Pinker gets plaudits in NYT Sunday Book Review

I’m about 175 pages (about 40%) into Steve Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, and I like it a lot.  It’s best thought of as a continuation and expansion of his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, for in this book Pinker fleshes out his presentation of the case for moral, social, and health improvement of humanity, as well as arguing that that progress has been effected by the four “Enlightenment values” listed in the book’s title. As with all of Pinker’s books, it’s very well written, even though some people may think the data—which are essential to make his case—make the read a bit tedious. Both books, though, are essential reading for liberals and humanists, as well as those “anti-progressives” who claim that everything is getting worse. If you want to argue with his thesis, you have to argue with his data, and that’s hard to do.

I’ve followed the reviews of Enlightenment Now as they’ve appeared, and they’ve been mixed. Although I consider Steve a friend, I don’t think my bias is reflected in my opinion that the negative reviews are by people who haven’t read the book (and thus criticize it for things that Steve either didn’t say or did say as caveats), didn’t absorb the lesson of his data, or reject his whole thesis because the reviewers a). can’t bring themselves, for ideological reasons, to believe the world is getting better or b). reject the use of reason and science as the groundwork for solving humanity’s problems. John Gray’s review in The New Statesman, damning Pinker for “scientism,” is an example of both issues. There are also those who, not having read the book, dislike Pinker so much that they take his words out of context to smear him. The reviews themselves are a microcosm of the opprobrium attached by postmodernists and curmudgeons to reason and objective truth.

The book is also long by today’s standards—450 pages of text—and in these days of YouTube videos and limited attention spans, that could also put some people off. But don’t be! The time you spend reading will be repaid; even if you disagree with some of Pinker’s ideas, the book makes you think, and that’s the best reason to read it.

I was glad to see that today’s New York Times Book Review section has a positive review of the new book on its front page (click on picture below to see it). The review is by Sarah Bakewell, a British nonfiction writer.

Bakewell anticipates some of the criticism the book will arouse, for, as you know, Pinker has no truck with either Trumpism or the Authoritarian Left (some have called him “alt-right”, which is completely wrong):

This book will attract some hammering itself: It contains something to upset almost everyone. When not attacking the populist right, Pinker lays into leftist intellectuals. He is especially scathing about newspaper editorialists who, in 2016, fell over themselves in their haste to proclaim the death of Enlightenment values and the advent of “post-truth.” His (rather too broadly painted) targets include humanities professors, postmodernists, the politically correct and anyone who has something nice to say about Friedrich Nietzsche. “Progressive” thinkers seem to consider progress a bad thing, he claims; they reject as crass or naïve “the notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering.”

But in the end, Bakewell offers a strong endorsement:

Bertrand Russell once pointed out that maintaining a sense of hope can be hard work. In the closing pages of his autobiography, with its account of his many activist years, he wrote: “To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” Steven Pinker’s book is full of vigor and vim, and it sets out to inspire a similar energy in its readers.

He cites one study of “negativity bias” that says a critic who pans a book “is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it.” I will just have to take that risk: “Enlightenment Now” strikes me as an excellent book, lucidly written, timely, rich in data and eloquent in its championing of a rational humanism that is — it turns out — really quite cool.

I agree, though I’m not quite halfway in.


  1. Craw
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    4 hours in to the Audible version. Great stuff so far, as I expected. He gives a shout out to another such great book, The Rational Optimist by Ridley.

    • Geoff Toscano
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      Hmm, I wasn’t overly impressed by Rational Optimist, which is very much an attack on the science of climate change. I have, however, seen Pinker and Ridley share sides in a debate, and they are both lucid and thoughtful.

      I’m looking forward to reading the Pinker book, however, as he is a much more compelling writer than Ridley.

  2. Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    The cartoonist who did the graphic for the article doesn’t seem to agree with the review or the book.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Interesting thought – I see what you mean. It must be very difficult to produce an image that encapsulates the whole thesis of such a book & I assume he was guided by the book description he must have got from the commissioning NYT editor. JUDGING BY HIS WEBSITE IMAGERY [worth a look] Gabriel Alcala’s commercial work is full of death themes & ironic juxtapositions, executed in the bright colours of his sun-soaked Miami.

  3. Robert Bray
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    ‘Enlightenment Now’ is very much worth the considerable investment of time and mind needed to read it. The book now takes its place on my short shelf of recent big-thinking volumes, along with ‘The Big Picture’ and (ahem) F vs.F, that have influenced my thought and, I hope, will influence my action in the time I have left in the world.

