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Enlightenment and Progress, or why Steven Pinker is wrong

Enlightenment and Progress, or why Steven Pinker is wrong

Nick Spencer reviews Steven Pinker’s latest book and challenges his ideas of progress and Enlightenment.

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Somewhere in the depths of a psychology journal there is a scientifically–calibrated scale that charts people’s attitude to progress. It’s call the Gray–Pinker scale, and it ranges from one end, in which believing in any form of progress is seen as a sign of mental illness, to the other, in which not believing in progress is seen as a sign of mental illness.

The extent to which very intelligent people differ on this matter is astonishing. The British philosopher, John Gray, has built a significant reputation by systematically debunking the notion of progress. Now the American cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has published a hefty book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – weighing in at 450 pages plus 100 more of notes and bibliography in about font size 3 – proving beyond any reasonable doubt that progress is real.

What adds further spice to this particular disagreement, is that both men think they are voices in the wilderness. “Pinker …belong[s] in a contemporary orthodoxy”, John Gray wrote in the Guardian in 2015, “his [former] book [The Better Angels of Our Nature] has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” Pinker, for his sake, dedicates an entire chapter of Enlightenment Now to what he called “Progressophobia”, in which he claims “intellectuals hate progress [and] intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.”

So, the vexed question about who is right about progress is joined by the vexed question about who is right about the conventional orthodoxy about progress. Perhaps the only thing we can say with certainty is that, whoever is right, the need to feel like John the Baptist is overwhelming.

I should begin this essay–review with the confession that I am temperamentally inclined towards Gray’s view, so when I say Pinker does an outstanding job in his new book, I mean it. I should also say that I have just debated him for a programme that will go out later in the year and found him charming, thoughtful, reasonable and humane. He is a serious thinker and the book is a serious book, and so whatever else follows in this essay, including the criticism, should be read with that in mind.

The bulk of Enlightenment Now, from chapters 4 to 20, is, in effect, a graph–packed riff on P.J. O’Rourke’s famous one word response to the idea that “there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself”; namely, “dentistry”. The book doesn’t contains any graphs on dentistry but that’s one of its few oversights. On the basis that our answer to the question of progress should be determined by counting, Pinker presents graphs on life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality, infectious diseases, calorie intake, food availability, wealth, poverty, extreme poverty, deforestation, oil spills, protected areas, war, violence, homicides, battle deaths, famine deaths, pedestrian deaths, plane crash deaths, occupational accident deaths, natural disaster deaths, deaths by lightning, human rights, state executions, racism, sexism, homophobia, hate crimes, violence against women, liberal values, child labour, literacy, education, IQ, hours worked, years in retirement, utilities and homework, the price of light, disposable spending, leisure time, travel, tourism… and much else besides.

All of these, he shows, are travelling in the right direction. It’s an impressive and invigorating story, and if it’s surprising, Pinker is equally good on why it’s surprising. Partly on account of what psychologists call the Availability heuristic (“people estimate the probability of an event… by the ease with which instances come to mind”); partly because we seem hard–wired for nostalgia; partly because scaremongering sells papers; partly because people dread losses more than they look forward to gains; partly because we don’t like to tempt fate; and partly because intellectuals confuse pessimism for profundity … we are more attuned to stories of decline and doom than those of uplift and progress. The result is that we don’t know how well off we are. In Pinker’s own italicised original: “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well– being. [And] almost no one knows about it.” We are so much more capable than we imagine. “The human mind, with its recursive combinatorial power, can explore an infinite space of ideas, and is not limited by the quantity of any particular kind of stuff in the ground.” Salvation lies within.

Is he convincing? For the most part: yes, very. His charts are as persuasive as they are fascinating and should make even the most ardent “progressophobe” think again. Life really is better today for most people than it has been in the past, and not just when their teeth ache. Pinker admits that “any dataset is an imperfect reflection of reality” and one can’t help but wondering how solid some of the more historical data are, but no amount of footnoted data points would change his overall argument, or even do much to dent its strength.

A few reservations linger. Pinker is perhaps a bit too eager to fit everything into his overall upwards narrative. He acknowledges the threat placed by climate change (how could he not?) but by the end of this discussion you feel that it’s just a minor bump in the road, easily addressed by carbon trading and nuclear power.

