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Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later

You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Now say they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide. They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence.

This month’s publication of the paperback edition of EN in the US and UK is an occasion for me to weigh in on the controversies that have flared up in the year since the book appeared. (A list of reviews and commentaries may be found at the foot of this essay.) I’ll resist the temptation to correct errors, settle scores, or relitigate cases I made in the book. Instead I’ll use the controversies to reflect on the Enlightenment project and its enemies in the current moment.

You got the Enlightenment wrong. There were many Enlightenments, not just one.  The Enlightenment thinkers were not all scientific humanists: some were men of faith, and some were racists. Wasn’t Rousseau a part of the Enlightenment? Shouldn’t Marx be counted as an Enlightenment thinker?

The many attacks on EN based on what the Enlightenment “really” is miss the book’s point. Enlightenment Now makes “The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.” It does not make “The Case for A Bunch of Guys Who Wrote in the 18th Century.” Of course, the Enlightenment had fuzzy boundaries, was influenced by ideas that preceded it, and embraced thinkers who disagreed with each other (most notably Rousseau, described by Anthony Kenny in The Enlightenment: A Very Brief History) as “a gigantic cuckoo” in the Enlightenment’s nest). So there can be no correct answer to the question of whether some writer deserves to be counted as part of the Enlightenment. As I wrote, the era “was never demarcated by opening and closing ceremonies like the Olympics, nor are its tenets stipulated in an oath or creed….For all the prescience of the founders, framers, and philosophes, this is not a book of Enlightenolatry. The Enlightenment thinkers were men and women of their age, the 18th century. Some were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders, or duelists. Some of the questions they worried about are almost incomprehensible to us, and they came up with plenty of daffy ideas together with the brilliant ones.”

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.” The thinkers of the 18th century deserve the shout-out because so many of them articulated this cluster of ideals in conversation with one another. (See, for example, the histories by four scholars named Anthony—Kenny’s The Enlightenment: A Very Brief History, Pagden’s The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters, Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment, and Grayling’s Towards the Lightand studies by two who aren’t, Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza and Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights.)  But EN is not a work of intellectual history, and it’s pointless to quibble with the word because the ideals were not endorsed in the same way by every last writer of the era. Words mean what people take them to mean, and “Enlightenment” is conventionally understood to refer to the ideal of using reason and science to advance human welfare—as when it was invoked, for example, in speeches by Barack Obama and Emanuel Macron in 2017. (For an essay that makes these points better than I can, see Steven Pinker’s Counter-Counter-Enlightenment by Saloni Dattani, a graduate student in behavioral genetics at King’s College.) 

The Enlightenment is not worthy of celebration. It gave the world racism, slavery, imperialism, and genocide.

The only part of this claim that is right is that some of these practices continued to take place after the 18th century. Otherwise it is exactly backwards. Each of these crimes is as old as civilization (see my 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), and it was only during the Enlightenment that people singled them out as moral blights and sought to eliminate them from the human condition.

Racism arises naturally from the cognitive habits of xenophobia and essentialism whenever a rival group stands apart in appearance or lifestyle, and it has repeatedly been intellectualized by writers of the day. Examples include Aristotle on the barbarians, Cicero on the Britons, the ancient Greeks and medieval Arabs on the Africans, the medieval Spanish on the Jews, and 16th-century Europeans on Native Americans. The deep roots of racial thinking are flaunted in the titles of books like Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity and Geradline Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.

Imperialism also has ancient roots: For most of history the simple policy of political leaders was “I came. I saw. I conquered.”  (Wikipedia’s List of empires enumerates 154 of them between 2300 BCE and 1700 CE, adding, “The list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.”) The historical pivot away from imperialism is identified in another book title, Sankar Muthu’s Enlightenment Against Empire. Muthu notes that while scattered critics had long decried particular abuses of imperial power, it was only with the Enlightenment that anyone thought to challenge the very idea that Europeans had a right to colonize the rest of the world.

The new anti-imperialists, including Bentham, Condorcet, Smith, Burke, Diderot, and Kant, were driven by two ideas. One was the principle that all people deserve moral and political respect simply because they are human. The other was a precocious evolutionary anthropology that saw humans as beings that create and live by cultures, which allow them to cooperate with one another and adapt to their environments. Put them together and a sharp moral line emerges: Practices that blatantly violate human freedom and dignity, like slavery, serfdom, imperialism, and caste systems, are to be condemned; all other norms and customs are incommensurable across cultures and may not be judged as superior or inferior. (One might add that only an American academic could write a book entitled Enlightenment against Empire which omits the greatest Enlightenment-inspired challenge to imperialism of all: the American Revolution.)

Slaves were always the most desirable spoils of conquest, and anyone who has been to a Passover seder or seen the movie Spartacus knows that slavery was not invented in 18th century Europe or America. Blaming the Enlightenment for slavery is particularly ludicrous given the chronology of abolition, depicted in this timeline from Better Angels,  with the 18th century marked by the vertical lines: 

As the historian Katie Kelaidis put it in The Enlightenment’s Cynical Critics, “Millennia of great moral teachers sought to come to terms with slavery and to mitigate its inhumanity, but no one—not Jesus, not Buddha, not Muhammad, not Socrates—considered the complete liberation of all slaves prior to the Enlightenment. … The Enlightenment was not the inventor of slavery, but it was the inventor of the notion that no one should be held as a slave.”

It’s true that the second half of the 19th century saw the rise of now-discredited scientific theories of racial hierarchies, and to ethnic nationalisms that culminated in 20th-century wars and genocides. But blaming them on the Enlightenment depends on the fallacy that les Lumières were responsible for every event that took place after the 18th century. Worse still, it neglects the major intellectual development of the 19th century: the Counter-Enlightenment. As the economic historian Mark Koyama notes in Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?:

The attempt to lay the sins of the modern West on the Enlightenment lets the Counter-Enlightenment off the hook. It was in reaction to the universalizing moral philosophy articulated by Enlightenment thinkers that romantic, nationalist, and indeed ethnocentric ideas sprung: Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Joseph de Maistre, Thomas Carlyle, and others produced a well-spring of ethnocentric, nationalist, and in some case racialist arguments to bear in opposition to what they conceived to be Enlightenment liberalism.

Hardened racial boundaries, romanticized ethno-nationalist histories, and the notion of national cultural and national spirit evolved in reaction to the Enlightenment … It was precisely the universalizing ideals of the Enlightenment that its critics reacted against most vehemently. De Maistre denied there was such a thing as man; only “Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on.”

And as I documented in EN, the potted history that blames “science” in general, and Darwin in particular, for the racialist theories of the 19th and early 20th century warps the chain of influence, omitting the formative role played by Romantic history, philology, classics, and mythology. It also betrays a poor understanding of Darwinian biology, which is incompatible with the theory of a hierarchy of pure races that was popular in the day.

Once again, the best response to this family of criticism has been made more effectively by others. Together with the essays by Kelaidis and Koyama, there’s Jonah Goldberg’s Was the Enlightenment Racist? (spoiler alert: Betteridge’s Law applies),  Ben Domenech’s Why It’s Absurd To Pretend The Enlightenment Is Responsible For Racism, and Robert Tracinski’s For The Left, The Enlightenment Is Just Another Excuse To Cry “Racism.”

Lest this last title suggest that the Enlightenment is vilified by the left and admired by the right, note that Tracinski wrote an equally trenchant essay called Dear Conservatives: The Enlightenment Is Not The Enemy. It is a response to the theoconservative and reactionary currents of the Right who pine for the moral certainties of throne and altar and blame the Enlightenment for the “hyper-rational scientism embedded in the liberal order” and for “scientistic communist thinking.” Tracinski addresses his comrades: “Well, thanks, guys. You just took the entire moral and intellectual authority of the Enlightenment and handed it over to the commies, a feat they could never have managed on their own.”

Totalitarian communism, Tracinski notes, had its roots in Rousseau—the Enlightenment’s cuckoo who inspired Robespierre, the Jacobins, and the Romantics. While Rousseau may have been “a man of the Enlightenment in the chronological sense,” he insisted that science and reason lead not to progress but to decrepitude, and elevated the “general will” over individual freedom and rights. Tracinski adds, “Anyone who thinks Communism is ‘scientific’ should reflect that no scientific movement would conduct two centuries of ‘experiments,’ see all of them fail, and still stubbornly refuse to accept the results.”

How can you say that we should stop worrying and that everything will turn out okay?  What about plastics in the ocean? What about opioids? What about school shootings? What about incarceration? What about social media? What about Donald Trump?

Writing Enlightenment Now reinforced a discovery I made while writing Better Angels:  “Progress” is an alien, exotic, counterintuitive concept. Many people think the question of whether progress has taken place is a matter of being a pessimist or an optimist, of seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full. And they think that the cause of any progress is a mysterious force that carries the world upward toward Utopia.

In fact, the question of whether progress has occurred is matter not of “optimism” but of what Hans Rosling calls “factfulness”: calibrating our understanding of the world to empirical reality. If measures of well-being, such as health, prosperity, knowledge, and safety, have increased over time, that would be progress. In fact, they have. As Rosling and others have shown, most people deny progress not out of pessimism but out of ignorance.

At the same time, progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would not be progress. That would be a miracle. Progress is not a miracle; it’s the result of solving problems. Problems are inevitable, and solutions create new problems that must be solved in their turn. For this reason, some aspects of life can improve while others stand still or go backwards. Progress would still be a reality if most of humanity is better off than they were before—if, as Obama put it, the answer to the question “When would you choose to live if you didn’t know who you would be?” is “Now.” The wrong way to determine whether progress has occurred is to compile a list of everything that is currently going wrong anywhere in the world—the gimmick that columnists periodically rediscover as a way to scare the bejesus out of their readers and assume the mantle of a prophet.

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. 

But what we should do now very much depends on how we understand progress. If you believe that all of humanity’s efforts to make the world a better place have failed—that all is vanity, the poor will always be with you, and the best-laid plans of mice and men always go awry—the appropriate response is stop throwing bad money after good and to enjoy life while you can. If you believe that things could not be worse, and all of our institutions are failing and beyond hope of reform, then the appropriate response is to burn the empire to the ground in the hope that anything that rises out of the ashes will be better than what we have now. Or to empower a strongman who promises “Only I can fix it” and seeks to make the declining country great again. But if applying reason and science to make people better off has succeeded in the past, however piecemeal and incompletely, the appropriate response is to deepen our understanding of the world and to improve and mobilize our institutions to make more people better off still.

All those numbers showing that the world has been getting better must have been cherry-picked.

This is topsy-turvy, and comes from an incredulity at the very possibility that the world could have gotten better.

Sometimes the incredulity is nakedly political. For those reviewers who were offended by my wisecrack that progressives hate progress, consider these 2017 tweets from the left-wing activist David Graeber (spotted by Charles Kenny in his review It’s Not As Bad as All That): “Does anyone know any handy rebuttals to the neoliberal/conservative numbers on social progress over the last 30 years? again & again i see these guys trundling out #s that absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, child labor, have sharply declined.... It strikes me as highly unlikely these numbers are right … It’s clear this is all put together by right-wing think tanks. Yet where’s the other sides numbers? I’ve found no clear rebuttals.”

Indeed. The picture of the world presented in EN comes from data which aggregate all the cherries. I began with the three variables that every thinker on social progress agrees are the baseline for measuring well-being: longevity, prosperity, and education (being healthy, wealthy, and wise). As I did in Better Angels, I also graphed measures of violence (deaths in war, genocide, and violent crime), state oppression (autocracy, the death penalty, the criminalization of homosexuality), and bigotry (racist and sexist attitudes and violence against women and minorities). I added data on one of the psychological causes of progress, liberal values, and one of its psychological effects, happiness.

In each case I chose the most objective and agreed-upon measures, such as battle deaths for war and homicides for violent crime (dead bodies are hard to fudge). I stuck with public datasets compiled by university researchers, government agencies, and intergovernmental institutions such as the UN, avoiding numbers from advocacy groups whose business model is “the worse, the better.” I reported figures from the entire world whenever they existed. And I reported the entire dataset, from its inception to the most recent year available.

With finer-grained measures (such as life expectancy at different ages, or deaths from lightning strikes), I showed data from the US or UK, both because they are where the data are available and because those countries are of parochial interest to the largest number of my readers. But these choices underestimate the amount of progress enjoyed by the developed world. The US is a backward country, lagging its democratic peers in health, safety, education, and happiness, and the UK is not at the front of the pack either.

In every case progress can be seen with the naked eye. It’s not because I tried to hide the backtrackings and reversals: I couldn’t have, because datasets put them in plain view. (Examples include the Vietnam War, the 1960s–1980s crime boom, AIDS in Africa, and the American opioid epidemic.) True, many of the lines can float upward or downward depending on definitions, such as where you place an arbitrary cutoff like the “poverty line.” But contrary to the claims of progressophobes, they can’t flip from soaring to plunging or vice-versa. 

It’s not just me. In the year since EN went to press, five other books have drawn similar conclusions about the state of the world: Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than It Looks, Bobby Duffy’s The Perils of Perception, Hans and Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund’s Factfulness, Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko’s Clear and Present Safety, and Ruy Texeira’s The Optimistic Leftist (so much for that conservative/neoliberal/right-wing conspiracy).

Now compare this picture of the world with the main alternative on offer to most readers. Journalism, almost by definition, is cherry-picking. It reports rare events such as wars, epidemics, and disasters, not everyday states of affairs such as peace, health, and safety. Statistics on longevity and accidents are reported in any year in which they jerk in a bad direction (because that’s “news”), but not in all the boring years in which they keep trending in a good direction.

On top of this built-in tilt toward the negative, journalists put their elbows on the scale in a quest for eyeballs and as part of a moralistic commitment to shake readers out of their complacency (as captured in the satirical Onion headline CNN HOLDS MORNING MEETING TO DECIDE WHAT VIEWERS SHOULD PANIC ABOUT FOR REST OF DAY). And then there’s the newspapers’ stock in trade, the human-interest/vox-pop feature, which profiles a Joe or Jane grabbed off the street or from the writer’s circle of acquaintances. When these stories are presented in the context of data, they are invaluable in humanizing and deepening readers’ understanding of a trend. But otherwise they are a license to yank readers’ Availability Bias in whichever way the writer wants. It doesn’t have to be that way: one can imagine news sources that cover the major features of the world the way they cover weather, sports, and financial markets: with regular reports of the indicators, whichever way they go.

Professional history, too, has an eye for the juiciest fruit. There are many histories of wars and famines and tyrants and revolutions, but fewer histories of peace and plenty and harmony, and fewer still that trace out measures of well-being over time and explain the ups and downs.

The environment presents a different challenge. I could not have presented a global, long-term dataset on environmental quality, because no historical measure of this omnibus concept exists. But no one would suggest that the state of the environment has improved in the past 250 years anyway—on the contrary, many of the improvements for humanity came at the expense of the planet.

For the past decade, however, we do have a global report card—the Environmental Performance Indexand  I noted that it has improved for 178 out of 180 countries and is highest in the most developed among them, suggesting that, overall, the environment is beginning to rebound. A second bird’s-eye view revealed that the main source of pressure on the environment, human population growth, peaked in 1962 and is in steep decline (a little-known fact explored in Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline).

The question I then faced was which of the dozens of components of environmental quality deserved to be broken out into their own graphs. I chose the one with the most alarming trend—CO2 emissions—and four with positive trends (emissions within the United States, deforestation, oil spills, and protected areas). Critics have argued that I could have plotted other negative trends such as biodiversity and fresh water resources, and perhaps I should have. But my goal in those pages was not to summarize the state of the environment but to push back against the relentless fatalism of orthodox environmental journalism and activism.

Looking at numbers on human well-being is amoral and callous and insensitive. What do you say to those people who are suffering?

Most journalists feel at least somewhat sheepish about the innumeracy of conventional human-interest reporting, but occasionally one will flaunt it, as in an ill-tempered review entitled “Steven Pinker Wants You to Know Humanity is Doing Fine. Just Don’t Ask About Individual Humans.” The accusation is inside-out: looking at numbers is the moral, compassionate, sensitive way to deal with human suffering. It treats every life as equally precious, instead of privileging members of the tribe or victims that are photogenic or conveniently nearby (a point developed by Paul Bloom in his case for rational compassion). Data show us where the suffering is greatest, help identify the measures that will reduce it, and reassure us that implementing those measures is not a waste of time. For those who still can’t appreciate the value of the 7th-century invention of place-value number systems in understanding the human condition, I recommend dwelling on this image, taken from the Roslings’ Factfulness:

Your five children have to spend most of the day walking barefoot with your single plastic bucket, back and forth to fetch water from a dirty mud hole an hour’s walk away. On their way home they pick firewood and you prepare the same gray porridge that you’ve been eating at every meal, every day, for your whole life—except during the months when the meager soil yielded no crops and you went to bed hungry. One day your youngest daughter develops a nasty cough. Smoke from the indoor fire is weakening her lungs. You can’t afford antibiotics and one month later she is dead.

Now, replace it with this image:

You can buy food that you didn’t grow yourself, and you can afford chickens, which means eggs. You save some money and buy sandals for your children, and a bike, and more plastic buckets. Now it only takes you half an hour to fetch water for the day. You buy a gas stove so your children can attend school instead of gathering wood. When there’s power they do their homework under a bulb. But the electricity is too unstable for a freezer. You save up for mattresses so you don’t have to sleep on the mud floor.

Then do it again. And again. And again, around the clock for a millennium. That is a way to appreciate a fact that others can summarize as follows: During the past 25 years, a billion people escaped from extreme poverty.

How do you explain Donald Trump? And Brexit? And authoritarian populism? Don’t they spell the end of the Enlightenment and the reversal of progress?

Though the Enlightenment ideals of disinterested reason, scientific naturalism, cosmopolitan humanism, democratic institutions, and human progress offer the best prospects for humanity, they are by no means intuitive. People easily slide back into motivated cognition, magical thinking, tribalism, authoritarianism, and nostalgia for a golden age.

Nor has Enlightenment thinking ever carried the day. It has enjoyed spells of influence which have increased in length since 1945, but always has been opposed by Romantic, nationalist, militarist, and other Counter-Enlightenment ideologies. The authoritarian populism of the 2010s falls smack into that undertow—not just the emotional currents, but a line of intellectual influence. As I noted in EN, “the intellectual roots of Trumpism” is not an oxymoron, and many members of his brain trust and alt-right base proudly credit Counter-Enlightenment theoreticians.  These themes can be appealing during periods of economic, cultural, and demographic change, particularly to factions that feel disrespected and left behind.

For believers in Enlightenment and progress, the second year Donald Trump’s presidency felt like being strapped to a table and getting a series of unpredictable electric shocks. They include his kissing up to autocratic thugs, undermining a free press and judiciary, demonizing foreigners, gutting environmental protections, blowing off climate science, renouncing international cooperation, and threatening to renew a nuclear arms race.

But before we imagine the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever, we need to put authoritarian populism in perspective.  Despite its recent swelling, populism appears to have plateaued. A majority of Americans consistently disapprove of Trump, and in Europe, nationalist parties won a median of  just 13 percent of votes in 2018 elections. The demographic sectors that are the hottest hotbeds of populism are all in decline: rural, less educated, older, and ethnic majorities. The travails of Trump and Brexit in 2018 are a reminder to supporters that populism works better in theory than in practice. Lined up against it are democratic checks and balances within a country and pressures toward global cooperation outside it, the only effective means to deal with trade, migration, pollution, pandemics, cybercrime, terrorism, piracy, rogue states, and war.

And though Trump and other reactionary leaders can do real damage, and will have to be opposed and contained for some time to come, they are not the only actors in the world. The forces of modernity, including connectivity, mobility, science, and the ideals of human rights and human welfare are distributed among a wide array of governments and private-sector and civil-society organizations, and they have gained too much momentum to be shifted into reverse overnight. Most of the kinds of progress documented in EN are continuing. The political economist Angus Hervey of Future Crunch maintains a dataset of positive developments of a kind that tend to be passed over in CNN morning meetings. The year 2018 saw reports of:

  • 46 measures to reduce greenhouse gas emission;
  • 19 expansions of protected areas, including the largest tropical rainforest park in the world (in Colombia);
  • 9 successes in conservation, including jaguars, mountain gorillas, sea turtles, island foxes, long-nosed bats, Gangetic dolphins, three coral reefs, and four rare Polynesian bird species;
  • 18 measures to reduce plastic in the environment;
  • 8 additional successes in pollution control and sustainability;
  • 24 improvements in health, including the near-disappearance of Zika; a major vaccination drive against cholera; a drop in HIV/AIDS which could eliminate infections within a dozen years; and the eradication of malaria in Paraguay, Guinea Worm in South Sudan, trachoma in Ghana, and elephantiasis in Togo;
  • 6 milestones in reducing poverty, including a report that more than half of the world now can be classified as middle class, and record low rates of poverty for American children and African American men; 
  • 11 improvements in the rights of women, including the repeal of discriminatory laws in Tunisia, Morocco, India, and Nepal, and a doubling of the proportion of women in the world’s legislatures;
  • 8 advances in human rights, including the abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia and the decriminalization of homosexuality in India, Lebanon, and Trinidad & Tobago;
  • 11 reductions in violent crime, including a halving of the homicide rate in the world’s most murderous country, Honduras, as well as drops in the rates of homicide, incarceration, and recidivism in the United States;
  • 6 advances in peace, including a global decline in battle deaths for the third year in a row, and the end of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea which had killed more than 100,000 people;
  • Not a single crash of a commercial passenger plane, and an all-time low in deaths from natural disasters;
  • A record number of democracies and people living in them, including improvements in Indonesia, Pakistan, Nepal, Somaliland, and Armenia.
  • A drop in global suicide rates. Which leads to….

How do you explain the growing epidemic of despair, depression, loneliness, mental illness, and suicide in the most advanced liberal societies?

I don’t, because there isn’t one. Though some sub-populations are tragically suffering (in particular, middle-aged, less-educated, non-urban white Americans), the belief that people are increasingly unhappy is a persistent illusion. It may be called the Optimism Gap, the Personal-optimism/National-pessimism contrast, or the Thoreau illusion (after the essayist’s declaration in 1854 that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” though presumably not him). A good overview is the essay Optimism & Pessimism by Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy, with a graph showing that “in every country people think that others are less happy than they themselves say.” Americans, for example, think that less than half of their countrymen are happy, whereas in reality ninety percent are.

Let’s zoom in on some of the specific claims. Advanced liberal societies, far from being pits of alienation and despair, are in fact the world’s happiest places. According to the World Happiness Report 2018, the world’s ten happiest countries are the five very liberal, very advanced Nordic nations, together with Switzerland, Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. And contrary to an urban legend, Bhutan is not particularly happy, coming in 97th among 156 countries, with a mean self-rating of 5.1 a 10-rung ladder.

As I reported in EN, the world has been getting happier.  Surveying the data in their essay Happiness and Life Satisfaction, Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina note that “In 49 of the 69 countries with data from two or more surveys, the most recent observation is higher than the earliest.” Here are data from the ten countries that are the most populous or most powerful:

What about that epidemic of depression, mental illness, and substance abuse? In Our World in Data’s entry on Global Mental Health, Hannah Ritchie observes, “Many (myself included) have the perception that mental health issues have been increasing significantly in recent years. The data by the IMHE [Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation] that we have does, in general, not support this conclusion. The prevalence of mental health and substance use disorders is approximately the same as 26 years ago. (The IMHE attempts to measure the Global Burden of Disease over time with a constant yardstick.)

As for suicide, a late-2018 article in The Economist summarized the trend: Suicide is Declining Almost Everywhere. Here are data for the whole world from the Global Burden of Disease project, showing the 38 percent fall since 1994, together with a sample of countries selected by Our World in Data:

The crisscrossing lines for the United States and the world explain why so many people are mistaken about suicide trends. American writers who report a suicide epidemic have picked one of the rottenest cherries from the bin: data for the United States, which is defying the global trend, from a starting year of 1999, when it had sunk to one of its lowest points. Zooming out shows that suicide rates were far higher in the first half of the 20th century, not just in the US but in two other countries for which we have data stretching back that far.

Suicide rates are often inscrutable, but one cause of the worldwide decline is identified by two experts quoted in The Economist:

Greater social freedom is one of the reasons, suggests Jing Jun, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing: “Female independence has saved a lot of women.” In a study in 2002 looking at high rates among young rural women, two-thirds who attempted suicide cited unhappy marriages, two-fifths said they were beaten by their spouses and a third complained of conflict with their mothers-in-law. Professor Jing explains: “They married into their husbands’ families; they’d leave their home town; they’d go to a place where they knew nobody.” …

There may be something similar going on in India. “Young women face particularly challenging gender norms in India,” says Vikram Patel of the Harvard Medical School. If parents disapprove of a relationship, they will tell the police their daughter has been abducted. The cops will then take a 21-year-old away from a consensual relationship. So, he concludes, many suicides in India “are related to the lack of agency for young people to choose their own romantic partners”. As social mores have liberalised, that is changing.

In her essay A Hunger Strike Just to Get to College, the Islamic scholar Nadia Oweidat recounts why suicide crossed her mind growing up in another not-so-liberal, not-so-advanced culture, Jordan:

When I told my family I wanted to go to university, they were indignant. Having just finished high school, I already had too much education, they told me. And I was starting to have some crazy ideas like wanting to master the English language to go abroad one day. It was time for me to put all that aside and get married, they insisted.

But I knew there was one way this would end. I would go to university and pursue a higher education, maybe even go to America.

Or I would die trying.

The Durkheimian conventional wisdom that close-knit families, intimate village life, and traditional social norms protect people against anomie and suicide needs to be rethought. As The Economist essay concluded, “All over the world, suicide rates tend to be higher in rural areas than in urban ones. Social bonds sometimes constrain people as well as sustaining them; escaping an abusive husband or tyrannical mother-in-law is easier in a city than in a village.”

