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By Steven Pinker (Viking, New York, 2018). xix + 516 pp. ISBN 978-0-525-42757-5. $35.
Although Pinker notes in his preface that “at the time of this writing, my country is led by people with a dark vision of the current moment,” he acknowledges that this book “was conceived some years before Donald Trump announced his candidacy” (p. xvii). “The ideals of the Enlightenment are products of human reason, but they always struggle with other strands of human nature,” he writes in the brief Part I of this book, a book which is “my attempt to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” (p. 5).
Pinker portrays the Enlightenment in terms of four themes: reason, science, humanism (which form the basis of a more substantive Part III), and progress (the topic of Part II, which comprises nearly three quarters of his text). To these he adds “entropy, evolution, and information” as “some critical ideas about the human condition and the nature of progress that we know and they didn’t” (p. 14).
Part II consists of a series of chapters charting the progress in various areas pertaining to human life using graphical data, like that used in Pinker's 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature where he argues violence has declined in the world both in the long run and the short run. The areas covered in Part II are life, health, sustenance, wealth, (income) inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, happiness, and existential threats. Particularly noteworthy are his discussions of “the world’s two most pressing problems” (p. 324) – anthropogenic climate change, which he calls “the most vigorously challenged scientific hypothesis in history” (p. 137) and nuclear war, one of “the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse” (p. 290) (the other three are population, resource shortages and pollution).
Introducing Part III, Pinker reminds his readers that Part I outlined the ideas of the Enlightenment and that “Part II showed they work” (p. 349). Part III is intended to defend them – against “not just angry populists and religious fundamentalists, but fractions of mainstream intellectual cultures” (p. 349). He does so with chapters titled by the three themes of reason, science, and humanism which also comprise his subtitle.
The main thrust of Pinker’s chapter on “Reason” is that “The major enemy of reason in the public sphere today . . . is . . . politicization,” (p. 371) and the fact that it is increasing. This politicization is all the more problematic, because the future of planet Earth is at stake. “A challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction” (p. 375). “The human brain is capable of reason; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place” (p. 375).
After extolling the achievements of science, Pinker announces that the purpose of his chapter on “Science” is to address a hostility to science that goes deeper than opposition from the political left to nuclear power and from the right to evolution. He sees it spring from C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, from nonscience disciplines complaining that science is encroaching upon their time-honored territories. Deprecating the idea of a “scientific method,” Pinker notes that “Scientists use whichever methods help them understand the world . . . pressed into the service of two ideals” (p. 392): (1) “that the world is intelligible” (p. 382) and (2) “that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct” (p. 393). What science has taught us about the “genesis of the world, life, humans, and societies” (p. 394) undermines “the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures” (p. 394). “One of the greatest potential contributions of modern science may be a deeper integration with its academic partner, the humanities” (p. 405). But Pinker acknowledges that skeptical humanists will have to be more welcoming of this consilience.
In his final chapter, on “Humanism,” Pinker formalizes the connection between science and humanism. Although science is the pathway of human progress, he notes that it can bring results that harm humanity as well as to enable it to flourish. To insure that only the latter comes to pass, science must be tempered by humanism, which does not allow the flourishing of any one human at the expense of any other.
He addresses what he sees as threats to humanism, the first of which is theistic morality, especially in “the Islamic world, which by a number of objective measures appears to be sitting out the progress enjoyed by the rest” (p. 439). “Correlation is not causation, but if you combine the fact that much of Islamic doctrine is antihumanistic with the fact that many Muslims believe that Islamic doctrine is inerrant – and throw in the fact that the Muslims who carry out illiberal policies and violent acts say they are doing it because they are following those doctrines – then it becomes a stretch to say that the inhumane practices have nothing to do with religious devotion and that the real cause is oil, colonialism, Islamophobia, Orientalism, or Zionism” (p. 440). “All these troubling patterns were once true of Christendom” (p. 441), he acknowledges, but he observes that the Enlightenment changed that. Can there be an Enlightenment for the Islamic world? Pinker spends a half page listing Muslims in a position to bring it about and adds that “non-Muslims have a role to play” (p. 443), too. In addition to theistic morality, Pinker sees a second threat to humanism in what he calls romantic heroism, epitomized by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzche, who advocated a society ruled by one elevated to the status of Übermensch, which served as models for many twentieth-century dictators.
Although Pinker’s message can be distilled in his closing words, “there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing” (p. 453), I was continually awed in reading this book by the amount of information that had to be gathered for it: 37 pages of reference notes, 32 pages of reference listings, and 32 pages of index, all set in what appears to be 4-point type. Covering so many fields accurately is a challenge, and I compliment Pinker that I could find only one statement in my field of physics to quarrel with: “Solar panels made with carbon nanotubes can be a hundred times as efficient as current photovoltaics, continuing Moore’s Law for solar energy” (p. 330). Since efficiency cannot be greater than 100% and the current efficiency of photovoltaics is around 20%, this statement would violate the first law of thermodynamics!
If I were going to quarrel with anything in this book, it is that Pinker gives short shrift to one of his “four horsemen of the modern apocalypse” – overpopulation. On page 324 he states that “Before the century is out, [Earth] will have to accommodate another two billion people.” But he doesn’t say how.
John L. Roeder
The Calhoun School
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New York, NY 10024
These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.