He dismisses inequality as “not a fundamental component of well– being”, which rather sticks in the throat. He misrepresents Thomas Piketty, claiming that his argument exemplifies “the lump fallacy” which confuses “inequality with poverty”. (In reality, Piketty is fully conscious of what each of these is, and does not think inequality is simply a case of some people getting too small a slice from a finite pie, but rather worries about the long–term social implications of capital growth being greater than income growth.)

He is generally a bit too willing to dismiss the lives of people in the past as nasty and brutish just because they were shorter. He warns us against “forgetting the dominating misery of other times in part by the grace of literature, poetry, romance, and legend, which celebrate those who lived well and forget those who lived in the silence of poverty”, but he himself the uses many such anecdotes to illustrate how ghastly people’s existences were. These, it seems, are admissible. I couldn’t prove it – who could? – but I suspect people in England in, say, 1500 were not as irredeemably miserable and brutalised as Pinker sometimes suggests pre–moderns were.

He is perhaps a bit cavalier about sweatshops, writing (or rather quoting) that “while working on the factory floor is often referred to as sweatshop labor, it is often better than the granddaddy of all sweatshops: working in the fields as an agricultural day laborer.” His dismissal of on–line searches for bestiality, decapitation videos and child pornography as “from a sliver of teenagers”, saying “there have always been transgressive youths” is not appealing. He says little about declining levels of social mobility in the West. And he appears indifferent to what Michael Sandel has called our “move from having market economy to being a market society”.

These, however, I should underline, are minor complaints. Pinker’s case for progress is well–written, supremely well–evidenced, and convincing. Frustratingly, the same cannot really be said of where he thinks this progress originates.

His answer is “the Enlightenment”. He writes about “the ideals of the Enlightenment”, about how “the Enlightenment has worked”, how “the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought a new understanding of the human condition”.

Unfortunately, beyond three rather generalised concluding chapters on “science”, “reason” and “humanism”, each of which he naturally grounds in the Enlightenment, his discussion of it is somewhat vague. There is little sense of whether he means the British, French or American forms of the Enlightenment, as Gertrude Himmelfarb termed them.Or whether he means the radical or moderate Enlightenment, as Jonathan Israel has distinguished them. Or whether something as arcane as the Catholic Enlightenment could be included under the rubric.

This isn’t nit–picking. The Enlightenment wasn’t one single thing, or even one clearly delimited period, and its thinkers did not all want the same thing, in the same way, for the same reasons. Moreover, Pinker’s vagueness about the Enlightenment is not simply a cause of his brevity. He is also ahistorical and at times verges on caricature.

The brainchildren of the Enlightenment, we are told, included “free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgement of human fallibility, and among [its] institutions are science, education, media, democratic government”. Peace was “another Enlightenment ideal”. So was “mutually beneficial co–operation [and] voluntary exchange”. “The institutions of modernity” include “schools, hospitals, charities [and] international organisations”. The Enlightenment “imagined humanity could makes intellectual and moral progress”.

The idea that human co–operation, natural rights, or international peace were undreamt of before 1750 is not tenable. Schools, hospitals and charities are hardly “institutions of modernity”. The very idea of progress is dependent on the linear idea of history that Christianity bequeathed to the West, as John Gray, Pinker’s arch progressophobe has long noted, even if Enlightenment thinkers were much more positive about it as a secular (meaning temporal, and sometimes irreligious) goal. As David Wootton said of Enlightenment Now in his review in the TLS , “The only major claim not supported by a graph (or indeed much evidence of any kind) is the assertion that all this progress has something to do with the Enlightenment.” Pinker seems wedded to the Enlightenment like some of kind secular creation myth, and this results in to two particular problems with the book.

First, Pinker refuses to recognise anything negative as coming from the Enlightenment.

There was something of a cottage industry in the later 20th century in laying every sin of modernity at the Enlightenment’s door. Imperialism, communism, the Holocaust: all of these can be explained by the West’s alleged coming of age. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Michel Foucault, Zygmunt Baunman – all mentioned (briefly) by Pinker – are among the better known intellectuals who have blamed the science or “instrumental reasoning” or secularised eschatology of the Enlightenment for the most heinous crimes of the last century.

