Pinker responds to the critics of “Enlightenment Now”

On the occasion of the publication of the paperback edition of his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steve Pinker has published a response to his critics (as well as other reflections) in Quillette. While that’s not the usual kind of place where Steve publishes, it’s all to the good because what other place would publish 10,000 words of reflection, reaction, and rebuttal? And Quillette is worth your attention.

As you probably know, Pinker’s book has been widely attacked, often for no reason I can discern than that people either didn’t read the book or have some psychological aversion to the facts that the world has progressed economically, morally, and in other aspects of well being. And no, Pinker didn’t ignore exigent threats like Trump and environmental degradation, and no, he didn’t limn a continuous rise in well being every year. I’ve defended him on this site several times against these base canards (and “canard” is an insult to ducks); he cites two of these defenses in the notes to his Quillette piece (here and here), but he hardly needs my defense. (By the way, I’ve just canceled my subscription to The New Yorker as I can no longer stand its smug antiscience attitude that motivates its own attacks on Pinker’s work. And the magazine’s quality seems to be declining.)

Regardless of my status as Pinker’s Bulldog, I still think that both Better Angels and Enlightenment Now are required reading for people who visit this site. Yes, they’re long books, and yes, some people have a limited attention span, but if you want to see the case not just for progress, but also for the three causes encapsulated in Pinker’s title, it’s a must-read. If for no other reason, you should read the pair of books as a counter to the many academics and miscreants who have faulted Pinker for no good reason. It’s beyond me why so many people go after Pinker, given that he’s a nice guy and doesn’t engage in Twitter wars or other nefarious activities. It must be his message. But the fact remains that, as documented by the 75 graphs in Enlightenment Now, the world and its population is getting better.


  1. Posted January 24, 2019 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Pinker’s ideas are attacked by some people because they fear that his message of overall progress will dampen efforts to fix our problems. There is some risk of that but it isn’t Pinker’s fault. Truth is still better than delusion. These people just need to update their perspective.

    • Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      It’s worse than that. The world of the last couple of hundred years has been dominated by dead, white, European males, by the patriarchy and by capitalism.

      And those are exactly what they love to hate. If they once admitted that, under such a system, things got a lot better and are still getting better — and not just better for a few but better in general for everyone — their entire world view would fall apart.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      I wonder how anyone can hope to fix problems without knowing their scope? Knowing who is starving, rather than assuming everyone is, must be critical to solving the problem.

      • tomh
        Posted January 24, 2019 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

        Does someone assume everyone is starving?

  2. Steve Gerrard
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    For all the efforts of all the commenters, no one can refute the simple assertion that there has never been a better time in human history to be born. Statistically, you are better off being alive today than at any time in our past.

    Do we still have some problems? Oh yes, no question. We have a decent chance of fixing many of them, though, if we can muster the effort to do so.

    The big question is whether humans need some sort of spiritual belief or honor culture to be successful. Jordan Peterson or Nietzsche or something. Pinker makes a good case that we do not, but that is a question that can be argued back and forth without end. Naturally the Internet is happy to oblige and engage in that endless argument.

    • Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Rosling (see #12) very much supports that with brute facts.


    • Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      Check back with me in about eighty years on weather this was the best time to be born. If any civilization is still here in another eighty years.

      • mikeyc
        Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        That typo was MOST apropos, OG. Or maybe it was a pun? In that case, well done.

        • Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          No, it was not intentional . I just have never been able to spell.
          But I was thinking about the danger from plastics and other toxins, as well as climate change and nuclear war.

          Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt .

          • mikeyc
            Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

            Heh – well I’m just glad some wag hasn’t come along and nailed me for mixing up weather and climate.

          • Reign Forrest
            Posted January 27, 2019 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

            Well said! Well erred!

            My issue with Pinker in this book (who, despite his sanguine pair of books about humanity’s trajectory, remains one of my heroes) is limited to his inappropriate focus on what we have achieved in stanching environmental degradation, instead of on what is likely to happen IN SPITE OF IT. He appears to consider it a victory and a celebration of Enlightenment if the planet becomes inhabitable in 75 years instead of 50 years because of the ideas of Enlightenment.

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted January 24, 2019 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

        Point taken, but also can’t help but point out that eighty years life expectancy is a new thing, a feature of our current status.

  3. Merilee
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 11:56 am | Permalink


  4. Posted January 24, 2019 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Regarding the length of the books: I listened to the audiobook of “Better Angels.” It’s over 30 hours long, and there wasn’t a single dull moment. Honestly, I wished “Enlightenment Now” were longer than it is.

    • Merilee
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      I found it a bit toooo long.

