Think of Aristotle’s “flourishing” as our human fulfillment. That aligns well with Steven Pinker’s argument in Enlightenment Now addressing “people who care about arguments.” Impatient with both the claims of traditional religious systems and of New Age “magical thinking,” he elaborates on a critique similar to that made last year by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland about the decline in rational thinking across the political spectrum in America. Defending “mainstream intellectual culture,” Pinker expands on his spiel published in 2011 as The Better Angels of Our Nature to prove—by about 85 charts over hundreds of pages—that progress and the goals of the Enlightenment matter most for our recognition of human advancement and critical thinking.

This Harvard professor of psychology begins by noting the Axial Age as spun into motion around 600 B.C.E. by the “energy capture” of more calories from agriculture. This soared to generate 20,000 units of dynamic activity a day in various forms. This growth in sophisticated thinking and social organization was enhanced by language, “the original memory app.” Countering entropy, information and evolution allow people to overcome a naturally “illiterate and innumerate” existence, while battling the specters of “blind justice” and sky-gods.

Pinker’s next section looks at progress. He translates data into drama, as when after a chart of declining infant mortality from 1751 to 2013 he eloquently reminds us of the tragedy and hope behind such dry measurements, within so many families past and present. He turns to the nuclear threat and finds it exaggerated; the Doomsday Clock’s a “propaganda stunt.” Pinker assures us that most terrorists are “bumbling schlemiels” and that “nuclear scare tactics” blind us to the success post-1945 of treaties and commonsense. As for the 45th President, Pinker eschews overestimating any apocalyptic outbreak and he puts such a leader in place as spawned by a current blip in “authoritarian populism.” He emphasizes the improvement overall in our stability and success due to “systematic forces” over centuries, and so he cautions the chattering classes at cafés and their social activist pals against “dystopian rhetoric” about passing politicians amidst media hype. He notes that the “alt-right” comprises 50,000 in the U.S., 0.02% of the population.

The warning about media frenzy continues through the lengthy third part, where reason, science and humanism—through a variety of fields and short chapters—scan considerable ground across not only the sciences but some of the humanities. Pinker may have, for all his erudition, stretched himself here beyond his vaunted expertise, but this is a popular book, meant to “defy any simple narrative” and to encourage reflective analyses. He’s encouraged by curricula promoting critical skills to thwart an endemic polarization in beliefs expressing “identity-protective cognition.” That is, when humans can’t let go of opinions long held for the outmoded likes of tribal glory and one’s personally elevated status within the in-crowd. This leftover default reaction we all inherit has weakened our ability to engage in rational public discourse. He suggests that the media depoliticize issues, distinguish facts from claims and detach news coverage from an imitation of extreme sports coverage by pundits when it comes to observing and promoting the political scene through journalism. Quixotic as this may be, it’s encouraging to hear this sensible proposal.

He draws on work by his partner, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, to bolster his refutation of theist proofs. He avers our ancestors were not always trustworthy. He sniffs that “dunce-cap history” dumbs down the plain fact that religion is not a source of morality. He reckons how scientists and philosophers might be, after all the myth and the mystical, right about the fundamental questions of existence. He shrugs away any notion that this universe is fine-tuned by a Creator. He figures we’re lucky to have won the equivalent of the cosmic jackpot, in our good fortune to live as if in a just-right Goldilocks system calibrated to generate and sustain us.

In some places the assertions flit by without necessary verification. For instance, early on Pinker asserts that IQ scores prove that we’re smarter than our ancestors by “two standard deviation points.” But in a paragraph where other information has documentation in end-notes, this particular point does not. The reader cannot know who determined this finding, nor the span during which this rise in intelligence has been determined. If we’re “smarter by 30 points than our ancestors,” has this been due to schooling and literacy or to other factors? This kind of reasoning exhibits the foundations upon which Pinker’s broad thesis rests, so one expects that each iota of detail supports his general assessment.

Enlightenment Now displays a bit of welcome wit and a sharp intellect at work. Pinker’s relentless rationalism may daunt more than it sways, as the mass of information here sweeps up seemingly all realms of knowledge. Even an Ivy League bestselling sage may tempt hubris as he tries to explain it all to us. Still, in a decade when divisions deepen and attitudes harden, getting beyond stereotypes, slogans, snark and sound-bites will reward the diligent reader. After all, as Pinker reiterates, neither romantic reactions nor reactionary ideologies will assist our survival. Our health increases, our longevity lengthens, our liberty broadens and our happiness soars. Pinker’s no Pangloss or Pollyanna, but he hammers home the evidence amassed and displayed that any problems with our predicament remain inevitable on the upward trajectory, if “defying any simple narrative.” As elucidated over 450 very closely printed pages of text and 75 additional pages of documentation, no catchphrases or naïve platitudes can capture the considerable and ever-increasing complexity of how humans continue to move forward.

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