Pinker has short shrift with these arguments, in my opinion rightly so. However, he seems incapable of acknowledging the Enlightenment’s complicity in any social ills. Science, he acknowledges, “has often been pressed into the support of deplorable political movements” and “is commonly blamed for intellectual movements that has a pseudoscientific patina”. But beyond that: it’s not me guv. As William Davies wrote in the Guardian, “With some deft intellectual moves, he manages to position “enlightenment” and “science” on the right side of every argument or conflict, while every horror of the past 200 years is put down to ignorance, irrationality or “counter–enlightenment” trends.”

One doesn’t have to agree with the claims of Adorno and Horkheimer to see Enlightenment fingerprints on some smoking guns. Take one, somewhat less extreme example. Jeremy Bentham was an archetypal Enlightenment thinker, exhibiting many of the qualities of which Pinker approves. He loved evidence. He was an inveterate counter, an inordinate measurer, and an inexhaustible systematiser. He had no time for the hocus–pocus of metaphysics, still less theology. He sought human betterment and he knew human betterment meant more happiness and pleasure, and less misery and pain. Unusually obsessive he may have been, he was unmistakably a creature of his enlightened time.

He championed many causes of which Pinker clearly approves, such as the case against criminal punishment and the death penalty. But it was also his commitment to counting, systematising, ordering, and to the twin measurable masters of pleasure and pain that lay behind the 1832 Anatomy Act, which made the bodies of people too poor to pay for their own funerals available to medical schools for dissection, and the 1834 New Poor Law, which sought to solve social ills by making state ‘welfare’ so unattractive to the destitute that only the most desperate would seek it out. As Cathy Gere has charted in her recent book on utilitarianism in public and medical ethics , these were Enlightenment ideas deployed to solve human problems. The workhouses was as quintessential an Enlightenment achievements as Daring to Know.

Pinker is unable to recognise this, the result of which sees him reversing out of some tight corners. Thus, he writes in his chapter on safety at work, “as injuries and deaths started to increase unignorably during the Industrial Revolution, they were written off as ‘the price of progress’, according to a nonhumanistic definition of progress”. The last phrase is weasel. Factories, like workhouses, were signs of progress, as understood by the carefully calculated values of the Enlightenment. Slipping in the retrospective “according to a nonhumanistic definition” is disingenuous.

A similar point may be made about racism. Lest we forget, the late 18th century was the time par excellence for slave trading, a commerce that was finally abolished due to the efforts of Quakers and Evangelicals rather more than Enlightenment philosophes and deists. Pinker rightly cavils at the idea that 19th century science was intrinsically racist, or that it wasn’t coloured by the racist cultures of the time. But 19th century science did not dismantle the racist cultures in which it found itself, and sometimes spent considerable time and energy fortifying them. There was such a thing as “scientific racism” and plenty of ‘enlightened’ people believed in it. Overall, it is hard to disagree with John Gray’s judgement of a previous Pinker book, to the effect that “Pinker’s response when confronted with such evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder?”

This unduly simplistic view of the Enlightenment, leads to a second problem with his argument. In effect, he gets the causes for the surge in progress wrong – or, more charitably, insufficiently right.

Now, it’s fair to say that there is no consensus about “why the West came to rule”, to adapt the title of Ian Morris’ book on the subject. Some, like Jared Diamond and Jeffrey Sachs, claim it was geography. Some claim it was the triumph of culture. Some claim that it was simply a question of ignorance.

No one single hypothesis holds all the cards, not least as the criteria must have changed over the centuries, with geographic ones holding most sway over earlier societies, but giving way to more complex reasons as civilisations got better at manipulating and protecting themselves from the natural world. I am most persuaded by the arguments deployed by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their Why Nations Fail (repeated and revised by historians elsewhere), to the effect that it was the development of what they call “inclusive institutions”, in place of “extractive institutions”, that helped nations navigate towards freedom, prosperity and peace. Inclusive institutions, both political and economic, “allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in [political and] economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish”. Extractive ones do pretty much the opposite.

As it happens, this seems to be where Pinker stands. He doesn’t dwell on the topic in any detail, but he does reference Acemoglu and Robinson at a crucial moment, writing, “in 18th century England this cronyism gave way to open economies in which anyone could sell anything to anyone, and their transactions were protected by the rule of law, property rights, enforceable contracts, and institutions like banks, corporations, and government agencies that run by fiduciary duties rather than personal connections.”

The problem with this (other than the rather hopeful idea that 18th century British commerce and politics were indifferent to “personal connections”) is that pretty much all of these institutions originated, in theory and often in reality, long before the Enlightenment. To discuss them is the topic of another review (indeed another book) altogether, but a few examples should make the point.