  5. David Hammer
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I think Pinker made a mistake in ascribing the progress he identifies to the Enlightenment, rather than to the rise of modern science and associated forms of technology. He became involved in endless disputes over whether he properly understood Descartes etc., disputes that had no bearing on his central point. It would have been more than enough to show that, at least in material respects, life has gotten better over the last 300 years — not just for white males, but for everyone.

    • Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s possible it would have helped acceptance of Pinker’s thesis if he hadn’t tied it to the Enlightenment. On the other hand, referring to science and technology has its own problems. Referring only to rational thought seems too vague. I suspect it was a tough decision for Pinker on which way to go.

      Those that question his work along the lines of “Pinker didn’t understand the Enlightenment”, “Pinker misinterprets (Enlightenment thinker)”, or “The Enlightenment wasn’t as good as Pinker says” can easily be dismissed as somewhat of a side show. They miss his point and I don’t suppose he cares much about them. The arguments that his thesis ignores our current problems, dissuades solving them, or that he cherry picks his data, are much more damaging and deserve countering.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        I always understood the scientific and technological advances and the ideals of the Enlightenment to be mutually ‘fertilising’, but then, I’m no expert on the history of science, nor on the one of Enlightenment, just an interested layman.

        • Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

          I agree. I think it is more a matter of emphasis.

      • Edward Clint
        Posted January 28, 2019 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        His use of the term Enlightenment or not would have made no difference. The backlash is largely ideologically driven; this means they’d have recoiled at any such work that correctly admitted to progress having been made (just as they bashed Better Angels for the same reasons).

    • Posted January 25, 2019 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      Its impossible to disentangle “science and technology” from the enlightnement. And the reason is because the basic realization of the enlightment was to replace ideas of essences (alchemy, astrology, numerology, vitalism etc) with ideas of processes. And its precisely that understanding that turbo-charged technological advance. The two cant be separated. Of course this carrys probles in its wake. Most people still understand things in terms of essences and they find the actual world increasingly harder and harder to understand. They are being left behind. Monkeys playing with matches in a pool of gas as Carl Sagan put it

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted January 25, 2019 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        Interesting comment!


        Essences vs. processes –

    • Posted January 25, 2019 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      Right. Also, he made a mistake on that point, insofar as it is indeed a mistake. Which it kinda is: there was more to the Enlightenment than science and tech, and the contributions of the remainder to human advancement are a mixed bag.

    • Martin X
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      “progress he identifies to the Enlightenment”

      He didn’t. He says that he uses “Enlightenment” as a shorthand for a set of ideas that he thinks have been very successful.

      I chose the word “Enlightenment” for the title because it was the best rubric for the ideals I sought to defend—catchier than, say, “secular humanism,” “liberal cosmopolitanism,” or “the open society.”

  6. Joe Dickinson
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Pinker spoke at a symposium in Utah while he was working on “Better Angels”. I understood his motivation as follows: “Sure there are still problems, but we really have made a lot of progress in improving quality of life. Let’e see if we can understand what we did right so we can do more of it.” I think the “control Left” (Jerry’s term) hates him because they want to dwell on everything that is not yet wonderful.

    • mikeyc
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      Actually I think the main motivation by the “cntrl left” is spelled out by Coel up yonder; they simply can’t abide any claims that a system dominated by white men could possibly have had anything good come from it.

      • Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

        Maybe but this really doesn’t counter Pinker’s thesis except in minds damaged by “white male patriarchy” syndrome. Of course, the white male patriarchy does have things to answer for but they don’t have much to do with Pinker’s thesis. In other words, it is an irrelevant argument. There’s nothing wrong with people of color doing science and rational thought and I’m sure Pinker will agree.

        • mikeyc
          Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

          Of course he would agree. Perhaps I’m misreading you but I was not referring to anything Pinker said. I was talking about the motivations of the “cntrl” leftists.

          If one wants to invoke Pinker’s ideas about what might motivate them, I suggest it is more akin to the “Conflict Theorist” approach Pinker outlines in the piece.

      • Joe Dickinson
        Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        Excellent point.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    Pinker has far more patience and energy to take on ignorance and people who live by opinion only. I am reminded by the fellow who said – you can have your own opinions but there are only one set of facts. I wish him luck in educating the masses to reality but wonder why it is so necessary in the first place. It is not quite as bad as arguing with religion and belief in fiction because you understand delusion in this case. But arguing against the general improvements in modern day living standards is just wrong.

  8. Peter Bracken
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m halfway through Enlightenment Now and it’s a hurricane of a read. Regarding the inequality issue, Pinker accepts that it has widened in recent years but argues the fact of it pales in comparison to the positive scorecard on global poverty. And he’s right.