All this is lost on those critics of EN who are wistful for a traditional life they never had to live, like Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik, whose review of EN was subtitled, “In his new book, Steven Pinker is curiously blind to the power and benefits of small-town values.”  As I noted in EN, this vicarious nostalgia is curiously blind to the provincialism, conformity, tribalism, and restrictions on women’s autonomy of small-town life. It’s true that the Enlightenment has not solved the problem of how a woman can simultaneously submerge herself in her extended family in a small village and pursue a career as a scientist in a cosmopolitan city. But it’s hardly an indictment of modernity that she now has that choice.

Life poses tradeoffs. The unprecedented freedom in modern societies includes the freedom to trade off intimacy for autonomy, and to surrender to temptations that may not be best for us in the long run. We have not hit upon a perfect libertarian paternalism that would somehow nudge everyone into using their freedom wisely. But as the jurist Richard Posner has pointed out, the recurring fallacy in lamentations of modernity is “to compare an idealized past, its vices overlooked, with a demonized present, its virtues overlooked.”

The Enlightenment will be killed off by its own creations, artificial intelligence and social media.

This was an irresistible storyline in the bicentennial year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. But like the revivification of corpses by electricity, the Artificial General Intelligence that will displace humans is a sci-fi fantasy. In EN, I argued that artificial intelligence is neither going to subjugate us nor inadvertently wipe us out as collateral damage. And though we continue to see tweets and articles about the Robopocalypse, this dread has been defused in new articles, including Ed Clint’s Irrational AI-nxiety, Oscar Schwartz’s “The Discourse is Unhinged”: How the Media Gets AI Alarmingly Wrong, and Rodney Brooks’s The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions.

Brooks, the former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, is scathing about the “fears of things that are not going to happen, whether it’s the wide-scale destruction of jobs, the Singularity, or the advent of AI that has values different from ours and might try to destroy us.” He provides insightful diagnoses of the various misunderstandings, including an update on Arthur C. Clarke’s adage that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Brooks asks us to imagine time-transporting Isaac Newton to his University of Cambridge home today and handing him a modern Apple, an iPhone. Imagine his astonishment at holding a small object that allows him to watch a movie, listen to church music, zoom in on a facsimile of his Principia, illuminate a dark chapel, mirror and magnify his face, take pictures, record sound, count his steps, talk to people anywhere in the world, and instantly carry out arithmetic calculations to many decimal places. Newton might very well guess that the iPhone would work forever without being recharged, like a prism, or transmute lead into gold, his lifelong dream. “This is a problem we all have with imagined future technology,” Brooks notes.  “If it is far enough away from the technology we have and understand today, then we do not know its limitations. And if it becomes indistinguishable from magic, anything one says about it is no longer falsifiable.”

One of the odder magical prophesies of 2018 was offered by Henry Kissinger in an Atlantic article called How the Enlightenment Ends, with the tag line “Philosophically, intellectually—in every way—human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence.” The 95-year-old statesman would not seem to be our best guide to the future of technology given that he himself seems unprepared for the rise of the internet. He declares that “Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning,” presumably unlike those non-Internet users out there, clutching their carbon paper with an almanac balanced on their knee, who are keeping alive the lost arts of contextualizing and conceptualizing meaning. “The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason,” he explains. “The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data.” How this will send us back to the days of burning heretics and believing in the divine right of kings he did not made clear.

How will AI join forces with the internet and kill off the Enlightenment? Kissinger suggests that since the algorithms of artificial intelligence are opaque to human understanding, the handover of decision-making to AI will make the ideal of rationally justified explanations and policies obsolete. But like other semi-comprehending prophets, Kissinger has conflated a recent trend in artificial intelligence, the use of multilayer neural networks trained by error back-propagation (misleadingly known as “deep learning”) with AI itself.

To dispel the magic: Deep learning networks are designed to convert an input, such as the pixels making up an image or the shape of an auditory waveform, into a useful output, like a caption of the picture or the word that was spoken. The network is fed millions of tidbits of information from the input, computes thousands of weighted combinations of them, then thousands of weighted combinations of the weighted combinations, and so on, each in a layer of simple units that feeds the next, culminating in a guess of the appropriate output. The network is trained by allowing it to compare its current guess with the correct output (supplied by a “teacher”), convert the difference into a huge number of getting-warmer/getting-colder signals, propagate those signals backwards to each of the hidden layers, and tune their weights in directions that make its guess closer to the correct answer. This is repeated millions of times, which has become feasible thanks to faster processors and bigger datasets. (For a more detailed explanation of the first generation of these models, see my books How the Mind Works and Words and Rules.)

Deep learning networks are “deep” only in the sense of having many layers of units; their understanding is onion–skin thin. After having the daylights trained out of them, they can map inputs onto outputs surprisingly well (which is how Facebook knows whether you’ve uploaded a picture of a person or a cat), but they don’t represent the meaning of what they compute. A translation network can’t paraphrase sentences or answer questions about them; a video-game-playing program has no grasp of the objects or forces in its simulated world and cannot cope with a minor change in that world or in the rules of the game. And since the program’s intelligence is smeared across millions of little numbers, we humans often can’t reconstruct how it came to its decisions. That’s what has led to fears that AI will have an agenda inscrutable to us, perpetuate biases that we’re unaware of, and pose other threats to Enlightenment rationality.

But this is exactly the reason that many AI experts believe these networks, despite their recent successes, have hit a wall, and that new kinds of algorithm, probably incorporating explicit knowledge representations, will be needed to power future advances. These include Gary Marcus, building on analyses he and I developed in the 1990s; Judea Pearl, the world’s expert on causal modeling; and even Geoffrey Hinton, the inventor of deep learning  himself.  Marcus, together with the computer scientist Ernest Davis, makes this case in the forthcoming Reboot: Getting to AI We Can Trust. If Marcus and Davis are right, it’s no accident that artificial intelligence will have to represent human ideas and goals more explicitly. AI is a tool, which serves at our pleasure. Unless its workings are transparent enough that we can engineer it to respect our goals, conform to common sense, stay within limits we set, and correct its mistakes, it won’t be truly intelligent.

The other terrifying sorcery of the moment is social media, now blamed for every problem on the planet, from destroying democracy to ruining a generation (the post-Millennial Generation Z or iGen, born after 1995). But before we write off Western civilization, we should keep some historical perspective. New communications media often open up a Wild West of apocrypha, plagiarism, conspiracy theories, and vast wastelands (see, for example, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe), until truth-serving countermeasures are put into place. Such measures always have a constituency because the truth is what doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. There’s little reason to think, this early in the history of social media, that they will become permanent, insidious forms of mind control that destroy democracy and the other institutions of the Enlightenment. Even today, as the political scientist Brendan Nyhan put it in the title of a 2018 article, Fake News and Bots May be Worrisome, but Their Political Power is Overblown.  Nyhan found that relatively little of the election-related news that circulated on social media in 2016 was fake, relatively few people were exposed to it, and not many of these were persuadable in the first place.

The psychological effects of smartphones also have to be kept in historical perspective:

XKCD, Randall Monroe

That generation “on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades”? The psychologist who sounded this alarm in an Atlantic cover story, Jean Twenge, has done groundbreaking research on secular trends in mental health, but her popular writings are almost a caricature of how every generation panics about the kids today, first the narcissistic Millennials, now the smartphone-ruined iGens. (For what it’s worth, my own reading of the literature, summarized in EN’s chapter on happiness, suggests that it’s the Baby Boomers who are the screwed up generation.)  Rebuttals to Twenge’s philippic have come fast and furious, including analyses by Amy Orben, Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Andrew Przybylski, and Zachary Karabell

For one thing, the critics note, the kids are (mostly) all right: Compared to preceding generations, they have lower rates of alcohol abuse, smoking, crime, car accidents, pregnancy, and unprotected sex. Teenagers’ happiness has changed little in twenty years, and any declines in their mental health are relatively small and mostly parallel the post-recession American malaise in other age groups. Smartphone use may have positive, not just negative, effects on their mental health, except with extreme overuse (and even that correlation may not be causal, since depressed teenagers may lose themselves in electronic distractions rather than having become depressed by them to start with).

Why were you so mean to Nietzsche?

I’m always surprised at which parts of my books get the biggest rise out of readers. With EN it was my irreverent treatment of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher whose writings are the answer to the question “What’s the opposite of humanism?”

Nietzsche argued that the ideal of increasing happiness and reducing suffering for the greatest number of people was a sentimental holdover of Judeo-Christian “slave morality,” and only gets in the way of the ultimate good, which consists in heroes and geniuses elevating the species through feats of greatness. I reproduced a wall of Nietzsche quotes that included such lovely phrases like “a declaration of war on the masses by higher men,” “the annihilation of the decaying races,” and “the higher breeding of humanity, including the merciless extermination of everything degenerate and parasitical.” I had pared it down from a longer list, which included musings about “the annihilation of millions of the bungled and botched,” and “mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man.” I ventured that it may not have been a coincidence that Nietzsche was adored by the Fascists, the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks, and that he continues to inspire Alt-Right provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and white supremacists like Richard Spencer—together with a surprising number of artists and intellectuals, and fanboys in every generation who see him as an edgy badass.

My disavowal of Nietzscheism was no digression.  Many writers had claimed that Nietzsche was the inevitable outcome of the Enlightenment’s rejection of theism, so if you are an Enlightenment humanist you must be a Nietzschean. The illogic is as follows: Nietzsche was an atheist, famously declaring that “God is dead.” Many humanists are atheists, believing that God never existed in the first place. Therefore, humanism is the same as Nietzsche.

Some people who think this way are just clueless: they have been so crippled by theistic morality that they cannot conceive of how one can ground ethics in anything other than God. (Enlightenment philosophers showed how, building on an argument from Plato.) Others know better but can’t stand the ideals of modernity, like science, progress, and liberal democracy, and so hope to smear them by association. (The obvious example is John Gray; for rebuttals, see essays by Anthony Grayling and Jerry Coyne.)

Either way, it’s easy to show that the equation is bogus. Nietzsche deployed every ounce of his considerable literary skill to imply that most human lives are worth nothing, which is the opposite of humanism. Humanism was inspired not by Nietzsche but by the Enlightenment, which Nietzsche despised. As Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK and President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, put it, “Humanism is the joint denial of theism and Nietzsche.”

Several reviewers wrote indignant attacks on my treatment of Nietzsche, claiming that I couldn’t take a joke. He didn’t really mean what he wrote in those genocidal and misogynistic passages, they said; he was being ironic, or writing fiction, or reconstructing the mindset of people in other times and places. I had no right to criticize anything he said, since his writings are aphoristic, personal, non-logical, and riddled with contradictions and puzzles, so no one really knows what he meant.

Well, perhaps. Yet even some of Nietzsche’s defenders, who insist he has been misunderstood by Nazis and the alt-right, acknowledge that the fact “that he’s been hijacked by racists and fascists is partly his fault.” Yes, if your hero gushes about the annihilation of the decaying races and the rise of a single stronger species of mankind, in passage after colorful passage, you should not be surprised that some of his less exegetically sophisticated readers come to believe in the annihilation of the decaying races and the rise of a single stronger species of mankind.

Even the fact that Nietzsche was hostile to the anti-Semites and German nationalists of his day (which I noted in EN) turns out to be a lame defense. The philosopher Kelley Ross documents that “Nietzsche’s racism is unmistakable,” including a racialized contempt for Jews. Indeed, in Ross’s letter and article defending EN’s treatment of Nietzsche, he thought I was too charitable on these points.

Though I make no claim to being a Nietzsche scholar, my reading of him as an anti-Enlightenment, anti-humanist thinker was based on the work of several philosophers and intellectual historians, including Bertrand Russell, Richard Wolin, Arthur Herman, James Flynn, R. Lanier Anderson, and Jonathan Glover. After EN came out, moreover, my reading was vindicated by the legal philosopher and Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter in an essay pointedly titled Friedrich Nietzsche: The Truth is Terrible:

Nietzsche the “existentialist” exists in tandem with an “illiberal” Nietzsche, one who sees the collapse of theism and divine teleology as tied fundamentally to the untenability of the entire moral world view of post-Christian modernity. If there is no God who deems each human to be of equal worth or possessed with an immortal soul beloved by God, then why think we all deserve equal moral consideration?  And what if, as Nietzsche argues, a morality of equality – and altruism and pity for suffering – were, in fact, an obstacle to human excellence? What if being a “moral” person makes it impossible to be Beethoven? Nietzsche’s conclusion is clear: if moral equality is an obstacle to human excellence, then so much the worse for moral equality. This is the less familiar and often shockingly anti-egalitarian Nietzsche.

Why did Enlightenment Now make people so mad?

Perhaps it is because I don’t understand the Enlightenment, am really an enemy of the Enlightenment, have whitewashed the crimes of the Enlightenment, have cherry-picked my data, am callous toward the suffering of individual people, am naïve about the Enlightenment’s imminent demise, and didn’t read Nietzsche closely enough. I don’t think so, but I’m not the best one to judge. If you’re with me so far, allow me to indulge in a bit of speculation on how Enlightenment Now may have touched some nerves in modern intellectual life.

Let them read Proust. Many literary and cultural critics have a streak of Nietzschean Romanticism which exalts feats of artistic and historical greatness as the only authentic virtue and is indifferent to prosaic indicators of mass flourishing such as child mortality, nutrition, and literacy. More than fifty years ago, when C. P. Snow valorized science for its potential to alleviate suffering in poor countries, he was assailed by the literary critic F. R. Leavis because “great literature” is “what men live by.” I faced the same argument in a debate on whether our best days lie ahead from the author Alain de Botton, who insisted that his native Switzerland, that bastion of health, happiness, peace, education, and prosperity, is not a worthy aspiration of the rest of the world, because it does not guarantee that its citizens will appreciate Proust. (I suggested that the rest of the world may want the chance to decide that for themselves.)

This literarism makes it easy to sneer at the menial work of engineers, businesspeople, and bureaucrats in improving the human condition. Those wonks are laboring within the institutions of bourgeois modernity, seemingly vindicating them by their incremental successes. Many intellectuals prefer to adopt a stance of “critical theory,” “radical oppositionality,” or “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” supposing that the modern West is degenerate down to its foundations and must give way to some unspecified but radically different form of social organization.

The Two Cultures. Leavis threw a tantrum at Snow’s broader suggestion that the sciences and humanities be integrated into a “third culture,” in accord with the Enlightenment ideal of consilience. Fury from humanities scholars at any attempt to bridge the two cultures is an enduring feature of modern intellectual life. Scientists keep getting blindsided by this reaction when they accept invitations to why-can’t-we-all-get-along interdisciplinary conferences, offer suggestions on how, say, visual neuroscience may illuminate art or quantitative surveys may shed light on musical universals, and find themselves denounced as vulgarian reductionist Nazis. Like all my work, Enlightenment Now “transgressed the boundaries” between the sciences and humanities, trying to enrich analyses in history, politics, and philosophy with quantitative datasets and explanations of human agency from cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.

Conflict versus Mistake. In a recent essay, Scott Alexander shines a searchlight into the foggy arena of modern disputation by distinguishing two mindsets:

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

He explains how many irreconcilable differences in the public sphere align with this cleft. They include the value of debate and free speech, the nature of racism, the good and bad parts of democracy, the desirability of technocratic versus revolutionary solutions, and the relative merits of intellectual analysis and moral passion. (“For a mistake theorist, passion is inadequate or even suspect. Wrong people can be just as loud as right people, sometimes louder. If two doctors are debating the right diagnosis in a difficult case, and the patient’s crazy aunt hires someone to shout “IT’S LUPUS!” really loud in front of their office all day, that’s not exactly helping matters.”)

Enlightenment Now not only engages in Mistake theory but sees it as the essence of the Enlightenment: Progress depends on the application of knowledge.  Conflict theorists think this is just an excuse for reinforcing privilege: progress depends on the struggle for power, and the philosophes were woke avant la lettre.

Alexander explains why it’s so hard to find common ground: “Conflict theorists aren’t Mistake theorists who just have a different theory about what the mistake is. They’re not going to respond to your criticism by politely explaining why you’re incorrect. …. There’s a meta-level problem in trying to understand the position ‘don’t try to understand other positions and engage with them on their own terms’ and engage with it on its own terms. If you succeed, you’ve failed, and if you fail, you’ve succeeded.”

People are irrational. They don’t care about facts and arguments. So what were you trying to accomplish with Enlightenment Now?

As Thomas Paine wrote, “To argue with someone who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.” I didn’t write Enlightenment Now for people who don’t care about facts and reason. I wrote it for you. As it happens, many people do care about facts, and can change their minds about beliefs that are not sacred to their moral identities—especially, I was tickled to learn, when information is presented in a graph. (EN has seventy-five graphs.) In a study published last year, Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that graphs were effective at disabusing even political partisans of their false beliefs.

As for what I hope to have accomplished, despite all my riposting and self-defending, I have no right to complain. The response to Enlightenment Now has been rewarding beyond my grandest expectations. The book got several effusive reviews for every grumpy one, providing ample material for the “Praise for Enlightenment Now” pages in the paperback (the section that editors call “bumf”). The 1500 letters were mostly positive and almost entirely constructive. But I’m most gratified by three unexpected responses.

One was a set of invitations to confer with seven current and former heads of government or their advisors. They were not seeking political or policy advice, which I’m incompetent to offer, but an opportunity to reflect on the aspirations of liberal democratic governance today. It’s not enough to be an un-populist or an un-socialist, or a custodian of the status quo. Effective democratic leaders must have convictions about the value, indeed the nobility, of their mission. The ideals of the Enlightenment are a good starting point: it’s not easy to improve on “All people have unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Seventy-five graphs showing improvements in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness suggest that the great democratic experiment is succeeding, as long as it constantly renews itself by solving problems, however severe, with new knowledge.

A second encouraging reaction was from journalists who are coming to appreciate the problems with the crushing negativity that has become entrenched in their professional culture. It is driving away readers: In a recent cross-national survey, almost a third of the respondents said they avoid the news. It is misinforming them about the state of the world: Most people underperform chimpanzees in their guesses on multiple-choice questions about poverty, health, and violence.   It is corroding their belief that the world can be improved: People who are least aware of human progress are most cynical about the future. And it is creating perverse incentives for terrorists, rampage shooters, tweeting politicians, and other entrepreneurs of outrage.

It’s one thing to report the dangers and injustices in the world, as journalists of course must do. It’s another to bury the advances under the bizarre belief that any good news must be human-interest fluff, corporate PR, or government propaganda. I have been working with several projects that are trying to make journalism more constructive and data-based, including the Solutions Journalism Network, Constructive Institute, Future Crunch, Publishing the Positive, The Correspondent, Positive News, Google News Initiative, and a project at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station to be announced in 2019.

The third and most heartening response of all has come from readers who have shared with me the effect of reading Enlightenment Now on their lives. Ever since I was anointed a “psychologist,” I have had to disabuse people of the assumption that I am in the business of improving people’s mental health. For the first time in my life I may have earned that credential. Of the many items in my Inbox thanking me for bringing positivity into their lives, this is my favorite, because it confirms my belief that the ultimate effect of learning about progress is not complacency but engagement:

Every week I teach current events to my classes, and it has slowly become a harrowing experience.  Since most young people rely on social media and headlines for their news, I am constantly bombarded with the ultra-negative and frightening stories (that are, as you rightly point out, designed to pull us in) for the length of my workday.  This process has slowly eaten away at my outlook on everything, even throwing me into bouts of depression from time to time. 

Yet your book truly changed my life… I can now face the students each day and provide more context for the fear-mongering headlines that they want to discuss, and most of all I am able to sleep better at night knowing that the world is moving in the right direction.

As someone who works regularly with young people, I cannot agree more that we must treat contemporary social problems as “problems to be solved” rather than an approaching apocalypse.  It is vital that these young people recognize that all problems are solvable… because they have an unbelievable energy (I see it every day) that the rest of us do not.  We must work to harness that energy, rather than resorting to scare tactics (which nearly every study that I’ve seen indicates don’t work).  

Thank you for providing much-needed context to the culture of fear-mongering.  I am a much happier person (and teacher) as a result of it.

Steven Pinker is Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

* * *

Appendix: Reviews of, and Commentaries on, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

10 best books of February: the Monitor’s picks. The Christian Science Monitor. February 13, 2018.

2018 in books: a literary calendar. The Guardian. January 6, 2018.

Aaronovitch, D. Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker — don’t believe the false doom-mongers. The Times. February 17, 2018.

Aaronson, S. Review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Shtetl-Optimized. March 22, 2018.

A future perfect: Steven Pinker’s case for optimism “Enlightenment Now” explains why the doom-mongers are wrong. The Economist. February 24, 2018

Ahrens, J.M. Steven Pinker: “Populists are on the dark side of history”. El Pais. August 10, 2018.

Al-Shawaf, R. ‘Enlightenment Now’ says human progress is real, remarkable, and yet often unacknowledged. The Christian Science Monitor. February 27, 2018.

Altares, G. Tenemos motivos de sobra para ser optimistas. El Pais. February 3, 2018.

Altschuler, G.C. Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment Now’: Sometimes overdone, but a much-needed reminder of reason’s place. The Philadelphia Inquirer. February 19, 2018. 

Anthony, A. Steven Pinker: ‘The way to deal with pollution is not to rail against consumption’. The Guardian. February 11, 2018.

Are Quakers Humanized? – A review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Quaker Universalist Fellowship. March 22, 2018.

Baggini, J. Never Had It So Good. Literary Review. February 2018.

Bailey, R. Defending the Enlightenment: Steven Pinker takes on the tribalists. Reason. February 21, 2018.

Bailey, R. The Amazing and Abundant Future. Reason. March 9, 2018.

Bailey, R. Climate Change Problems Will Be Solved Through Economic Growth. Reason. March 12, 2018.

Baker, D. David Brooks’ Radical Dishonesty. The Center for Economic and Policy Research. February 23, 2018.

Bakewell. S. Steven Pinker Continues to See the Glass Half Full. The New York Times. March 2, 2018.

Baron, M. Don’t take the Onion’s pessimism too seriously. Washington Examiner. February 22, 2018.

Bauerlein, M. The Atheist’s Imagination. First Things. February 27, 2018.

Beam, A. The good bad times. The Boston Globe. February 19, 2018.

Beck, C. The Left’s Smearing of Steven Pinker. Splice Today. January 15, 2018.

Bell, D.A. The PowerPoint Philosophe: Waiting for Steven Pinker’s enlightenment. The Nation. March 7, 2018.

Blewett, K. Book Reviews: Enlightenment Now Steven Pinker. Bookpage. March 2018.

Boaz, D. What If Newspapers Reported the Real News about Human Progress?. Cato Institute. March 8, 2018.

Books to Read in 2018. Quillette. January 1, 2018.

Bornstein, D. Scared by the News? Take the Long View: Progress Gets Overlooked. The New York Times. April 10, 2018.

Briefly Noted: “An American Marriage,” “The Music Shop,” “Enlightenment Now,” and “The Line Becomes a River.”. The New Yorker. March 26, 2018

Broadie, K. Steven Pinker: Friend or foe of the Enlightenment?. kimbroadie. October 11, 2018.

Brooks, D. The Virtue of Radical Honesty. The New York Times. February 22, 2018.

Cahalan, S. 9 charts that prove there’s never been a better time to be alive. New York Post. March 3, 2018.

Canfield, K. ‘Enlightenment Now,’ by Steven Pinker. San Francisco Chronicle. February 15, 2018.

Cantlon, T. Cantlon column: Good news! And lots of it. The Daily Courier. March 7, 2018.

Carey, J. Book review: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker. The Sunday Times. February 18, 2018.

Chambovey, D. Un meilleur monde est-il possible? L’optimisme conditionnel de Steven Pinker. Telos. September 13, 2018.

Clark, P. Pessimism is sometimes an enlightened outlook. Financial Times. February 25, 2018.

Clark, T. Rational Optimism: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Naturalism.Org. February 2018.

Clifford, C. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker: The idea that A.I. will lead to the end of humanity is like the Y2K bug. CNBC. February 27, 2018.

Clinton, B. Bill Clinton: By the Book. The New York Times. May 31, 2018.

Collyer, B. Enlightenment now: The rise and fall of progress. New Scientist. March 19, 2018.

Cook, G. The Secret behind One of the Greatest Success Stories in All of History. Scientific American. February 15, 2018.

Coyne, J. The New Yorker goes after Pinker and his progressivism. Why Evolution is True. July 22, 2018.

Coyne, J. Pinker gets harassed on his birthday. Why Evolution is True. September 18, 2018.

Crease, R.P. Unenlightened Thinking. Physics World. May 23. 2018.

Crease, R.P. Thus Faked Zarathustra. Wall Street Journal. October 25, 2018.

Crowder, L. Steven Pinker: Real risks, undeniable progress. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. April 11, 2018.

Cullen, P. If everything’s going great, why do we think it’s bad?. The Irish Times. March 3, 2018.

Damon, J. La leçon d’optimisme du professeur Pinker. Les Echos. March 16, 2018.

Daniels, M. Things really aren’t that bad. But we like to think they are. The Washington Post. December 26, 2018.

Dattani, S. Steven Pinker’s Counter-Counter-Enlightenment. Quillette. March 11, 2018.

Davies, W. Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker review – life is getting better. The Guardian. February 14, 2018.

Douthat, R. The Edges of Reason. The New York Times. February 24, 2018.

Edsall, T.B. Is President Trump a Stealth Postmodernist or Just a Liar?. The New York Times. January 25, 2018.

Edsall, T.B. Trump Against the Liberal Tide. The New York Times. May 31, 2018.

Emerson, B. Should we take brighter view of world? See why this author thinks so. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. March 1, 2018.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Publishers Weekly. December 11, 2017.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress Author: Steven Pinker. Kirkus Review. December 15, 2017.