    • David Evans
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it! Those are also 3 of my most influential books. I’m re-reading The Big Picture at the moment. Not quite convinced by his argument that we know enough physics to rule out an immortal soul, but that’s a minor point.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 4, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        Where do you think the gap might lie in Carroll’s reasoning about the non-existence of the immortal soul? HERE is his 2011 blog post on the matter [pun intended] 🙂

        His thesis is that although the Standard Model is incomplete, the feasible interactions, yet to be discovered, occur at energies that can’t interact [send/receive data] with our material beings at a bandwidth that allows our ‘soul’ to be encoded in real time e.g. gravitational waves, dark energy, dark matter, quantum this & that can’t capture marvellous ‘you’ at all & if a known interaction could encode ‘you’ it would be detectable as an energy/particle deficit easily enough

        I’m reminded of my dad who believed there was such a thing as deadweight that is a dead person or unconscious person weighed more than a live/conscious person. This is sorta the opposite of expectations if one felt consciousness ‘lived’ within the soul & had a weight, but I think he was confusing the awkwardness of moving a floppy thing with some RCC bullshit that infected my family. He also believed in gravitational perpetual motion machines, you can’t sing well sitting down & foreigners understand LOUD Irish etc 🙂

        • Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

          I would like to hear that too. I think Carroll’s argument is quite convincing.

  4. Brad
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Based on your recommendation, I purchased the book. EXCELLENT! I review medical scientific articles daily & pass the information along to my superiors, subordinates & students — THIS BOOK IS WELL RESEARCHED WITH EXCELLENT REFERENCES. I challenge those nattering nabobs of negativity (used to hate that expression) to actually read the references. Dr. Pinker is also an outstanding writer/expositor.

  5. BJ
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Bertrand Russel has been my absolute favorite philosopher since I was sixteen years old. Russel is the only philosopher who has survived the process of my intellect and mind maturing to become more open skeptical over the years. Every other philosopher I thought brilliant in my teenage years and early twenties has dropped precipitously in my esteem for them except for Russel. Pinker is in good company when it comes to his opinion of Nietzsche, as Russel had much contempt for that man’s work as well:

    I do still admire a lot of Nietzsche’s work, though, as I’m not the optimist Pinker is or Russel was.

    It saddens me to think 450 pages is considered long — even too long —
    these days.

    • Jake Sevins
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Bertrand Russell has two “L”s, not one. I normally wouldn’t reply with such a trivial comment, but since he’s your all-time favorite, thought you wouldn’t mind a friendly correction. 🙂

  6. Austin Johnson
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    It’s entertaining to see people like PZ Myers state that they’ll never bother to read the book, and yet spend so much time criticizing what’s in it. Steven Pinker’s positions, which are clearly stated in Enlightenment Now, have been misrepresented by so many people “reviewing” the book. I’m about half way through it and it appears as though a considerable number of the book’s detractors couldn’t have read it, given that some of their criticisms are directly addressed in the book.

    • Harrison
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      I’m surprised he didn’t claim to have read it just as he claimed to have watched the entirety of Pinker’s recent interview that he freely and joyfully mischaracterized as well.

      Tangential, but I once read Myers’s book, which took me less than an hour because it was so brief and lacking in substance. I still feel robbed of my time to this day.

    • nicky
      Posted March 5, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      The thing is that Steve Pinker did not actually defend the Tuskogee study. He points out it was started in 1932, well before -at least a decade- there was an effective treatment (penicillin) (correct), and that the then existing ‘therapies’ (arsenic) were dangerous (correct). And that some ‘black’ scientists were involved (I’ll take his word there). And that by the standards of the time it was not completely indefensible (correct). He also specifically states it would not be acceptable in present times (correct), reinforcing his thesis that we are improving.
      I cannot find any fault with Pinker’s assessment, which is overall negative.
      Mr Meyers attack about ‘defending the Tuskogee study’ is neither here nor there.

  7. Bob Murray
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Below is a YouTube video of Pinker with Stephen Fry (who looks well despite his recent illness).

  8. Joe Dickinson
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    It’s on my Kindle, next up after the library book I’m trying to finish. I’m looking at a long plane ride next week (Australia), might be good for that.

  9. Historian
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    I accept provisionally Pinker’s use of statistics and data to prove that the world has gotten considerably better for most people over the last century or so. The larger question is whether this history justifies Pinker’s optimism about the future. As I have argued in my comments to previous posts, trends are not destiny. For example, at the turn of the century, it seemed that democracy was on the march everywhere. Noted political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a highly discussed and controversial book “The End of History and the Last Man,” in which he argued that the world seemed to be heading toward a consensus that liberal democratic capitalism was the way to go. Now, the opposite is happening. The president of China may now serve for life. As respected foreign affairs reporter Robin Wright notes in the New Yorker, “Over the past year, the most striking global trend has been the entrenchment of imperious autocrats.” Seemingly irresistible trends suddenly do not seem so irresistible.

