Book review by John Carey: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker | Culture | The Sunday Times

Steven Pinker: he believes reason can replace religion
Steven Pinker: he believes reason can replace religion
The Sunday Times, 

Steven Pinker’s new book is not an easy read, and that is regrettable because he is vastly well informed on subjects that affect us all. The problem is largely one of presentation. He does not have the gift of brevity, and repeats what is essentially the same argument in chapter after chapter, assuring us with dismaying frequency that he will return to the topic under discussion more expansively later on.

In his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), he demonstrated that violence and the conditions that promote it have decreased over the course of history. Enlightenment Now catalogues other aspects of life that have improved. Humans live longer and are healthier, better fed and less subject to natural and unnatural disasters than ever before. Epidemic disease, famine, infant mortality and death in childbirth have declined. Literacy and education, for girls as well as boys, are more widespread.

So is democracy. Two centuries ago only a handful of the world’s countries were democratic. Now, two thirds are, and as a result discrimination against minorities, women and gays is steadily declining. The world is about 100 times wealthier than it was two centuries ago, and Pinker produces graphs to show that prosperity is becoming more evenly spread across most developing, as well as developed, countries.

Take a pew: almost 60% of people worldwide call themselves religious
Take a pew: almost 60% of people worldwide call themselves religiousALAMY

He does not ignore the downside: 10% of the world’s population still lives in extreme poverty, and humanity faces two colossal challenges, climate change and the possibility of nuclear war, that could lead to its extinction. Nevertheless he remains hopeful, and believes that we must put our trust in reason and science.

These, together with the abandonment of religion and other kinds of superstition, were, as he sees it, the guiding principles behind the 18th-century Enlightenment, which first set us on the path to improvement. Science powered the industrial revolution, which allowed humanity to escape from poverty, and in the 20th century it produced the green revolution that fed the world using high-yield crop varieties and chemical fertilisers.

He believes that the spectre of a population explosion has now vanished. Global population increase will “probably” fall to zero by 2070, partly because better-educated women have fewer children, and science will go on inventing ways of upping food production. He concedes that climate change may cause a worldwide water shortage, but trusts that science will come up with carbon-free energy sources (hypothetical nuclear reactors that consume their own waste, for example), which will allow us to desalinate the oceans.

Meanwhile the Enlightenment perception that trade and commerce are less wasteful forms of international contact than warfare has at last filtered through to the world’s leaders, and Pinker is confident we shall not see any more world wars, though small local conflicts might persist for a time.

With so much to be cheerful about humanity has, in his view, shown scant gratitude for the improvements engineered on its behalf. Americans are particularly disappointing. Less than a third of Americans rate themselves “very happy”, and this proportion has not improved since 1947, though wealth has much increased.

American women have become unhappier, despite the benefits showered on them, and 40,000 Americans kill themselves every year. Pinker takes a stern view of such defeatism. “When it comes to happiness many people are underachievers,” he warns. He blames the media, which give more prominence to bad news than good, and academics, who delight in prophesying doom.

He recognises, of course, that some people find a life of mere material welfare empty, and mourn the deeper sense of purpose that religion gave. But he has no sympathy with these backsliders, and is disappointed that religion survives. Polls show that 59% of the world’s population (including 60% of Americans) still identify themselves as “religious”, with Muslims showing the largest percentage of “strongly religious” people (82%). Since he also estimates that the Muslim percentage of the world’s population will rise from 23.2% in 2010 to 29.7% by 2050, his confidence that religion will die out may be premature.

An oddity of his thought is that he believes reason can replace religion. He recalls a lecture in which he set forth his materialistic world-view, and afterwards a student put up her hand and asked: “Why should I live?” His reply was that her reason should tell her that she had a responsibility to provide for others what she expected for herself. It is not clear why reason should give her this dutiful message, rather than telling her that, since life is a battle, she should lie and cheat to make sure of winning it. That would be a perfectly rational response, whereas Pinker’s more pious version would need to come from her conscience, or whatever that is now called, rather than from her reason. It seems likely the benevolent humanism Pinker finds in the Enlightenment came from the same source, not science, which is amoral, nor from reason, which has no inbuilt moral component.

Ride and reason: Gulliver Addressing the Houyhnhnms by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769
Ride and reason: Gulliver Addressing the Houyhnhnms by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769ALAMY

His interpretation of Enlightenment reason contrasts interestingly with Jonathan Swift’s in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, where Gulliver finds himself in a land of intelligent horses, called the Houyhnhnms. These perfectly rational creatures never feel sexual love, which is patently irrational, but accept mates selected for them by the community on rational grounds. As preference for one’s own offspring is also irrational, they have no affection for their foals, but readily give them away if another couple proves barren. Genocide for rational ends is quite acceptable to them, and they calmly debate the complete extermination of the Yahoos (their name for the human race). Swift was an Enlightenment product, but he seems to have had a keener awareness than Pinker of the limitations of reason. He was also, of course, a Christian.

None of this invalidates Pinker’s book. It brims with fact and challenge, and is worth finishing if only to enjoy his tirade against President Trump, the antithesis of everything he holds dear.

We’re safer now
Despite our fears over terrorism, we are living, Pinker insists, in “the safest time in history”. Deaths in plane crashes, for instance, have fallen a hundredfold since the 1970s, and pedestrian fatalities in the US are about 5,000 a year now, compared with 15,500 in 1937, when there were far fewer cars. Even acts of God have less impact. “Thanks to urbanisation and to advances in weather prediction” and other factors, Americans are 37 times less likely to die from lightning strikes today than in the early 20th century.

Allen Lane £25 pp576

by John Carey

via Book review: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker | Culture | The Sunday Times