The idea of a properly accountable state had been a live one in European political thought at least since the time when one 10th century monk opined “No man can make himself king, but the people has the choice to choose a king whom they please; but after he is consecrated as king, he then has dominion over the people, and they cannot shake his yoke from their necks.” The question of political authority, the attempts to make it answerable to the norms of justice and even to the people, the lawfulness of rebellion, the question of what comprised legitimate governance: these had been endlessly debated, often attempted, sometimes achieved over previous centuries. The idea of a democratically accountable state had been proposed by Colonel Rainsborough who had famously remarked in the Putney debates of 1647 that “the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under”. Moreover, this was a model of political governance that was inextricably tied to models of congregational governance that emerged at the Reformation.

The idea of the rule of law was a major plank of mediaeval European jurisprudence, famously finding articulation in Magna Carta, the thinking behind which derived, via Archbishop Stephen Langton, from the Canonists’ reflection on the Torah, and in particular the book of Deuteronomy. In Francis Fukuyama’s words, “to understand the development of the rule of law, one must look not just to the source and nature of religious rules themselves but also the specific ways religious authority is organised and institutionalised. The rule of law in Europe was rooted in Christianity.”

The development of a ‘secular’ space, from which political authorities are in principle debarred, originated in the Investiture Crisis of the 11th century, which fed on a long tradition of controversy about the proper boundary between church and state. The argument for political toleration was made most influentially by John Locke in 1689, and for all that he should rightly be claimed as an Enlightenment thinker, he made his case on explicitly biblical grounds in a way that champions of the Enlightenment are often rather slow to recognise.

The undermining of the family as an unchallengeable social unit and its replacement with the idea of the individual whose identity was not exhausted by his or place in family, community or society was a quintessentially Latin European achievement, rooted in the teachings of the Church. Again in Fukuyama’s words, this developed in Western Europe because “inheritance was bilateral; cross–cousin marriage was banned and exogamy promoted; and women had greater rights to property and participation in public events. This shift was driven by the Catholic church, which took a strong stand against four practices: marriages between close kin, marriages to the widows of dead relatives (the so–called levirate), the adoption of children, and divorce.”

The development of civil society and what we might call “corporationism” is traceable to the Canonists’ “understanding of the corporation as a voluntary association of individuals who remain the source of its authority, rather than as a body constituted by superior authority and wholly dependent on that authority for its identity.” In Larry Siedentop’s words, “unlike towns and cities in the ancient (and in the Islamic) world, which were never legally constituted or founded as autonomous legal entities, the Western European town had its own independent corporate existence, legitimacy and often structure of self–governance, all of which were reflected in the development of town charter.”

The justification for what was to become the Scientific Revolution was articulated some time before the Enlightenment, primarily by Francis Bacon in the early 17th century. Moreover, the reason why yet another small scale scientific revolution (there had been similar scientific proto–revolutions in ancient Greece, Rome, and China, and in early mediaeval Baghdad and later mediaeval Paris and Oxford) became The Scientific Revolution can be traced to persistently theological reasoning, as has been carefully charted by Peter Harrison

The idea of rights was grounded in Canonist teaching, as the scholars Brian Tierney and Harold Berman have shown. Common law, which has been systematically shown to offer greater protection for investors and creditors and therefore for commerce, predates the Enlightenment by centuries. A secure patent system, by means of which inventors could be confident that they would reap rewards for their activity, thereby cementing all–important economic self–interest in place, was systematised in the Statute of Monopolies by the English Parliament in 1623.

Perhaps underlying all these, slavery had been eradicated from Europe for a long time, with the idea of fundamental human equality and freedom being absolutely key to what it was to be a Christian (in theory of course) for centuries. When Gregory of Nyssa fulminated against the institution of slavery itself, in the fourth century, denouncing Christians for daring to imagine they could own another human being, he was indeed a voice crying in the wilderness. A millennium later, most of Western Europe was crying with him.

There are plenty of other issues we might mention here – property rights, the attitude to work, the development of banking, the vesting of the body rather than the head with political authority, the development of printing and the (slow) evolution of a free press – but all in all, to quote Siedentop again:

“The roots of liberalism were firmly established in the arguments of philosophers and canon lawyers by the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries: belief in a fundamental equality of status as the proper basis for a legal system; belief that enforcing moral conduct is a contradiction in terms; a defence of individual liberty, through the assertion of fundamental ‘natural’ rights; and, finally, the conclusion that only a representative form of government is appropriate for a society resting on the assumption of moral equality.”