    Ideology manacles the mind. As Václav Havel wrote:

    “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Looking at it globally allows him to be correct when looking at improvement in poverty but inequality is a huge and increasing problem by itself, regardless of poverty. However, if we just look at the U.S. and income inequality, it has returned to and surpassed the previous high just before the great depression. Regardless of the poverty class, what is being destroyed is the middle class. I don’t think Pinker gets into this.

      • Peter Bracken
        Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think the middle class is being destroyed. The world’s poor may have gotten better off at the expense of the middle class, but that’s a tradeoff that’s worth it. Also, if the middle class is being hollowed out, that’s in part because so many are getting richer.

        More generally, what matters is not class or status or rank, but how much individuals earn. And on that metric, everybody’s getting better off. Furthermore, as Pinker reasons, income is just a means to an end – consumption. And in terms of what people consume, as opposed to their income, inequality across the board has tanked.

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted January 24, 2019 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

          Just love to argue particularly when you are wrong. You could just look on line at the pew study – American middle class losing ground. Middle income has fallen since 1971. I would also reference from a book I am now reading that explains – between 1971 and 2012, after adjustment for inflation, average income for most Americans declined by 13 percent. It rose 153 percent for the top 1%. Have you ever heard of the second coming of the Gilded Age. That would be now. The great compression has been replaced by the great divergence. Your opinion that everybody is getting better off is simply wrong.

          • mikeyc
            Posted January 24, 2019 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

            Well, it’s certainly true that not everybody is better off, but he is absolutely correct that “…in terms of what people consume, as opposed to their income, inequality across the board has tanked.”

            When I was very young, for example, many people in my neighborhood did not have a TV; they were still seen as expensive luxury items. My mother remembers when people first started getting refrigerators. Go back even a few decades earlier and shoes were an item that many people could not afford. By those measures, inequality has indeed tanked.

            • Randall Schenck
              Posted January 24, 2019 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

              That is not the point I am making here. Please read. I agree with Pinker on his books but the specific ideas of Bracken regarding economics and standard of living is not steadily increasing. I can get a heart valve operation without even doing open heart surgery but wages and inflation is killing the middle class in this country. All you have to do is look at a couple of books on finance and economics. Two European economists, Anthony Atkinson and Thomas Piketty come to mind. Simon Kuznet and so on. Maybe the problem with the democrats over the past 50 years is they did not get it. The arrival of Reagan was the beginning of the downfall for the middle class. Are most of the people who read this site all among the privileged to the point they do not know what has happened?

              • Posted January 24, 2019 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

                Perhaps this is mostly an American phenomenon. Most (all?) of Pinker’s stats and arguments apply to the entire world over a relatively long period. It is also a matter of averages. Inequality is killing us in the US. Even though many measures of our economy trend upwards, much of the gain accrues to the rich.

              • Historian
                Posted January 24, 2019 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

                Randy, you are correct. Pew reports that “despite the strong labor market, wage growth has lagged economists’ expectations. In fact, despite some ups and downs over the past several decades, today’s real average wage (that is, the wage after accounting for inflation) has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers.” It goes on: “After adjusting for inflation, however, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power it did in 1978, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then.” Finally: “Meanwhile, wage gains have gone largely to the highest earners. Since 2000, usual weekly wages have risen 3% (in real terms) among workers in the lowest tenth of the earnings distribution and 4.3% among the lowest quarter. But among people in the top tenth of the distribution, real wages have risen a cumulative 15.7%, to $2,112 a week – nearly five times the usual weekly earnings of the bottom tenth ($426).”

                So, yes the middle class is being hollowed out. They are not concerned about the macro metrics presented by Pinker, as correct as they may be. This situation is one reason why the country is turmoil. Pinker’s optimism will not assuage them.


              • mikeyc
                Posted January 24, 2019 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

                Just to be clear Historian, despite Randall’s baseless accusation, I think everyone here, even the most privileged of us, is perfectly aware of what has happened. I should also point out that Pinker did not argue against this point. In fact, he took pains to make sure he wasn’t accused of missing it. But, of course, it was in vain.

              • Historian
                Posted January 24, 2019 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

                Mikey, my basic point is that people evaluate how the world is progressing by looking at their particular condition and how they perceive it. In the U.S. the lives of many people, who believe they are in the middle class, however that term is defined, have not gone as they expected it. This is borne out by the wage stagnation of many decades. They don’t care that there is improved sanitation in many African countries. They don’t care about Pinker’s charts. They don’t care that despite their current travails they are living better lives than almost everybody did a hundred years ago. I don’t think Pinker will change many minds despite the objective macro evidence that he has admirably compiled. People’s evaluation of their lives is based on subjective feelings, not objective evidence.