Farmer, R. E. A. Social Progress is Not an IllusionEconomic Window, January 12, 2019.

Ferguson, N. Florida Shooting: Look again, Dr Pangloss, America is bleeding. The Sunday Times. February 18, 2018.

Ferguson, N. Hard to see America’s ‘success story’ in current bloody times. The Boston Globe. February 20, 2018.

Feser, E. Endarkenment Later. Claremont Review of Books. July 30, 2018.

Fitch, A. How We Evaluate Our Current Circumstances: Talking to Steven Pinker. Los Angeles Review of Books. July 27, 2018

Fontana, B. Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress, by Steven Pinker. Times Higher Education. 2018.

Fox, B. Being pessimistic isn’t so bad after all. The Valley Vanguard. February 18, 2018.

Fulford, R. Why humanity is winning (and optimists are right). National Post. March 9, 2018.

Galanes, P. The Mind Meld of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker. The New York Times. January 27, 2018.

Gallo, C. The First 6 Pages of Bill Gates’s Favorite Book Will Change Your Life (and the Next 500 Pages Aren’t Bad Either). Inc.com. January 30, 2018. 

Ganesh, J. Liberals risk the charge of complacency. Financial Times. February 19, 2018.

Gates, B. My new favorite book of all time. gatesnotes. January 26, 2018.

Gilman, N. It’s the Institutions, Stupid. The Breakthrough Institute. April 23, 2018.

Gitz, B.R. 100 years after disaster. Arkansas Democrat Gazette. March 12, 2018.

Goldin, I. The limitations of Steven Pinker’s optimism. Nature. February 16, 2018.

Gonzalez, C.A. Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now Is Mostly Right. National Review. July 14, 2018.

Gopnik, A. When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough. The Atlantic. April 2018.

Gray, J. Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled liberals. New Statesman. February 22, 2018.

Green, D. Academe Is Not Anti-Science. The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 20, 2018.

Gwinn, M.A. Steven Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment Now’ is shock therapy for pessimists. The Seattle Times. March 8, 2018.

Ha, T.H. Knee-Jerk Cynicism Is A Failure of Critical Reasoning, Says Steven Pinker in a New Book. Quartzy. February 14, 2018.

Hall, B. Book review: Making the case for hopefulness. Providence Journal. May 3, 2018.

Hanlon, A.R. Steven Pinker’s new book on the Enlightenment is a huge hit. Too bad it gets the Enlightenment wrong. Vox. May 17, 2018.

Harari, Y.N. A Haphazard Guided Tour of Humanity on the Brink. Yuval Noah Harari. October 29. 2018.

Harpham, G.G. Get Shorty: Steven Pinker on the Enlightenment. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture. Fall 2018.

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  1. Gabriel M says

    Pinker logic.

    People in Russia are much happier now that it is governed as Christian autocracy than when it governed as a liberal democracy, therefore liberal democracy is the best system of government. QED.

    India got better when Congress lost power and Hindu Fundamentalists got a turn running things, therefore liberal democracy is the best system of government. QED.

    Look at all my graphs that start in 1990 and show things kind of staying the same and completely ignore the massive spikes in all the things I’m looking at that followed liberal reforms in the 1960s. QED.

    America is an exception because you can’t make extrapolations about liberal democracy from the world’s most powerful, oldest, and best studied liberal democracy. QED.

    Yeah, sure the sum total of quality art produced int he last 50 years can’t match what Renaissance Florence managed in a decent month, but like WHO CARES? QED.

    Liberal countries are more liberal and I made up a metric according to which more liberal is better, so liberalism is better, QED.

    So if you’re some guy in Rotherham and your daughter is a heroin addict who belongs to a Pakistani gang that branded her with an iron, and the police threatened to arrest you with hate speech for filing a complaint and you’re wondering whether liberal democracy is really the best system of government, or whether there might be some sort of point where more liberalism produces diminishing returns, Pinker has an argument for you: stop being racist, learn to code, start a tech company. Not satisfied? Look at his list of references. Can you do that? No? QED.

    • arandomguy says

      “Here is a list with strawmans, so you’re wrong, QED”.

      Nice one

      • Innominata says

        We play a game in my department. It’s called “Six Degrees of Steven Pinker.”

        The story is that we have several Pinkerite atheists around who evangelize their disbelief and The Pinker a bit much for the rest of us who are not fundamentalist materialist humanists. Rather than fight the power, we decided to embrace it in a transformative way. The goal is to get one of the Pinkerites to mention or better yet to quote Steven Pinker as quickly as possible. The rules are that you can’t mention Enlightenment Hair hisself, atheism, or ask leading questions (so no “Who was it who wrote that book….?”) If you are in a group talking, the person who elicits the mention first wins.

        My colleague holds the all-time speed record. Cold turkey, she walked up to the coffee kiosk next to one of the Pinkerites, heaved a sigh, and intoned: “The world is just getting worse and worse….”

        “Well, actually! Steven Pinker says in his new book–”

        :-O We were struck dumb. It was like watching Michael Jordan dunk.

        This article would seem to be terminal proof of what our dearly departed brother (we miss you Baggins!) said a while ago: Quillette has become a Skid Row coliseum for intellectual bum fights.

        There’s nobody seriously making the case here AGAINST reason, science, etc. Pinker is arguing with an empty chair and getting clicks, because he says in his books what many mediocre minds are thinking, and it tickles them. It’s boring. If The Pinker ever debates David Bentley Hart or some other serious thinker like him, I’d definitely tune in. But he won’t, because then everybody would see he’s way out of his depth a lot of the time and really grasps very little philosophy, history, or theology.

        • Πέτρος says

          “Quillette has become a Skid Row coliseum for intellectual bum fights.”

          BWUHUHUHUHAHAHAHAHA! I had forgotten. That rant by Baggins may have been the best thing every published by Quillette. He should have been paid. I still maintain he is (was?) somebody well known.

          But I like bum fights, so I’m still here. BTW: totally love “Six Degrees Of Steven Pinker.” I may modify the subject and use it in my own office place.

        • Ahmmed Zee says

          “a Skid Row coliseum for intellectual bum fights” ROFLMAO ?

          I have no idea what a “Baggins” is, but that’s right on the money. Poetry, in fact. Just what Pinker and these celebrity intellectuals do. I’m thinking about his fisticuffs with Nassim Taleb in particular. Two guys slanging over an unfalsifiable hypothesis. “You said no-nos about my math wiener! Now I’m gonna hit you with my shopping cart full of Enlightenment trash! Are people watching us??”

          • Anastasia of Cambridge says

            “I have no idea what a “Baggins” is …”

            No one knows what the Scroto Baggins is. It comes like a shadow to the comments thread, then disappears again, leaving only scratchings of brilliance behind and the charred remains of the verbose ignorant. I have seen them. Lots of us have seen them. If you stick around long enough, you might see them, too.

            But be warned: you can’t unsee the words of Baggins. Once his cynicism has touched you, you are forever changed. And you might see him soon, sooner than you want to. He’s no Pinker lover, that’s for sure. If anything is going to bring Baggins out to terrorize the villagers, this Pinker piece will. I’m leaving before the bodies start to drop. I can’t take the suspense.

          • U NO HOO ? says

            @AmmedZee: waitaminute … whicheraroo is an “unfalsifiable hypothesis”? Bit of a floating predicate here.

          • Ahmmed Zee says

            “whicheraroo is an “unfalsifiable hypothesis”? Bit of a floating predicate here.”

            @U NO HOO

            All of it! The idea that humanity is “progressing,” that science and “reason” are the proximate cause … the whole crumpet. It’s not that Pinker isn’t right. He isn’t even WRONG. It’s just nonsense, unfalsifiable when he gets to define what “progress” means and the period in which it is demonstrated. “Oh, you don’t see progress across this snippet of time? No bother. Here, I’ve cut out a new snippet …”

            Not only that, but his definitions of progress are hysterical. People in old folks homes have zero murder rates, too. That doesn’t mean they are healthy and doing well; it means the opposite. In so many ways, modernity is a rolling travesty. I can’t get a young person to look me in the eyes now, they are so anti-socialized with their social media and mobiles. Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and self-perception disorders such as anorexia are skyrocketing among the young in the UK and America.

            In countless ways, the soul of man in the West has been hollowed out beyond recognition. He’s fat, lonely, overmedicated, godless, childless, and ontologically exhausted. He may not be murdered, but he’s hardly alive compared to his forefathers. That was Ted Kazynski’s (AKA “The Unabomber”) point, and it’s much deteriorated sense he got put away. Pinker is the flip side of the Ted Kazynski coin, but he’s less convincing … and less technically proficient at fabricating attention-grabbing devices or graphs.

            I can’t prove things are getting WORSE. That would be as silly as what Pinkerites are trying to do. I think Nassim Taleb is just looking for attention slanging with Pinker. The only thing sillier that someone who puts forward an unfalsifiable hypothesis is the guy like Taleb who tries to falsify an unfalsifiable hypothesis by inventing words and blustering. Hence my uproarious laughter at “intellectual bum fights.”

            Pinker is symptomatic of most of the bourgeois Academy. He’s selling a latter-day religion of consolation to readers desperate for a glimmer of sunshine (look at the self-congratulatory letter he tacked at the bottom of the article). He’s Joel Osteen for the college-educated urban dweller. I half expect to have a knock on my door and two young men in white shirts saying, “Have you heard the good news from Steven Pinker?”

            Pinker fancies himself a Big Thinker and a philosopher. He’s nothing of the sort. He’s a phrenologist, and a bad one at that. I very much doubt history will be kind to him.

          • Anastasia of Cambridge says

            @Ahmmed Zee: ” I can’t get a young person to look me in the eyes now, they are so anti-socialized with their social media and mobiles.”

            HA! That’s a coincidence. Look at the Dilbert cartoon for today:


            Also, you are my new favorite person for referencing the Unabomber in your argument.

          • Innominata says

            @Ammed Zee,
            “Pinker’s a phrenologist, and a bad one at that. I very much doubt history will be kind to him.”

            Not to be persnickety, but I doubt history will remember The Pinker any more than Britney Spears. Remember: Harvard is now where David Hogg goes to carrege.


            Sounds about right. But one must admit it’s a beautiful thing when two intellectual punchlines like Quillette and The Pinker find one another. So romantic. Okay, I need to go read something that’s important. Enough procrastination. Cheers.

          • “In countless ways, the soul of man in the West has been hollowed out beyond recognition. He’s fat, lonely, overmedicated, godless, childless, and ontologically exhausted.”

            Measuring from what baseline?

            Personally, as a man in the West, I am not fat, not lonely, not childless, not over-medicated, and especially not exhausted, ontologically or otherwise. I am, however, godless.

            “He may not be murdered, but he’s hardly alive compared to his forefathers.”

            Compared to which generation of our forefathers, precisely? When were men real men?

            It is a 99.9% certainty that you don’t get laid on a regular basis. I think I would be depressed and questioning the meaning of life as well if I was putting lipstick on my hand and calling it Sally. LOL.

        • hunter says

          While Innominata does win a rank ng for the snark award, it appears that the comment is more about projection and avoidance than with addressing the issues.
          I wish Pinkerton had addressed in this essay how academia has monetized –and weaponized- the anti-Enlightenment, focusing especially on the apocalyptic claptrap dressed as research today.

          • Scroto Baggins™️ says

            @Anastasia of Cambridge said: “Once his cynicism has touched you, you are forever changed. And you might see him soon, sooner than you want to. He’s no Pinker lover, that’s for sure.”

            Your faith in me is touching, but I must correct you on a coupla two points. (1) I am not cynical, I am a practicing Cynic. capitalization matters. (2) I love Steven Pinker. Love him.

            Steven Pinker saved my life, just like he rehabilitated the Weltanschauung of that teacher quoted at the end of the article–the one that Pinker published for our benefit, in spite of the risk that haters might call him a self-congratulatory narcissist.

            Before I found Steven Pinker, I lay all day in my bed weeping about global warning and baseless fears about the godless Red Chinese communists, consumed with Jesus-y stuff and irreasonable belief, unable to circumambulate my garret. But then I read in the truth-speaking legitimate legacy media about how Steven Pinker told those parents of the dead kids in Parkland “Where is your god now?” My eyes were just blown open.

            I went out and bought “Enlightenment Now,” and my life began to change. I had purchased a table from Ikea, and one leg was shorter than the others. It wobbled, and no matter how hard I prayed to Jesus (or Allah for a short time), the table leg never grew. I had given up. But “Enlightenment Now” fit under the table leg perfectly! 1.35 inches thick exactly! My coffee stayed on the table for the first time in ten years. Pinker was right: Jesus or Allah could not fix my table leg, but Enlightenment and reason could. I bought all Pinker’s books, and all the crumby furniture in my garret became perfectly level. I began to see that I could have faith in something other than blind faith.

            I despise people who don’t take Steven Pinker seriously. Haters say he’s not a real scientist, just a celebrity social (pseudo) scientist with delusions of grandeur and a typing compulsion. They say he’s a “Guitar-Hero philosopher” (you know who you are!) playing to people’s nihilistic postmodern prejudices and fears. The soi-disant “atheist” author John Gray even hurls the accusation that Pinker is repackaging Christian morality and selling it as something unique, like knock-off Coca-Cola sweetened with saccharine and labelled “Kola.” Well, I say to them, where is your evidence? They are wrong. I can provide citations for this in peer-reviewed journals and they cannot.

            The truth is, haters just hate Steven Pinker because he’s so brilliant, and he makes their little faith-stuffed heads explode, just like he so perspicaciously describes at the beginning of this article. They are afraid of coming out of the cave. Steven Pinker irrefutably demonstrates using science and reason that reason and science are more reasonable and scientific than unscience and unreason. Ergo, the world is getting better and better. I’m sorry if that makes idiots uncomfortable, but facts are facts. Graphs never lie. That’s just innumeracy.

            And @Petros: I am most certainly not someone well known. And I’m especially not Nassim Taleb. Don’t go spreading that rumor.

          • Suddenly Suzanne says

            @Scroto Baggins, “And @Petros: I am most certainly not someone well known. And I’m especially not Nassim Taleb. Don’t go spreading that rumor.”

            No, you’re not. Because I know who you really are. ? I was in the audience in London when you used the phrase “practicing cynic” to describe yourself, so I’m afraid you outed yourself. (Don’t worry, won’t blow your cover.)

            Don’t forget to take Nietzsche for his walk. Don’t want him to leave any more piles of “philosophy” on your floor! Love your books.

        • “There’s nobody seriously making the case here AGAINST reason, science, etc. ”

          Then you’re not paying attention to your students or to the literature getting published out there.

          There’s plenty of axioms such as the inexorability of social progress over time, confusion between means and results (although a vital distinction in Law), notably vis-à-vis affirmative action, unreasonable insistance on the social construction of behaviors, etc., where you can absolutely not push back against without the debate becoming hysterical and politicised.

        • Thylacine says

          @Innominata – Are you joking? “Nobody is arguing against reason, science, and humanism”?? Try looking closely at the entire intellectual political left progressives. They refuse to debate anything they cherish, because the “debate is over.” In place of reasoned argument, they use the tools of hunter-gatherer societies: mobbing and shaming and shunning and banning. On gender and race, they refuse to entertain any scientific / biological / genetic knowledge. They believe heartily in censorship and the social-media equivalent of book burning. They are the new fascists. The progressives on campus are the anti-enlightenment, the “conflict theorists.” The entire Democratic Party in the USA is dominated by this mindset. The one fault I would find with Steven is that he doesn’t understand the rise of Trump very well: Trump is a reaction to the anti-enlightenment of the left. Because sane, libertarian-leaning people like Pinker rarely run for politics, voters are left to choose between authoritarian progressives and authoritarian populists.

        • Dr. Pinker is obviously on the right track; he’s annoying the loony left in universities. Somebody has to!!! Good on you, Dr. Pinker.

        • John Crisp says

          David Bentley Hart, a serious thinker? Rather a pompous pontificator. Will he defeat Pinker with the Gish gallop or obscurantist references to the ultimate ground of being? While Pinker’s definitions of progress may be argued on their own terms, theology has made no identifiable progress in any of the theist traditions since their respective origins, mainly because it is a subject without an object, on which anything can be said because nothing can be proven.

    • Like many countries, the USA has entertained much more socialism and government control over our lives, with many demanding even more. When gun violence is up in schools, with the kids being the murderers, we’re told it’s ab out guns and not about a failing culture lead by socialism schools that seek equity of outcome and opportunity without regard to effort and ability.
      Liberty and equal protection work best; once someone has a forced solution to whatever problem they claim exists, expect more depression, less progress, more anger, less acceptance. “Let is be” is now thought to be a call for government solutions, more like a king’s edict than understanding that people can choose differently and even unwisely per your tastes and intellect.

    • That your argument is based on falsehoods and exagerrations suggest that you know it is nonsense.

      The Rotherham child abuse scandal was shocking and showed a systematic failure in the systems intended to protect children but the fact there are such systems, that we are shocked by them and that those responsible were eventually jailed shows that things are not as bad as you suggest. That this sort of event in unusual and that more broadly society has reacted to make similar occurences less likely.

      There were no reports of any children in Rotherham branded with an iron. In fact how could you do that? There was a report that a girl in Oxford was branded with hairpin.

      Some of the parents in Rotherham were thretened with arrest but for public order offences not for hate speech.

      • Gabriel M says

        Right, except it’s not an exception because the same thing happened in Rochdale, Oxford, Telford, Banbury, Derby, Bristol, Newcastle, Halifax, and Peterbrough and two dozen other known cases. these being only the examples that the liberal democratic regime has been unsuccessful in covering up.

        That this sort of event in unusual and that more broadly society has reacted to make similar occurrences less likely.

        It was a good sight more unusual for foreign gangs to own 10,000s of thousands of English women in 1950 with the active connivance of government and police at all levels. Actually it wasn’t unusual. It didn’t happen. Apparently, you’re ‘broadly’ satisfied with things being better than the stone age. Some of us are just picky I guess.

        but the fact there are such systems that we are shocked

        ‘Shocked’ is a relative term. On the whole, I’d say the British regime and the educated classes who supported it were less ‘shocked’ than they are by, say, the use of racial epithets. An appropriate level of ‘shock’ would be, at a minimum, for the Labour party to dissolve itself as an organisation. Instead, they might be back in government in 6 months.

        by them and that those responsible were eventually jailed

        Depends what you mean by ‘responsible’. Not one of the 10,000s of thousands of government employees who participated in the cover up has been punished at all, unlike people who tried to do something about it who continue to face
        police harassment and imprisonment on trumped up charges.

      • A classic case of “Ooooooh; look over there”. Such a useful trope of the Left. Not.

    • “People in Russia are much happier now ”


      “India got better when Congress lost power and Hindu Fundamentalists got a turn running”


      These are just unsubantiated claims. Your bias.

      “Right, except it’s not an exception because the same thing happened in Rochdale, Oxford, Telford, Banbury, Derby, Bristol, Newcastle, Halifax, and Peterbrough and two dozen other known cases. these being only the examples that the liberal democratic regime has been unsuccessful in covering up.”

      What has this got to do with having a liberal government? Unfortunately such abuse of young girls is worldwide. So who stops such abuse in countries with no such Liberalism? Thailand? Cambodia? Brazil? India? Phillipines? Russia? At least in UK when such scandals are xposed they actaully are dealt with.

      • Gabriel M says


        Pinker’s own graph, genius. The fact that the sharpest increase in reported happiness among the countries Pinker cites happened in Russia as it transitioned away from being a liberal democracy into being a Christian autocracy is clear evidence against liberal democracy being the best system of government, at least not everywhere, at leas not all the time. It might not be demonstrative – history’s complicated – but if it is evidence of anything it is against Pinker’s proposition. Pinker, however, in his inimitable way cites it as a further proof that liberal democracy is the best form of government, always, everywhere and that any alternatives are bad and doomed.

        These are just unsubantiated claims. Your bias.

        They are Pinker’s own claims! If he keeps citing cases of countries moving away from liberal democracy and improving as they do so as proof of the superiority of liberal democracy, then that’s his problem. Don’t shoot the messenger.

        This phenomenon of countries moving from democracy to right-wing authoritarianism and standards of government markedly improving is the single most salient phenomena of our age. We see it clearly in Israel, Hungary, Poland. It’s happening in the Phillipines, it’s about to happen in Brazil. Sooner or later, everyone is going to wake up to the obvious reality that right wing authoritarianism just works better once you take away the weird race mysticism and militarism that it got mixed up with in the 20th century. Pinker is Baghdad Bob with worse hair.

        What has this got to do with having a liberal government? Unfortunately such abuse of young girls is worldwide. So who stops such abuse in countries with no such Liberalism? Thailand? Cambodia? Brazil? India? Phillipines? Russia? At least in UK when such scandals are xposed they actaully are dealt with.

        None of these countries have Muslim colonists owning thousands of drug-addict indigenous women as slaves with the active support of the police and local government. What are you even talking about?

        The invariably bizarre and ridiculous responses supporters of liberal democracy make when confronted with the literally unprecedented occurrences in Rotherham and other cities shows – as if further proof is necessary – that liberal democracy is a dead man walking. It will hobble on a few more decades no doubt, but it’s empty, a joke, just like communism in the 1970s. Enjoy seeing everything you revere destroyed in the next few decades. I sure will.

        • @ Gabriel M

          “Pinker’s own graph, genius.”

          Pinker cites The World Happiness Report 2016 in Enlightenment Now. I have looked it up. Or he cites Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. Neither of them shows Russia to be among the happiest. So exactly what are you talking about? Which graph? Which book?

          “If he keeps citing cases of countries moving away from liberal democracy and improving as they do”

          Quite clearly he does no such thing.

          “We see it clearly in Israel, Hungary, Poland.”

          All are democracies. Might be bit more right-wing but still democratic.

          “it’s about to happen in Brazil.”

          No, it isn’t.

          “None of these countries have Muslim colonists owning thousands of drug-addict indigenous women as slaves with the active support of the police and local government. ”

          More baloney. Fact mixed with fiction. There are no thousands of drug-addicted women being controlled by Muslims. They preyed mostly on vulnerable kids – girls – not women. What are you talking about?

          Liberal democracy is alive and well – although under some challenge over issues like free speech. And it is easily the best form of government.

          • Gabriel M says

            Pinker cites The World Happiness Report 2016 in Enlightenment Now. I have looked it up. Or he cites Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. Neither of them shows Russia to be among the happiest. So exactly what are you talking about? Which graph? Which book?

            In the graph IN THIS ARTICLE, the biggest INCREASE in happiness happens in Russia. This can clearly be seen by people with eyes who are not functionally retarded.

            All are democracies. Might be bit more right-wing but still democratic.

            No. You don’t get to do this. You can’t keep telling us ‘Netanyahu is turning Israel fascist’, ‘Orban is destroying democracy’, ‘Poland has turned its back on democracy’, ‘Duterte has abolished the rule of law’ and then when we have the temerity to observe that what you define as destroying democracy results in dramatically increased standards of government, tell us that they are really democracies after all.

            After decades of pleading that failed experiments with socialism were not true socialism, now the Left is trying to tell us that wildly successful experiments with right-wing authoritarianism are not true right wing authoritarianism.

            More baloney. Fact mixed with fiction. There are no thousands of drug-addicted women being controlled by Muslims. They preyed mostly on vulnerable kids – girls – not women. What are you talking about?

            There were more than 1,500 victims in Rotherham alone, there have been more than 20 other discovered cases and there are dozens more cases that have not been brought to light. You do the math. And if you think the term women is inappropriate to describe post-pubescent minors, then I’ll agree with you for the sake of harmony though I hardly see how it supports your argument.

            Again, the extraordinarily bizarre responses defenders of liberal democracy make when confronted with the manifest failure of there preferred system of government to match even the minimum standards one would expect of a medieval satrap (don’t help hostile foreigners rape girls) is proof positive of the intellectual bankruptcy of liberal democracy.

          • @ Gabriel M

            “the biggest INCREASE in happiness happens in Russia”

            Yes. Out of about ten countries. Despite the increase, it is lower than most Liberal Democracies. And there is no causal relationship between such increase and the country turning more autocratic under Putin. Well, none that you have shown anyway.

            “results in dramatically increased standards of government”

            Utter piffle. More prove it. This just more and more tenuous unsubstantiated claims.

            “You can’t keep telling us ‘Netanyahu is turning Israel fascist’, ‘Orban is destroying democracy’, ‘Poland has turned its back on democracy’, ”

            Even if true, still does NOT mean these countries are not democratic. All leaders in such countries were elected. If they do something akin to what Putin has done – then fine. Else clearly not.

            And yes. They are democracies.

            ” wildly successful experiments with right-wing authoritarianism”

            Where? More baloney. Netanyahu, Obran and co are NOT wildly successful and they are not undemocratic. Their rule lasts till the people decide. You really seem to live in complete fantasy land.

            “There are no thousands of drug-addicted women being controlled by Muslims.”

            You make things up. This is fact mixed with fiction. Such Muslims preyed on vulnerable young girls from poor backgrounds and NOT on adult females addicted to drugs. Accuracy – something you lack in by the bucket loads.

            “defenders of liberal democracy make when confronted with the manifest failure of there preferred system of government”

            Once more. This is NOT a failure of Liberal Democracy and far from it. In fact, it is the EXACT opposite. Only in such liberal countries such things are exposed and then dealt with. In your favourite countries like Russia – they are not.

            “don’t help hostile foreigners rape girls”

            More fantasy. A lot wer born and bred in UK and they were eventually exposed and jailed. Notice – this does not happen in the autocratic system you seem to prefer.

        • urich.45 says

          Pinkerlogic© is the shitznit! Thusly:

          “Your reason came to a different conclusion that my Reason [re: politics, economics, staying up past nine to watch TV] . Therefore, you are unreasonable and an enemy of The Enlightenment.”