None of this is to say that Pinker’s belief in the importance of reason, science and humanism as the fuel of human progress is itself wrong. Rather, it is to say that decontextualized references to such virtues and practices cut little historical ice. The engines of progress lie in inclusive institutions (many of which embody these virtues and practices), almost all of which predated the Enlightenment.

Many such inclusive institutions happened, by some quirk of fate, to come together in England in 1688 in a remarkable and stable balance, which united ideas of rights, equality, limited royal power, Parliamentary ‘sovereignty’, frequent Parliaments, overseen taxation, domestic peace and stability, rule of law, common law, property rights, (comparative) free speech and press, and (comparative) freedom of religion. Parliament could now control and improve taxation, audit royal expenses, protect private property rights, and effectively prohibit debt default, as a result of which, in Niall Fergusson’s words “the English state was able to borrow money on a scale that had previously been impossible because of the sovereign’s habit of defaulting or arbitrarily taxing or expropriating”. Moreover, investment could now be made in ‘scientifically–informed’ practical endeavours from which people could confidently expect to receive a return.

In short, Pinker’s progress ex nihilo from the Enlightenment doesn’t add up. Had he been more attentive to the historical peculiarities and details of what happened in England in 1688, the rest of Europe after it, and the rest of the world after that, he might have seen the 18th century as the period not of a new and unprecedented start, but one in which Enlightenment philosophers, politicians, investors, and inventors picked up and built on the existing institutions of European order, which had been slowly crafted over centuries.

What Enlightenment Now shows, therefore, is less how the Enlightenment was responsible for our undeniable progress and more how Steven Pinker wants it to be.

To be clear, this is not to say that the Enlightenment didn’t contribute to progress, any more than it only contributed gas chambers, gulags and scientific racism. The period did mark an epochal moment in Western history which, in turn, became an epochal shift in global culture, which was clearly for the better. It is more, to quote David Wootton again, that “while the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were, all in all, thoroughly good things, and the world has been much improved because of them, I baulk at the notion that it is ideas that change the world. Surely what often matters is not so much the ideas as the social and cultural conditions in which they thrive.”

Like it or not – and Pinker clearly doesn’t – many of those cultural conditions were Christian in formulation, as the list above will have indicated. To forestall the inevitable objection, this is not to claim all the glories of the Enlightenment for Christianity. Just as the Enlightenment gave us the calculated ‘treatment’ of workhouses alongside greater political accountability, so Christianity gave us Crusades, Inquisition, and Wars of Religion, alongside the rule of law, the invention of the individual (to use Siedentop’s title) and the notion of ineradicable human dignity and equality. History is messy and no one’s biddable slave.

The problem is, from reading Pinker’s book you would imagine that Christianity’s legacy to the world comprised only the former. Just as he is wilfully blind about the Enlightenment’s failings, he is wilfully blind about Christianity’s positive contribution. Most of his references to Christianity, Bible and Church are casual, sometimes snide, asides usually, indeed, about the Crusades, the Inquisition or the Wars of Religion. When he does engage with the topic, it is disappointingly thin or a little disingenuous.

“Not all of the Enlightenment thinkers were atheists”, he says early on. He’s right, in a sense. Spinoza wasn’t. Locke wasn’t. Newton wasn’t. Hobbes wasn’t (but really who knows with Hobbes). Boyle wasn’t. Voltaire wasn’t. Hume wasn’t. Gibbon wasn’t. Kant wasn’t. Paine wasn’t. Priestley wasn’t. La Mettrie, Baron d’Holbach and Bentham definitely were. Diderot, Helvetius, and d’Alembert hovered. Others, like Cesare Beccaria, a now much–neglected Enlightenment thinker, whom Pinker rightly admires for his proposals to reform penal law along rational and proportional lines, was scared away from d’Holbach’s salon by its atheism. Under no stretching of the imagination could the Enlightenment be imagined to be an atheist movement, for which Pinker is clearly straining to claim it.