    In a mixed review of Pinker’s book in Nature, Ian Goldin asserts: “I share Pinker’s optimism that this could be our best century, in which poverty and many of the challenges humanity has historically confronted are addressed. Yet there is also a real potential for dystopian outcomes as sea levels, strife, temperatures and resistant infections rise, and biodiversity, democratic institutions, social ties, mental health and resource security are eroded. We need to face up to these and other daunting challenges while nurturing the positivity required to tackle them.”

    Due to the increasing technological interconnectivity of the world, a rogue state such as North Korea can bring on a worldwide catastrophe. This was not possible earlier than August 6, 1945. Can science and reason prevent this? Can we be confident that world leaders will be rational enough to step away from the precipice of Armageddon? I hope so, but for me the evidence for this is not overwhelming. I think the next two or three decades will answer these questions. For example, Trump may just be a bump in the road to an even better world, or the agent of a disaster that the world will not easily recover from.

    • Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Pinker actually addresses your concerns in the book. His thesis is not that we should be complacent, and not that no disaster can happen, but that things have gotten better with reason and science, and they need to be applied to the problems that face us, for no other tools will work. He doesn’t say they’re guaranteed to work, though.

      • nicky
        Posted March 5, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink


    • Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

      the World Inequality Report

    • Posted March 5, 2018 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      The way I see what he’s doing in EN and the previous volume is *attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophecy* of a good kind.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Keep meliorism alive!

    • Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      Thanks! I had never heard that word before. Let meliorism reign!

  11. Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I haven’t yet read Pinker’s book but I am totally behind his thesis. In fact, one reason I’m slow to read it is because I am already convinced. (Another reason is my to-be-read shelf is overflowing.)

    I take every opportunity to point people at Pinker’s work in this area. Often people are truly surprised that the world is getting better in so many ways but it requires a long view and one must ignore some big current problems such as global warming and Trumpism.

    One of the major sources of push-back to Pinker’s positive ideas is fear that embracing them will result in a less aggressive response to our current and very real problems.

    • Historian
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      How can one take a long view regarding the future state of the world while ignoring climate change? Are you saying you believe that world leaders have the wisdom and will to solve this problem?

      • Posted March 4, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

        I see your point. It does take a long view to recognize the progress Pinker talks about AND to appreciate the threat of global warming.

        No, I don’t believe world leaders are going to react sufficiently to counter global warming. Pinker’s suggestion is that we rely on geo-engineering. Maybe, but I have my doubts it will happen. or, if it does, it will be too late to avoid the effects. What is more likely is that humanity will adjust and the results will become the new normal.

        • Historian
          Posted March 4, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          Humanity will have no choice but to adapt to whatever the world will look like if climate change is not addressed. But this world will almost certainly be rather unpleasant for most people and mark the end of progress that Pinker has chronicled.

          • Posted March 4, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

            Maybe but it is notoriously hard to guess what the future holds and even harder to guess what future people will think about their circumstances. That said, please don’t take this as an argument for inaction.

  12. M&S
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I am looking forward to reading the book. By instinct (and evidence) I incline towards Pinker’s point of view. However I am interested to see how he addresses climate change and our ability to mitigate and adapt to it. Its a challenge that stretches my optimistic nature.

  13. Martin X
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I listened to the audio version; I will probably buy a hardback for the shelf.

    I saw criticism by some physicists of Pinker’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. They were particularly taking issue with his claim that the 2nd Law claims pollution is inevitable.

    I was also skeptical of his claim that the 2nd Law means that genome mutations were inevitable.

    • mikeyc
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      He’s correct about mutation.

      • Martin X
        Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

        How do you know?

        • mikeyc
          Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

          Many mutations are the result of error prone DNA damage repair mechanisms*. DNA can be damaged by a large number of ways and one of them is the thermodynamic breakdown of chemical bonds; the bases which comprise a DNA strand will breakdown spontaneously at a low rate. This damage must be repaired and it’s done in an error prone way. That’s mutation.

          *the error prone quality of DNA repair is arguably one of the most important fundamental drivers of evolutionary change. In addition to DNA rearrangements, excisions and deletions, it is responsible for the raw material that selection can work on.

          • Martin X
            Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

            The 2nd law applies to isolated systems. Is our genome an isolated system?

            • mikeyc
              Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

              Heres how I see it. The 2nd law applies to all systems, closed or not. How one uses the law to describe or predict the behavior of the system depends on its openness but the law still applies. In this case, the relevant form of the law states in all spontaneous processes, total entropy must increase. Some DNA damage is due to spontaneous breakdown of molecular bonds in DNA and that happens because of the second law – entropy can be locally decreased (an enzyme used energy to create the bond) but ultimately entropy must increase.

              I welcome critique

              • Martin X
                Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

                The 2nd law only applies to isolated systems if it’s expressed as “entropy >= 0”.

                Yes, if you allow for energy transfers across the boundary, you can say that the 2nd law still applies, but you can’t express it the same way as above.

                You just can’t have it both ways.

