Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker review – life is getting better

Now is the best time to be alive claims this bold defence of scientific rationality – if it matters, we’ll solve it

Wind turbines in a field of rapeseed

Steven Pinker places enlightenment and science on the right side over every argument.
Photograph: Getty Images

How do you write a manifesto for something that is already established? This might sound like a problem that confronts conservatives, but over the past 20 years or so it has become more of a riddle for progressives. One response is provided by the movement known as “new atheism”, which successfully assembled a band of science-loving devotees, but too often seemed to end up in a cul-de-sac of stale machismo and Islamophobia.

More pertinently, the failed 2016 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Remain demonstrated that, in the eyes of many people, “progress” simply meant more of the same. When people feel trapped and patronised by progress, then any alternative – even regress – will feel like freedom. Informing them that the policies of the past 40 years are still the best available starts to sound hopeless.

Steven Pinker’s answer to this problem is to double down on progress: the policies of the past 300 years are still the best available. Enlightenment Now is a bold, wonderfully expansive and occasionally irate defence of scientific rationality and liberal humanism, of the sort that took root in Europe between the mid-17th and late 18th century. With Donald Trump in the Oval Office, populists on the march across Europe and US campuses at the centre of yet another culture skirmish, the timing of the book requires little explanation.

Pinker is up for a fight, and his main weapon is quantitative data. Two thirds of the book, which is a kind of sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature, consists of chapter after chapter of evidence that life has been getting progressively better for most people. “How can we soundly appraise the state of the world?” he asks. “The answer is to count.” The litany of facts is awesome, covering health, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, democracy and on and on, though one wonders if there is any possible tipping point within this deluge where a doubter might suddenly be convinced.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker. Photograph: Brooks Kraft/Sygma via Getty Images

Various foes are swatted away, for misreading the facts or using suspect moral reasoning. The confidence with which Pinker tears through the issues that cause such deep anxiety today, such as rising inequality and global warming, is a compelling spectacle, although he relies on some questionable political manoeuvres. Ultimately, economic inequality “is not itself a dimension of human wellbeing”, he tells us, and that’s that. As for climate, we all need to calm down and open our minds to geo-engineering. If it matters, we’ll solve it.

Unlike his allies in the political sphere, he clearly isn’t troubled by the charge of elitism. Environmentalists “capitalise on primitive intuitions of essentialism and contamination among the scientifically illiterate public”, while research suggests that “most voters are ignorant not just of current policy options but of basic facts”. Pinker would no doubt argue that reason is not a popularity contest, and yet this is scarcely the way to win the public round to the progressive cause.

He is well aware that facts don’t settle political and ethical arguments, as much as he might like them to, and he reviews plenty of evidence to confirm this. The book is really a polemic, albeit one with a vast number of footnotes. With some deft intellectual moves, he manages to position “enlightenment” and “science” on the right side of every argument or conflict, while every horror of the past 200 years is put down to ignorance, irrationality or “counter-enlightenment” trends.

Take nuclear weapons, which on the face of it would suggest potentially catastrophic consequences of scientific “progress”. Pinker takes this challenge head on, but lapses into some fantastical arguments along the way. Scientists working on the first ever nuclear weapon only did so because they were each personally invested in beating Hitler, he informs us. “Quite possibly, had there been no Nazis, there would be no nukes.”

What he won’t countenance, but which theorists such as Max Weber, Hannah Arendt and Zygmunt Bauman pondered at length, is the notion that modern science lacks any ethical logic of its own. Could it not be that “progress” is both liberating and threatening? That rationality is dangerous precisely because of how hugely it expands human power? Even the most pessimistic social theorists of the last 150 years were not against enlightenment, so much as the machinery that it made available to less enlightened political forces, including capital.

This line of argument is rubbished as the obsession of “leftist intellectuals” and “postmodernists”, who are characterised in the most extraordinary terms as figures nostalgic for mills and mines “probably because they never worked in one”, who “poison voters” against progress, and believe “liberal democracy is the same as fascism” (the footnotes suddenly dry up at these points). The big reveal at the end of the book is of the single thinker whose ideas capture, and perhaps even cause, everything that is wrong with today’s world: Friedrich Nietzsche.

This is Pinker at his bluntest and least imaginative, suggesting that he has allowed American campus politics to get to him. The penultimate page of the book implores us to “finally, drop the Nietzsche”, to which the simple answer is “don’t feed the troll, Steven”. He seems frustrated that people show so little “gratitude” for the benefits that enlightenment has delivered them, and uses tales of disease, death and foul workplaces to convince us that now is the best time to be alive.

But is gratitude ever what progress depended on? Martin Luther King Jr could have been grateful not to be living in 1850s Louisiana, but where would that have got him? Surely it is an essential and welcome feature of modern societies that people are restless and dissatisfied, even as things improve. He argues that “notwithstanding the habitual self-flagellation by Western intellectuals about Western racism, it’s non-Western countries that are the least tolerant”, without considering that maybe some self-flagellation is therefore good.

The vice-like grip of Pinker’s reasoning derives from his curious relationship to intellectual history. Just as US politics gets trapped by the assumption that all major political questions were dealt with in 1787, Pinker has no real need of any philosopher after Immanuel Kant. Enlightenment becomes like a wind-up toy that we should just let run, as long as pesky “critics” can be cleared out of the way. Despite his contempt for populists, theocrats and de-growth environmentalists, he ultimately dismisses them as having already lost. In which case, why the manifesto?

Perhaps the answer lies in the occasional hints of existential angst. Pinker does identify three scientific theories that have arisen since the 18th century, and which form an indispensable part of the scientific imagination: evolution, entropy and information. Common to all is a sense of the tragic, that life lacks purpose, and will ultimately fall apart. The most stirring passages are those that reflect on what this means, on how unlikely progress is, rather than on its all-conquering logic.

Unlike Kant and the other high priests of the Enlightenment, today’s rationalist somehow has to make do without God or unfolding historical logic. This (as Nietzsche noted) makes science harder, not easier. The heroic ethos of science, of progress, is to carry on regardless, even in the knowledge that entropy will eventually win. Perhaps making this argument makes me a “leftist intellectual”, but I couldn’t help finding it a more appealing – even affecting – ethical pitch than the triumphalism that announces that the good guys have already won.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £11.89 (RRP £13.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.