Pinker’s understanding of Christian ethics is, I’m afraid to say, little short of a caricature. “Belief in an afterlife implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence; that coercing people into accepting salvation is doing them a favor; and that martyrdom may be the best thing that can ever happen to you.” Yes, there are certainly Christians and churches who have believed this, though not as many as all that. Similarly, you could certainly compare some Christians of the 17th century with some Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century and conclude that “The Enlightenment thus translated the ultimate question ‘How can I be saved?’ into the pragmatic ‘How can I be happy?’” But to make the next move to the conclusion that the Enlightenment “thereby heralded a new praxis of personal and social adjustment” is to ignore the fact that vast Christian energies were also expended on trying to make this life as tolerable as possible. To claim that “theistic morality” is “the idea that morality consists in obeying the dictates of a deity” is wilfully ignorant.

In short, Pinker refuses to deploy the same attention to detail he uses to defend progress when writing about Christianity. He writes winsomely at one point in the book about people’s cognitive biases, but seems not to have noticed the one in his own eye.

One result of this is in his arguments for humanism, which is defined in such a way – “the goal of maximising human flourishing” – that makes his definition of the Enlightenment seems positively forensic.

Where this self–evident goal originates is far from clear. The “nature” from which we as a species emerged, is, he tells us early on, “a war”. And yet, we are told a few pages later, “people see violence as moral, not immoral.” There is more than a touch of having your cake and eating it here and that becomes clearer when he talks about human lives.

Humans are very clever, very resourceful animals. But they are animals, sans soul, sans eternal destiny, sans image of God. He ridicules the idea that we have any cosmic significance. And yet, when talking about slow abolition of death penalty, we hear that “the state’s mandate to exercise violence may not breach the sacred zone of human life” [emphasis added]. “Life is sacred, so killing is onerous,” he repeats a few sentences later. Moreover, he writes in his conclusion, “anyone with a humanistic sensibility cares about you and… in the sense of realizing that your experience is cosmically not less important than theirs” [emphasis added]. That, by my calculation, actually means ‘cosmically not important at all.”

The idea that humans have a naturally expanding circle of sympathy tests belief a little, no matter how many graphs Pinker can muster that we are more moral today. The idea that this “egalitarian revolution” of sympathy originated with the philosophers of the mid–late 18th century is less credible still. The idea that such sympathy follows naturally from our exercise of reason beggars belief.

Pinker opens his book by recalling a question he was asked by a student after a lecture: “Why should I live?” The question was not facetious, so nor was the answer. The student’s very asking of the question, we are told, betrays her capacity to reason, “and because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself” [emphasis original].

The fallacy of this last move is enormous. As John Carey observed in his review in the Sunday Times,  “It is not clear why reason should give her this dutiful message, rather than telling her that, since life is a battle, she should lie and cheat to make sure of winning it.” Moreover, Pinker’s rooting of this sympathetic responsibility in the Enlightenment is belied, Carey goes on to say, by another early Enlightenment figure. In the last book of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift places his eponymous hero in the land of the perfectly rational Houyhnhnms. These creatures:

“never feel sexual love, which is patently irrational, but accept mates selected for them by the community on rational grounds. As preference for one’s own offspring is also irrational, they have no affection for their foals, but readily give them away if another couple proves barren. Genocide for rational ends is quite acceptable to them, and they calmly debate the complete extermination of the Yahoos (their name for the human race).”

Swift’s satire of the aspirations, and unreflective assumptions, of the original Enlightenment was hard to better then, and is hard to better today.

The final result, therefore, is a book whose punctilious, readable and important attention to detail and data in one regard (progress) is marred by its casual, vague and sometimes lazy inattention in another.

What Pinker says deserves to be heard and Enlightenment Now, in spite of its historical and philosophical weaknesses, merits a wide audience. Sadly, I am not convinced that being better informed about how rich, comfortable, clever and safe we are compared to our grandparents’ generation will make us happier and more grateful (Pinker is alert to the data on unhappiness and ingratitude and discusses them at length). Nor am I as sanguine as him that all this progress has improved the quality of our relationships.

However, Pinker does show that there is far more room for hope than we have in our current culture, and his take on some of the big issues that vex us, like terrorism, bio–hazards, AI, Armageddon, nuclear war, and other existential threats is a model of common sense, without slipping into complacency. Enlightenment Now deserves to be read and appreciated, but more for what it says about our future than what it does about our past.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. His book The Evolution of the West: how Christianity shaped our values has just been published in the US.


 Image from wikimedia available on the public domain.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

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Posted 20 February 2018

Ethics, Humanity, Modernity


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