  9. mikeyc
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    A most excellent response to his critics. Give our host a shout out too.

    • JezGrove
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      Consider it done!

  10. KD33
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Better Angels is an amazing book, not only for the context and top-level arguments but for the sheer amount of fascinating information. Agreed, it should be required reading. I’m hoping to get around to EN soon.
    Discouragingly, almost all the related discussions online are dominated by people who have not read either one, or at the very least don’t respond to actual data and arguments that Pinker supplies. The Quillette article comments are a great example. A stark reminder of how many people reject or ignore factual information in the name of defending their existing beliefs.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Well I think many have read the ‘Better Angels’, but not yet the much more recent ‘Enlightenment’, if I’m not projecting, that is.

  11. Jon Gallant
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    As #6 points out above, communicants of the
    “Control Left” insist on dwelling only on everything that is not yet wonderful. My diagnosis of this syndrome, based on long familiarity with many cases, is that it often reflects disappointment with the patient’s own personal life. People comfortable in their own skin (like Steve Pinker) can recognize facts with both positive and negative implications; and they feel no need to compensate by constant griping about such menaces as cultural appropriation. I sometimes wonder whether the ubiquity of “control Left” attitudes among postmodernists in academe is sublimated from a feeling of failure—due to an internal, subconscious realization of how phony their act is.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      A daring thesis, but I guess not devoid of some truth.
      It must be a difficult life, following POMO and intersectionalism, but always walking on the razors edge of insufficient ‘purity’, risking to be thrown in the lions’ pit at the slightest sign of impurity.

  12. Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Three books that align well with Pinker’s but don’t attract as much opprobrium (perhaps because they and the authors are less well known) are:

    Factfulness : ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. (Like Better Angels, a favourite of Bill Gates.)

    The age of genius : the seventeenth century and the birth of the modern mind by A(nthony) C. Grayling.

    The Enlightenment and why it still matters by Anthony Pagden.


    • A C Harper
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      I suspect Pinker’s detractors remember his 2002 book:

      “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature is a best-selling 2002 book by Steven Pinker, in which the author makes a case against tabula rasa models in the social sciences, arguing that human behavior is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations. ” ~ Wikipedia

      Because if people are not ‘blank slates’ they are not perfectible (by political means) – and this is very much against the ideology of the most committed progressive thinkers.

      And if ‘the Blank Slate’ is not a valid idea then the social gains laid out in Better Angels and Enlightenment Now are all the more impressive.

    • Wunold
      Posted January 25, 2019 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      I also wanted to mention Factfulness but you beat me to it.

      I’m approx. two thirds into F. by now and it may be the most important, enlightening book I ever read. I’m at the point that I think it should be a mandatory read in schools.

      Alas, I only came to know about Hans Rosling after his death, when many people I follow on the net mourned his death. But since then, I strive to make up for it by watching and reading everything I can find about and by him.

  13. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    It’s better to listen to the audiobooks than to miss out. There’s a supplementary pdf as well with the audiobook.

    … I think the objections might stem from a cynical and unfounded notion that Pinker, by looking at the big picture across centuries (?) of data, is playing a mind trick – a sort of moving of the goalposts.

  14. DrBrydon
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to reading EN, especially now that is coming out in paper. There is definitely a mindset that insists on saying not only that things are bad, but that they are worse than ever. I have to assume some people really think that, and that it is not just political posturing. It is perplexing, though, especially in people who are old enough to know better.

    • Posted January 24, 2019 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      You and Wilber Ross should get along fine. Both totally out of touch.

      • Steve Bracker
        Posted January 25, 2019 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        I assume you, OG, are referring to Wilbur Ross, who is indeed seriously out of touch. But why do you level this charge at DrB?

        I’m 76 years old now. Hitler was still going strong when I was born. My parents were young adults through the Great Depression and WW2; that had lifelong consequences. I spent much of my young adulthood avoiding the catastrophe that was Vietnam and doing my bit for civil rights. Earlier, I narrowly missed being paralyzed or killed by polio.

        Are you seriously suggesting that times now are worse than the Depression, the Dust Bowl, Hitler? Late stage Johnson, Nixon, Vietnam? If so, you are simply delusional, or to put it more kindly, very much out of touch with times and circumstances other than your own. Today is not yet even close to being the worst of times, though of course the day is still young. I think that’s all DrB was saying.

