Nick Spencer reviews Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking 2018).
... 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...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.
But Spencer has doubts about Pinker's account of this, the Englightenment, for one thing:
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”.
Racism, for example:
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?”
Moreover (after a bit of argumentation):
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 about Christianity?
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.
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.