                I think that the genome could be duplicated perfectly as long as the overall entropy in the universe increased, just as we transmit exabytes of data in our world with no errors.

                I suspect that genome has errors because natural selection targeted the optimal degree of perfection required.

          • mikeyc
            Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

            “..insertions and deletions…”


          • Martin X
            Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

            Is our genome an isolated system?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      Martin X:

      “I was also skeptical of his claim that the 2nd Law means that genome mutations were inevitable”

      Hi Martin. Can you provide a Pinker quote from his book that supports your remark? I’m interested in the context. I’ve found this by Pinker adapted from the Edge 2017 Annual Question, but it doesn’t go into genome mutations: Steven Pinker on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Why things fall apart in the physical world and in our world, too.

      The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy always increases over time. Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid monotony and stay there.

      The Second Law is acknowledged in everyday life in sayings such as “Things fall apart,” “You can’t unscramble an egg,” and “What can go wrong will go wrong.”

      In 1915, the physicist Arthur Eddington wrote, “The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of nature.” Why the awe for the Second Law? I believe that it defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind and striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.

      The Second Law also implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The human mind naturally thinks that when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone must have wanted them to happen. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future.

      The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail. Matter doesn’t spontaneously arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things don’t jump onto our plates to become our food. What needs to be explained is not poverty but wealth.

      An underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that the world is being driven off a cliff. But it is in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. It’s better to figure out how to solve them, by applying information and energy to expand our niche of life-enhancing order, than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

      • Martin X
        Posted March 4, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        I have the audio version, so I can’t provide the exact quote or location. I plan to buy the hardback, but I’ll probably order it used and it will take a while.

        It is a common criticism of laymen using the 2nd law when they understand it as “disorder”; while that communicates the flavor of what we’re talking about, it leads one to apply it to human concepts of disorder, like one’s bedroom. It’s not clear to me that defects in the genome necessarily increase entropy, because that relies on human concepts of order.

        It’s more correct to say that molecules move spontaneously from less probable arrangements to more probable arrangements, and it is surely possible that mutations might decrease entropy rather than increase it.

        Regardless, the genome is only a small piece of the entire universe, and entropy can be decreased in a small area as long as the entropy in the universe increases.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted March 4, 2018 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

          Pinker is using the Information Theory definition of entropy when he writes about the genome. I’ve just found two relevant passages in the ebook version, but neither is quite how you interpret it. Below is the first one where he’s discussing mortality in aged people & the chances of achieving immortality:

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted March 4, 2018 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          And the second one I’ve found is in reference to an organism & its ancestors. Here it is:

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Martin X:

      “I saw criticism by some physicists of Pinker’s understanding (or lack thereof) of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. They were particularly taking issue with his claim that the 2nd Law claims pollution is inevitable”

      This is what Pinker wrote on the subject in a Winter, 2018 essay HERE & it is almost word-for-word what he writes in his book:

      Ecomodernism begins with the realization that some degree of pollution is an inescapable consequence of the second law of thermodynamics. When people use energy, they must increase entropy elsewhere in the environment in the form of waste, pollution, and other forms of disorder. The human species has always been ingenious at doing this — that’s what differentiates us from other mammals — and it has never lived in harmony with the environment. When native peoples first set foot in an ecosystem, they typically hunted large animals to extinction, and often burned and cleared vast swaths of forest.

      In what way do some physicists claim this to be untrue & who are they by name so I can look up what they’ve said?

  14. mirandaga
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    For a more conservative but relatively intelligent take on Pinker’s book, there’s this:

  15. Marou
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    One of the reasons why Pinker’s views attract such opprobrium is because optimism is so uncool. At the climax of a highly-regarded book/film of the 60s – The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner – the hero, a young criminal, throws a race in order to ‘stick it to the man’, the governor of the institution in which he is incarcerated who had encouraged him to develop a talent for athletics. I never understood the critical applause this gesture received but reading the dismalist Grey makes it only too clear that pessimism is so much more ‘authentic’ than optimism whatever the data may say.

  16. Posted March 4, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. Bakewell review good. Loved her 2010book for those of us too lazy to read collected Montesquieu

  17. Posted March 4, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m up to page 360 – it’s a great book, as one expects from the erudite, clear thinking Pinker. In an interview on YouTube Pinker says that he is not an optimist, just accurate. It’s refreshing to read this type of factual analysis – ‘the data indicates so-and-so, so let’s explore what that might mean’.

    The opposite of ideology.


  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Well, I loathe post-modernism and political correctness, though I still DO have (a few) good things to say about Friedrich Nietzsche.

    I’m more or less on board with Pinker but I rather like C.S. Lewis quote “Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing.” (This is from a novel that George Orwell viewed very favorably, though it is far easier to defend the Narnia CHronicles to readers of WEIT than this one “THat Hideous Strength”.)

