Book of the week
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
by Steven Pinker
Bad as the news reports are these days, “things are not falling apart,” said The Economist. Harvard professor Steven Pinker is here to remind us that since the dawn of the Age of Reason, life has gradually been getting better for most people in most places, and should continue on that path, barring an unforeseen global disaster. As he did in The Better Angels of Our Nature, a 2011 best-seller about the long decline in human violence, Pinker builds his argument here with statistics: He has marshaled a mountain of evidence showing that people as a whole are significantly wealthier, healthier, happier, and even more intelligent than our forebears of just a century ago, and the result is a “magnificent, uplifting” 450-page volume. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has gone so far as to call it “my new favorite book of all time.”
“To think of the book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake,” said John Gray in the New Statesman (U.K.). Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, credits the Enlightenment with changing humanity’s trajectory, but offers a false definition of the Enlightenment as a movement that rejected religious faith and that, by putting reason first, has produced nothing but benefits since. His “embarrassingly feeble” gloss on intellectual history is part of his effort to soothe the nerves of fellow progressives, so he neglects to mention that rationalism has also produced countless episodes of mass terror and genocide. And when he begins presenting the numbers that ostensibly point to steady social progress, he leaves out important counterfactuals, such as the millions of incarcerated Americans who might disagree with the assertion that people are growing ever freer.
Still, in this time of deep social division, Pinker proves “a paragon of the kind of intellectual honesty and courage we need,” said David Brooks in The New York Times. Instead of joining his fellow academics in carping about all that’s wrong, he denounces their undue pessimism. Answering the many social scientists who complain, for example, about increasing income inequality in America, he shows that if we look at consumption instead of earnings, poverty in the U.S. has declined by 90 percent since 1960. He gives the doomsayers far more heat than they deserve, though, said Jan-Werner Müller in the Financial Times. After all, “the spirit of the Enlightenment was and remains the spirit of criticism.” If no one looks for faults in our society, we’ll never correct them. ■