          I use it all the time with my kids. They aren’t quite sure how The Enlightenment and SpongeBob are connected, but Pinkerlogic© is helping them to accustom themselves to things that don’t make any gosh-darned sense.

          And to allude to Orwell right back at ya Steve-o:

          “Four legs good … ORANGE MAN BAH-AH-AH-AH-D…”

          I predict one of two things–maybe both–will occur:

          (1) Steven Pinker is going to wake up one day, realize deep down that he is popular science’s analog to an fundamentalist Bible-thumping televangelist, and his mind will implode;


          (2) The maenads of Dionysus are gonna tear him to bloody confetti for daring to have a wang and not toe the party line while on a college campus. And I guarantee you, they are coming. His fame can only protect him to a point. If he has any sense, he will move to a bunker in Idaho and wait this one out.

          I will miss the man. He seems like a pretty good guy. His ideas about politics I will get along without.

          • The Kat in the Kippah says

            @urich.45, to quote the American philosopher Eminem–who also righteously despises Agent Orange and says so loudly and in fairly complete sentences when he’s sober–

            “Your are a mean mean man.”

            (Only he does it with the voice. It’s not quite the same without the voice. You really got to hear the voice, or it doesn’t work the same. Look it up on the YouTube.)

            You literally have no idea what you’re talking about. Exhibit #1 is “Pinkerlogic©”. That’s not right, it’s not even close. The correct term is PINKERTHINK©, you ignorimus! (You will have to excuse me. I don’t know how to make the “copyright” symbol, so I copied your “copyright” symbol and inserted it.) Pinkerthink© is correct. Any *real* Pinkerthinker would know that! I will give you a *few* points because you did capitalize Reason, but that’s all.

    • The Sponge says

      Steven Pinker = white Deepak Chopra

      Not seriously do I take it. Nooooo….

    • James Lee says

      @Innominata and Gabriel

      We have a situation where banks and payment processors are conducting a behind closed doors purge of politically incorrect voices, and where most of the heretics have committed the sin of pointing out the insanity of large scale low skilled immigration to nations with few low skilled jobs currently available, and how even those few jobs will soon be automated away by our “progressive” billionaire ruling oligarchs. Gee, might that put excessive strain on the welfare state, not to mention on Western nations generally? I mean, I’m no nobel prize winning economist, but golly, this sure seems like a recipe for major social unrest and instability. Hey, didn’t Mao intentionally destabilize his society and attack the existing Chinese culture and traditions as “backwards” in order to install his “progressive” blueprint for how society should be? Hmm, that’s interesting. But there is no way that Western oligarchs with shared class interests would ever engage in something like that.

      A clique of our “Liberal” rulers also appear to be testing an early prototype version of China’s social credit score system. We all saw that Carl Benjamin is a bad boy, no more ability to earn a paycheck for him! Did you criticize Merkel’s immigration policies? Why, that’s Hate Speech, and Zuckerberg and Tim Cook are going to do their Moral Duty to stop your evil. But it’s all very liberal, no need to worry.

      Let’s hear Pinker regale us once more about the merits of “liberalism”. I can’t add the democracy part, because we all know that when democracy doesn’t vote the way our oligarchs want, its called populism and its very bad.

    • The Kat in the Kippah says

      An alternative viewpoint:

      “Quillette recently had a party in Toronto, where David Frum and Ben Shapiro themselves were in attendance. Like those two warmongering hysterics, and like Pinker himself, it is the function of the Quillette crowd, in politics, to lend a naive rationalist faith to the technocratic globalist agenda. National sovereignty, and the desire of ordinary people to govern themselves, are to be subordinated to the calculations of large expert organizations, many of them transnational. And all this while Europe is gradually dying off, with America perhaps not far behind.”



  2. Well met. The only Quillette article I’ve found enlightening. But to be honest, I quit coming to Quillette after sampling 10 or so articles. I’m guessing that a good number of hyperbolic, critical essays of “Enlightment Now” were published by Quillette because the audience here is exactly the set of people who opposed your book. It is somewhat surprising to me that you would publish here, kinda like it was surprising that you interviewed with Jordan Peterson.

    • @Mybrid Wonderful

      The world has turned upside down, our mirrors have all reversed, and what is false is now true.

      Welcome to the fabulous world of Mybrid Wonderful.

      “The audience here” at Quillette is exactly the “set of people” that are likely to respect Mr. Pinker’s work. I’d guess that about one out of every half-dozen articles published by Quillette over the past year contained an explicit or implicit criticism of “blank slate” dogma — that criticism is a philosophical underpinning of much of what this publication (and indeed the so-called Intellectual Dark Web) is all about.

      And to whom do we owe that idea more than any other contemporary intellectual?

      Go ahead. I’ll let you answer that question all by yourself.

    • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

      @Mybrid Wonderful

      I suppose you would be surprised that there are people who are interested in well presented ideas even if they disagree with them. I disagree with Professor Pinker on many points, but his views are a pleasure to read, and a proper challenge to my own. You should consider getting out of your echo chambers more often and engage with people who will challenge your ideas.

    • I’m with you on this. I’ve previously characterized Quillette the forum for precocious/obnoxious/terminally un-laid undergraduates with the occasional slumming grad student. The response to Pinker’s article is 100% predictable. These days I’ll only read Quillette articles written by people with actual credentials (like Pinker) and dive into the comment sections for the giggles.

  3. My God, Jesus Crist, you can see that Steven Pinker is a Harvard Professor, so many references, it’s impressive! However, I/m not impressed, personally, maybe other persoons yes.

    • Yes, why bother looking at references? You might learn something that is different from you already believe – we can’t have any of that.

  4. Nate D. says

    Thank you, Stephen Pinker, for publishing through Quillette. Good things are happening here. Contrary to Mybrid Wonderful’s comment above, you have lots of fan here. Myself included. Though I disagree with you just how secure Humanism’s Moral Code is, I believe so much of what you have to say needs to be heard.

    Keep up the good work and please continue to use your clout to put Quillette on the map.

    • Cheers! Yes, the concern is that we’re still on the path towards anti-western values and increasing the false notion that smarter people can plan our lives better than ignorant rubes, racists, homophobes, misogynists and greedy capitalists.

    • Alan Gore says

      I came to Quillette precisely because I can’t get articles like this one from Slate, Atlantic, Salon, or Harpers. Bravo!

  5. Kung Lao says

    It makes sense to regard the negative reactions to “Enlightenment Now” as conflict theory in action. The scarcitiy of economic niches for academics puts them into a competitive mindset. At the same time, the ways of earning your place in academia can appear arcane and unfair. This turns anger to resentment and makes them attack those who impersonate their values.

    There are ten PhDs for every tenured position. That´s a lot of ambition to manage.

    • Kung Lao says

      I meant to say “…personify their values.” instead of “impersonate”. Sorry for the mistake. Don´t know how to edit this 🙂

  6. David chandler says

    It was such a brilliant article until the author caught Trump Derangement Syndrome and floated into a faith based place where Trump’s achievements such as reversing US Middle Eastern colonialism, best employment and economy for blacks and minorities and push back of China are worse than liberal identity politics which with its constant claim of racism really is the most divisive force in society today.
    On this topic, he might benefit from placing Trump’s actual economic and social outcomes into his enlightenment framework. The data might lead to him drawing different conclusions on the Trump topic.
    So his TDS rather undermined an otherwise excellent piece, there is a lot to take from these arguments. Thanks to the author.

    • Trump toadied to foreign dictators and strongmen don’t you know! Obama never did anything like that including giving billions to Iran to do nothing. Also, Trump is killing the environment apparently by pulling out of imaginary feel good climate deals meanwhile India and China are opening up new coal plants daily. Also, the United States is one of the leading reducers in emissions year after year. A compelling argument can be made Trump has done more for minorities and the poor in two years then Obama did in 8 years. Yes, the piece was strong in most areas but he went off the rails with Trump and Brexit. Very unfortunate.

      • Lydia says

        “Yes, the piece was strong in most areas but he went off the rails with Trump and Brexit. Very unfortunate.”

        Perhaps that is his definition of “authoritarian Populism”? The peasants can vote?

    • So you like government shutdowns over a fight for a border wall to protect us from hoards of terrorists and murders and rapists?
      So you think global trade should be less free, that protectionist tariffs for underperforming companies is wise?
      So you think an immigrant without documentation is a criminal, despite not harming anybody?
      So you think lying daily, showing ignorance of history repeatedly, and sucking up to Russia is good?
      So you think his collapsed administration is good?
      So you think tax cuts that have increased deficits dramatically during a strong economy that he inherited is wise economics?
      So you think not doing anything about climate change is wise?
      That a GOP senate wouldn’t pass a bill that the president won’t sign is acceptable rather than their role as a check and balance?
      That he puts Kushner in charge of middle east peace?
      That the rise of nationalism and open white supremacy is good?

      And what economic policy did Trump enact that you think “turned around” some sense of a bad economy that predated his arrival?

      • Dan Love says

        Your forgot the to mention how Republicans want to eat children and the time when Trump led the Belgian genocide.

        • U NO HOO ? says

          “Partisan loyalty is socially disastrous; but for individuals it can be richly rewarding–more rewarding, in many ways, than even concupiscence or avarice.

          “Whoremongers and money-grubbers find it hard to feel very proud of their activities. But partisanship is a complex passion which permits those who indulge in it to make the best of both worlds. Because they do these things for the sake of a group which is, by definition, good and even sacred, they can admire themselves and loathe their neighbors, they can seek power and money, can enjoy the the pleasures of aggression and cruelty, not merely without feeling guilty, but with a positive glow of conscious virtue. loyalty to their group transforms these pleasant vices into acts of heroism.

          “Partisans are aware of themselves, not as sinners or criminals, but as altruists and idealists. And with certain qualifications, this is in fact what they are. The only trouble is that their altruism is merely egotism at one remove, and that the ideal, for which they are ready in many cases to lay down their lives, is nothing but the rationalization of cooperate interesting and party passions.”

          –Aldous Huxley “the Devils of Loudun”

          • Peter from Oz says

            Thanks for that quotation from Huxley. It is entirely apposite in today’s culture.
            I much prefer whoremongers and money-grubbers to political activists. The latter are usually very badly educated and boring. The former are often sharp and fun.

      • BenBen says

        @DavidofKirkland please don’t conflate immigrant with ‘illegal immigrant’ and nationalism/populism with white supremacy; its such a poor use of polemics and you aren’t preaching to simpletons here. Depending on whether you understand modern monetary theory, sovereign states that issue their own currency can carry deficits infinitum. What we may be seeing in the slow down of the world economy is the effect of post financial crisis QE coming to roost in our trading partners world wide. This is a derivative collateral damage as a result of global currency markets and speculation on the US Dollar that we can protect against as the original issuer, but other countries cannot.

      • Doctor Locketopus says

        > So you think an immigrant without documentation is a criminal, despite not harming anybody?

        Illegal aliens are criminals by definition. Most of them are also identity thieves, at a minimum.

        • TheSnark says

          Sorry Doctor L…Under US law, Illegally crossing the border is a misdemeanor, not a criminal offense. Misdemeanor, you know, like jay walking. Maybe it should be criminal, but it’s not.

          • augustine says

            Sorry but a misdemeanor is a criminal offence. A lesser offence, but still punishable by fines or jail time.

          • Jim Gorman says

            Actually, under federal immigration law, it subjects you to deportation. Jaywalking is a local misdemeanor, not a federal offense.

      • U No Hoo ? says

        “So you like government shutdowns over a fight for a border wall to protect us from hoards of terrorists and murders and rapists?
        So you think global trade should be less free, that protectionist tariffs for underperforming companies is wise?
        So you think an immigrant without documentation is a criminal, despite not harming anybody?
        So you think lying daily, showing ignorance of history repeatedly, and sucking up to Russia is good?
        So you think his collapsed administration is good?
        So you think tax cuts that have increased deficits dramatically during a strong economy that he inherited is wise economics?
        So you think not doing anything about climate change is wise?
        That a GOP senate wouldn’t pass a bill that the president won’t sign is acceptable rather than their role as a check and balance?
        That he puts Kushner in charge of middle east peace?
        That the rise of nationalism and open white supremacy is good?
        And what economic policy did Trump enact that you think “turned around” some sense of a bad economy that predated his arrival?”


      • Your TDS is showing. And I have a zinger answer to every one of your “gotcha’ questions. Which I will not give as you are not a serious person.

        Get some help, will you.

    • Since Pinker has written such an “excellent piece”, perhaps it is your positive opinion of Trump that needs further consideration on your part. Give it a shot of rational consideration please. Trump’s “actual economic and social outcomes” are what Pinker and the rest of us are looking at.

      • @Paul

        I don’t have a positive opinion of Trump, at all. I didn’t even vote for him. I’m just sick of people acting like he is literally worse than Adolf Hitler. It’s half-baked, ignorant, and induces painful eye-rolling. “Do you know how many children Trump raped just last week? Like 40! And there’s videotape evidence!”

        So could you afford some rational consideration? Please, you’re not looking at “actual economic and social outcomes”. You’re looking at hysterical bias.

        The one thing more extreme than his conduct is the near-religious belief that he is an antiChrist.

      • Tome708 says

        David Chandler, not David of Kirkland. Kirkland dude, you obviously don’t live in the US based on them opinions. Stick with what you know, it will serve you better

    • Stephanie says

      @David Chandler, I agree. An otherwise decent article was sullied by regurgitation of the same “orange man bad” lines omnipresent in the academy and media. Trump wanting to make America great again is a danger to the Enlightenment values we’ve inherited, but Obama’s statements on his desire to fundamentally transform America aren’t? Yikes.

    • Exactly my thoughts. Funny how even the most brilliant are susceptible to irrational hatred of the Orange King, no matter the number of his historic accomplishments.

  7. Few people in the US have done more to advance the cause of respectful debate, open discourse, and viewpoint diversity; shown more courage in the face of SJW mobs (being called “alt-right” and a “Nazi” on Twitter despite being liberal and Jewish); contributed more to our understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the unreasonable left in academia (with the publication of The Blank Slate); and been as unafraid to confront the hysterical districts of the American left (arguing correctly that part of the blame for Trump’s election is the scourge of political correctness) as Steven Pinker.

    Public intellectuals like Mr. Pinker, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, and Brett Weinstein remind me of what true liberalism is capable of when it is not corrupted by fashionable neo-Marxist variants or the utopianism and narcissism of isolated and fatuous ivory tower activists. That all of these men are considered anachronisms or useful idiots or sell-outs by many on the contemporary progressive-left is a sad reminder of how far that movement has distanced itself from the civilizational foundations of the West (e.g., the Enlightenment, the scientific method), and just how deep its moral and intellectual rot has penetrated.

    • Dan Love says

      Yet each of them seems to think the social right (even moderate) is somehow more of a threat, despite being beaten down into irrelevance and into the lowest classes for 60 years straight. Whatever happened to enlightenment humanism?

      The talking points are the same: Trump is bad; Brexit is bad; you’re an idiot if you disagree, though the opinion involves significant subjectivity. They sound awfully similar to the SJWs they criticize…

      If the left invaded liberalism, it’s because liberals considered the meager social right more of a threat. Perhaps some poetic justice is in order when they lose the ability to express how the entire universe was sexist until 1970 because they, themselves, were accused of being sexist first.

      • I don’t understand this comment at all.

        Having an opinion on significant current issues is not against enlightment values, not being willing to listen to other points of view and not seeking to base judgements and opinions on evidence and rational argument is.

        On Trump he does seem to represent and encourage an anti-evidence/anti-rational mode of thought and politics. He frequently contradicts himself and seems not in teh least embarassed when he state sthinsg which ar enot true or which contradict previous statements of his. He also quite openely seeks to undermine respect for the rule of law and legal and judicial instituitions. How significant his actions are is open to question. Wider instituitions limit the effect of this and ho time in office will necessarily be limited but he is certainly a prominent anti-enlightenment figure.

        Brexit is not as clear cut as both sides have sought to make rational arguments. This has not been universal George Osbornes pre-vote statements were clearly groundless hyperbole as are many brexiteer statements. The widespread brexiteer abuse of ‘remoaners’ as quislings traitors and treasonous is disreputable and clearly intended to shut down debate but it has had little effect. Holding an opinion on either side including that your oponenst are idiots is not against enlightment principles as long as you are open to rational argument and evidence on the subject.

    • I heartily agree with this assessment. The work of these public intellectuals informs and encourages my own work in trying to counteract ideology, authoritarianism and irrationality, i.e. the left. I admire Pinker tremendously but not blindly. His chapter on the environment was misguided due to his reliance on self interested and biased scientists and I told him so. But his main error was in judging “progress” from a purely human viewpoint….just as the left does as well as people like Bjorn Lomborg. The real error was in not looking at the planet, its systems and its species, which in the end are far more important for humanity than curing disease or hunger. The failure to articulate the dependence of humans on Nature, and the corollary belief that the improvement of human welfare is the highest goal are not just destructive to human society but lethal. Resolving the ecological crises will subsume all the other social justice problems which concern the left, but a single minded focus on social justice will NOT resolve the ecological problems! This is why the ongoing co-opting by social justice activist of the environmental movement and of the debate over climate change is going to erect huge obstacles to achieve anything like ecological sanity. Ideology of any stripe is arbitrary and the success of any ideology never assured. The left needs to consider the fact that
      its own doctrines may not prevail. But in the meantime time is growing shorter for the whole planet, and when the heat hits the fan (as it already is) social justice concerns will fall by the wayside, and totalitarian methods of governance will prevail to deal with the multiple crises that will afflict and undermine human society and ultimately civilization.

  8. Ah, a Harvard professor criticizing lowly peasants for wanting to regain dignity in the form of populism.

    Down you dogs! Globalization is objective salvation. Be grateful; and remember, racism is bad, mmkay?

    You won’t see the appeal of Brexit and populist uprisings when you have no reason to see them.

    • The results are likely to be dismal. Economics, like our lives, work best with the least government control. Strong countries with free markets often fall to socialism and inward looking, and they’ve never turned out well in the end. The USA is far from it’s liberal past economically, with government spending at 40% of GDP.

    • Heike says

      Pinker commits the Leftist sin of considering the Right as The Other. It’s so common they don’t even notice they’re doing it. ORANGE MAN BAD so it’s OK to dehumanize the middle and working classes who have gotten totally screwed over by the political establishment’s policies in the last 30 years.

      Globalization didn’t just “happen” and it wasn’t “inevitable”. It was premeditated, first-degree murder of our own people. It’s easy to do when you have Otherized your own middle and working classes.

      • Peter from Oz says

        And the funny thing is that the working classes constantly vote for lefties, because lefties support more welfare. More welfare of course makes thinks worse for the working class and turns them into the underclass.
        The fact is that the richer you are, the more likely you are to be right wing. There is a cadre or noisy lefties who are well off, but they inevitably became that way because they were the beneficiaries of government largesse or crony capitalism.

    • Stephanie says

      @Sara, and don’t forget that any criticism of mass migration or globalisation is racist!

      Pinker might get a nice bird’s eye view from way up there in his ivory tower, but his blind spot for what the rest of us are actually concerned about seriously undercuts this piece.

  9. Much good stuff, but:-

    Jesus did not just ‘consider’ the complete emancipation of all slaves, he mandated it in his Golden Rule. Nobody can love their neighbor by enslaving them.

    “The US is a backward country, lagging its democratic peers in health, safety, education, and happiness, and the UK is not at the front of the pack either.”
    Which is why so many Americans are fleeing to other countries! But wait, they’re not, are they? Milions strive to get INTO this ‘backward’ country. And the famous migrant ‘caravan’ in Mexico had no plans to march north across the USA and invade Mr. Pinker’s native land.

    • Jesus was about the meek, about giving unto Ceasar, about keeping the old laws… The golden rule is pretty old, much older than Jesus, and slavery was present, yet he didn’t speak of it directly.

      • “Jesus was about the meek, about giving unto Ceasar, about keeping the old laws…”
        Yet the Romans executed him. Slavery is so obviously contrary to loving one’s neighbour that Jesus had no need to point out the fact.

    • I think Dr. Pinker would encourage you to look at the data. The countries US lags behind are NOT the ones from which “millions” would like to enter the US. No one is claiming life is better in Nicaragua. The US is already a great country but it still needs to improve in many areas and isn’t the world leader it once was. The problems can be fixed, of course, but not by denying their existence.

      • Dr. Pinker didn’t just say the US has problems, which would be true. He said it is a backward country, which it is not.

    • @johntshea
      Yeah that one got me too. All of these stats are skewed to some degree by massive influx of non-citizens. As well the result of repetitive labor jobs being automated or outsourced leaving many mired in near poverty and reliant on government welfare. You could say the same is true of many European countries except that the U.S is the 3rd most populous nation on Earth, the numbers dwarf any one of the European nations used for comparison purposes. How’s that for Enlightenment?

  10. Steven Pinker is dishonest snake in the grass. The claim about racism, slavery, imperialism, and colonialism isn’t that they suddenly appeared for the first time because of the enlightenment, it’s that these projects were so central to the enlightenment that they must be viewed as enlightenment values. He’s starting by lying his ass off about what someone like me is actually arguing, which is pathetic if I don’t actually have a point. That’s actually the tactic of someone who knows he or she can’t even hope to defend an argument on the merits. It’s an affirmation that Pinker knows his argument is BS from the outset. That or he’s too stupid to understand the argument.

    And Jonah Goldberg is Pinker’s best apologist for this crap? A spoiled racist who loves to opine about meritocracy when he’s only where he is because of who his parents are? A guy who literally wants to bring back Jim Crow methodologies for keeping undesirables from voting and edits a magazine that’s a national joke for supporting every racist policy idea there has ever been since its existence is the man Pinker thinks makes the best case the enlightenment wasn’t racist at its core? Actually that’s about what I’d expect.

    • No counter-arguments. Please provide the examples where reducing liberty, making laws unequal in who they protect, where government manages economies and businesses best, and….

      • I don’t need a counter argument when America’s founding was built in part on the backs of both slave labor and native extermination. It’s actually Pinker who has to be able to point to enlightenment thought to show this wasn’t the natural outcome of elite opinion during the enlightenment. The trouble for the dummy’s who think he’s already destroyed people like me with his unmatched skill at logic is I can easily point to enlightenment thinkers who built entire new philosophies around race to justify all of it. Where in the hell do you people think the race science of the 1700 & 1800s came from?

        It’s you idiots who never take the arguments from people like me seriously. You cherry pick what you all feel was good about the enlightenment while purposefully ignoring how power actually functioned in the world at that time. It was might makes right just like it’s always been. And just like always, the philosophy came behind the actual ethos of the time to pretend it was higher values shaping a new world order. I mean, when I’m told that the enlightenment was about individual rights and I can point to mass enslavement and genocide occurring again and again as it went on, I know the I’m being told a load of bullshit.

        Are there good things that emerged from that time period, yes of course, but the idea that the bad somehow is not a by product of enlightenment thought is pure stupidity. Mass killings and mass enslavement don’t happen stochastically. They are planned by the elites of their time. They don’t magically happen any more than the US through no thought or foresight from elite opinion magically invaded Iraq in 2003.

        • Yes, it’s us idiots who can’t use an apostrophe correctly. Do you honestly think that you’re going to change our minds by calling us names?

          You write as though before the Enlightenment there was peace and love for all mankind. You point to power — the usual uni-dimensional argument from a Humanities student.

          “but the idea that the bad somehow is not a by product of enlightenment thought is pure stupidity”. Yes, peace and love before those horrible, write men wrote some books.

          Nice try, mate. Where do you think the ideas upon which the West was built came from? Do you believe that we managed to implement those ideas in a 3-month period? Or is it possible those ideas needed time to materialise?

          • Reader says

            “I don’t need a counter argument when America’s founding was built in part on the backs of both slave labor and native extermination.”
            “It was might makes right just like it’s always been.”

            Overdosing on totalizing Foucauldian power politics, explained.

            ” And just like always, the philosophy came behind the actual ethos of the time to pretend it was higher values shaping a new world order”

            Whoa, moral philosophy can aim to be….ahead of the times in which it is conceived?????? It’s almost as if this is pretty close to the idea of progress! It’s a process we’re still engaging in.

            You can’t toss away a given period because of the association with ideas now recognized to be antiquated or immoral – the world is way too complicated to run a single axis, especially on the presumption we all figured this out recently.

          • I don’t care if you change your mind or not. What’s amazing is you all go out of your way to prove my point. You’re all too stupid to actually have a serious argument. So when you write “Yes, peace and love before those horrible, [white] men wrote some books” after I’ve already said “The claim about racism, slavery, imperialism, and colonialism isn’t that they suddenly appeared for the first time because of the enlightenment”, you’ve just proved me correct. That you can’t actually read well enough to have a serious argument.

            And then the classic, you’re a humanities student, so I don’t even need to an argument to meet yours with. Classic buffoonery, which is exactly what I expect from you people. What would be interesting is if you could make an argument that all of the horrors that took place during the enlightenment had no connection to enlightenment thought. That maybe you’d address the “Where in the hell do you people think the race science of the 1700 & 1800s came from” question. Because it was enlightenment thinkers who came up with that racist junk science while justifying genocide, enslavement, and colonization in the obsequious service to power. Meaning it was central to enlightenment thinking. It didn’t greatly reduce them as Pinker claims. In fact it was the exact opposite. His argument is pure bullshit!

            But since you can’t, you just pretend you don’t need to, exactly as Pinker does when he pretends to outwit all those leftists he has such contempt for while he cowardly avoids their actual argument.

            Quick FYI, my degrees aren’t from the humanities. Incidentally, Pinker is a psychologist with a doctorate in philosophy, which are in the humanities, again proving my point that you all are morons. So maybe you try again, mate.

          • @Reader

            “Are there good things that emerged from that time period, yes of course, but the idea that the bad somehow is not a by product of enlightenment thought is pure stupidity.”