    The comic strip “Dead Philosophers in Heaven” (a close cousin to the Existential Comics cited last week by Jerry here) has a strip in which Nietzsche says to Ayn Rand, “Everyone mentions the [Nazi] atrocities, but just once I’d like to hear ‘Hey Friedrich, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a great film. Thanks for all you’ve done for humanity.”

  19. Posted March 4, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I shall have to start Pinker’s book, as a welcome antidote to Dorothea’s dithering in Middlemarch which I’m reading. (I want to tell that girl to RUN!)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      A great book! Don’t worry about Dorothea – she’s more than a “Dot” & less than a saint [which is good]

      • Posted March 4, 2018 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

        I love the sophisticated turns of language of course, Eliot being consummately masterful. I was getting worried about Dorothea, so thanks for the spoiler. 😉 You are not shy about that! I shall persevere.

        • Posted March 5, 2018 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          Middlemarch is good to very good for hundreds and hundreds of pages, but then it becomes fantastic for the last part.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 4, 2018 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        You might want to declare war on me then Smoked, so here’s my video reply below 🙂

        • Posted March 5, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          Cute (though I’m off Eastwood these days).
          Here’s my new strategy:
          I shall read both books in tandem, but in reverse order, last chapter first.

          • nicky
            Posted March 6, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

            I think Pinker’s optimism is more about human rights and improvement of living standards than climate change.
            In the US there maybe some mentally ill equipped people in power now, but that won’t last forever. I think in 20-30 years from now the bulk of our energy use will be solar (the only reasonable & feasible solution), Islamic fundamentalism may still be a threat. The North Korean slave state will probably have ceased to exist.
            ‘Predicting is difficult, especially the future’ (A quote ascribed to many, from Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra), but I’m still opimistic.

          • nicky
            Posted March 6, 2018 at 11:03 am | Permalink

            Oops that comment went to the wrong place. Btw, Im not sure, but isn’t smoked paprika and chipotle the same thing?

            • Posted March 6, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

              Different animals:
              “Chipotle powder is made from smoked dried jalapeño peppers, so that earthy tone that’s so important to the substitution is there in spades. But know, you’ll also get some extra heat in the bargain. Smoked paprika is normally mild, made from chili peppers further down the Scoville scale than the medium heat jalapeño. “

  20. Andrea Kenner
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Bakewell’s review actually got me to purchase the book. I had been sitting on the fence. I got only about halfway through The Better Angels of Our Nature, but I couldn’t finish, because the thought “Yeah, but what about Donald Trump” kept running through my head. I’m willing to try this new book knowing that it addresses that very concern1

  21. Dionigi
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Thoroughly enjoyed the book but was disappointed when with my reader still showing 54% the book ended, the rest being the notes that backed up the facts in the book.

  22. Hemidactylus
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    I am part way in but heard a bit ahead about Pinker’s cringeworthy treatment of the syphilis *experiments* (not singular-see below) on another blog not beloved here. He talks about Tuskegee and says “The researchers, many of them African American or advocates of African American health and well-being, did not infect the participants, as many people believe” and later “it equated a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people with the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century in perpetuity.”

    Holy shit. Sorry. I find some value in Pinker’s broader approach albeit overly rose-tinted optimism and perhaps uncritically cherry picked bulldozing and motivated reasoning in the previous book, but must I mention Guatemala to frickin refute the one-time thing. My understanding is Science actively infected people in that latter case. Serious error of omission that.

    BTW I am enjoying Jerry’s reading suggestion of Rauol Martinez’s _Creating Freedom_. I am woke. Martinez relates some elitist presentation by Samuel Huntington to the Trilateral Commission about democracy devolving to much to the people. Then following up I found this:

    “Forced draft urbanization (sometimes called “Forced draft modernization”) was a policy elaborated by Samuel P. Huntington in a 1968 article “The Bases of Accommodation” published in the journal Foreign Affairs,[1] which described a strategy of carpet-bombing and defoliating the rural lands and jungles of Vietnam, so that peasants there would be unable to support themselves and would be forced to move into the city, thus weakening the support base of the Viet Cong.[2][3]”

    I feel ill. That is sick stuff. Clash of civilizations. His elitist pal
    Zbig got us started in Afghanistan under Carter, but I don’t recall him ever being that twisted.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 4, 2018 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      You are part way into the book, but disapprove of a bit you haven’t read yet?

      You don’t approve because of partial quotes & commentary supplied by PZ Myers? Without the possibly essential context of those quotes? [we both know PZ quote-mines the way he breathes air]

      Is that what you just wrote or is my beer too good?

      • Hemidactylus
        Posted March 4, 2018 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

        I read enough of the surrounding context and did a text keyword search that demonstrated Pinker’s noncoverage of Guatemala syphilis experiment. Guatemala happened. That’s not an SJW distortion. Of course anyone who follows PZ’s blog is an unthinking regressive leftist* and Pinker is above all criticism.

