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Enlightenment Now
The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Steven Pinker
read on July 21, 2019

Reading this book is, by and large, an exercise in frustration. I've never been more upset or annoyed while reading arguments and data that I mainly agree with. Pinker is such an asshole that even when I agree with him I'm upset about it. There is 570+ pages of data, the great majority of which I suspect is honestly gathered and presented, but the editorializing around the data is so inane and fragrantly, obnoxiously stupid that it really raised my heart rate to read a lot of it.

His 570+ pages pretty much breaks down to this:

  • For the last 10,000 years, including and especially the last ~300 years, the world has been getting better by every single measurement available to us.
  • This is attributed to the continued expansion of (lower case) liberal/progressive ideals, epitomized by the European Enlightenment movement. These ideals are Reason and Humanism.
  • There is no reason to suspect that these trends will stop.
  • Ergo, keep calm and carry on.

I really cannot believe that Bill Gates called this his favorite book of all time. I had three major issues with the book.

What is good?

Pinker does not appropriatly ground the book in a moral foundation of good vs bad. How do we know that things are getting better if we don't formally define this? Who are they getting better for? He doesn't ignore this topic entirely - particularly around a discussion of inequality, he does address the conceptual value of good for few vs good for many. But he never takes this head on. One of the first chapters is about life expectancy; for most of human history life expectancy has been around 30 years. Today it's in the mid-70s and still rising. He claims this is good, but does not build a foundation upon which to defend that claim. Sure, I personally don't want to die soon, but I sure as shit don't want everyone else to live forever either. Why is longevity objectively good? Is Pinker's barometer for success just total mass of human consciousness? Is exploding population objectively good? I often think back to The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, especially around discussions like this one, and wonder what would happen if humans discovered a free source of infinite energy here on Earth? Pinker's arguments in this book suggest it would be a massive win. I'm not convinced.

Survivorship bias

All Pinker's charts are well and good, but it's hard to see this book being written any other way. Assuming they had the data available, someone could have written a very similar book in 1700. At that time, all the metrics that all the educated people cared about were also getting better. But we can all agree today that 1700 was a shit show, right? I mean, doesn't it without saying that for the people alive in the world today, on average, things are going better than ever? All the other people are dead! There was no chart in this book about how ivory billed woodpeckers or Native Americans are doing better than ever before. History is written by the winners, and Pinker is the winner. His obliviousness to this is maddening.

Existential Threats

Not surprisingly, Pinker is hyper myopic about how awesome the future is going to be, and completely brushes off any existential threats to our species, Fermi be damned. Pinker is an idiot on climate change. He seems to say that everything is getting better, and that we're right on the cusp of solving it - but given that it is a existential problem, I'm not sure this is a gamble to be optimistic about. How much genetic diversity will be permanently lost because of us, and how morally reprehensible is that? I appreciate that Pinker seems focused on actual, plausible solutions, but he should respect this problem much more than he does.

Two Interesting Ideas

I did like two topics that came up in the book. First, in a few places Pinker dances around ideas of path determination. I.e., are the shitty parts of our history necessary to get to where we are today? Is religion (and religious war) a pre-requisite to enlightenment? Was feudalism necessary to get to capitalism? Is human slavery necessary to get to more widespread economic freedom? Pinker never touches this directly, but it is an interesting subtext that I'd love to see a more capable author discuss. Second, Pinker references several interesting papers from DM Kahan that remind me of Haidt and that I'd like to check out.


Most annoyingly, the conclusion of all of this (while never stated explicitly) is: carry on. Stop Worrying. We're doing great. Things are getting better. Things will keep getting better. He reinforces this idea by condescendingly dismissing arguments that would say otherwise. For example:

Those who condemn modern capitalist societies for callousness toward the poor are probably unaware of how little the pre-capitalist societies of the past spent on poor relief.

No, you asshole. One can be simultaneously aware of conditions in the past being horrible, as well as things today being bad. Just because we effectively enslaved and murdered the poor in the past doesn't mean today we're doing awesome. Or:

The left tends to be sympathetic to yet another movement that subordinates human interests to a transcendent entity, the ecosystem. The romantic Green movement sees the human capture of energy not as a way of resisting entropy and enhancing human flourishing but as a heinous crime against nature, which will exact a dreadful justice in the form of resource wares, poisoned air and water, and civilization-ending climate change. Our on salvation is to repent, repudiate technology and economic growth, and revert to a simpler and more natural way of life.

Here's another bullshit sarcastic comment:

Though intellectuals are apt to do a spit take when they read a defense of capitalism, its economic benefits are so obvious that they don't need to be shown with numbers. They can literally be seen from space.

Another, though, interesting:

A second realization of the ecomodernist movement is that industrialization has been good for humanity. It has fed billions, doubled life spans, slashed extreme poverty, and, by replacing muscle with machinery, made it easier to end slavery, emancipate women, and educate children. It has allowed people to read at night, live where they want, stay warm in winter, see the world, and multiply human contact. Any costs in pollution and habitat loss have to be weighed against these gifts.

This is just the worst:

The epitome of environmental insults is the oil spill from tanker ships... and few people are aware that seaborne oil transport has become vastly safer. Figure 10-5 shows that the annual number of oil spills has fallen from more than a hundred in 1973 to just five in 2016. The graph also shows that even as less oil was spilled, more oil was shipped; the crossing curves provide additional evidence that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth.

A free market schmuck. I mean, the below is just so willfully ignorant of the other social-economic factors at play (incumbency, barriers to entry, etc). 

An energy source that is cheaper, denser, and cleaner than fossil fuels would sell itself.

On progress on racism and equal rights:

Contrary to the fear that the rise of Trump reflects (or emboldens) prejudice, the curves continue their decline through his period of notoriety in 2015-2016 and inauguration in early 2017.

On social media:

Users of social media have more close friends, express more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved. And notwithstanding the rumor that they are drawn into an anxious competition to keep up with the furious rate of enjoyable activities of their digital faux-friends, social media users do not report higher levels of stress than non-users.

On existential threats:

The fundamental fact of the nuclear age is that no atomic weapon has been used since Nagasaki.

Generally, I really enjoy reading smart people I disagree with. It's a very helpful practice to try to understand, in good faith, why other people think different things than you. Pinker really burns that theory to the ground. Pinker writes as though he is trolling liberalism. Ostensibly he defends liberal values, but then he shits all over them with horrid, broken logic masked as intellectualism. Ug. I often really got angry at him, and the book was terribly frustrating to read.

While finding quotes and notes for my own review I came across this in Current Affairs, which is the best analysis of Pinker I've ever read, and I agree with pretty much every word.

I'm glad I read this book, but I'm never wasting another minute of my attention on Pinker.


Author Bio:

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. He grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard. Currently Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, he has also taught at Stanford and MIT. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his nine books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and writes frequently for The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications. His tenth book, to be published in February 2018, is called Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.