            “You can’t toss away a given period because of the association with ideas now recognized to be antiquated or immoral – the world is way too complicated to run a single axis, especially on the presumption we all figured this out recently.”

            You people refuse to read what I actually wrote. And because you refuse to actually engage with what I’m saying, you all are proving my point with your silence just as Pinker does with his critics. It’s actually pathetic.

            I’ll try again…

            I didn’t say there was nothing of value that emerged from enlightenment thinking. I said the racism that justified the exploitation and mass murder of millions and millions of people was a by product of enlightenment thought and as such must be treated as part of enlightenment thinking. That when Thomas Jefferson declared all men equal and then later justified his slave ownership on the idea that black people are intellectually inferior to white people, he was articulating the plane and straight forward ethos of enlightenment thought stretching back centuries.

            Hume – “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation.”

            Voltaire – “The negro race is a species of men as different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhound… if their understanding is not of a different nature from ours it is at least greatly inferior.”

            What that means is when someone childishly says I’m a defender of enlightenment thought, and I say that makes you an obvious supporter of white supremacy, I’m correct. If that person wants to pretend enlightenment thinking wasn’t flawed and horrible in places, that’s not my problem. That you all should grow up and accept that’s just true. Because it is! Reread those quotes above if you’re now triggered.

            Do you all have a counter argument? I’ve yet to hear it.

          • Reader says

            JC –

            The only person who claimed not to need an argument was you, based on your assumption that America’s founding was built on slave labor and Native extermination (not untrue), therefore definitively and permanently discrediting the enlightenment, for some reason or another that you didn’t expand on. I’m guessing it’s the Foucauldian power politics thing – but again, you apparently don’t need to make an argument, so I can only speculate on that part.

            “it’s that these projects were so central to the enlightenment that they must be viewed as enlightenment values.”

            This is the part with disagreement: why exactly does the fact that racism/slavery/imperialism existed at the time of the enlightenment mean these values must be viewed as CENTRAL to the enlightenment project? You just kind of assert this, but – as both you and Pinker freely acknowledge – these things are closer to constants in humanity, existing long before the enlightenment, existing today. And every single era of history and every mode of thought, including our own time and modern-day trends, have lent themselves to the hindsight stupidities that existed at the time. That’s what I meant with ‘presumption we all figured this out recently’ – do you think we’ve hit a point where this process has ended, and we have all the answers now? Because if the answer is “no,” then the approach of evil-things-and-dumb-ideas-existed-in-this-era-therefore-we-can-write-it-off-categorically is revealed as pretty childish and short-sighted.

            So the thing you’d have to look at is the impact of the ideas of the enlightenment. And this is where the moral beliefs of the time had a substantive impact: if you read the article, note the reference to Enlightenment Against Empire and the concept that Enlightenment thought challenged not just a given excess of imperial power, but the underlying idea of European colonization; note how the concept of slavery ITSELF being a moral wrong is introduced (or perhaps popularized) as a result of enlightenment thought, which Pinker connects to the rise of abolitionism in the coming decades. I could imagine counterpoints to this (i.e. I’m sure some lesser known thinkers had made similar arguments on these issues that maybe didn’t reach the level of popularization that the enlightenment did) but you’re getting annoyed at no responding to your argument while ignoring this response to your argument. This is true even if, yes, major thinkers were also engaging in toxic nonsense about inferior races or Jews or whatever – it would be an effective counterpoint to an argument that the enlightenment era was untainted by stupidity or hatred, a point precisely no one is making.

            And you’re right that the humanities are not to be written off (I’m from a combo humanities/social science background). I’m not exactly sure who is supposed to be owned by the fact Pinker has a background in philosophy. This is precisely why it’s important to push back against ideological currents meant to turn these worthwhile departments into boring machines for totalizing political propaganda.

            Finally – calm down. About half of your comments are just angrily ranting about Quillette readers, as though you got linked here by some irony Rose Twitter account and are keeping that character. This may be satisfying, and it does keep the comment section fun, but it doesn’t make for much of an actual argument. 🙂

          • Reader says

            For the record I didn’t see your second comment until I had written the first, my apologies.

            (wish this site had an edit button sometimes)

            “I said the racism that justified the exploitation and mass murder of millions and millions of people was a by product of enlightenment thought”

            Nonsense! If these are universal human constants (as you seem to imply above), then the concept they explicitly emerged out of the enlightenment as a ‘by product’ is absurd. And you claimed to not be arguing this above. Your evidence seems to be the racism of three individuals associated with the enlightenment, which I think I already covered in my above post. I’ll add to your point by saying I’m positive that you could find many more quotes like that if you looked around, including from important thinkers, given the general social attitudes at the time.

            Is it your belief that Voltaire was introducing that vile quote into a landscape of otherwise anti-racist humanists, who then discovered that you could dislike other races? Given that the answer to this is obviously ‘no,’ why is this a read of the absolute character of the enlightenment? Why not the actual ideas – which, I’ll repeat again, aimed to go beyond the confines of their time and their own practitioners, as moral philosophy often does? That’s the thing Pinker is arguing you’d actually need to counterpoint.

        • I’ll apologize to the other Quillette posters the moment they stop calling people like me an SJW and treating my worldview with utter contempt. You can whine about the way I post if you like (or ban me if you see fit) but it has nothing to do with being insulting.

          Firstly, I made arguments in every post, so what does it matter what I declared about the historic record? I mean good lord, the obsession with one rhetorical point is strong with you all.

          Secondly, I’ve no problem with the humanities, maybe reread the replies to me to understand where that comment came from.

          “Why exactly does the fact that racism/slavery/imperialism existed at the time of the enlightenment mean these values must be viewed as CENTRAL to the enlightenment project?”

          Because enlightenment thinkers justified it in their writings. I said that before. It’s true. It’s easy to quote them doing it. And it leads naturally into what was done to Africans all over the continent by European powers long after those most closely associated with enlightenment thought were long dead. Enlightenment justifications for white supremacy became the dominant mode of thought in the west for centuries. It’s not trivial to what was happening, it was central to it. It was also central to ideas about immigration in America for centuries and defined who exactly had full rights. The first immigration exclusion act in America for example targeted Chinese women to keep the Chinese population in the west down.

          I’ll try this a different way. Take the abolition movement for example, one could note it was heavily religiously based which is true. Does that mean we ignore why the Southern Baptist coalition came to be? Do we then ignore all the religious justifications for slavery? Is all we want to say about Christianity in 1800s America is that it put us on the road to ending slavery? Because that is manifestly not true just like it isn’t true that the natural progression of enlightenment thought was equality for all. That’s not what they actually wrote. They left that work to the generations coming behind them while they built a world around innate inequality and inferiority based around race dominantly and religion less dominantly but still importantly. There is no more foundational idea about who could become fully American than this and the Supreme Court was making this point again and again for more than a century after the founders were dead.

          I’m not cherry picking those quotes above. They are from three of the most esteemed enlightenment thinkers of their time, all of whom are given enormous credit with pushing us towards the more equal world we have today. Except, that’s not actually their record. That’s post hoc garbage. Jefferson is among the most singularly responsible men for the near genocide of the Native American population in what would become modern America. That’s his actual record, and no amount of flowery rhetoric will make that untrue. Hume justified all sorts of horrors in his day, race being central to his reasoning. Voltaire, I’m not as familiar with so I’ll shut up on him, but he clearly pushed forward the enlightenment idea of white superiority in his time.

          If you want to argue that white supremacy wasn’t central to enlightenment thinking, please make that argument. I think the record is against you as those quotes clearly indicate, but make that argument if you like. But if you want to just say enlightenment thinkers made good arguments for individualism that helped throw off monarchy, expanding opportunities for millions that later generations were able to universalize, fine, I accept that as obviously true. Who exactly is saying that isn’t true? All I’m saying is the enlightenment record includes clear and consistent argumentation for a white supremacist worldview. Pretending otherwise is ridiculous.

          • Stephanie says

            @JC, I think where you go wrong is you fail to understand the source of racism, and the nature of progress.

            Living in the modern world, having probably had black teachers, doctors, or presidents, it is easy for you to look down on thinkers 200 years ago for their views on blacks. However, if you lived in a time where black people were not a part of your society, and the societies they did form were objectively far less advanced, you likely would have had thoughts far more virulent and repulsive by today’s standards than the men you quote. Your overly-aggressive personality pretty much guarantees it.

            The value of the Enlightenment isn’t that suddenly everyone’s observation skills went out the window and they embraced the values of a world that didn’t exist yet. It is that they articulated the importance of those observational skills, and the values that, though unequally applied, would trend in the direction of greater equality with time. Ironically, the virtuousness of Enlightenment ideals as they evolved is demonstrated by just how thoroughly you take their results for granted and as self-evident.

            Perhaps it’s time for some self-reflection.

          • @Stephanie

            I don’t pretend to know the source of the racism that so thoroughly dominated western thought. My feeling is it emerged exactly how it seems to all over the world, that is a wealthy and powerful group people needed grand justifications for that wealth and what is done with that power. It doesn’t seem to get more complicated than that, but I’ll let the sociologists debate that among themselves.

            You’re effectively saying to me that I’m applying modern standards of morality to an era that hadn’t accepted a universal framework of morality we believe ourselves to uphold today. My answer to that is stop stealing my argument. I’ve been saying that the entire time. That’s literally my frustration with Steven Pinker. That rather than acknowledge the world enlightenment thinkers actually advocated for, he’s building in modern frameworks of morality and pretending these weren’t hard earned advancements post enlightenment, many of which repudiated entire lines of thinking from the enlightenment era. To call the outright rejection of a line of reasoning the inevitable result of that line of reasoning is absurd.

            All I am doing is pushing back on a sentiment that doesn’t match the historical record. The Pinker’s of the world sit around deriding people like me as ridiculous for rejecting the enlightenment. My argument back is of course I reject the enlightenment. Most of us now do. For example most of us look on Jefferson’s private correspondence with horror when he’s talking about how efficiently he made his child slaves work on nail making. You all keep answering me back, give Jefferson time. If he’d been born hundreds of years later, he would see himself as a moral monster for what he did. Well he wasn’t and his actions reflect a viciously racist way of thinking most of us have come to see as repugnant. And that vicious way of thinking was nurtured in the enlightenment’s rationalism and justified by some of the great thinkers in the western canon. Acknowledging this point does not also force us to give up say the scientific method. All it does is force us to deal with history as it was rather than how we’d have preferred it to be.

            Also, there are plenty of aggressive people on all sides of debate. My personality doesn’t guarantee I accept any worldview and my background would suggest I should be a belligerent conservative rather than the belligerent progressive you’ve found in this comment thread.

          • augustine says

            “All I’m saying is the enlightenment record includes clear and consistent argumentation for a white supremacist worldview.”

            No. It provided the opportunity for such argumentation, which was taken up by some. But those misanthropic voices ran against the project itself and did not carry it along as you seem to believe. Somehow I doubt there has ever been any historic era, prosperous or wretched, that did not provide similar opportunities for exploiting racial-cultural differences.

            More importantly, the success of the Enlightenment, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, was the enterprise of Europeans primarily. Regardless of how our predecessors felt about the period (while they were living it), their whiteness as such was purely incidental. The essential progress of ideas was not based in racism. You appear to be conflating the idea of white supremacism with simply being de facto white.

          • When one reads “Human Accomplishment” by Charles Murray it’s difficult for anyone to argue compellingly or convincingly AGAINST “white supremacism”.

            But when we couple that knowledge with the 100 years of statistical IQ evidence supporting “The Bell Curve” it demonstrates that it’s impossible to make blanket statements like “all orange men are inferior to all white men”. After all, any random orange man you meet could be smarter than any white man you have met in the past.

            Yet we can state with a great deal of evidence to back us up that the total accumulation of human knowledge and accomplishment is clearly dominated to a huge extent by white men. From which follows the obvious conclusion that in these particular areas white men are indeed supreme. They ARE the winners.

            And these happen to be the areas (for the most part) that matter most for “getting ahead” in the society of today. Of course, there are certain areas (certain sports come to mind) where this is emphatically not true.

            I hardly see how this observation, coupled as it is with a knowledge of the interesting statistical nature of the IQ phenomenon, so obviously compels me to enslave or even denigrate another race of people who may not be so fortunate in the IQ department.

            And yet the progressive (hell, even many conservatives) would enslave me to their ‘right-think’ that every man or woman should achieve equal outcome, and if this is not happening then the reason for that is racism. Or sexism. Or both.

            They CANNOT admit the obvious. And so they destroy countless lives, and spend untold trillions, in an effort to deny reality.

            Bemusing? Yes. Frustrating? Certainly. Pig-ignorant? Absolutely.

            Thank goodness for white supremacy. Let’s not deny it. Let’s embrace it and sing its praises.

          • Jim Gorman says

            JC -> Let me preface this with the fact that my adopted son (at 3 months old) and my granddaughter are both members of a Native American tribe. Also, I do know something about the history of Natives. I would be the first to say that the white man has treated Natives atrociously. However, you are blaming individuals such as Jefferson as the cause. Please remember that many of the policies and laws that allowed this treatment were passed through Congress and implemented by Presidents. No one individual was responsible. Also, many of the legislators who helped develop and pass these laws and policies had probably never heard of the Enlightenment. In other words, this was a society problem and can not be laid at the feet of any one person.

            The genocide you mention was not a conscious decision to literally murder Native Americans. By far, most Native American deaths were from inadvertent introduction of new diseases that tore through the Native population like a whirlwind. Trying to blame this on the Enlightenment thinking is ludicrous at best. This was not germ warfare purposely inflicted on the Native population. If anything is to blame it is the level of medical knowledge at the time. This isn’t to say that massacres didn’t occur, but to classify them as genocide is just not true.

            You also state that “All I’m saying is the enlightenment record includes clear and consistent argumentation for a white supremacist worldview. Pretending otherwise is ridiculous.” You refuse to read and understand what others have been trying to tell you. Did Genghis Khan practice Mongol supremacy due to enlightenment thought? Did the Chinese conquering of east and southeast Asia consist of Chinese supremacy due to enlightenment thought? How about the Inca conquests of other cultures. Was that due to enlightenment thought? Your premise fails the test of history. It has more to do with political leaders (kings, presidents, prime ministers, etc.) using the time tested “might makes right” theory!

    • If it’s the phrase by product that is making me sound idiotic, then fine, I withdraw it and admit by product is an incorrect phrasing.

      However, when I look at the world that emerged out of the enlightenment, I see a white supremacist worldview manifesting itself all over the world. I see enslavement, I see genocide, I see colonialism, and when I look back to enlightenment thought, I see a consistent justification for all of it in the writings and actions of the men I’m then told to thank for the universal values we pretend we all hold today.

      For you all to ignore the consistent justification for that world by enlightenment thinkers themselves and pretend it wasn’t a dominant strain of enlightenment thought is ridiculous. Again, you’ve not bothered to deal with my point about the race based science that emerged during the enlightenment as yet another tool to justify the white supremacist world their own writings show them advocating for. How is it possible for white supremacy to show up in their writings so consistently and it not be a huge part of their own thought? That makes no sense!

      Your argument seems to be that racist arguments existed before the enlightenment, so how could I associate it with them. My answer is I read them. The first chance enlightenment thinkers got to build a new world in their image, they built the USA. That’s the world they manifested. One of brutal slavery and genocide, where the dominant thinkers for the next two centuries were justifying a racial caste system based on enlightenment era ideas of white supremacy.

      Well how’d that happen from your perspective? My theory makes sense out of the world they would build. What does yours do? It waits for centuries for modern thinkers to rid themselves of most of the notions of white supremacy left to us by enlightenment thinkers and then credits enlightenment thinkers for a world they clearly would never have built themselves. We owe the world we have now to post enlightenment thought that is trying to universalize individual values. We owe the enlightenment for throwing off monarchy and creating the space to finally push out theocratic notions of citizenship. To conflate two eras of thought into one because it makes us feel good is stupid.

      • Richard says

        Dude, you realize that slavery was entrenched on the continent before the USA was ever dreamed of, right? I mean, certain colonies were basically founded as giant slave farms, by investors that wanted to replicate the profitable plantations in the Caribbean.

        For the most part, though many Enlightenment thinkers may have been racist, the moral philosophy that emerged during the period was inconsonant with such beliefs and systems. This was a major source of conflict during the period. It’s what made the U.S. civil war inevitable. That it wasn’t until after the Enlightenment period that these ideas gained enough influence to force the issue of slavery to its crisis does not negate that the ideas were born during the Enlightenment period. The very systems of thought that led to “trying to universalize individual values” were developed in the Enlightenment.

        The idea is not that the Enlightenment was a magical time from which we never should have developed further. It is that so many of our notions about rights, the relationship between the state and the individual (the individual and power, even), moral philosophy, and the modern scientific view of reality stem so obviously and cleanly from ideas advanced during the Enlightenment.

        • @Richard

          You are not even approaching dealing with my argument. It’s just more pablum.

          The argument in short is white supremacy is an enlightenment value.

          The argument is not that every single argument made during the enlightenment was against the notion of universal values.

          The world that emerges post enlightenment is the world my argument describes. The one of white supremacy that stretched on for centuries (and arguably is still in effect today). The people who want to ignore this reality are the ones who say I shouldn’t pay attention to the world enlightenment thought built. I should instead pay attention to the world created several generations later by people who rejected those white supremacist arguments so as to create universal rights for all people. Then I should retroactively credit the people who didn’t build that world because of thinkers like Thomas Paine.

          The simple fact of history is this. Thomas Paine did popularize notions of universal individual freedom but his arguments about extending those freedoms beyond white people were rejected in favor of the more popular arguments made during the enlightenment that white people are superior to all other races. To ignore the basic point that the white supremacist arguments made by enlightenment thinkers were predominant in enlightenment thought is stupid. It is not my fault you want to ignore the more influential arguments in favor of the less influential arguments so that you feel better. The world that emerged during and after the enlightenment was a world order based on the fundamental notion of white supremacy. It has taken centuries to undo that order in favor of one that does value universal rights (or at least claims to).

          How in the hell you people can’t accept that white supremacy was a fundamental argument of enlightenment thought is beyond me? If it wasn’t, please God, one of you explain why you believe that isn’t true. Stop telling me about the progress that happened after the enlightenment ended and deal seriously with my actual argument,

          Again and again and again, the argument in short is white supremacy is an enlightenment value.

      • And one final point assuming there are no further replies, I want to quickly deal with the argument about abolition because you all seem to believe it’s some great line of thought in Pinker’s favor.

        Yes, abolition movements became far more popular during the enlightenment. Of course, they rose up in lock step with the extraordinary advancement of the brutal system of chattel slavery in the Americas. In fact, it’s the 1700s when most of the slaves were brought to the Americas. So which one of those exactly does the enlightenment get credit for?

        It is simply a fact that the establishment of the chattel slave system in America greatly ramps up this sort of violence, hardly what we would expect from era credited for the expansion of so many new rights that are apparently what I should understand is responsible for ultimately reducing this violence. My argument explains this because the expansion of those rights was for white people, especially white men. There was little expectation they would get extended beyond white men in their time, and in fact the dominant arguments that won the day was that they should not be. That white people are a higher species of man and as such had every right to do extraordinary levels of violence for economic gain to nonwhites.

        Further, abolition arguments long proceed the enlightenment. The Kingdom of France abolished slavery in the 1300s for example. The idea it took enlightenment thinking to understand slavery is wrong or for there to be popular movements against slavery is ridiculous. It actually took enlightenment thinking to create a framework in the world that white people are simply a higher species than nonwhites. That level of white supremacy doesn’t proceed the enlightenment. It’s created by it. It took future generations to try and undo those frameworks and those beliefs.

        Simply put, if you are going to claim to be a defender of the enlightenment values, you better take seriously one of those values is white supremacy. Pinker of course fails at this because he’s a highly educated con artist whose job is to paint a rosy picture of the current power structure. It’s his benefactors (the types who give tens of millions in endowments to Harvard for example) who know good and well they owe their fortunes to the systems created by the enlightenment and certainly have no interest in honestly representing them given what those systems imply about those fortunes.

        • JC, I think your dispute is primarily one of borders. Is the Enlightenment delimited only by geographic and temporal boundaries or also by certain cultural and philosophical boundaries? If you only include the former, then your view of the Enlightenment makes sense. If you include the latter, then the Enlightenment looks much better. That 19th century reformers were able to reference 18th century ideals would suggest that we owe a great deal to Enlightenment ideas beyond just what was implemented in the 18th century, and certainly beyond the shortcomings of the men who penned many of the great works of the era.

          You’ve made a good argument that racism, etc… existed during the Enlightenment, even possibly that it was all taken to an extreme during the Enlightenment. You have not made a strong argument that this was all central to the Enlightenment rather than incidental. Of course, again, that depends somewhat on how Enlightenment thought is delimited.

          • Rich

            The enlightenment notion of white supremacy defined the world order that it brought into existence. Again, the first time enlightenment thought got a shot at building a new governing system, it built the US, an order fundamentally built on the idea that Anglo Saxon whites were naturally superior to other races. It’s not me who has trouble explaining this occurrence. It’s you all who refuse to accept the governing order enlightenment era thinkers put into practice confirms my argument that white supremacy is fundamental to enlightenment thought.

            If you want to ignore their own words and the actual systems of government they set up, that’s your prerogative. But how a notion that defined an entire world order for centuries should not be regarded as central to the thinking in that time period is beyond my understanding.

        • @Augustine

          And one final point, the first immigration exclusion act in the US was targeting Chinese women as stated above to make sure the Chinese population couldn’t repopulate itself.
          Meaning the reason in a settler county like the US that industrialization appears to be a white project is the f-ing policies based in enlightenment notions of white supremacy put into place to make sure that was the outcome, just as excluding black people from most careers and destroying their wealth when black people were able to overcome the odds (see the Tulsa riots) caused the same effects. It wasn’t a natural outcome. It was a f-ing choice by people who had fully internalized enlightenment notions of white supremacy and made sure the government reinforced them with violence. All of that is before we mention laws limiting Mexican and Native people’s rights and on and on I can go.

          And I haven’t even mentioned the effects of colonization on the economies of China and India. Hint India was more developed before Britain took it over and forced a colonial model on them through violence and repression.

          It’s amazing how historically illiterate someone like you is. Worse, you believe yourself to be teaching someone like me the history I need to know to come to a rational conclusion. It’s ridiculous.

        • Charlie says

          The Enlightenment is further development of Greek inspired rationality startedin the Renaissance and mathematical knowledge of the Solar System( Galileo, Copernicus, F Bacon, Descartes, Newton ) which ends superstitious feudalism. It is the beginning of the concept that we can measure and understand the Universe. As the Turks were at Vienna in 1680 and many Europeans were taken as slaves by Muslims up to 1830, the idea of white supremacy is absurd.

          Take say 1755 AD, 1300 years after Rome was finally sacked, people stared at Greek and Roman ruins and still felt inferior but felt confidence the superstition and darkness of the Dark and Middle Ages were over.

      • @Augustine

        The same argument again and again from you people always ignoring the actual world that emerged out of the enlightenment. Just look at the consistent argumentation for the next couple of centuries in America from institutions like the Supreme Court that made it explicit that full citizenship in the US was only available to white people as the founders intended. Aren’t you all supposed to be the fact over feeling crowd? The only one discussing facts is me. It’s hilariously ironic.

        That view lasted until the 1960s after generations of work to reform the world enlightenment thinking was forced into law, an outright rejection of the order established during the enlightenment. If you want to retroactively credit Thomas Paine for that work, you’re an idiot. Paine lost the argument in his day to the more accepted enlightenment view of natural race based hierarchy with white Anglo-Saxons at the top. That view was still present in America long after the founders and can be seen yet again in the 1924 Immigration Act that banned immigration from Asia and Africa as well as established a quota system based on hierarchical notions of the best race of whites, with northern European whites still seen as the naturally superior breed. That’s the world enlightenment thinking built, one of white supremacism that was still being affirmed in Congress 150 years after the Declaration of Independence declared it a self evident fact that all men are equal endowed with the same natural rights. They meant white men when they said people.

        In the world you all imagine, pre-enlightenment thought should be credited with abolition. That slavery was a moral evil was a far more widely held view than you all seem to imagine back then. But you all seem to recognize that you actually have to look at the world that emerged pre-enlightenment to understand the ethos of that time. It certainly was not that slavery was a moral evil that must be eliminated. Just like the enlightenment view is not that people are equal and as such should have the same rights. Stop using two standards of judgement and just look at the post enlightenment world.

        • Hello JC. You seem to have, from my reading, abandoned the enlightenment because of your disgust with white supremacist in the western enlightenment intellectual tradition. I hope to address this concern based on my understanding of our world.

          I’m not at all surprised that white thinkers in the age of enlightenment held to these supremacist views, yet I support their principles of individualism, governance, and science because empirically it’s the best set of ideas we’ve had as humans. We are mammals descended from the common ancestor of the chimpanzee, as Christopher Hitchens often said “evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, and our adrenal glands are too big”. I believe the best evidence shows that we as a species are evolved for tribal warfare and are, and will be for millennia, capable of great evil due to our lowly origins. Based on this I find it logical and backed empirically by our history that emphasis of what we have in common and individualism versus what makes us different is the best method for fighting this evolved response.

          Even a thinker that is as despicable on matters of race as Thomas Jefferson was characterized by Joseph Ellis (no admirer of Jefferson) in American Sphinx as guilt-ridden when it came to the matter of slavery. While clearly not redeeming him in any significant way it’s progress of a kind, progress that has been slow the world over https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery. I think it’s fair to concede the shameful history of white supremacy in many many thinkers of the enlightenment, and I would not argue that the abolition of slavery is unique to the enlightenment. Where I lose you is what system, what alternative mode of thought, are you making a positive argument for?