        *-coined by Nawaz for a narrower application than its present co-opted usage

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 4, 2018 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

        I am not defending Pinker – I haven’t read his book. I don’t have a clue if he’s talking nonsense in places & selecting his data or being badly misrepresented. However, I AM ‘attacking’ you [in a friendly way] for quoting quotes from Pinker’s book rather than waiting until you’ve read them first hand. That is my beef with you. Here below is the complete passage from Pinker – I got it by screenshotting Amazon books’ ebook version. We are now both on firmer ground I think!:


        • Posted March 5, 2018 at 1:48 am | Permalink

          Thanks for supplying the context. It refutes the quote miners.

          • Hemidactylus
            Posted March 5, 2018 at 3:23 am | Permalink

            Quote mines? Given both were relevant to deliberate *infection* of people with syphilis *another* time in Guatemala (vs Tuskegee) you might want to rethink.

            • josh
              Posted March 5, 2018 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

              Hemidactylus, in view of the full quote posted above you seem to be way off-base. Pinker is referencing the views of “a colleague” who summed up the legacy of science as small-pox vaccine vs. the Tuskegee Syphilis study. Pinker’s point is that this is a frivolous comparison that expresses no sense of proportionality or causality. He’s right. Adding in another, more unethical study like the Guatemala experiment does not change the point, and it’s not an omission by Pinker, who is only giving an example. Why not criticize him for not including the polio vaccine in his discussion here?

              If Pinker was arguing that the Tuskegee experiment (or others!) was beyond criticism because of successes elsewhere, you would have a legitimate criticism. But I don’t think that’s his point.

              • Hemidactylus
                Posted March 5, 2018 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

                I think it is legitimate to add Guatemala as it is part of a tableau along with Tuskegee and the Terre Haute prison experiments. Check out this guys resume:


                Now just focusing on Tuskegee alone Pinker says:
                “one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people with the prevention of hundreds of millions of deaths per century in perpetuity.”

                Compare to:

                “By the end of the study in 1972, only 74 of the test subjects were alive. Of the original 399 men, 28 had died of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.”

                It is an error of omission well placed in context given what Pinker said about Tuskegee not involving deliberate infection with syphilis. Guatemala contrasts and tags along on the coat tails, especially with Pinker’s jarring “one time failure” assumption.


                “Doctors infected soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, without the informed consent of the subjects, and treated most subjects with antibiotics. This resulted in at least 83 deaths.[2] In October 2010, the U.S. formally apologized to Guatemala for conducting these experiments.”

                Now in a book that careens along with many good points made about progress in endeavors in science and whatnot, that is one hell of a jarring pot hole, regardless of how Pinker wants to portray it from the mouth of his disproportionately thinking colleague.

                On the plus side Pinker gets kudos for recognizing a truly disproportionate response to Islamic terror: “[People] think that Islamist terrorism is a major risk to life and limb, whereas the danger is smaller than that from wasps and bees.” That should be on a bumper sticker and plastered far and wide.

                I didn’t say the whole book was bad and I am probably less hostile to Pinker than on the other blog, but this one really struck me. Not afraid to get run over by a bandwagon of pep squad members plowing at high speed downhill. I am a jaded cynic. Pinker is not.

              • josh
                Posted March 5, 2018 at 10:53 pm | Permalink


                Thanks, but I can read Wikipedia entries on my own and this isn’t new information to me. I’m neither cheer-leading the book, which I haven’t read, nor telling you the right degree of cynicism or optimism to hold. I *am* saying I don’t see any great sin of omission here. Pinker is using the Tuskegee experiment as an example, he accurately describes it, his point is sound. What more do you want? As a man whose method is to collate data on historical violence, I’m pretty sure he’s aware of more bad things done in the name of progress.

                It’s seems you want him to say, “[The Tuskegee Experiment, although misunderstood in the popular imagination, was unethical and in fact one of a few related studies carried out on venereal diseases, at least one of which did involve deliberately infecting unknowing patients]. But the point is that the entire equation is morally obtuse, showing the power of Second Culture talking points to scramble a sense of proportionality. My colleague’s comparison assumed that the Tuskegee study [or the few other comparable cases] was an unavoidable part of scientific practice, as opposed to universally deplored breach[es], and it equated [individual] failure[s] to [follow ethical medical practices] to [possibly several hundred] people with the prevention of millions of deaths per century in perpetuity.”

                I don’t see how this adds anything. If you can see his point about Islamic terrorism, then I think you can see it about the fatuous Tuskegee comparison. After all, Islamic terrorism outright killed more people in one incident than were harmed by the studies you cite.

