing on the negative, we waste energy that should be invested in solving fixable problems; third, in buying into the downward-spiral narrative, we reinforce it.
Case in point: the election of a president whose toxic brand of populism harks back to a golden age that never was. This book serves to disabuse us of mistaken nostalgia and point us all in a forward-looking direction.
Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, linguist, Harvard professor, and the author of a host of books on language, culture, and humanity. He brings us Enlightenment Now as a follow-up to his controversial 2012 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
In that work, Pinker argues that human life held little value throughout the ages, and that the dramatic deepening in our understanding of human dignity can be traced back to the Enlightenment.
The author discovered the extent to which people refuse to believe the “good news,” no matter how tall the pile of objective evidence (oh, the quirky charms of human nature). Enlightenment Now takes another run at the argument and is organized into three sections: “Enlightenment,” “Progress,” and “Reason, Science, and Humanism.”
“Progress” consumes the lion’s share of the book, with chapters devoted to topics such as health, inequality, the environment, peace, terrorism, democracy, quality of life, and existential threats.
Each chapter is an enthralling read on its own. Throughout, Pinker presents quantifiable specifics — with tables and graphs — to underpin his arguments on the substantive, measurable, global progress we’ve made in all these areas, many of which presented problems once thought to be intractable.
In the chapter on health, for instance, Pinker lists the estimated number of lives cumulatively saved by the discovery of blood types (1 billion); the chlorination of water (177 million); and the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox (131 million).
Pinker quotes Richard Carter to remind us of 1955, when Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was declared safe: “People observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew factory whistles, fired salutes…”
Our success in making infant and childhood death a rarity in the U.S. has led us to a place where people who’ve never experienced the horror of an epidemic dismiss the value of immunization and, in fact, make vaccines the villain.
It’s this general lack of perspective — we didn’t live through it; therefore, we can’t know how bad it was — that Pinker attempts to remedy. He’s fighting against the concept that, to be taken seriously, both people and institutions (like the news media) must focus on all that’s wrong. To highlight the many ways that things continue to improve is to be dismissed as a Pollyanna.
Pinker acknowledges there are true existential threats to our wellbeing: Climate change tops the list. The crisis seems to defy solution because of its enormity and complexity, coupled with the ticking clock of a fast-approaching tipping point.
It’s a huge problem, yes, but a solvable one, according to the author, if we agree to bring our collective ingenuity to bear. That willingness may have slipped forever out of reach, though, when climate change became a partisan issue.
For those who imagine Pinker as a liberal elitist, some of his positions may seem surprising. He is a fan of intensive industrial agriculture, arguing that density is far more productive and less wasteful of land and resources than small, organic farms. In the climate-and-energy debate, he is a proponent of nuclear power and of fracking.
He holds in contempt “the environmentalist groups, with what the ecology writer Stewart Brand has called ‘their customary indifference to starvation,’” who cause significant harm, primarily to developing countries, with their vilification of genetically modified foods. Humans have been developing GMOs (both accidentally and on purpose) for thousands of years.
Yet when discussing existential threats, the author reaches a bit, and his willingness to let technology solve our problems tends to skip past the Law of Unintended Consequences. Personally, I don’t need to be convinced of the improbability of an apocalyptic robot war, but I’m interested to hear Pinker’s thoughts on the more pedestrian threat of technology companies’ increasing control over information flow, which continues to ratchet up even as we experience the damage it causes.
Enlightenment Now might generally be preaching to the converted, but its thought-provoking and wide-ranging analysis of the state of Enlightenment-era ideas and values might spur some of the converted to greater engagement in problem-solving.
I can’t help feeling, however, that Pinker continues to be flummoxed that his rational arguments don’t carry the day, ignoring or discounting the streak of irrationality embedded in human nature. He seems nonplussed, for example, that even the most coldly rational people have trouble dismissing the existence of a higher power.
It’s not surprising. No matter that humanity and its attendant self-awareness is the random and improbable outcome of a long evolutionary trail, or that each of us is simply one of 108 billion creatures to be born human to date. Each of us still harbors that innate longing to know it is we who are special.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle and writes a monthly column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She served as chair of the 2017 and 2018 Washington Writers Conference and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers Association.