Humanity is doing fine, just don’t ask about individual humans
BY: JENNIFER SZALAI
Steven Pinker doesn’t just want you to be happy; he wants you to be grateful too. His new book, “Enlightenment Now,” is a spirited and exasperated rebuke to anyone who refuses to concede that the world is becoming a better place. “None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become,” he writes. “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever.”
In the United States, this spectacular ingratitude is lamentably bipartisan, he says, shared by anti-establishmentarians on both sides who refuse to see the light: “Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause.” Of course, Pinker’s confidence in the righteousness of his own cause may come across as similarly beatific (he’s an atheist who’s confident enough to use the word “blessed” without a hint of irony), but as he repeatedly tells us, the evidence is on his side. Scientific discovery and technological developments have ensured that “everything is amazing.” He’s merely expounding the obvious.
Not so obvious, though, that he didn’t need to write a 550-page book to make his case. Pinker is a scientist — a psychologist, to be exact — and he prides himself on being thorough, valiantly fighting “progressophobia” with his voluble sentences and a fusillade of data. When he published “The Better Angels of Our Nature” in 2011, he believed he unequivocally showed that modernity and liberal Enlightenment values had made people less violent, and so he was taken aback by skeptical reviews that had the temerity to question his research methods or his conclusions.
“I had thought that a parade of graphs with time on the horizontal axis, body counts or other measures of violence on the vertical, and a line that meandered from the top left to the bottom right would cure audiences” of their delusions and “persuade them that at least in this sphere of well-being the world has made progress,” he recalls near the beginning of “Enlightenment Now.” But Pinker’s inability to “cure audiences” and “persuade them” doesn’t mean he has reconsidered his rhetorical approach; 300 pages after bemoaning those poor souls who read “Better Angels” and weren’t bowled over by his panoply of statistics, Pinker doubles down with still more data. “We have seen six dozen graphs that have vindicated the hope for progress by charting the ways in which the world has been getting better,” he writes.
To that end, Pinker offers numbers to show that the world has, on the whole, become safer, healthier and wealthier. These benefits are more pronounced in the West, but even in developing countries conditions have improved through impressive public health advances, including better maternal care and vaccination programs. Whereas many people used to die from something so basic as lack of access to food, today rates of chronic undernourishment and catastrophic famines are on the decline.
His optimism is resilient. Pinker expresses mild alarm about climate change, but he has faith in carbon pricing, nuclear energy and other proposals that “have been bruited about.” He also shows a modicum of concern about inequality, though he says we mistakenly conflate “inequality with unfairness,” when disparate outcomes should be “seen as a harbinger of opportunity, a sign that education and other routes to upward mobility might pay off.”
Besides, he has little patience for individual tragedy; it’s the aggregate that excites him. Even if manufacturing jobs have gone to China, “and the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class,” he still sees this as cause for celebration: “As citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the trade-off is worth it.”
But life isn’t lived in the aggregate, and it’s crude utilitarian sentiments like this — a jarring blend of chipper triumphalism and unfeeling sang froid — that makes “Enlightenment Now” such a profoundly maddening book.
Part of the problem is that Pinker succumbs to a version of the magical thinking he otherwise rails against. For all his intermittent disclaimers about how past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, he keeps slipping into messianic anticipation. “Though I am skittish about any notion of historical inevitability, cosmic forces or mystical arcs of justice,” he writes, “some kinds of social change really do seem to be carried along by an inexorable tectonic force.”
He admits that the presidency of Donald J. Trump might be a “setback” to the forward march of progress. But as long as he can consign Trump and authoritarian populism to “a pushback of elements of human nature,” he can stay in thrall to the wonders of “Enlightenment institutions” — and ignore the possibility that such institutions, with their blithe consolidation of power in the name of progress, might have helped to stoke such populist rage.
Such defensiveness is puzzling. Not only is it unscientific; it’s gratuitous, and Pinker ends up undermining his own arguments with a tendency to overstate his case. He is so determined to keep the Enlightenment unsullied and pristine that he seethes at anyone who deigns to point out that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, scolding “prophets of doom” like the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer for perpetrating “a demonization campaign” that drew a link between the Enlightenment project and fascism. He is especially piqued by those who observe that science was sometimes used to justify monstrous ends, including racism and eugenics.
In one particularly tortured passage, Pinker goes so far as to downplay the harm of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study — which tracked syphilis in 600 African-American men, many of them poor sharecroppers, withholding information and proper treatment from them — on the grounds that the doctors “did not infect the participants, as many believe.” The study, a “one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people” (as he breezily puts it) “may even have been defensible by the standards of the day.”
Why do this? Why not simply state that the study is a ghastly stain on the history of medicine? Despite the occasional warning that progress is “hard-won” and “perfect order” isn’t “the natural state of affairs,” Pinker’s book is filled with such fulsome apologias, which inadvertently suggest that the gains of the Enlightenment are so delicate that they require the historical gloss he compulsively provides.
There’s a noble kernel to Pinker’s project. He wants to discourage the kind of fatalism that leads people to think the only way forward is to tear everything down. But he seems surprisingly blind to how he fuels such fatalism by playing to the worst stereotype of the enlightened cosmopolitan: disdainful and condescending — sympathetic to humanity in the abstract but impervious to the suffering of actual human beings.