            • nicky
              Posted March 6, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

              I wasn’t even aware of the Guatemala ‘study’, but it is very different from the Tuskogee study.
              Even by the standards of the time it was deeply unethical. Deliberately infecting someone with a disease, without extensive informed consent, in order to find out how effective a therapy is, is anathema to all of medical ethics. And it was as unethical in the 1940’s too.
              The only positive I can find there is that Penicillin is indeed extremely effective against Treponema pallidum, and still is. No resistance ever found, which is, btw, kinda strange.

              • Michael Fisher
                Posted March 6, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

                I found your comment about the continued effectiveness of PCN against syphilis very interesting – 70 years or so. I had no idea. I googled & found this:

                “The short answer is that we don’t know,” says Steve Norris, a microbiologist with McGovern Medical School at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

                But scientists like Norris and Stamm have some educated guesses. It could be because the bacterium just isn’t capable of importing genes the way others are. […] Plus, he says, “In the world of bacteria, T. pallidum is a loner.” It bores down under the skin and stays there, whereas other bacteria would tend to congregate on the surface of the skin and in crowded places like the intestines or mucous membranes. So even if it could pick up genetic packages, T. pallidum doesn’t have many opportunities to rub up against other organisms and do so.

                And because the organism is also extremely fragile, penicillin tends to wipe them all out, leaving no survivors to pass along possibly advantageous mutations.


                An aside: I read the Wiki on Fleming’s discovery of PCN. Surprised it was discovered as early as 1928 & yet not mass produced effectively until the early ’40s & it ramped up so quickly that by June 1945, over 646 BILLION units per year were being produced! The Wiki puts the delay partially at the feet of Fleming for being a famously poor communicator [I ain’t criticising the man].

    • Posted March 5, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      “Science” actively infected people? Sexually? I hear “science” also performed all the Nazi experiments on Jews and “Science” invented weapons of mass destruction. “Science” sounds horrible. Perhaps we should kill it.

      • Hemidactylus
        Posted March 5, 2018 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

        Science can do good and bad. I am pro GMO, but a bit put off by patents. The power structure served by some sorts of science and resulting technology is dubious. Science gave us oxy’s and fentanyl patches. Huge crisis.

        I’ve been actually focusing more on _Creating Freedom_ by Rauol Martinez than Pinker’s book. The parts on illusion of control are bleak. And I am not talking about free will versus determinism, but the evolution of corporate hegemony. While Pinker is touting how much better things are getting, Martinez is talking Bernays and Lippman manufacturing consent of the governed via media technology and the science of manipulation and the parallel course taken by the emergence of corporate personhood. And Jerry talked of that book on a previous thread. It ramps my jaded cynicism into the stratosphere popping the Pinker bubble.

        I am reading Pinker’s chapter on humanism for contrast with Kitcher, Lindsay, and Kurtz. Maybe he will cure my present sense of futile powerlessness as a citizen.

  23. Hemidactylus
    Posted March 4, 2018 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    BTW PZ didn’t address Guatemala. Someone else did in the comments. And given I was already aware of that I wondered if Pinker addressed it given the relevance.

    And quoting myself on PZ’s blog from a previous thread on Pinker’s book:

    “One point made by Pinker as far as I have read is something those of us who aren’t alt-med and anti-vax may still take for granted. Many of us “regressive snowflakes” are here to whine about his book because we haven’t been cut down by stuff that is better preventable in our time period. Raise your hand if you think you might have already succumbed to maternal death in childbirth, childhood illness, famine/starvation, or childhood illness several generations ago. I never contracted smallpox or polio, but a generation before me were more at threat. I get flu shots for personal protection and a sense of personal responsibility. This year has been a rough one though, regardless.
    Pinker is too optimistic, but he does focus on what humans (albeit wearing Western biased lenses) have gotten right. And I am not sure he has adequately addresses his critics from the previous book. Though his invocation of Singer’s expanding circle and notions such as reading fiction as a byproduct of improved literacy has increased general levels of interpersonal sympathy in the everyday world have made me pause and reflect. He has warts, but taken with a grain of salt he has some interesting stuff (excluding the cringeworthy).

    Another way to look at it is how people worry how the plastic containers holding bottled water may release somewhat dangerous chemicals with long term effects but at least we are not drinking water from a fouled natural, untreated source with sickening or deadly short term effects.

    The Enlightenment had its counterpoles. Burkean conservatism was one if we are conflating Enlightenment with the Jacobin strand of French Revolution that imprisoned Paine. That conservative counterrevolution (contra Paine) leads to Buckley. And ironically Glenn Beck fashioned himself after Paine.
    Romanticism was another. And that antipode was distant predecessor to anti-reason aspects of post-modernism. And that antipode arguably if you follow the volkstory provided by Viereck in Metapolitics is a contributor to the Nazis along with the pseudoscientific eugenics.
    And we cannot discount Hume nor Hobbes for their views just because they published so long ago. Was Popper imposing himself on Hume. Pinker on Hobbes?