  15. Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  16. Posted January 24, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Steven Pinker is one of my favourite authors. However, I read everything else. These books didn’t move to the top of the stack, because I agree with the premise, but also thought that the appeal (the conation) of these trends is somewhat uninteresting.

    I gathered the gist of the criticism sits between what he writes, and the assumed implicit appeal. As Pinker knows, there are several sides or functions to a message. And I suspect it’s that crack between them, from which the discord emerges. The problem is one of communication: there are things that are worrisome and broad, climate change, total surveillance and social credit, and so forth. Increasingly complex systems harbour unknown risk (truly unknown, and unimaginable). And there are specifics that any one individual worries about, which I suspect aren’t fully dispelled by one table or another in his books.

    These issues would be whataboutery to Pinker’s optimistic tables, and I know he doesn’t deny them. This leads to a cross-purposes standoff. Pinker says, one is less likely beset by ruffians these days. But people who always lived in the better parts of town already worried about something else. So that message doesn’t do anything for them.

    But when they assume a bird’s eye view, the many good trends don’t make the specifics go away, and here the message of “worry not” sounds like one shoudn’t care so much about the specific issue either. This is approaching the ecological fallacy. At least that is what I gathered from the criticism. I see all that, and don’t doubt his tables and it leads to a “shrug” situation, though I’m sure they’ll be interesting when I get around to read them.

    It’s beyond me why so many people go after Pinker

    I suspect this has little to do with these books. The communication wedge outlined above is simply an open flank. The majority of his critics seem to be from so-called “Left Academia” (I don’t consider them left), who detest him for his excellent “Blank Slate”. Another prominent direction of criticism comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who cultivates his image of being an anti-academic contrarian, especially anti-Harvard (“Ivory Tower”), who detests all softer sciences as BS and for some reason has issues with most other public intellectuals (I also enjoy what he has to say).

    • Posted January 25, 2019 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      Agreed that N.N. Taleb is more fun than Pinker. Maybe not more reliable, but more willing to take an idea and run with it through surprising twists and turns. It doesn’t hurt that I share his aversion to overly convenient mathematical models.

  17. TD2000
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Glad to see Pinker backtracking a bit on his environment chapter — a chapter that struck me as a rather desperate attempt to be contrarian but instead came off as Panglossian corporate apologetics. It stood out like a sore thumb in an otherwise excellent book. (Please leave juvenile contrarianism to Slate, Dr. Pinker!)

    I wish he was correct, but the trends on biodiversity, population, global temperature, etc aren’t going in the direction that his other plots are. In fact, declines in environmental quality are the reason most of other metrics are improving.

    • clarkia
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      I don’t really get the point of Pinker’s arguments – some people have strong preferences for environmental/ecological integrity and biodiversity. Is he saying that these strong preferences are misguided?

      • darrelle
        Posted January 25, 2019 at 7:06 am | Permalink

        No, Pinker absolutely does not say that. Pinker acknowledges the extent of the negative impacts we have had on environment, ecology and biodiversity. He also points out two things that seem to really piss people off. 1) He points out that there have been some examples of successful improvements. 2) He points out that the way out of this mess is continued further investment in Reason, Science & Humanism. Oh, and a 3rd thing, that it is possible for us to save our selves and substantially improve the damage we have caused to the environment.

        So, no, Pinker does not say that strong preferences for environmental/ecological integrity and biodiversity are misguided. If anything he says the opposite. What he is really saying is that fatalism about these very real and serious issues isn’t warranted and isn’t helpful. He has pretty good data to back it up too. For some reason this causes some people to not only seem to blank out what he has actually written resulting in quite inaccurate interpretations but to denigrate him for being an idiot, dishonest and our morally reprehensible person. I’m with Jerry. I don’t get it.

  18. Steve Pollard
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I am about a third of the way through EN, and I agree that it’s a great read. I hope that Pinker considers including his Quillette article as an annex to future editions. I was particularly pleased to see his links to the articles by our host and AC Grayling about the absurd, evidence-free miserabilist John Gray. The world certainly has its problems; but they are made to appear much worse than they need to be by Gray’s ignorant phillipics.

  19. rickflick
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    “If for no other reason, you should read the pair of books[Pinker’s] as a counter to the many academics and miscreants who have faulted Pinker for no good reason.”

    Agreed. One other reason is that it is an antidote to angst and depression brought on by the press’s insistence on publishing so much bad news. 😎

    • Posted January 24, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know why the press does that. Maybe they are anti-American. Or Russia agents. That’s it. Commie agents trying to depress our lower eighty per cent living paycheck to paycheck with no savings, using medication or alcohol to cope with the stress and dying with stress related diseases.

