Writing in Quillette John Faithful Hamer reviews The Wizard and the Prophet (2018) by Charles C. Mann.
In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet.At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . . . .” Pinker reminds us of what we in the chattering classes too often forget: namely, that modernity has for the most part been a major upgrade for humanity: “The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious . . . We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”Like most Wizards, Pinker thinks that our ancestors were for the most part benighted idiots: “an average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards, while if Joe and Jane Average made the reverse journey, they would outsmart 98 percent of the befrocked and bewhiskered Edwardians who greeted them as they emerged.”Like most Prophets, Harari assumes that our ancestors were in certain respects better than us: “Twenty thousand years ago, the average Sapiens probably had higher intelligence and better toolmaking skills than the average Sapiens of today. Modern schools and employers may test our aptitudes from time to time but, no matter how badly we do, the welfare state always guarantees our basic needs. In the Stone Age natural selection tested you every single moment of every single day, and if you flunked any of its numerous tests you were pushing up the daisies in no time.”
The final paragraph is peculiar and interesting:
H/t 3QD.If Pinker and Harari debated each other, I’ve no doubt that Pinker would win. Because Harari argues like a self-doubting intellectual, whilst Pinker argues like a ruthless debate club president. His certainty is at times annoying, as is his preachy style. You want an argument but feel like you’re getting a sermon. I doubt that he’s actually an ideologue (in real life); but he sure does write like one. Be that as it may, I suspect that these men agree on most matters and want the same things of the future. If Pinker paints a rosy picture of human progress and its achievements in the hope that both will continue, Harari sketches a dystopian future in the hopes that doing so will prevent it. Like all prophets, he prophesies to prevent the prophecy, not to predict it.