'Enlightenment Now' review: Pinker continues to see the glass half full

Optimism is not generally thought cool, and it is often thought foolish. In the previous century, Voltaire’s Candide had attacked what its author called “optimism”. After suffering through one disaster after another, Candide decides that optimism is merely “a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.”

Yet one might argue (and Steven Pinker does) that the philosophy Voltaire satirises here is not optimism at all. If you think this world is already as good as it gets, then you just have to accept it. A true optimist would say that, although human life will never be perfect, crucial aspects of it can improve if we work at it, for example by refining building standards and seismological predictions so that fewer people die in earthquakes.

This optimist’s revenge on Candide is one of the passing pleasures in Enlightenment Now, Mr Pinker’s follow-up to his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The earlier work assembled banks of data in support of his argument that human life is becoming, not worse as many seem to feel, but globally safer, healthier, longer, less violent, more prosperous, better educated, more tolerant and more fulfilling. His new book makes the same case with updated statistics, and adds two extra elements. First, it takes into account the recent rise of authoritarian populism, especially in the form of Donald Trump — a development that has led some to feel more despairing than ever. Second, it raises the polemical level with a rousing defence of the four big ideas named in the subtitle: Progress, reason, science and humanism. Who could be against any of that? Yet humanism has been seen in some quarters as unfashionable, or unachievable, or both. Mr Pinker wants us to take another look.

Much of the book is taken up with evidence-based philosophising, with charts showing a worldwide increase in life expectancy, a decline in life-shattering diseases, ever better education and access to information, greater recognition of female equality and LGBT rights, and so on. Improvements in health have bettered the human condition enormously, and Mr Pinker tells us that his favourite sentence in the whole English language comes from Wikipedia: “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.” The word “was” is what he likes.

He later adds that he could have ended every chapter by saying, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Trumpism risks knocking the world backward in almost every department of life, especially by trying to undo the international structures that have made progress possible: Peace and trade agreements, health care, climate change accords and the general understanding that nuclear weapons should never be used. All this is now in question. Mr Pinker is particularly sharp on the dangers of ignoring or overriding the systems that make nuclear war unlikely.

Having said this, he argues that catastrophism is itself a risk — that is, the pessimistic tendency to fix on the worst imaginable outcome, and to panic. Authoritarian populism itself has fed on the feeling that everything is going wrong: That crime and terrorism have run amok, that immigration is disastrous and that the world has lost its ethical direction in some terrible way. Meanwhile, fear and despair play havoc with the opposition too. In general, people are more likely to work constructively if they think problems are solvable, or that progress has already been made and can be extended.

This book will attract some hammering itself: It contains something to upset almost everyone. When not attacking the populist right, Mr Pinker lays into leftist intellectuals. He is especially scathing about newspaper editorialists who, in 2016, fell over themselves in their haste to proclaim the death of Enlightenment values and the advent of “post-truth.” His (rather too broadly painted) targets include humanities professors, postmodernists, the politically correct and anyone who has something nice to say about Friedrich Nietzsche. “Progressive” thinkers seem to consider progress a bad thing, he claims; they reject as crass or naïve “the notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering.”

Bertrand Russell once pointed out that maintaining a sense of hope can be hard work. In the closing pages of his autobiography, with its account of his many activist years, he wrote: “To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” Mr Pinker’s book is full of vigour and vim, and it sets out to inspire a similar energy in its readers.

He cites one study of “negativity bias” that says a critic who pans a book “is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it.” I will just have to take that risk: Enlightenment Now strikes me as an excellent book, lucidly written, timely, rich in data and eloquent in its championing of a rational humanism that is — it turns out — really quite cool.

The Case for Reason, Science, 
Humanism, and Progress
Steven Pinker 
556 pages; $35
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