  24. Wotan Nichols
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    After the last presidential election, I dropped many comments about how the enlightenment never really caught on in the U.S.A., so I guess I need to pick up a copy of Pinker’s book since I am a nominal member of the category of persons he takes to task. But I am right in the middle of reading Generation of Sociopaths, about how we Boomers ruined everything.

  25. Les Faby
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    The body of the book is not as long as it looks. The last 20% are supporting notes and a thorough index.

    • nicky
      Posted March 6, 2018 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      That’s one of the things really I like in Pinker’s books: his notes are generally very interesting (albeit alas not all of them), do not skip his notes! If you do, you are definitely not doing yourself a favour.

  26. Petu W
    Posted March 5, 2018 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I’m on page 222. The book is very good, of course. But I don’t buy his arguments about the biodiversity crisis and the size of human population. (I say this both as Pinker’s fanboy and as an ecologist.)

    The worries about human population growth and the sixth extinction are based on modern ecological science and thus on the Enlightenment. It is true that many environmentalists express antihumanistic and silly views. But to equate modern ecology with “leftist greenism” is not a good argument. Some of Pinker’s arguments could be written by a Cato institute fellow. I find it sad. But nevertheless, this is a great book and I remain in the fan club! ;D

  27. Posted March 5, 2018 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    For what it is worth – I would like to spend the time formally reviewing the book later – my biggest problems are:

    (1) As systems get more complex, the “design for failure” approach becomes more crucial, I think. And so we have to (to continue the work) have to be careful.
    (2) He does not spend as much time on dealing with the very profound limitations of markets, particularly at large volumes (externalities like to climate).
    (3) Individualism vs. collectivism is a false dichotomy – and so a discussion of system in the social matters is needed.

    I do think that the E. is valuable because it contains the seeds to do better.

  28. Hemidactylus
    Posted March 6, 2018 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Wow Pinker takes out a sledgehammer and smashes the Nietzschean idol into dust. I thought ubermenschen could be a cool metaphor for self improvement and cultivating virtue and find the concept of amor fati interesting in the same manner as some strands of Islamic fatalism, but damn Pinker is brutal. “Earlier in the chapter I fretted about how humanistic morality could deal with a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath. Nietzsche argued that it’s good to be a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath…Western civilization has gone steadily downhill since the heyday of Homeric Greeks, Aryan warriors, helmeted Vikings, and other manly men.”

    These are just a few of the juicy bits, there’s more. Yeah, maybe Nietzsche and his disciple Freud shouldn’t be idolized just because they had written things about religion that appeal to atheists. Not sure Nietzsche totally deserves the barbed wire wrapped Louisville slugger pulverizing Pinker wields on him, but he was morbid and dark. Good stuff to read in a bad mood or when you want to turn your nose up at the huddled masses.

    Oddly enough this hammering down by Pinker on poor migraine ridden Fritz kinda goes against what Boghossian says in A Manual for Creating Atheists:

    “Our objective should be to create people who have learned key lessons from Socrates, Nietzsche, and the Four Horsemen—people who understand the dangers inherent in faulty reasoning processes, certainty, and religiosity.” In another part of the book he recommends a bunch of Nietzsche’s books perhaps as advanced study after reading the Horsemen. Pinker might retort: “…drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool.”

    Nietzsche was as precursor something of a bridge between the perennial sourpuss Schopenhauer and Freud, Jung, Adler and others who would import some of his notions into early psychology. He also influenced existentialism and perhaps pomo. So from history of ideas standpoint he was important. Pinker also highlights Ayn Rand’s debt to him, so he undergirded her “virtuous” callousness toward the parasites and moochers.


    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 6, 2018 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      It needs the full treatment. Below here in two parts if not too big for WordPress. Part 1:

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted March 6, 2018 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      And part 2 which follows straight on in the book from part 1:

      • Hemidactylus
        Posted March 7, 2018 at 5:07 am | Permalink

        Thanks. I am leapfrogging around. I am now in the part of the book where world poverty has taken a nosedive and sweatshops are at least better than toiling in a rice paddy and a boon for liberation of women. Pinker cites this source on the counterintuitive feminist argument:

        “Chelsea Follett (@Chellivia) is the managing editor of, a project of the Cato Institute.”

        Hmmm. Trying hard not to do a genetic fallacy here. But this strange focus does seem to spin in a libertarian direction.

        “Note: is a project of the Cato Institute with major support from the John Templeton Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, the Brinson Foundation and the Dian Graves Owen Foundation.”

        Ah Templeton. Can’t be all bad then. Sarcasm.

        FWIW Pinker’s wife Goldstein has been interviewed by Robert Kuhn on Closer to Truth. Pretty decent stuff, yet:

        Probably one of the best programs available on TV. I digress. But isn’t Templeton anathema in these parts?

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