      • Posted January 24, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

        Did I mention the increased suicide rate and shorter life expectancy. I hope not because I would be spreading more bad news.

        • rickflick
          Posted January 24, 2019 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

          “Man Happily Reunited with his Family After Uneventful Flight from Chicago to Memphis”, doesn’t sell ads.

  20. CAS
    Posted January 24, 2019 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Sure, Pinker has the correct statistics that life has become much better for most people. His thoughts on environmental problems seem based upon wishful thinking. Habitat and species loss have become much worse and show no sign of improving. There is simply too rapid population growth for our standard of living to be sustained. The oceans are in real trouble. Believing that rationality will beat out power and greed and stop the destruction is unsupported by history. I don’t doubt that life will continue to get better for decades. The long term outlook is not good!

  21. Posted January 24, 2019 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    Pinker defends his position very well and addresses his critics in Enlightenment Now, Chapter 4, “Progressophobia”. His critics should carefully read the book first.

    • clarkia
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      I listened to a podcast of his which summarized the points of one of his books. It did not address my own concern, namely that he establishes some “is”s (increasing/decreasing trend lines of various sorts) and goes on to make an “ought”, namely that the world is “progressing”. The first are factual matters, the second is a value judgement. So as far as I can tell there is an “is-ought” problem with the argument. If that is not the case I’d be interested to hear of it. There are also questions with some of his trend lines, apparently (e.g. environment).

      Too many books to read – if it was clearer what the contribution was then I would take a look. Certainly everything I heard him argue is a good thing I would agree with, but separately (if I recall) they seemed to all be well known.

      • Posted January 25, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        I don’t have much spare time to go into this, but Enlightenment Now is well worth the read. Pinker explains topics which skew our perceptions, such as “the Optimism Gap”, “the Availability heuristic”, and “the Negativity bias”. Google them but suggest reading Pinker’s book EN.

  22. Posted January 24, 2019 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry for your defense of Pinker. My positive review of Enlightenment Now is at

  23. Posted January 24, 2019 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    If your only measure of progress is human welfare, as it apparently is with Pinker, Roslng and Jordan Peterson, who can argue with you? But if your measure is planetary health, non=human species, and natural systems, how is it possible to claim we are doing anything BUT improving human welfare? The educated commenters on this site are probably the most aware humans with regard to the natural environment. They know the climate is changing; they know biodiversity loss is accelerating dangerously; they know the oceans are overfished; they know tropical forests are disappearing; they know that overpopulation in Africa is contributing to famine and conflict. Why is human welfare the only or preferred criterion for measuring progress? Or do we really think that the destruction of the planet will actually IMPROVE human well-being?I admire and respect Pinker’s work but his chapter on the environment in Enlightenment Now is superficial and biased, based on the opinions of nuclear scientists and the musings of space cadets like the BreakThrough Institute and Stewart Brand, ardent tecnnophiles whose
    vision of the future has unhappily rubbed off on Pinker. If ever there were a reason for despair rather than hope, this kind of blind technophilia and belief in the supremacy of humanity is it.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      “Since progress does not mean that the world is perfect, only that it is better, acknowledging progress does not mean being indifferent to the very real suffering of people today, nor to the very real threats that humanity continues to face. And it certainly does not mean that we should stop worrying because everything will turn out okay. How things turn out in the future depends entirely on what we do now.”

      • Historian
        Posted January 24, 2019 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

        Pinker may list ten ways the world is getting better, but does this necessarily imply that these ten outweigh one negative, such as climate change? Not necessarily. There may be a logical fallacy at play here. We cannot assume that the ten positives outweigh the one negative. This is like saying that a person did ten things to improve his health in the past year, e.g., eat better, lose weight, exercise more, etc. Unfortunately, the person only has one negative – a terminal disease running through his body. Apparently, Pinker has concluded that his list of positives outweigh the negatives. But, this is a subjective conclusion that is not empirically based. In other words, for example, climate change, which is growing worse and the world is not addressing despite Pinker’s hope that it will be, could be one negative that outweighs all the positives.

        Pinker is right that how the world turns out depends on what we do now. But, it’s an act of faith that the world will do the right thing. Maybe it will do so, but history suggests that this is not always the case.

        • tomh
          Posted January 24, 2019 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

          Not just history but virtually all current (USA) policies.

        • rickflick
          Posted January 24, 2019 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

          The key point Pinker makes is that so far enlightenment values have given humanity benefits. It is likely that these same values will be the key to success in the future. I would only add, without these values, our goose is cooked.