          I support the ideals of individualistic liberal democracies that have brought us to where we are today. I support incremental reforms to make these and all societies more just to those in the minority, whether that be in the U.S. or other countries that are not liberal democracies where I would argue minorities suffer more serious indignities. I further argue that incremental reforms of these governments and modes of thought is the most defensible position when, as far as I know, empirical evidence showing the superiority for human flourishing of alternative governments and modes of thought have been found to be sorely lacking. I think we all have a long way to go to turn down our inherent internal tribalistic dials, however, history has shown that liberal democracies where individualism is emphasized has been superior to communist, theocratic, and autocratic systems for the other and society. What evidence do you have that removing or even fundamentally retooling this concept in a non-incremental, cut from an entirely new cloth, fashion will improve our societies? The ideas and downstream systems of the enlightenment are not perfect, and in some cases not even good for minorities in our liberal democratic societies. That shouldn’t surprise you given our lowly origins. I agree it’s unfair and gross. Even though it’s not good, and we need improvement, how good is it compared to something, anything else? Unfortunately, it’s very good compared to history’s alternatives.

          I hope I’ve identified your main concern that you have felt has been dodged and I look forward to your thoughts and data for alternatives and other interesting points from which I hope to improve my own understanding.

          • @AH

            “Where I lose you is what system, what alternative mode of thought, are you making a positive argument for?”

            Again, the argument is white supremacy is an enlightenment value.

            “I’m not at all surprised that white thinkers in the age of enlightenment held to these supremacist views”.

            “The ideas and downstream systems of the enlightenment are not perfect, and in some cases not even good for minorities in our liberal democratic societies. That shouldn’t surprise you given our lowly origins. I agree it’s unfair and gross.”

            So I’m right then? I mean what you are describing is a supremacist worldview. And which kind of supremacy emerged in the West by the way?

            I’m pushing back on Pinker’s notion that we should credit the enlightenment for beliefs that took root long after. I’m pushing back on the belief that because enlightenment thinkers wrote pretty words about universal values, they get credit for work other people did. Again, ideas against slavery existed in pre-enlightenment thought. So why is someone like Pinker crediting the enlightenment for ending slavery (though it clearly did not) if all that matters is when an idea was expressed?

            Pinker and you all are using two different standards. This is happening because of an emotional investment in a utopianized historical accounting that turns a multi-dimensional world into a single idea – progress. I’m sorry for that emotional investment that’s making this difficult, but progress towards universal values happened alongside slavery, genocide, and colonization. So you actually have to look at who progressed, who didn’t, who did but less so, and the reasons that explain those differing circumstances. The reason black, Chinese, Native, Hispanic, and a myriad of other groups got less or no rights in America was white supremacist ideas from the enlightenment that dominated thought for centuries. It really isn’t more complicated than just admitting the historical record represents very well exactly what one should expect it to as enlightenment thought came to power in the mid to late 1700s.

        • augustine says


          You seem angry about all of this, that there should be any Enlightenment victory over past obstacles to the free pursuit of individual happiness, individual rights, church-state separation, etc., without the victor class possessing historical and developmental distinctions of race affiliation, kinship, and identity. Yet how could it have been otherwise?

          I think that Enlightenment ideas succeeded in spite of any racism and oppression and not because of those pre-existing currents. We could say that both progress and regression were going on simultaneously but that is not saying anything helpful. It seems the problem you have is being unable to accept any natural hierarchy, order and structure in society, because you realize that this means that some folks are at the bottom. This is a fundamental Left-Right dividing line.

          You use race as an excuse for your outrage because it is so obviously visible, yet hierarchies of power, without opportunity for those of lower caste to rise up, are not uncommonly expressed in cultures within monoracial groups. Class “distinctions” in whites in modern Britain are a good example.

          You want to have your universal equality and eat it too. Discussing facts? You are blinded by facts and cannot see the trees for the forest. Or the fact that there are a great many different types of forests and trees. Maybe you believe that emergent trees, with their “unfair” and “unearned” genetic advantages, are oppressing the ferns on the forest floor?

          Instead of quarreling over different abilities and inclinations (in humans), or shouting about equal outcome, we should argue for treating one another as worthy of equal consideration, regardless of position or birthright or race. It appears superficially that our forebears failed in this but it is worth noting that they did not live in multicultural city centres.The Enlightenment managed to imperfectly transcend those failures in important ways and we should recognize that journey, and the road ahead, as a greatly improved situation that is our good fortune.

          • @Augustine

            Of course I’m annoyed, I have morons saying I’m “blinded by facts”. No, it’s actually you all who are blinded by philosophical notions of progress. These inexplicably matter more than the facts of what happened. Yes we have had progress since the enlightenment with the idea of universal rights. How in the world that translates to ideas that predominated during the enlightenment rather than after has yet to be explained. You write “hierarchies of power, without opportunity for those of lower caste to rise up, are not uncommonly expressed in cultures within monoracial groups”. Yes, and a supremacist worldview is what you are describing. You’ve just declared me correct without realizing it. That really is something. You write “Instead of quarreling over different abilities and inclinations (in humans), or shouting about equal outcome”. I never never said a God damn word about equal outcomes. WTF are you talking about?

            The argument is white supremacy was an enlightenment value.

            I quote enlightenment philosophers words to you in support of this. The answer back is sure they were racist, but that doesn’t matter as to whether or not they had a white supremacist world view. I answer back, that it obviously does, look at the world they built. You all answer with sure they were racist, but look at the world that is emerging hundreds of years later. I scratch my head, then I try arguing with evidence that a white supremacist worldview dominated legal ideas about full citizenship for centuries after the enlightenment ended. You all say what about philosophical notions of progress?

            It really is something you all are this delusional.

          • augustine says


            You are blind because you cannot see that a Eurocentric movement is necessarily by and about white Europeans. In the history of the Chinese or the Incas it is the same. There was no multiculturalism as we know it at that time. You are disappointed because Europeans were not considering non-whites in the same way they consider themselves.

            “a supremacist worldview is what you are describing.” That kind of language is what led me to assumptions about equal outcomes. What do your words even mean? Are all racial or ethnic groups “supremacist” then, simply because they exist and have an identity that is something other than universal equality of all peoples? You went from “white supremacist” to “supremacist” just like that. That speaks volumes.

          • @Augustine

            You can argue against a phantom in your head if you like. But that phantom isn’t me. Stop arguing with yourself. It’s what stupid people do. It’s the Ben Shapiro game of owning others. To steal an old quote “Homey don’t play that.”

          • I think you misread me JC.

            “I think it’s fair to concede the shameful history of white supremacy in many many thinkers of the enlightenment, and I would not argue that the abolition of slavery is unique to the enlightenment.”

            I clearly concede the point you’ve personally used to disassociate from enlightenment thinkers and from my reading from enlightenment values as a whole (other than the scientific method). And yes I do argue that as humans were are inherently susceptible to “otherizing the other”, and thus I’m not surprised. Do you disagree we are inherently susceptible to this?

            Again I’m curious to hear what set of values you support other than enlightenment ones, warts and all, that have good evidence that shows they will lead to a better society. Do you have a positive case? Or do you think like myself, that these are the best values (often lacking) we’ve come up with thus far and that they need to be improved incrementally?

          • AH

            “Again I’m curious to hear what set of values you support other than enlightenment ones, warts and all, that have good evidence that shows they will lead to a better society. Do you have a positive case? Or do you think like myself, that these are the best values (often lacking) we’ve come up with thus far and that they need to be improved incrementally?”

            My argument is white supremacy is an enlightenment value. It is an argument whose sole point is to push back on the narrative on liars like Steven Pinker, liars who make shamefully dishonest statements that we owe the enlightenment for pushing the world towards universal rights when it is manifestly the exact opposite. The enlightenment is when racial assumptions about white superiority are used to justify the mass murder and exploitation of what must approach billions of people over the next three centuries. It has taken us generations to undo that world with what seem to me to be far superior values that take seriously the humanity of all people, not just white people.

            I firmly believe in the sorts of universal values people like Steven Pinker claim to believe in today, although I think it’s obvious his claims are just rhetorical. But I don’t just blindly call those enlightenment values or enlightenment thinking and it seems obvious why other people shouldn’t either. Pinker seems to me to be white washing history. I mean when someone like Pinker credits the enlightenment for the more peaceful world that’s taken form since really just WWII, I stand back completely baffled that someone could believe such utter nonsense. When I look at the enlightenment, I see a world that ramps up violence in a way that hadn’t been seen since the Khans sacked Asia, first in the Civil Wars that followed the Reformation and then globally as the Western powers developed weapons and systems of violence that put the rest of the world at their mercy. To credit that world for the one that came after that now looks back on it with horror while trying to understand how that all could have taken place is a paradox that isn’t solvable.

            So the actual question that is worth asking is not what are my values. It is why is Steven Pinker white washing what the enlightenment actually represents to the vast majority of the world’s citizens? Because it’s not progress or universal values. It’s not a reduction of violence or the extension of rights. In fact its the exact opposite. My answer is he’s a snake oil salesman for wealth. It’s just right wing reactionary bullshit.

            Simply put, the enlightenment did not put us on the path towards respecting the rights of all people. That was the work of the post enlightenment, a project that is very much in its infancy, with a dangerous right wing backlash developing all over the western world, especially in Europe. These right wing nationalists are not rejecting the enlightenment as Pinker would dishonestly have us all accept. They are not clamoring for Monarchy for example, they are clamoring for the world the enlightenment produced, one of a racial caste system where the right kind of people are the only ones who get to be full citizens. I mean it’s amazing, the intellectual framework of the Alt-Right in large part comes to us by way of enlightenment thought including the racist junk science they love so much, for which Pinker has a very soft spot it bears mentioning. How could that be if it’s fundamentally an anti-enlightenment movement? That doesn’t make any sense.

          • “People like you rarely read or listen to someone who disagrees with your market based religion. You have become such a religious fanatic that you think someone like me is a nihilist solely because I disagree with your religious leaders. It’s no different than Christians thinking people evil for rejecting their Christ. It’s genuinely pitiable.”

            Pay more attention to the phrase “market based religion”. It’s a metaphor for people like you who can’t handle their market Priests like Pinker being criticized.


            There are several experts named in this one clip who disagree with Steven Pinker, note the Harvard economist at about the 7 minute mark. It’s really not that hard to find critics of Pinker’s bullshit.

            This is it, I have said all I am going to say in this thread. Suffice it to say, all of you said the same exact nonsense. That the enlightenment was a progressive era that pushed out many dogmas using philosophical notions of materialism and rationalism as their guideposts. None of you dealt with the new dogmas created during their time, chief among them a white supremacist framework used to justify the domination of cultures they believed were inferior to their own. Amazingly you all accept as fact the list of crimes justified by white supremacist notions of superiority but can’t connect them to the philosophies from men like Locke, Hume, Jefferson, and a myriad of others who outright stated that white supremacy justified those crimes. That is an impressive use of cognitive dissonance.

            Peace out.

      • @GDA

        Good Lord, it’s a racist troll. Awesome! And of course the racist troll is begging me to deal with his or hers stupidity by making the progressives (my people) are calling for equality of outcome buffoonery. What I love is the racist troll gets to this question the same way the rest of you right wing reactionaries do, but is the only one who is honest enough with his or herself to plainly state why this question is so important to him or her.

        So to finally answer the point for you other ridiculous people who have continuously tried to inch me towards answering this all important question, no I don’t believe in equality of outcome as you all define it. I believe quite firmly in equality of opportunity. Of course, given the circumstances of someone growing up in poverty rather than say being Jeff Bezos’ kid could not prove more starkly the need for large scale redistribution if one is remotely serious about creating equal opportunity for people, there isn’t much of a functional difference between the sorts of policies that would create equality of outcome or equality of opportunity.

        Most of you would reject large scale redistribution efforts as axiomatically immoral. Most of you would also claim you believe in equality of opportunity. What most of you can’t see is there is no possibility of equal opportunity in a society so fundamentally unequal from a resources stand point. What’s actually true is most of you all believe property rights predominate all other rights considerations. Functionally, that’s might makes right and not much else.

        What’s interesting about the racist troll is rather than just say God made white people better, he’s using the enlightenment framing that science proves white people are better. It’s David Hume reborn with a post enlightenment twist. Now it’s the median white is better than the median nonwhite because IQ scores say so. Funny how this racist idiot is not calling for Chinese or East Asian supremacy using this bullshit argument. Funny how even when the “science” goes a different way and even though there are far more East Asians than whites (meaning there should be far more high IQ Asian people he should want to give control of capital flows to given IQ scores matter so f-ing much to our white supremacist friend) he still calls for white supremacy to control the social order. What a f-ing surprise!

        It’s almost like every argument is one of convenience used to justify a world built on suppressing the opportunities of all but whites, then blaming the nonwhites for the results of the planned outcomes of that white supremacist social order which is then used to re-justify the continuation of that order over and over, always claiming it’s the outcome of nature rather than force. It’s calling the effects the causes, and it’s dumb.

        • augustine says

          “there isn’t much of a functional difference between the sorts of policies that would create equality of outcome or equality of opportunity.”

          Epic fail. Revealing, though.

          You say that resources are unequal to begin with but so is history, in terms of family or any other grouping. There is no equal playing field and there are no equal players. I see equal opportunity as a social stop-gap measure, an important one, and not as a principle. It can never satisfy grievances and progressivism appears to be built largely on grievances and envy.

          Might makes right? Well, yes, but what kind of might is best? Physical, mental, spiritual, social, bureaucratic? Some combination perhaps? You do not offer any remedies that address this “problem”. Since you are playing offense here I think it is reasonable to suggest that you are obligated to make some positive claims, as another commenter implied. If you are progressive I can only assume that you believe that the force of state planning will be the only effective solution to individuals and groups exercising their might over others. How is that not just another form of might makes right?

          Your last paragraph is truly outlandish. I’m curious: exactly how do you see nature and force as separable?

          • Look, anytime I get the question about equality of outcome, I know I’m dealing with either a libertarian or a libertarian adjacent person. There is a reason libertarianism receives its highest levels of support from southern white men in the US. I’ll let you sort out what’s actually the driver of an ideology that finds its highest levels of popularity among the group historically most dedicated to state enforced white supremacist ideals. I can promise you this though, it ain’t got nothin’ to do with individualism and sure as shit has nothin’ to do with meritocracy.

            I’m not trying to offer solutions in this comment thread. I’ve declared over and over again what I am arguing to prove and it isn’t social policy to create a world with some semblance of equality of opportunity.

            “It can never satisfy grievances and progressivism appears to be built largely on grievances and envy.”

            Have you ever listened to right wing talk radio? My father raised me on that shit and then Fox News. I’ve read plenty of right wing journals from the high brow to the ludicrously stupid. I doubt there is a prominent conservative voice you can name that I haven’t listened to for hours and hours. If there is one consistent theme among all of this media, it’s never ending grievance. Even when they’ve won as with the Supreme Court to pick a rather prominent example, they still find a way to be infuriated that it didn’t happen in a way that brought the satisfaction and respect they are sure they’re owed. From the Love It or Leave Crap of the 2000s to the Liberal Tears crap of today, the fundamental motivation of all of it is grievance. So, when people like you accuse progressives of being the manifestation of this quality, just the supreme absurdity is almost too much to bear. Take that shit up with the people endlessly bitching about losing “their” country to people like me. I am not wasting another second on your ridiculous hypocrisy.

            “Your last paragraph is truly outlandish. I’m curious: exactly how do you see nature and force as separable?”

            And here is what I hate/enjoy the most about arguing with you people. It’s always philosophy. Above I made a clear case that American policy denied certain groups the ability to grow and/or fully participate in the economy with actual facts. You want to pretend those government policies had no effect on the world we see today, have at it. You want to pretend a kid growing up in poverty in Appalachia or wherever else has the same opportunities in life as a kid growing up in the wealthy suburbs of DC because you can make some stupid philosophical case that they have the same rights, have at it. What do you expect me to say back to these sorts of arguments? They are prattle meant to justify the current social order, an order fundamentally checkered by the racism of the past and an order that is currently failing to deal with fundamental problems of society. You and Pinker want to justify this failure as the best we can do, have at it.

          • augustine says

            The world will never be right with any of us, JC. Haven’t you noticed the tendency of comments here and on a zillion other websites to highlight the negative and point out what is wrong with everything under the sun? I believe that the world needs such inputs (in small doses) but even more it needs folks who are motivated to get out and do something to change the things around them they don’t like, and to offer up a few thoughts on our wretched humanity that might just tweak a brain cell somewhere for the better.

            Whatever your vision of a better society is, I hope you can make a positive contribution to its realization.

          • @Augustine

            Hate to break this to you, but reduction of the extraordinary inequality we see today is a positive position. The last time this much inequality pervaded western society, we saw the rise of communism from the left then fascism from the right, and we watched the western world nearly sack itself in the process. Here we are again with the same fools like Pinker saying the same bullshit about how great it all is today, you know, with some work still to do of course.

            The racism of the enlightenment is exactly what has allowed us in the US to come to yet another moment of extraordinary tension and it looks like we will take the rest of the western world down with us. America looked the other way as deindustrialization reaped through black communities and responded to the fallout by building the most extraordinary mass incarceral state ever known, all the while it kept the deindustrialization process in full swing, a process that never would have had continued support from working class white people had it been their communities hit first. And when it inevitably came one by one for them, they didn’t have enough allies left to fight it off to protect their middle class livelihoods.

            Well, now we have totally destroyed the ability for more the half the population to save any money, placing most of our population in a state of constant precarity. We have placed a significant portion of our young people in debt servitude by creating a framework where the only consistently reliable way out of that precarity is a college degree. We have placed the entire economy on a knife edge by consistently inflating assets far beyond their actual value with such an extreme amount of public and private debt that a second great depression has become a real possibility. In the process we have extreme right wing nationalist movements responding to an elite created crisis by blaming the most vulnerable people in their societies for stealing their middle class way of life from them.

            To respond to these extraordinary problems by sticking one’s head up one’s own asshole and pretending it will all just work out because of the magic of enlightenment thinking is idiotic.
            And when I look around at what is preventing us from starting the work to deal with our problems, I see enlightenment racism yet again standing in the way. I see white people in the South, the Rust Belt, and the Midwest banning together to demand their communities be transformed back into middle class sanctuaries and for the state to fulfill its traditional role of making sure minorities don’t get to share in that benefit. Except there are too many Black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheists, Gay, and so on that aren’t going to accept being left out this time for the old model to work again. It’s why despite the MAGA shitheads controlling the entire government, they could accomplish nothing but another wasteful tax cut.

            Simply put, the enlightenment social alignment is dead and we need a new mode of citizenship to take its place. That will not be accomplished by lying to ourselves about what the enlightenment actually was.

          • augustine says


            If you’ve heard this axiom before I’m sure it pissed you off the first time: when the rich get richer, the poor get richer. You are missing the significance of metrics a la Pinker in your erstwhile concern for others. You willfully ignore the fact that per capita poverty worldwide has been GREATLY diminished, so that the poor you weep for are actually fewer per capita and not as poor as 50-100 ybp. You offer no ideas for progress or change so I will assume you are a nihilist.

          • So nothing in retort except to remind of the words of someone I think is dead wrong and obviously deceitful? Great, just more abject stupidity.

            There are other thinkers who say that poverty has actually gone up worldwide and is per capita currently higher than it has ever been. These people actually study worldwide poverty, unlike Pinker. They are experts. He isn’t. I wonder if you’ve ever read them or listened to them lecture? I doubt it! People like you rarely read or listen to someone who disagrees with your market based religion. You have become such a religious fanatic that you think someone like me is a nihilist solely because I disagree with your religious leaders. It’s no different than Christians thinking people evil for rejecting their Christ. It’s genuinely pitiable.

            You’ve become an acolyte for currish fools whose job is to maintain the current status quo by lying about the present and the past.

          • @Jim Gorman

            What I’m told to believe about the enlightenment is that it put us on the road to universal values because of the magical quality of progress it gave birth too. Because Greeks and Romans and Mongols and Chinese and a whole assortment of dominant empires never ever had a notion of progress inside of their societies? There was never an expansion of rights in any society that ever became powerful and wealthy before the modern West became dominated by the empire model during the enlightenment? There is absolutely no writing from the Ottoman Empire during that exact enlightenment time period that one could point to that shows any notion or understanding of the rights of its citizens nor any philosophers questioning whether those rights should be universal? It took enlightenment thinkers to bring the notions of rights into the world, so we can’t fault it for its shortcomings? Is that the argument?

            Yes, Kubla Khan most certainly did rule with the presupposition that the Mongols were the Gods’ chosen people. Yes, dominant empires always profess their people are superior to others. So what? My argument is exactly that the enlightenment wasn’t a change to this paradigm. That as western powers became militarily superior to the rest of the world, they came up with a white supremacist worldview to justify all of it, this time with a supposed scientific explanation rather than simply declaring themselves Gods’ chosen people. And because of that white supremacist paradigm they built through centuries of thought and put into practice through the governments that emerged during and after the enlightenment, white supremacy must be viewed as an enlightenment value the same as Spartan supremacy was a Spartan racist value. Or Athenian, or Roman, or every other f-ing empire that declared their crimes justifiable because they were inherently and culturally superior to those they ruled/killed.

            Do you have a counter argument to any of this, or are you just going to continue to justify what happened as the thoughtless march of history for which no one could reasonably be held responsible? Because every single one of you is declaring the enlightenment a time of stochasticism while also declaring it one of the great times of self examination. The fact is it was thoughtful and they thought long and hard about why their dominance of other cultures was justified. They declared it was because they were a superior breed of man and this framework dominated western thought for centuries. To pretend otherwise is wanting Santa to be real so you don’t have to face life without the myths that make you feel good.

            Finally, yes, most Native Americans died by disease. And then the remaining people where targeted for enslavement and extermination by the empires of the West. Of course, we are still talking about millions and millions of people enslaved and murdered in the name of progress, and that’s of course leaving out how many millions were murdered or allowed to die because of mismanagement (see China and especially India under British rule) that completely negates the point about disease being the big problem in the whole mass death thing. But whatever.

            You want to believe that mass killings in the Americas weren’t awful because more people died from disease, have at it. I suppose then the Holocaust isn’t awful because 10 times (probably closer to 15 times) more people died of Spanish Flu during WWI? Is that correct? Is that how to understand morality?

          • augustine says

            Poverty experts? Cite one or two examples, please.

            Exactly how do you deduce anything about my religion from what I’ve written? I can be an atheist or agnostic and still think you are a nihilist, because you leave hints. You said you were all but certain I was a libertarian earlier. My religious leaders?? None of these categorizations has anything to do with debating your contentions about white supremacism and the Enlightenment. You seem to be a careful reader. Go back and try again.

  11. Tom More says

    Ahh.. Enlightenment eugenics.. which we still practice.. .to “improve” the human stock. Hobbes.. not “enlightened”? The article is a flight from theism and the Judeo Christian ethic that actually under girds the west. It boldly claims that the universe is about love; Aristotle’s (Father of western science) Unmoved Mover..still an excellent proof as philosopher Ed Feser shows.. and indeed we are indeed moved by what we love.. what we will.. be it noble or not so noble. Love is the unmoved mover. The enlightenment as Marx’s “scientific” view continues to show has also brought a more murderous reign than all of preceding history and the threat of nuclear annihilation. A word that works well with enlightenment nihilism and narcissism.

    • The page you linked does say that the WHO reports an increase, but the link they provide to the WHO website is to a general page on suicide prevention with no mention of a trend over time (and no links to any statistics indicating a 60% increase). Do you have a link to a WHO page that has the statistics over time?

    • Indeed, his callous attitude towards suicide leaves me ready to dismiss everything else he has to say. (And his comments on AI are just silly.)

  12. I think the choice of artwork in this essay explains a lot of the disagreement and hyperbole from both Pinker and his critics.

    The painting shows an incredibly romanticized view of 18th century folk, presumably engaged in a calm, thoughtful reasoned discussion about philosophy.

    No one is whipping slaves, no one is stealing lands from native people, no one is sending poor Irish people to their death for stealing a spoon.

    But it is midday, and no one is working, either!

    Where will they get their lunch? Who built that beautiful pergola? Definitely no one pictured.
    Presumably the servants are out of frame, busy cooking and cleaning and doing all that is necessary for these gentle folk to idle away their day gassing on about the rights of man.

    A ridiculous exaggeration in one direction tends to provokes a reciprocal one in the opposite direction.

    Thomas Jefferson might be a good example. History elevated him to near sainthood, but as recent history has shown, he was a complex man filled with contradictions and conflicts.

    He wrote beautifully about the rights of man, but kept slaves. He may have loved Sally Hemmings, but was unable to bring himself to treat her as a fully human person.

    Or John Locke, who conceived of a premise to support the rights of the individual to own land, but didn’t seem to mind that this was also a clever rationale to steal land from native people.

    Maybe rather than using history as a vehicle for condemnation or uncritical worship, it is better to consider what they got right, and what they got wrong, so as to learn from both their successes and failures.

    • Stephanie says

      @Chip, considering Native people stole land from each other all the time, what is the difference that a white tribe came to do it, except that the white tribe developed the framework that would eventually render territory acquisition by conquest immoral and illegal? Should Enlightenment thinkers have been able to transcend the need for people lower on the hierarchy? Is it reasonable to expect them to have adopted the values of the world 200 years later, which they themselves helped create?

      • Thou Shalt Not Steal was, I believe, pretty well established by the 18th century.

        The Lockean theory of property rights was developed in part as a handy excuse to get around that burdensome commandment. It was the 18th century version of “appropriation by the people”.

        • Locke’s land property right system was based on the idea that land had to be worked, and the one who works it (cuts the trees, plows, sows, harvests) has all the rights on that land. Quite logically, if you lived in the English landscape, where properties were neatly divided by hedges and stone walls. But the natives had quite another sense of land use, also logically, where land is plenty, forests and brooks deliver amply food stuff and shifting cultivation makes sense. The Indian Removal Act was, at the time, not seen as something unjust, but as something quite reasonable and civilised. Maybe even by Quakers, or the most enlightened of the time.

