Magazine article The Spectator

'Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress', by Stephen Pinker - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress', by Stephen Pinker - Review

Article excerpt

Steven Pinker's new book is a characteristically fluent, decisive and data-rich demonstration of why, given the chance to live at any point in human history, only a stone-cold idiot would choose any time other than the present. On average, humans are by orders of magnitude healthier, wealthier, nicer, happier, longer lived, more free and better educated than ever before. Moreover, as Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure noted: 'Bowling averages are way up, minigolf scores are way down, and we have more excellent waterslides than any other planet we communicate with.'

Some of the many graphs in this book slant from the bottom left towards the top right, showing the rise of Good Things, and some of them (charting the decline of Bad Things) go the other way. But the gist of all of them is that something brilliant has been happening over time, and since the 18th century it has been happening very fast. It was pretty crap being alive in the 16th century, even if you were, say, the King. Nowadays, most poor people live better than even the potentates of old.

Is this obvious? Not as obvious as it should be. Various cognitive quirks (Pinker's academic specialisms are brain science and linguistics) incline us to gloom. The 'availability bias' means that if we've read about a bad thing recently we'll overestimate the likelihood of it happening to us. Pessimism -- possibly an adaptive trait, since you can't be too careful -- is baked into our worldview. Our news cycles run in hours rather than decades, and our news values (it bleeds, it leads) favour gloom and doom. Catastrophists and Jonahs -- the people Pinker calls 'progressophobes' -- make the intellectual weather. As he puts it ruefully, a pessimist sounds like they're trying to help you; an optimist sounds like they're trying to sell you something.

One of the most interesting things in his book is his emphasis on what economists call a Kuznets curve: a rebuke to the linear simplicifications of progressophobes who see industrialisation as heralding doom to the environment and devil-take-the-hindmost plutocracy. As industrial capitalism works its magic, inequality increases... but in due course goes down again: once lots of people are wealthy, they start to take an interest in education, social welfare nets and so forth. Likewise with the environment: society makes a great leap forward by belching coal smog and poisoning rivers... but once people are rich they start to take more interest in not choking half to death every time they step out of the front door. (I simplify a little. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.