          • tomh
            Posted January 24, 2019 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

            In this case I think we can take a lesson from Mutual Fund advertising: Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

            • rickflick
              Posted January 24, 2019 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

              Certainly there are no guarantees. I don’t think Pinker suggested as much. But, since enlightenment values include reason and science, I think they are the best hope for future success.

              • tomh
                Posted January 24, 2019 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

                Have you looked at US policies towards science? Not only is there no guarantee that things will improve, it is just about guaranteed that they will not.

              • rickflick
                Posted January 24, 2019 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

                Science is subject to politics. That’s just the way it is. Let’s elect more scientists to public office.

              • darrelle
                Posted January 25, 2019 at 7:32 am | Permalink

                Pinker very explicitly says, has said numerous times, that not only can there be periods of backsliding but that failure is a very real possibility. All the suggestions and straight out claims to the contrary are pure crap. The people saying such things either haven’t read or listened to Pinker and are simply repeating sources they trust or they are ignoring what Pinker has actually said.

        • darrelle
          Posted January 25, 2019 at 7:28 am | Permalink

          The difference between you and Pinker seems to simply come down to you council fatalism and Pinker councils that there is reason to hope. Your criticisms of Pinker seem to come down to warning that Pinker might lead some people to a misguided belief that it is possible to save ourselves and that this is dangerous. It seems to come down more to a disagreement on emphasis rather than evidence.

          Out of curiosity, and I promise I don’t mean this sarcastically or in any negative way, have you read either of these books? If not I think you might find it very interesting to read them and then compare to the interpretations of the various reviewers, critics and others.

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted January 24, 2019 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      Climate change and biodiversity loss and overfished oceans and disappearing forests are problems because they threaten future human welfare. The extinction of the small pox virus, or the pending eradication of malaria mosquitos, is okay with us, because our life is better without them. More generally, yes, we are biased towards an ecosystem in which humans thrive.

  24. Posted January 24, 2019 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Just finished this one. Pinker is always worth the time.

  25. Roo
    Posted January 25, 2019 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Random thoughts in no particular order…

    I think when you think about the general dynamic – proposing that much or even most of the progress and good in the world today came from a small group of wealthy European white men; at a moment in time where the zeitgeist is very much focused on shifting demographics and how to make everyone feel welcome and appreciated for their contributions – I don’t think it’s any surprise that people are not super enthusiastic about the book. If it was anyone but Steve Pinker, I think he might be dealing with much harsher accusations from the far Left. But he is eminently affable (and Jewish himself, when many Enlightenment thinkers were anti-Semitic) and gets far fewer snarls from that crowd as a result, I think. That said, I do think he should have made a more obvious distinction between enlightened thinking (which I assume is what he was actually referring to), instead of focusing so much on the Enlightenment era. Obviously, many cultures in many times and places made wonderful discoveries and contributions. That the Enlightenment era was an explicit celebration of the kind of empirical thinking that is often behind such progress doesn’t limit it to that era, any more than various movements in the arts mean that surrealist or abstract art was somehow invented in time-space during that movement. (And that’s assuming that one accepts the premise that this thinking – and not factors such as large scale organized religions that may have allowed for societal cooperation or reduced inter-societal violence – was the prime driver behind such progress.)

    I also think Pinker underestimates the human instinct towards “time to pay the piper”, “the other shoe’s about to drop”, karma, and so on. That has nothing to do with the validity of his work, but more how he understands criticism of it. I think there’s a lot of wariness (self included here) in the idea of accepting ‘progress’ because this is not how we understand most things to work. Usually, when something really enjoyable happens, we expect the price to come soon after. The maxed out credit card, the belly fat, the hangover, the to-do list and email inbox waiting after vacation. In that sense the idea that things are so much better now compared to, say, 5,000 years ago almost seems suspect. I completely understand the apprehension at seeing plastics pile up and global warming, for example, and thinking “I knew it! There’s no such thing as a free lunch, we’ll have to pay for all this comfort one way or another.”

    Last but not least, Pinker concludes very different things about topics such as global warming and mental health than the average reader (again, self included,) is likely to see in other places. Unless you have time to do a bunch of literature reviews, it’s in general hard to know what to make of that. Why such different conclusions, is it a matter of how you frame the question, are the other articles I’ve read based on different data sets, etc.

    I enjoyed the book overall and think it’s good to see a listing of all the progress humankind has made, but I do think there are some valid criticisms to be made.