  13. Pinker strikes me as an oily huckster with a suitcase full of graphs and reams of data trying to sell you that little lemon of an idea that There’s Nothing Wrong With The World Except For The People Who Think There Is.

    Reading this guy, I always expect him to suddenly start spouting off about the Power of Positive Thinking or something.

    I’ll just mention one specific thing. Relying on self-reported surveys of “happiness” is idiotic. These are the same people that Pinker and friends are currently trying to convince (with reams of cheap graphs, smoothed over data, and fast talk) that despite what they may think or feel, they are, in fact, happy – and if they aren’t, there’s probably something wrong with their brain chemistry, so why not try one of those fantastic SSRIs, another product of the Enlightenment. In fact (says Pinker), I have some of those in the trunk. Be right back.

    • Try and read it again. That’s almost the opposite of what Pinker is saying. He’s saying that the world has improved, not that there’s nothing wrong. He’s saying that the way to fix things going forward are the same ways that have worked in the past: rational thought and humanism.

      So how would you measure general happiness other than asking people? Pinker is not trying to convince people they are happy. How can you possibly claim this? Perhaps you are the one that is idiotic.

      • I certainly don’t agree with him that the world has improved. Certain aspects of it have, of course (like those Pinker loves to cite). But generally, no. And that’s just it – for all the improvements (mostly of a material nature) that Pinker cites, I can cite as many
        deteriorations; and in my opinion the deteriorations outweigh the improvements and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future unless something pretty radical changes.

        Now that doesn’t mean I think we should go back – which is impossible anyway – but I think we should at least be honest about our time. We should at least recognize the bad with the good. But Pinker doesn’t seem to want to do that. And he doesn’t do that because he’s writing now as a popularizer, not as a seeker after a truth so much as a changer of opinions.

        To measure “general happiness”, first I would introspect. Then I would reflect on my experience (reasoning all the while). I would also read as many books of the most advanced personalities of the age as possible. Then I would formulate a conclusion based on my experience and intellectual conscience. That’s a pretty scientific way of going about it, no?

        But I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t go out every year with a clipboard and a pen and ask random people on the street “Are you very happy, pretty happy, or not that happy” and, upon finding that as many people chose the middle option in 2018 as they did in 1970, make grandiose claims that people are not getting more unhappy, so therefore modern liberal western market democracy is all right, so all you haters out there can just sit on that and rotate.

        Disclaimer: I’m not a left-wing social justice warrior.

        • You are using one data point, yourself, and drawing conclusions about the state of the world. Pinker is using all of the available data and coming to a different conclusion. He is right and you are wrong.

          • No, sully45, I’m not using one “data point” (except in the sense that I’m relying on my own reason and not on the authority of ‘scientific’ pronouncements issued by people like Pinker). Furthermore, not all data points are equal.

            With enough propaganda, you can convince the majority of people that the sun is black. (Studies have been done on this, if you have a superstitious reverence for such.)

            Pinker seems to be concerned primarily with material factors. But there’s more to human life than food, shelter and safety.

    • Reader says

      ‘I’ll just mention one specific thing.’
      ‘I can cite as many deteriorations’

      I’d like to see them!

      I don’t think even the biggest Pinkerite would argue everything is perfect, and I’m sympathetic to the argument self-reported happiness isn’t a definitive measure. But Pinker has a whole lot of arguments that a focus on rational, empirical decision-making and liberal democracy have improved societies across a wide variety of metrics.

      ‘Pinker seems to be concerned primarily with material factors. But there’s more to human life than food, shelter and safety.’

      This is maybe a fair point in a lot of the west, but I’m guessing if you were in an area where getting food/having money for food was a national concern, I think this would be step one.

  14. Queipo says

    “But I knew there was one way this would end. I would go to university and pursue a higher education, maybe even go to America.

    Or I would die trying.”

    It’s very convenient of you to blame traditional society for this woman’s insane attitude. I wonder where her wholly irrational and suicidal obsession with education and independence came from. Did it come from the pillars of traditional society, or did it come from exposure to liberal, “enlightened” society?

    What sort of healthy set of values encourages women to kill themselves over studying? And yet you see nothing wrong with her insanity, and instead blame conservative society around her, rather than those that put the idea into her head.

    When an individual is in conflict with society, it is in fact possible for the individual to be in the wrong, believe it or not.

    • Harland says

      It’s just bizarre to see women voluntarily wanting to attend university in a country where 1 in 4 of them will be sexually assaulted on campus. I don’t get it and I don’t know why women would put themselves in a situation like that. They’re safer in their own countries.

      • Dan Love says


        The white male dogs just wont rest. Now 9 in 10 women get raped 5 times a week on campus. I just find it strange they all just happen to be feminists.

  15. George Troyden says

    Brillant, except for the potshots at Brexit. Still doesn’t get the “somewheres” as a cosmopolitan “anywhere” it seems.

  16. Tibbles says

    I think your claim that populism is puttering out is way off the mark. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

    • Saw file says

      This global age of “assimilation” will be something to document, for these scholar’s.
      If they last that long.
      Hopefully I am wrong…

  17. Kessler says

    I agree with a lot of stuff in this article, but I think Pinker is misidentifying Trump and Brexit as counter-Enlightenment, where in fact they are pro-Enlightenment forces, trying to preserve the fruits of Enlightenment in the West. The modern populism stands against censorship, assault on due process, negation of democratic choice, personal freedom and ideologically, rather then factually driven science.

    The examples of “authoritarian” populism of Trump don’t withstand scrutiny.

    kissing up to autocratic thugs: pretty much all modern western state do it.
    undermining a free press and judiciary: what newspaper was shut down? What judicial decision defied? Is there anything worse, then a mean tweet?

    demonizing foreigners: I’d say demonization is a strong word and it is something everybody does, including Pinker himself. Yeah, he used harsh rethoric – so does everybody throwing around words like “Nazis” and “Racist”. Unfortunately, that’s modern discourse.

    gutting environmental protections: Maybe, I don’t know enough on this subject.

    blowing off climate science: climate science, that apparently says regressive taxes must be levied primarily on the poor to maybe in 100 years reduce global warming by negligible amount. And there’s a general drift of environmentalism ideology to a very counter-enlightenment concept, that earth would be better off without people.

    renouncing international cooperation: It’s not cooperation, when one person benefits, while the other suffers. It’s slavery.

    threatening to renew a nuclear arms race: Trump seems intent on getting out of wars. His opposition is now pro-war.

    And finally, populism clearly hasn’t plateaued – Yellow Vests in France are a proof of escalation.

    • Stephanie says

      Kessler, thank you for breaking this down.

      It was astonishing Pinker focused on Trump as the anti-Enlightenment figure when it is the authoritarian left, from which he got all his talking points, that is eroding freedom of speech, due process, and objective scientific inquiry.

    • Jan de Jong says

      Agree with this. I am with Pinker on the central importance of reason, inquiry, free thought and honest debate. His take on current events is largely wrong – less based on reasoning and more on accepted opinion.

  18. Quillette is such a good source of thought provoking reading, despite the fact that it doesn’t ensure that I agree with 100% of everything that it publishes. Having said that, the comments are drifting from thoughtful discussion/disagreement to Twitter quality ranting. I swear, I’ll stop looking at this train wreck any minute now.

    • Well put. Reading some of these comments makes me wonder if things aren’t really going so well as Pinker says. The Trump apologists are amazing in the depths they will go to defend their man. But we have to trust the data. For every loony commenter here, there must be ten people who have not abandoned humanism and fact-based reasoning. As Bill Maher says, “I can’t prove it but I know it’s true.”

    • Harland says

      Why are half the comments saying, “you’d better change your ways or I’m going to do the worst thing I can think of: deprive the conversation of my presence as it’s not up to my lofty standards.” Why this constant desire to compel others?

      I don’t get it.

      • @Harland

        Not sure how you got to either of those conclusions. For my part, I was merely referring to how much ranting one has to sort through to get to the comments that add to the conversation, and the love/hate relationship I have with reading some of those rants. Not every criticism is an effort to compel behavior or a display of lofty standards.

  19. Bubblecar says

    A very fine piece by Steven Pinker, superbly defending a superb book. If only more people put this much effort into thinking and learning before they go into rhetorical battle.

  20. Elliott says

    Mr. Pinker, they don’t disagree with you because they think you are wrong, they disagree with you because they don’t want to believe it is true. Anyone advocating for radical change (Trump supporters trying to smash the system, socialists advocating for the end of market capitalism) has their argument completely undermined by your data and arguments. It’s difficult for them to deal with that, so naturally, they lash out. Thank you for continuing to refute their claims again and again.

  21. “Progress is not a miracle; it’s the result of solving problems. Problems are inevitable, and solutions create new problems that must be solved in their turn.”

    There’s more than a little Popper in those sentences. Funnily, Trump is trying to solve problems. Pinker just has a different idea of what’s wron3g. If you see no problem with endless war, excessive regulation, chaos at the border, etc., fine, but please don’t insult those of us who do.

    • Dan Love says

      The populist uprisings are a natural expression of mass discontent. To invalidate this expression is to invalidate the people who are suffering. Is there anything more anti-enlightenment and anti-humanist?

      The “enlightened” approach is to hear them out and address their suffering. Yet, this is something those classically “enlightened” liberals will never do, leaving everyone else to endure their bullshitting hypocrisy.

  22. John Ashworth says

    Maybe it’s time for Quillette to stop it’s open comments policy. There seems to be an army of trolls waiting for every new article, waiting to rip it to shreds in the most inane way. Why should upholding free speech mean that all articles have to have a comments section? (Spike-Online don’t do this).

    • No, keep the comments open. It’s pretty easy to take many of the comments apart, even for a retaliative layman such as myself.

    • X. Citoyen says

      The solution for people too weak-willed to ignore the comments is to stick to magazines without them. I’d prefer it if those who are slaves to their passions weren’t making policy for those of us who are not.

    • I think the comments should stay open. As crazed as some of the comments are, they typify the kind of thinking that caused Pinker to write EN and this article. It is what rational humanists have to battle.

    • Heike says

      Please link to the comments in this thread that are inane trolls.

    • Stephanie says

      @John, pretty much every (leftie) news site has gotten rid of their comments section. It is an attempt to keep readers from sharing their perspectives on the article, which news organisations know will expose their bias, hypocrisy, and outright lies. If Quillette goes this route it would reflect their own insecurity and desire to control the views of their audiences, so there would be little reason to continue reading.

      Of course people are eager to dissect an article. If you don’t understand the value of skepticism and critical review, you don’t understand the Enlightenment. Why are you even here?

      • JWatts says

        “@John, pretty much every (leftie) news site has gotten rid of their comments section. ”

        I was a Popular Science subscriber for over a decade when they got rid of their comments section. I cancelled my subscription. Science that can’t handle skepticism isn’t really science.

        • augustine says

          Agreed comments should remain open. They provide feedback that is probably of value to authors of articles. For me they provide enhanced, often insightful understanding of those articles. I’ve even started getting used to the awkward and ascetic format, which probably helps keep down troll traffic.

  23. Chuck Berger says

    Angus Hervey reports “Not a single crash of a commercial passenger plane, and an all-time low in deaths from natural disasters”. Not sure about the natural disaster deaths, but yes there certainly were commercial passenger plane crashes in 2018. Wikipedia lists six full-on crashes (everybody dead), in addition to a range of skids, crash-landings, etc.

    I’m skeptical about the rest of his list as well, mostly because it lacks all context. What use is it knowing that there were 9 “successes in conservation”, without also knowing (a) how many “failures” were there and (b) are our efforts in conservation, on the whole, succeeding?

  24. Chuck Berger says

    More generally: A very good piece by Pinker. I’m very glad, on the whole, that the Enlightenment happened!

    Yet I’m more ambivalent about Pinker’s claims relating to progress.

    Progress doesn’t occur in the abstract, but only in relation to specific measures or indicators of progress. Certainly it’s possible to say “humans have made progress in improving our life expectancy”. But it is possible to jump from those kind of specific statements, to a general statement that “humanity”, or particular societies, have somehow “progressed” in the abstract? Gotten better as a whole?

    I can’t see how this is possible. The selection of measures or indicators is ultimately an arbitrary one, a political question rather than a scientific one.

    In particular, modern progressivists tend to emphasize materialist measures, or external measures of human wellbeing. The case for “progress” is less solid on internal measures and/or ethical measures of wellbeing. For example: Are we more generous / kind / just than we used to be? Are our relationships with others better? Do we lead purposive lives? Are we better at making ethical decisions?

    I’m not saying the answer to those kinds of questions is “yes” or “no”, I honestly have no idea. But they are the kind of questions I think are essential to exploring whether we have “made progress” – not just the materialist kinds around wealth, health, education, and even mental wellbeing. This is where I think Pinker has a blind spot – and I think it is the most powerful objection to the paradigm of progress.

    Again, I’m not anti-enlightenment, or anti-progress. The conversation does however have to move beyond materialist determinants.

    • I think your complaint is covered by the various happiness polls which Pinker mentions in EN and in this article. People report, on average, that they are happier now than at any time in history. If you could measure kindness, relationships, and the extent to which people lead purposeful lives, I think you would find that they have improved. Perhaps you need to look closer at why you think they haven’t. If I had to guess, you have fallen victim to one or more of the misleading causes Pinker mentions in his book. For example, due to the news and politicians who constantly try to boost their standing with cries for law and order, people think crime has gotten worse. But it hasn’t. Anyone who thinks it has must explain the gap between their feeling and the facts as we know them. Perhaps the facts are misleading or not facts at all. However, that requires proof which requires hard work.

      • Chuck Berger says

        Thanks Paul for a thoughtful reply. But “happiness” isn’t quite what I mean. Improving people’s ephemeral mental states isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also not everything. There is a difference between asking “are we leading better lives” and asking “are we leading happier lives”.

        In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian vision, humanity would have rated very highly on all of Pinker’s criteria – healthy, happy, educated etc., but “Brave New World” continues to creep us out, and it should, because there was something essentially human missing from that world – people were no longer leading lives of meaningful purpose and reflection.

        In case I wasn’t clear first time, I have no idea whether “the extent to which people lead purposeful lives” has gotten better or worse. I think it’s a fundamental question that is largely unexamined in today’s fixation on material wellbeing.

      • Stephanie says

        @Paul, I’m quite certain that rates of single motherhood and divorce have both gone up, and considering the radical negative effect this has on the social fabric and on people’s lives (beyond transient states such as “happiness”), I think Chuck has a point that there are some important metrics missing here, possibly because they are more difficult to measure.

        @Chuck, perhaps what is missing in this calculus is freedom. The only reason the US isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of other countries by Pinker’s methodology is because freedom isn’t calculated. By his metrics, a modern prison would be the best possible place. But humans need more than to have our every material need met. We need adventure.

  25. Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

    A fine article even if I think Professor P is a bit too optimistic. However he seems to take it as given that Enlightenment values are congruent with PC and I think that is questionable. For example your average SJW would call me a racist because I prefer to face uncomfortable facts rather than pretend that they don’t exist (*but* they are all whitey’s fault anyway). I also oppose global homogenization. Does that mean I do not support Enlightenment values? I think I do support them and that it is PC which rather ignores science when their ideology conflicts with it.

    • blitz442 says

      “However he seems to take it as given that Enlightenment values are congruent with PC and I think that is questionable.”

      I don’t see him saying that at all. Can you give a quote to that effect?

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says


        It’s more the tone of the thing throughout. I could dig up a few quotes but there is the suggestion all over that, for example, anyone who is a populist is the enemy of enlightenment. Whereas I doubt that few honest people would doubt that Trump is an enemy of the Enlightenment, it does not follow that all conservatively minded people are.

        • Ray I doubt that Trump is an enemy of the Enlightenment. I see him more like a reluctant soldier for the Enlightenment…you know kind of like in the movies the seriously flawed former soldier takes up arms to defend the “good” side. He’s doing it more for himself and his people than he is the established “good” side. Wait, just like Han Solo! Yes!

  26. I find it more productive to see social philosophers as chroniclers of their time rather than prophets. The forces of social change have their own natural dynamics rather than being steered by the ideas of intellectuals. My problem with Enlightenment thinking is that it has developed a cult-like reverence for reason, which has limits to its application. We need to complement reason with knowledge – the art of outcomes of actions.

    What is described as the current populist movement can be rationally seen as a defence of democracy against arrogant elitists who have captured positions of power in the West and defy democracy: BREXIT and Trump have already given as examples.

    With one foot, at least, trapped in that bubble Professor Pinker assumes that carbon dioxide is affecting the weather. All I’ll say here is point out that the whole edifice is based on an assumption of the significance of the greenhouse effect. A serious consequence of this is the denial of the repeated warm periods of the Holocene.

    A climate oriented view of human history, which I’ve sketched elsewhere, can interpret the exuberance seen in Enlightenment thinking as expressing the feelings of societies emerging from the brutal climate conditions of Little Ice Age. By that empirically validated view many of the advances in living conditions of the past two centuries can be seen as the benefits of the rise into the Modern Warm Period.

    We are now descending into colder times, and the mistaken assumptions of consensus climate science are preventing preparation in the West. Fortunately for the world’s poorest, China has never bought into the delusion and is preparing. I’ve recently read that the African Development Bank has also rejected it and are backing coal. Great news!

    In the article’s happiness graph, Russia, and post-communist era China have the greatest rises. Where is the graph of people in influence (universities, press, politics) who are so irrationally proud as to call themselves Marxists these days?

    Traditional doesn’t have to mean regression to village. Traditional values and morality are won from experience – they evolve through trial and error – as close to scientific and rational as you can get when measurement and models are not possible, as they still aren’t. Best traditions survive. Ideologues wishing social structures out of thin air are anti-evolutionary.

    Having spent much of my life working with new approaches to AI I see it already working against freedom, but doesn’t have to be negative. It’s our choice: centralised or personalised!

    John Ashworth: the essence of free speech is debate for all not isolated assertion from a position of privilege – Enlightenment values in practice. Perhaps that’s why Pinker chose to step into an open forum. He has no shortage of privileged pulpits. I tip my hat to him for that.

    • George G says

      @ dai davies @brindabellaDai

      do you have any links to the climate view of history you mention? little ice age and warming period. it sounds interesting.

      • Try wattsupwiththat, tallblokestalkshop, jonova. All discus the science behind the global warming scam.

        • Please don’t, those are not science sites, they are propaganda mills run by cranks. Global warming is not a scam, it is a theoretical prediction confirmed by numerous lines of observational evidence.

  27. Luke Hornby says

    So Imperialism is bad, even if it means taking over countries where slavery and cannabilism and tribal genocide are rife, and abolishing those practices. But, bureaucratic imperialism from the EU is just great. It’s fine for tribal peoples to protect their sovereignty, but wow betide any “populist” who wants to retain their own country (Brexit).
    And colonizing other countries is bad when it is the West to the Rest, but when it goes the other way, mass immigration, it’s good, and anyone who begs to differ is anti-Enlightenment evil.
    Sorry Prof, there are quite a few more shocks coming from the demos. Trump and Brexit are just the start.

  28. Farris says

    This was a fairly nice article until it fell into the crevice of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Using some of the author’s own measurements for progress, in the U.S. since the election of Trump, economic growth has improved, unemployment (especially among minorities) has decreased, the wage gap has likewise decreased, terrorists are on the run. Suggesting that progress only occurs when the author’s political views are at the forefront is far from enlightened. Those of us old enough to recall the advent of the Reagan administration, remember the same doomsday scenarios: “Reagan was going to lead us into nuclear Armageddon, Reagan made whites feel comfortable with their prejudices.” In actuality Reagan brought peace and prosperity by helping to end the Cold War and leading unprecedented economic growth. The so called “Decade of Greed” did lift all boats.

    “All people have unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….”

    According to the author people “have” unalienable rights not that these rights are endowed by a Creator. If rights are endowed or recognized by mankind or governments, then those rights are far from unalienable, as at any given time mankind or governments can cease recognizing those same rights. Affirming that rights are endowed by a Creator presupposes limits on mankind and thus makes said rights unalienable.

    The author and his ilk often self righteously proclaim to be the people of reason and hence the reasonable ones. These declarations to the mountain tops border on the comical. Many of these pontificators of reason and science claim that gender is a social construct, that present day computer models can foretell the climate 50 years from now and deny that life begins at conception (an odd position for a humanist). Mr. Pinker claims that no person using reason would continue to support communism due its decades of failure. Perhaps but despite evidence to the contrary many of these so called reasonable people continue to deny that tax cuts and deregulation spur economic growth and continue to insist upon government stimulus which has yet to produce shovel ready jobs. Even JFK proclaimed the only effective means of securing economic growth was through tax cuts. The Left is not engaged so much in reason but rather rationalization.

    • Jack B. Nimble says


      You need to get your facts straight before writing a polemic against the Left.

      ‘………..Reagan brought peace and prosperity by helping to end the Cold War and leading unprecedented economic growth. The so called “Decade of Greed” did lift all boats…..’

      That’s flat-out wrong. The period 1980-88 did have some periods of high gdp growth, but no better than peaks observed in the 1950s and 1960s. So not ‘unprecedented.’ The early 1980s also saw periods of gdp contraction/losses that were not seen again until the crash of 2008. Link: http://www.multpl.com/us-real-gdp-growth-rate

      Also, poverty rates in the US were essentially the same in 1988 as in 1980, so not all economic boats got lifted–some got swamped:

      “..The record of economic well-being in the 1980s belied Reagan’s claim that Americans would be better off if they scaled back the welfare state and cut tax rates. Though the standard of living rose, its growth was no faster than during 1950-1980. Income inequality increased. The rate of poverty at the end of Reagan’s term was the same as in 1980. Cutbacks in income transfers during the Reagan years helped increase both poverty and inequality. Changes in tax policy helped increase inequality but reduced poverty. These policy shifts are not the only reasons for the lack of progress against poverty and the rise in inequality. Broad social and economic factors have been widening income differences and making it harder for families to stay out of poverty. Policy choices during the Reagan Administration reinforced those factors….”

      Link: Plotnick, Robert D. (1992) “Changes in Poverty, Income Inequality and the Standard of Living During the Reagan Years,” The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare: Vol. 19 : Iss. 1 , Article 4. Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/jssw/vol19/iss1/4

      • I just read the article by Plotnick. Throughout the article it is noted that the economic downturn of the early part of the decade drove incomes down and poverty up, but that beginning in 1984, economic measures improved fairly significantly. Official poverty went from 13.2 in 1981 to a peak of 14.6 in 1984 and then retreated to 12.0 by 1988, a decrease of about 19% from the 1984 figure. Adjusted family income increases from 8.3 in 1980 to 10.3 by 1985, where it stabilizes. Would the poverty increase of the early 80s be attributed to Reagan’s policies? I’m not an economist but I would assume that Reagan’s policies would more likely explain the economic developments in the latter part of his term than the beginning.

        Pinker’s treatment of Trump also seemed very interesting, given the author’s intellectual credentials. I find it amazing that a man as analytically skilled as Pinker, the very man who wrote the Blank Slate, would be so obviously biased by the conventional moral stigma applied to Trump. First we have the insinuation that Trump is a “strongman” whose election represents some sort of apocalyptic, Pyrric gesture on the part of people who think that the world could not get any worse. Really, Steven? I guess even Steven Pinker must occasionally pause from the rigors of logical discourse to squeeze off a virtue signal.

        Then we have the business about how people “easily slide back into motivated cognition, magical thinking, tribalism, authoritarianism, and nostalgia for a golden age.” Again, how could the author of several highly regarded works on brain science, including the Blank Slate, breezily toss out the phrase “motivated cognition” in the context of a one-directional partisan intimation, not to mention “tribalism” and “authoritarianism.” On the unlikely chance that Dr. Pinker is reading these comments, I just have to say . . . really? You call him “reactionary”–isn’t a reaction against false utopias a beneficent one? Given the trouble that you yourself have gotten into challenging the scientific shibboleths of the left (and that of people you’ve defended), how is it possible to use the terms “tribalism” and “authoritarianism” in such a partisan way? Why isn’t it “progress” to push back against dogma? I will leave it to others to note that economic gains and de-militarization would probably be regarded as “progress” under a more conventionally moral administration.

        • Jack B. Nimble says


          US real GDP [inflation adjusted] has increased roughly monotonically since 1948, with small dips during recessions:

          See: http://www.multpl.com/us-gdp-inflation-adjusted/

          In peacetime, the business cycle runs largely independently of presidential actions, with real GDP growth being driven largely by population increase, productivity gains, etc. So dishing out economic blame or credit to presidents [except for who they appoint to the Fed Reserve] is mostly a partisan exercise.

          But since Farris brought this point up, I wanted to counter by noting that if you rank US presidents starting with Eisenhower for the annualized increase in real GDP from beginning to ending of their term[s], the rank from high growth to low is:

          Kennedy @5.5%
          Carter-Reagan [tied]
          Bush43 @1.7%

          Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-08-01/ranking-presidents-economic-records-by-gdp-growth

          Bottom line: If you cherry pick the start and end dates for comparison, any president can be made to look good or bad. Also, the heritage.org article that Farris linked to gives much of the credit for the ‘Clinton economic boom’ to Reagan!

          • Charlie says

            Kennedy looks good because the USA has little competition. The UK was bankrupt by 1942: Germany is rebuilding itself from a shattered base from1948; Japan is beginning to emerge and only show a reasonable economy from mid 1970s and in China, Mao is killing tens of millions. Congress keeps India shackled until 1990s. The price of oil rises in 1973.

            One could argue that the period of 1963-1973 is when the World starts to recover physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually from two world wars.

            Basically the USA has no competition or threats between 1942 and 1973

          • Jack B. Nimble says


            The Bloomberg article I linked to suggests that GDP growth is a flawed measure of any president’s economic policies, and I agree!

