Optimistic: Steven Pinker, author and Harvard professor, laments nationalism and off-topic political discourses, and swats away terrorism and nuclear war in his chronicle of human achievement. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Optimistic: Steven Pinker, author and Harvard professor, laments nationalism and off-topic political discourses, and swats away terrorism and nuclear war in his chronicle of human achievement. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Paradoxes of the human condition include that as we live longer we grow more impatient; as we thrive we are smitten by ingratitude; and as we learn more we become impervious to reason.

As the writer GK Chesterton, the prince of paradox, phrased it: "The things we see every day are the things we never see at all."

Steven Pinker wants to open people’s eyes. In Enlightenment Now he presents a statistical barrage and information overload about human flourishing in the 250 years since the Enlightenment took hold.

Life expectancy, per capita GDP, education and dozens of other indicators have an identifiable factor underpinning them. "We even have a name for that factor: progress," he writes.

Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology and cognitive sciences, is renowned for seeing half-full glasses. His latest book is his most stridently optimistic and aggressively assertive, as though he has awoken to a realisation that, Atlas-like, he must hold up the world’s Progress lest it is torn asunder by ignorance, rampaging populism and false historical narratives that twist into destructive, postmodern propaganda. Vehement, often violent resistance to the forces of progress are age-old — and not only as a poorer-educated or lower-class groundswell.

Elite thinkers have consistently been at the forefront of counter-Enlightenment waves; intellectuals are not automatically imbued with empathy. Nor are great artists.

Eminent Romanticists were harshly antagonistic to humanism: according to 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire, "There are but three groups worthy of respect: the priest, warrior, and the poet. To know, to kill and to create."

Pinker aims at multiple targets to defend enlightened values and scientific achievements. Unsurprisingly, he laments nationalism, the ideological tribalism inherent in modern legislative systems, and the toxic, off-topic political discourse. He chastises populist leaders who smokescreen libertarianism but crave authoritarian power.

The book acknowledges a hiatus — even a decline — in the century-long trend towards global democracy. But he is unconcerned by the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit; they are supported mainly by an older generation, so the reactionary swing will be reversed because "sometimes society advances funeral by funeral".

He provides an astonishing interpretation of fake news, criticising Western media by referencing Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, who tracked a drop in the tone of positivity in influential US newspapers since the 1960s.

Pinker observes that if newspapers published only every 50 years they would not report crimes, local issues or celebrity snippets but would proclaim triumphantly on leaps in people’s lifespans, or the decline in the number of wars. He knows, surely, that a critical, investigative press — one that focuses on problems — is a cornerstone of political accountability and societal improvement?

There’s an irony in his criticism of the media and disdain for intellectualism: he displays his own strain of populist contempt and plays into the hands of politicians who resist liberal, progressive causes.

Religious faith is a notable target of his scorn. Lumped together with conventional wisdom and other forms of dogma, and Dunning-Kruger ignorance, it is "a generator of error and must be dismissed as a source of knowledge. There is no good reason to believe that God exists," he writes. Oddly, Pinker exhibits his own reliance on faith. In theorising on the nature of consciousness, he admits defeat: "[it] may have to be stipulated as a fact about reality where explanation stops".

But it is against academia that he unleashes his most adamant tirade. Pinker regards the intelligentsia as lily-livered on the Left, morally blinkered on the Right — and riddled with negativity bias, a cultural pessimism, across the spectrum. "Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressives’ really hate progress."

There’s an irony in his criticism of the media and disdain for intellectualism: he displays his own strain of populist contempt and plays into the hands of politicians who resist liberal, progressive causes.

Nevertheless, the numbers do prove humankind’s incredible advances in the past few centuries, and it strikes one that, like 100 or 200 years ago, counter-Enlightenment thinkers are not just pessimistic, but angry too.

Political scientist and philosopher John Gray rages against globalisation, modern gender roles and aspects of democracy. Provocative Canadian pop-psychologist Jordan B Peterson believes that happiness is pointless. Pinker is bound to be framed in their sights.

Just as obviously, Enlightenment Now can be criticised for its oversimplification of history. The Enlightenment on its own did not push societal and moral betterment. Behind social justice crusades were courageous people who had to fight — and sometimes die — for their beliefs in equality, human rights, improved working conditions, or the vote.

And often they had to battle against supposedly science-based barriers (eugenics, for example) or the brutal face of progress (slavery, colonialism or uncaring, unfettered capitalism).

Pinker is in his own elitist intellectual bubble. His panacea for all the challenges of these times is the problem-solving nature and ability of human ingenuity and imagination.

This causes him to be flippant about real current issues such as rising income inequality, the human impact — especially refugee crises — of ongoing wars, anthropogenic climate change and the implications of artificial intelligence.

Even terrorism is swatted away. The numbers are certainly cause for sensible, contextual relief — in 2015 terrorism killed 38,000 people, one-twelfth the number of worldwide homicides and a fraction of a percent of the number of accidents — but this endless positivity of data as a smorgasbord of Pollyannaism mutates into a shade of hubristic sarcasm that erodes his supposed celebration of humanity’s advances. There’s a degree of cold-heartedness, too, in his dismissal of the potential doomsday horror of nuclear war: "A little proportion please — even Hiroshima continues to exist!"

Nonetheless, Enlightenment Now is gratifying in many respects, superbly documented and persuasively argued, and makes one feel better about the world. Many will not share Pinker’s bulletproof belief in the benefits of free markets and benevolent entrepreneurial tycoons, or a blind trust in the ethics of scientists.

And in its myriad metrics and utopia of Reason there is a joyless Rule by Numbers.

Pinker urges us onwards in the pursuit of happiness, but in its anti-intellectual and anti-humanities stance, Enlightenment Now is an often-sterile litany of what we have made, rather than what we are.

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