    • Mybrid Wonderful
      Posted January 28, 2019 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      Mmm, interesting comment about enlightenment thinking versus the enlightenment period. My personal view on this book is an anti-theist one. To that end I see this book as a continuation of the “Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine. If not reason then religion. The Enlightenment era marked the first exodus from religion since its inception. The Age of Reason marked the first exodus from monarchy and religion combined. I see the Enlightenment Now book as a reminder that if not reason then religion and today religion is not going gently into that good night. Hitchen’s, “God is Not Great, How Religion Poison’s Everything” is one book end to Pinker’s, “Man is Great, How Reason Build’s Everything.” I mean “Enlightenment Now”. Pinker being Pinker didn’t want to get down in the mud with direct confrontation of the religious the same way Hitchens enjoyed. Enlightenment Now is just a reminder of what got us here, reason over religion and the Enlightenment Era marks a distinct boundary the same as the Age of Reason when this country was founded. That was my understanding about the reminder of the era, religion was successfully countered. The rise of religious zealotry of the religious right in this country and the world is troubling and I would hazard to say both Hitchens and Pinker were writing missives with this worry in mind.

  26. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted January 25, 2019 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    base canards (and “canard” is an insult to ducks)

    Surely base canards are the literal foundation upon which the whole pyramid of ducks and it’s ultimate quacking apex of Honey are supported.

  27. Joe Dickinson
    Posted January 25, 2019 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    While defending and praising “Better Angels” and “Enlightenment Now” we should not overlook some very interesting earlier books like “The Language Instinct” (1994) and “How the Mind Works” (1997) in which Pinker uses language as a window into broad questions about human cognition. Both are great reads.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 25, 2019 at 8:20 pm | Permalink


  28. Posted January 26, 2019 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I really like what you have written on Pinker. I facilitate Appreciative Inquiry , which, used with integrity and desire for positive change, yields enormous results for organizations who use it. Basically, the method is to discover, uncover, appreciate what is already working and build from there. Positive psychology has now demonstrated that this works because our brains do very different things when we are in positive emotional states versus negative ones. Accepting at least some of Pinker’s work and others like it (Rosling, for example) is pivotal– it is not about whether or not we have problems (we certainly do!) but what is the mindset we need in order to solve them. Focusing on how we have succeeded in the past leads to further success. Focusing on woes and grievances leaves us bitter and twisted, blind to possibility.

  29. Posted January 27, 2019 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    Tyler Cowen at ‘Marginal Revolution’ also finds Pinker’s framing of the slavery issue not so convincing. However, Pinker’s critics from both left and right tend to credit Europeans/Westerners/whites with way too much agency relative to non-(Europeans/Westerners/whites.) This is certainly true of African slavery, where the Europeans mostly inserted themselves into an enormous ongoing business.

    First, slavery was a widespread and ancient indigenous African institution, slaves being the main or only form of revenue-producing private property recognized under African laws, unlike Europe, where land played this role. So, when the Portuguese first reached Ghana in 1471 they found a brisk, well-established trade in slaves and other valuable commodities among the African states of the region.

    Second, in addition to the indigenous or intra-African slave trade there was a vast export of African slaves out of the region through the Islamic slave trade, with routes running over the Sahara, across the Red Sea, and from the coast of East Africa. Paul Lovejoy in his survey of African slavery estimates that some 24 million African slaves were exported out of the region between 800 CE and 1900 CE, with close to half accounted for by the Islamic slave trade.

    Third, African elites – African kings, aristocrats, warlords, state officials and merchants – were also central players in the Atlantic slave trade of the 17th through 19th centuries. African elites almost completely controlled the supply-side of the business, capturing, transporting and selling the slaves to Western buyers at coastal slave-marts. The only partial exception was Angola, where, the Portuguese themselves became slave-hunters, although even here they continued to buy large numbers of slaves from African kingdoms and warlords further inland, in southern Congo, eastern Angola, and Northern Zambia.

    If you’re looking for exceptional agency among Europeans, it would be, as Pinker suggests, in the abolition of slavery. The story of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade by Britain and others in the early 19th century is well known. Less well known but perhaps just as significant is the suppression of the indigenous and the Islamic slave trades in the wake of the European colonization of Africa in the late 19th century. For example, after Britain proclaimed the abolition of slavery on the Gold Coast in 1874, following the third Anglo-Asante War, thousands of slaves fled from their African masters to the British protectorate and the Christian missions, many becoming highly motivated soldiers in the British colonial army. There was an enormous flight of slaves from their African and Arab masters in the Islamic Sahelian belt in the 1890s and early 1900s, after the French colonization of this area. Paul Lovejoy calls it one of the most significant slave revolts in history.

    I write about this in more detail in my essay “‘My Folks Sell Me and Yo’ Folks Buy Me’ – Kanye West, ‘Barracoon’ and Some History of African Slavery,” here:

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