My son gave me Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress after he had heard him speak on a podcast about his 10th bestseller in 53 years of life as a public intellectual and Harvard professor of cognitive psychology. The gift is part of an ongoing effort to expand my boomer horizons, and expose me to contemporary critical analysis and thought.
Some of this much-appreciated effort stems from a growing millennial frustration with the perceived baby boomer legacy: staying way too long at the employment party (as in septuagenarian tenured professors refusing to retire); the preposterous final gift of Trumpism (with its attendant denial of climate change and any need for environmental regulation); and the vast swaths of economic disruption (with the concomitant gig economy, algorithmically determined values and surreptitious Facebook data mining).
Authoritarian populists like Steve Bannon, Michael Anton and President Donald Trump himself daily feed this fear and growing frenzy. And it gets the assistance of professors such as the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson and the members of the Claremont Institute, the academic home of Trumpism.
All this begs the question: Is the world going to hell?
Steven Pinker answers with a resounding: No!
In 75 classic graphs of time series data, Pinker tracks the global trends for longevity, health, prosperity, personal safety, global affluence, outbreaks of war, acquisition of knowledge and human happiness. He shows that all these trends are for the better. He demonstrates that since the Enlightenment, and the Renaissance of science, reason and humanism, humans have begun an upward trek to more of what we truly value, need and must maintain to thrive as a species. At the base of Pinker’s analysis is the core truth that knowledge makes us better people.
Arrayed against this scientific analysis and data display are the prophets of doom. Pinker deals with them and their influence with academic dispatch. His broad vocabulary is with us on every page. The authoritarian populists are recursive, recondite and collectively display recrudescence. He posits that the German philologist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 to 1900) is their deserved philosophical mentor.
“Nietzsche argued that it’s good to be a callous, egotistic, megalomaniacal sociopath,” he writes. “Not good for everyone, of course, but that doesn’t matter: the lives of the mass of humanity (the ‘botched and bungled,’ the ‘chattering dwarves,’ the ‘flee beetles’) count for nothing.”
From Pinker’s perspective, once you’ve arrayed the trend data for positive human achievement, the need to Make America Great Again, to rail against the benefits of immigration and to spin alt-right homilies should be exposed for what it is – a deification of selfishness, the mythic heroic capitalist and the fascist agenda. In short, it’s anti-democratic and vulgar.
Pinker’s data show that ultimately the authoritarian populists will time themselves out, as their age is working against them. They’re overwhelmingly boomers, Caucasian, poorly educated and mostly rural. Many are openly racist. They’re given to reasoning by anecdote, magical thinking, attributing causality to correlation, and verifying facts against ideology. They’re the segment of the population that has most definitively missed the Enlightenment boat.
In the cause of keeping our Enlightenment traditions and weathering the current anti-reason storms, Pinker argues that we need to remember that “not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat.”
We need to remember that problems occur, are a normal part of achieving progress, and by their solution we advance as a society. Situated in the scientific now, he would have us consider the rational track of our past in constructing a realistic path to our humanistic future.
If there’s a weakness to this book, it’s that it relies on a form of analysis that stresses – human nature being a constant – that past performance is a good predictor of future performance. In essence, by continuing to embrace Enlightenment values, we will continue to flourish as a species. This in a world where accumulating data, chiefly environmental, indicates trends beyond our control.
For the positive outcomes he charts to characterize our future – one already bedevilled by climate change and rapid, technology-induced economic disruption – certain human behaviours have to be rapidly reigned in.
Meanwhile, the accumulated atmospheric heating consequences of combusting carbon since the Industrial Revolution are already baked in.
The big question: Can we rein in what we baked in before it’s too late?
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