            Someone can always ‘explain away’ economic data that clash with their preferred narrative:

            Carter was hurt by the oil embargo
            Clinton was helped by the dot.com boom
            Kennedy and Johnson benefited from the economic stimulus of the Vietnam War

            ……….and so on.

        • Lydia says

          Mike, A like button would come in handy for your comment even though I hate like buttons.

  29. Cindy Satwell says

    You can tell where he’s really coming from when he doesn’t capitalize ‘barbarians;’ all the other slaves get capitalized (even britons, for godssake). So are Barbarians still slave material, Dr. Pinker?

  30. D.B. Cooper says

    Anyone who thinks Communism is ‘scientific’ should reflect that no scientific movement would conduct two centuries of ‘experiments,’ see all of them fail, and still stubbornly refuse to accept the results.

    One of the more amusing asides, to be sure.

    On balance, I think Pinker gets more right than wrong, and while I can’t claim to agree with all of his views (here or in EN), I do appreciate his attempt to ground arguments to data, moral reasoning, and rational argument.

  31. Kelaidis is mistaken that the “Enlightenment” invented the notion that no one should be enslaved. That idea was clearly stated in the 4th century in the Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

    • dellingdog says

      That may be true, but slavery persisted in Christendom for the next 1500 years — until after the Enlightenment.

      • X. Citoyen says

        I thought you enlightened types were big on facts? Even the one-sided Wikipedia page on slavery in the Middle Ages would’ve disabused you of that idea. Slavery had all but disappeared in Christendom by AD 1000, and chattel slavery probably disappeared long before that. It was revived in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese and Spanish (and later others) despite the efforts of (at least) two popes and the Jesuits, who were expelled from South America for their troubles.

        • Actually, the Greco-Roman form, as governed by the Code of Justinian, persisted in the Empire until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 (when it was replaced by the Islamic version), though the institution did die out in Western Christendom until its revival largely by the Portuguese — who seem to have been the only European power to actually undertake slave raids. The others were content to purchase Africans either from the Portuguese, or from their fellow Africans the same way the Turks and Arabs did.

          Chattel slavery of Gypsies existed in Romania until the 19th century when, just as slavery throughout Christendom, and the slave trade world-wide (thanks to the Royal Navy making the point with anyone who was recalcitrant) were ended, mostly through the efforts not of “Enlightenment” secularists, but through the efforts of Christian abolitionists, who, while they may never have read Gregory of Nyssa’s homily, came to the same conclusions about human dignity from the creation account in Genesis and the comments of St. Paul.

  32. Some Hopeless Romantic says

    “Let them read Proust. Many literary and cultural critics have a streak of Nietzschean Romanticism which exalts feats of artistic and historical greatness as the only authentic virtue and is indifferent to prosaic indicators of mass flourishing such as child mortality, nutrition, and literacy. More than fifty years ago, when C. P. Snow valorized science for its potential to alleviate suffering in poor countries, he was assailed by the literary critic F. R. Leavis because “great literature” is “what men live by.” I faced the same argument in a debate on whether our best days lie ahead from the author Alain de Botton, who insisted that his native Switzerland, that bastion of health, happiness, peace, education, and prosperity, is not a worthy aspiration of the rest of the world, because it does not guarantee that its citizens will appreciate Proust. (I suggested that the rest of the world may want the chance to decide that for themselves.)” – from his essay

    “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.” – from his book

    It’s interesting that the essay only briefly touches on what is the primary shortcoming of the book, namely that the Enlightenment is all well and good for civilization, but produces a shockingly dull and subpar culture. Which isn’t to say Enlightenment values (especially the primacy of science and reason) shouldn’t be the absolute bedrock of civilization, but science without art is just depressing. So instead of arguing with Pinker about what effect the Enlightenment has had on civilization (which is a losing battle – every measure of human flourishing has improved thanks to the Enlightenment), the better bet is to focus on recovering our bankrupt culture and helping to revive the Romantic arts again. Let the scientists fix the world (and fix the problems they’ve created). But if you’re not of a scientific bent, tap into your “streak of Nietzschean Romanticism” and make art. The world needs it.

  33. Intrigued, I’ll venture under the bridge to make some comments. First, I find Quillette, and many of these articles, thought provoking and, overall, a positive. While the comments are often less so, some are well reasoned and enlightening — pun intended. Even though I anticipate a certain amount of ridicule, I have to say that much of what I read here should be classified as both subjective and opinion vice fact or analysis. That is not to say it is without merit. However stimulating, it is typically debate (loosely termed) among individuals with strong beliefs that will not be changed. Yet, passion is good. Much of what is said in this piece I can agree with. Some I can not. Political (or other) bias is not an issue in my comments. Unfortunately, for me, the impact of this piece is diminished for a few basic reasons.

    First — Even though there are data presented, the analysis of those data is subject to interpretation and shows no evidence of peer review. I am not an expert in the subject matter and can not comment on “cherry picking” but would expect independent analysis and/or peer review to validate the data and to corroborate the analysis.

    Second — There appears to be a political bias in the examples given. If one has read the piece, I believe it is not necessary to cite examples. Whether right, left or otherwise, this diminishes the conclusions.

    Third — The author and many of the respondents fall into an all too common trap. Are they specialists or generalists? Given the complexity and inter-connectivity of these complex issues even the most brilliant can only hope to understand many things well or one or two things exceptionally well. For one can comprehend AI, social media, politics, economics, human nature, the environment, etc. and their inter-dependencies is not realistic. The examples are too numerous to cite.

    This opens the author and most of the respondents to claims of producing opinion masquerading as fact and analysis.

    • @ra Just before EN came out, I looked up ‘Neglected tropical diseases’ in WIKI. Under Epidemiology it just said they were a terrible scourge, and basically no more. I looked up each disease separately and found that all except one had decreased by 50 to 90% in the past decade. Only schistosomiasis had not and that was being addressed by trying to reestablish predatory shrimp to to reduce snails (intermediate host). The shrimp populations had been decimated by the dams in Egypt.

      Since then the WIKI has added to the disease list, but the point is, if you dig a little you easily find data that supports Pinker. I saw myself the effects of introducing antibiotics to village India in the 50’s and 60’s. In less than 5 years, women were asking how to delay the next pregnancy. This was a crapshoot until the Lippes IUD came out, supported by the Ford Foundation in the early 60’s. Babies that just die or struggle along are a bid drain on family economies, aside from the grief.

  34. Fickle Pickle says

    Notice that Steven does not even use the word LIGHT, let alone begin to discuss its paradoxical qualities.
    What if true enlightenment is a condition of the whole body, and not just of the mind?
    What if the ultimate fulfillment of our genetic potential is to be sublimed by light, and even to “go out” in a flash of light?
    What if the form of the “enlightenment” mind that is promoted by all of the usual suspects actually shuts down that understanding and possibility?

    Which it does!

    Three books by John White to consider.
    The Highest State of Consciousness
    What Is Enlightenment Exploring the Goal of the Spiritual Path
    The Meeting of Science and Spirit

    Two books on the human condition especially in the USA
    Bowling Alone by Robert Putman
    The Pursuit of Loneliness by Philip Slater

    An antidote to the epidemic of loneliness described in above too books, by another pink person

    Plus a book which will definitely challenge everyones presumptions

    Life From Light Is It Possible To Live Without Food : A scientist reports on his experiences by Michael Werner and Thomas Stockli

    Michael Werner has a doctorate in chemistry and is the managing director of a research institute in Swizterland – apart from his highly unusual form of sustenance he lives a very normal life

  35. Jezza says

    I have never quite grasped what is so awful about homophobia, islamophobia, racism, sexism, etc. Sure they are not rational intellectual responses, they are the emotional reactions of live human beings. They are not right or wrong, they just are. If the thought of sticking your tongue up another bloke’s bum makes you want vomit, don’t apologize. If the sight of helpless people having their throats cut by muslim thugs inclines you to despise their religion, don’t apologize. If intellectual cowards touting their victimhood make you cringe, don’t apologize. If, like me, you don’t go out of your way to be nice to people of other races, don’t apologize. (I don’t actually go out of my way to be nice to anyone.) If you are sad and miserable, I just don’t care. I don’t feel your pain – pain is one deep and that’s it. And I AM a racist, but only on the first Tuesday in November. (If you don’t understand that last comment, ask an Australian.) I am out of patience with the lot of you. And if you find my comments offensive, I can only say, “Aw, diddums!”

    • Maybe check the legal frameworks that have emerged out of those rational frameworks and pay close attention to who is denied what rights. The problem with them is the world they foster. If you have no trouble with two standards and different rights based on the arbitrary feelings of the group in power, you’re probably just a boring racist. If you do, why are you having trouble conceptualizing what’s wrong with arbitrary hate?

  36. C. Leslie says

    An excellent article and great to see Pinker published here. Not that I am with him on everything. Specifically I think the UK’s leave vote was at least partially motivated by values aligned with the enlightenment.

    But my comment regards the comments. Please leave them open. I for one appreciate the quality of discussion here compared with other sites. Yes, there is some extreme partisanship in evidence at times, and some of you guys should learn to paragraph. On the whole though, the comment threads are actually a pleasure to read.

  37. Bartek says

    Pinker is certainly intelligent writer and lots of his fact-backed claims are convincing. Yes he seems pretty bad at so-called steelmaning (dealing with the strongest form of opposing argument).

    A few remarks:

    1. Some of Pinker’s argument, especially regarding moral progress, are a bit circular (liberal democracy is good because it is good to be liberal and democratic). He also rather dismisses prevailing moral disagreements, like the debate on abortion. For people who consider the abortion to be a form of infanticide, the path of historical moral progress is not that smooth. Pinker may or may not agree with a specific moral stance, but he should at least acknowledge it more clearly.

    2. All the arguments he cities for AI risk are rather shallow and do not deal with the most refined argument of those concerned with AI safety like Bostrom or Yudkowski. Pinker ignores (or misrepresents) the so-called orthogonality principle, which is crucial in this discussion. He ignores some very good examples supported by AI like researchers, like scenario (cited in Bostrom’s Superintelligence) that all the hostile strong AI needs to destroy entire humanity is an Internet connection and the ability to persuade one ‘Average Joe’ to perform a series of mundane/not-so-demonic accomplishments.

    3. Finally, Pinker ignores the most powerful anti-progress argument, the one first raised by Taleb (and recently indirectly supported by Bostrom’s “Vulnerable World Hypothesis”): the survivorship bias. What we perceive as inevitable progress, could in fact be the case of gambler enjoying the winning streak in roulette. From the point of view of the gambler, everything is great: the casino is so nice, he is having a lot of fun, and the graphs are showing exponential growth of his gambling chips. But then, we are conflating ‘progressing’ with simply ‘being lucky’. And the game continues, and the hour is still early…

    • blitz442 says

      “What we perceive as inevitable progress, could in fact be the case of gambler enjoying the winning streak in roulette.”

      A 500 year win streak is pretty good though…

      • Bartek says

        500 year is pretty short, in fact. There were civilizations flourishing for a longer period and then leaving only a pile of rocks.
        Also, the survivorship bias argument points out that we should judge the world by the average value of possible scenarios (fanned “alternative worlds”) rather than our point of view – just like judging casino game by the odds, not by the outcome (so-called hold) in a particular gambling session. This is pretty important, for example, in evaluating the current “long peace”.

    • dellingdog says

      I don’t think Pinker is begging the question regarding the virtues of liberal democracy. That form of government has been shown to promote individual liberty and human flourishing more than any other alternative.

    • That is an interesting point. If abortion is acknowledged as violent death, what do the statistics look like? Surely not so rosy as Pinker wishes, but is it even worse than that? It seems not inconceivable that consider abortions, violent death at the hands of fellow human beings may be now more prevalent than ever before.

      It was not so long ago that some of the intellectual heirs of the “Enlightenment”, the suffragettes, regarded abortion with the same horror that today seems to be found only among pious Christians of the more traditional confessions.

      As an aside. I have posted several comments to this thread, and should explain my use of scorn quotes around the topic. I am an Orthodox Christian, and as such, regard Enlightenment as a spiritual term meaning spiritual enlightenment, particularly right belief and the mystical experience of the hesychasts, something the so-called “Enlightement” discounts as “irrational” (Buddhists doubtless feel the same way for similar reasons).

  38. It seems to me that there is a problem with the humanaties and that thus problem has become far worse in recent times.

    CP Snows observations about the two cultures is often discussed as if there is a problem on both the humanities and the scientific side yet he was always clear that the problem was that those educated in the humanaties were ignorant of science and had disproprionate influence and power.
    Anecdotally I have never met a scientist or engineer who was not interested in music, literature, drama etc and certainly none who would be proud to profess ignorance of all of them yet this is precisely what many humanaties graduates do about science. This has always been true but in the past despite this profound and willful ignorance within a very influential section of society there was a respect for evidence and logic. This seems to have gone. We now have entire academic disciplines the foundations of whcih are directly contradicted by overwhelming scientific evience and are actively hostile to the concept of evidence and rational argument as being part of a patriarchal and male system.

    I would not argue with the essay’s main thrust that since the enlightenment the world has become a better place but the attacks on rationality and evidence are significant and I believe significantly degrade the progress that could be made.

  39. Pingback: Podcasts für die Sonne: 100 Jahre Bauhaus, Ölindustrie auf der Anklagebank und Twitter vs Demokratie - Nerdcore

  40. X. Citoyen says

    Too bad Pinker didn’t call his book “How Everyday Life has Gotten Better for a Lot of People” and leave the history and philosophizing to someone else. Then we could’ve had an interesting debate around what his collection of measures means and how they came to be. These are, at bottom, some of the most pertinent political questions of our time.

    Instead, he couched everything in a self-aggrandizing cartoon history about how he and his progressive fellow-travelers made the world a better place by believing in some capital-letter abstractions—which, when they are spelled out, are about as controversial as sunshine and original as the pointy stick. No one ever used “reason and science to advance human welfare” until the Enlightenment, except, of course, everyone who came before. Solon, Cleisthenes, Plato, Thucydides—ever hear of ‘em?

    I haven’t read Pinker’s book, mostly because I expected something like this article. But I have read most of the Enlightenment thinkers, some more than others, along with the history before and after. Based on this article, I doubt Pinker has read any of them in depth. I suspect he’s gleaned what he thinks he knows from the handful of pop-histories he cites, which were written by likeminded people. When your go-to source for a defence of your view of the Enlightenment is “a graduate student in behavioral genetics,” well, you’ve tipped your hand.

    Anyway, what bothers me most about Pinker’s story is the Manicheanism he’s inherited from his progressive forebears:

    Nor has Enlightenment thinking ever carried the day. It has enjoyed spells of influence which have increased in length since 1945, but always has been opposed by Romantic, nationalist, militarist, and other Counter-Enlightenment ideologies. The authoritarian populism of the 2010s falls smack into that undertow—not just the emotional currents, but a line of intellectual influence. As I noted in EN, “the intellectual roots of Trumpism” is not an oxymoron, and many members of his brain trust and alt-right base proudly credit Counter-Enlightenment theoreticians. These themes can be appealing during periods of economic, cultural, and demographic change, particularly to factions that feel disrespected and left behind.

    The single worst legacy the Enlightenment imparted on us (or rather revived for us) was the idea of an immanent evil that causes all human suffering and that can be destroyed once and for all time. So many of the miseries of the last three centuries grew from this seed.

    • X. Citoyen

      I find your response an accurate description of Prof Pinker. He’s completely out of his depth as a philosopher which is characterized by his incessent use of caricature. He seems to think Reason was invented like the steam engine about 300 years ago.

      And perhaps most importantly, and I believe to your last point – Prof Pinker is quite oblivious of the ambiguous nature of the Enlightenment. There is a difference between being reasonable and making a fetish of human reason – Burke and Jefferson are creatures of the Enlightenment but so are Robespierre and Bentham.

      One interpretation of the Enlightenment emphasizes human reason’s capacity to recognize order in nature. But this same capacity to recognize order is also capable of recognizing the limits of reason – the first capacity tends toward self confidence and arrogance, the latter to self confidence and humility.

      • X. Citoyen says

        I read and agreed with your comment too. I think Whitehead gets short shrift nowadays because he was and going against the current then and still. He and not Foucault would be studied if we had a sane academy.

        With respect to caricatures, Pinker seems to be confused about his audience. Calling Rousseau a cuckoo plays well with the choir, for example, but it’s a no true Scotsman fallacy to the unpersuaded. He also wastes words smacking around Twitter trolls—talk about the low-hanging fruit!—while dismissing substantial criticism from people like John Gray, whose critique of the book was the most devastating one I’ve read.

        The ambiguous nature of the Enlightenment is the real story:

        Burke and Jefferson are creatures of the Enlightenment but so are Robespierre and Bentham.

        Pinker calls his interpretation the “conventional” one, when his version is really part of the narrative in the liberal progressive’s self-conception—an historical pedigree for the Vanguard of Light against the Legion of Darkness. That he doesn’t see this—or least see why others would see it this way—is incredible to me.

        • X. Citoyen, Thanks for the John Gray reference – Pinker’s “manga-style history of ideas. Another excellent critique of Pinker is by Ian McGilchrist. Stephen Pinker meets my standards as One of the Great Mediocre Minds of Our Time.

  41. I haven’t read the comments uptil now, but, would like to remind here the article on Pinker and Harari, the Wizard (Pinker) and the Prophet (Harari), March this year, easily to be found here on Quillette. Harari can be found in the reference list, Pinker was on his list of most influenceal books of last years, though he did not agree on all of his theses. Neither do I, but good that he exposed the trends and intellectual cherry picking, I/m not going to read it, I,m tired of all that american optimism, but, again, very good to dive into history and put things together in a personal way.

  42. Jason Cooper says

    Dr. Pinker
    Most of the criticism came from the Rad-Left…and you avoid attributing the ‘sky is falling’ narrative, that they depend on, to them. It should go without saying that it wasn’t Trump supporters who sought to de-platform you or protest any of your engagements, and it is obvious to most in this realm of ideas that said Left is openly opposed to Enlightenment tenets. Are you afraid of putting the light on this fact? If so, why? …because it seems like a bit of a cheap shot at assumed Populism without bringing in Left Populism into it. You’ve done great work…perhaps you should grow an academic pair. Boghossian and Peterson can give you pointers.

  43. I love the book and I consider the author the most relevant public intellectual of this young century. Just a side note: couldn’t it be argued that the amount of suffering in the world is also raising? Let’s take extreme poverty: Some 10% live now in extreme poverty, less than a billion people. Some 200 million lived two thousand years ago, 99% in extreme poverty. In absolute terms, more people are suffering extreme poverty now that they were then. I am taking a consequentialist approach, just valuing the minimization of suffering. Do I make sense?

    • That’s a good one Garcia, 99% in extreme poverty 2000 yrs ago, why? Because they made less than 2 dlrs/day? I wonder whether the Amazon tribes that gain nothing at all are also classified among the extreme poor. What about the Laps in the time of Hans Christian Anderssen? The pygmees in the Congo forests?. It confronts one with the relativity of poverty. Without the presence of an industrial, modern society with city life, there is no poverty, can’t be even. Everybody a cabin and enough to eat (a bananatree, some yuca shrubs, chicken, ducks and fish in a nearby pond) and poverty can’t even exist any more!

      • Charlie says

        Dirk. The Agricultural Revolution In England starts in the late 17th century. Roots crops are imported from the Low Countries but extensive draining, marling, use of manure, rotation of crops, us of clover, construction of water meadows and machinery ( T Townsend , J Tull ) and changes in land ownership ( enclosures ) greatly increase food production. Every land owner, whether those having tens of thousands of acres or only a few were inspired to improve their land and were looked down upon if they did not.. The result was that by 1820, a Labourer produce enough food to feed 50- 100 people. Consequently, there was surplus labour which entered factories.

        The creation of the Royal Society in 1660 and Quakers and Non Conformists developing industry created an ethos of searching for new knowledge and applying it . In Britain the Enlightenment was not just a few intellectuals but just about everyone who could benefit from knew knowledge such as the Lunar Society of Birmingham .

        • Yes Charlie, in England the green revolution started a few centuries later, though, Sir Richard Weston (1600s) had written a superb booklet on what he had learned in Brabant and “Flaunders”, the invention of crop rotation with nitrogen binding crops, a practice not known until much later in England. Weston was befriended with Hartlib (A Designe for Plenty by Fruittrees and Greens), John Locke, also a countryman with heart for improvement, and many others. What this Weston wrote (I have the booklet here) is that the Dutch had developed several kinds of intensification (stall feeding, clover, drainage, rotations) but never wrote on it, and the English wrote on what they saw abroad ( but only much later put it into practice).
          Certainly, interesting in this thread, to show that the unifocal interest of Pinker needs a wider context, in space and time, indeed. And not only in the agricultural field, I must think.

          Have a nice day.

          • Charlie says

            Dirk, thank you for information. Drainage in eastern England was largely developed by land owners such as the Duke of Bedford employing Dutch Engineers certainly in early 1600s if not late 1500s. The Civil War until the Glorious Revolution of 1689 was a period of war and uncertainty , so no investment. However, post 1689 people invested in land improvement.

            By 1740, the massive increase in agricultural incomes meant vast increase in building neo-classical Queen Anne and Georgian houses.

            I agree with you about unifocal aspects of Pinker. The Enlightenment , like the Renaissance starts in different countries at different times and develops in different ways. I think Pinker needs to undertake better historical research ; perhaps he could work with N Fergusson. J Peterson has admitted his knowledge of history is shaky.

            Also, I think there is massive decline in historical research. Nowadays, much history appears to be knowing vast amounts about narrows aspects over the last 200 years or less. Once people start commenting on pre mid 16th century or earlier their knowledge appears inadequate. There do not appear to historians of the calibre of GM Trevalyan, A Bryant, G Elton, A Toynbee or C Northcote Parkinson who a broad understanding of the sweep pf history. Perhaps only Dr D Starkey appears to understand the grand historical panorama.

  44. I should begin by saying that Stephen Pinker is to be congratulated for pointing out that the world is not as bad as we are commonly told and that the general thrust of our modern civilization has had many beneficial effects. And indeed these benefits can be traced to ways of thinking which are epitomized by what we call the Enlightenment.

    Having said that, Stephen Pinker appears to be quite ignorant of the history of profound critiques of over reliance on rational thinking which is both the strength and the weakness of the Enlightenment. Many of the critiques of Goethe, Wordsworth, Shelley, Blake, and many others resonate as much today as they did two centuries ago. Modern science, contrary to what we are commonly told, is not representive of how we actually experience reality. This specific point is repeatedly address by all kinds of thinkers, artists and poets for the more than two centuries
    A particularly cogent example of this kind of critique is found in the thinking of Alfred North Whitehead. In his Science and the Modern World Whitehead praises the scientific geniuses of the 17th and 18th centuries in that the generated all kinds of ways of thinking about the world which serve us to this day. Whitehead notes however that these “abstractions” – e.g. the idea of cause and effect, the reality of distictinct bodies etc etc. – however powerful, are abstracted from a unified reality which is in a perpetual and paradoxical state of order and disorder. This paradoxical reality is what we actually experience. This reality is what Whitehead calls the “concrete facts” of existence and it is these concrete facts which are the concern of the great poets and artists. The ideas generated by science on the other hand tend to be examples of what Whitehead calls “misplaced concreteness”.

    As far as I can tell Professor Pinker, (or E.O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins etc.) never addresses these kinds of arguments. All too often he resorts to condescending caricature and misrepresentation. Professor Pinker’s prejudices and limitations are on full display with his comic book understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was by no means anti-Enlightenment – he said of Voltaire, to whom he dedicated Human, All too Human, “Voltaire is, in contrast to all who have written after him, above all a grand seigneur of the spirit: precisely what I am too.” Moreover, Pinker seems to be unaware that the latest Nietzsche fad is not from the alt-right but the postmodern left (and has been for more than half a century). Nietzsche, like dozens of other great minds, was not an opponent of reason, rather he was concerned with the limits of reason.

    Professor Pinker might then want to contemplate this fact: it was the great critics of the over reliance on reason like Dostoevsky and Nietzsche who foresaw decades ahead the collapse of Europe and the rise of totalitarian regimes. Might we then hypothesize this: Observing the limits of reason is itself an act of empiricism.

  45. augustine says

    Many thanks for a thought-provoking piece, especially regarding a needed push-back of optimism against an often seductive but unnecessary cynicism attaching to opposing views.

    The message of a bright and beautiful humanistic future seems incomplete, though. To put all of one’s stock in an amalgam of ideas and successes generated in only one century or so appears to be wildly narrow-minded, if not wildly optimistic. The good things posited here are generally good, important and even inspirational, but are these external metrics the most important ones? Unless I missed it, the mystery, the transcendent that has had so much to do with our success is apparently disregarded here. That is a pity.

    “But if applying reason and science to make people better off has succeeded in the past, however piecemeal and incompletely, the appropriate response is to deepen our understanding of the world”

    That understanding requires more than reason and science to be satisfying and effective.

  46. Oskar L says

    I agree with much of what Steven Pinker says. I have two critiques which I think you should have asked him during the interview:

    1. Cherry picking. Pinker picks the good bits of the enlightenment and avoids the dark ones. There’s also a tendency to in history disqualify the trajectories of the enlightenment which go awry.

    For example, both Soviet socialism and German nazism were seen as enlightenment projects by many (of the followers) at the time. Eugenics, collectivization, racial purity, reeducation camps, the new Soviet man, etc etc were seen as being scientifically justified at the time. Both regimes were (outwardly) for social equality and Soviet socialism was also for gender equality.

    In light of this, how do we know that a number of causes lauded as part of the Enlightenment aren’t examples of something similar – how good are we really at picking out true enlightenment?

    2. Technology. Although Pinker doesn’t want to get bogged down in exact definitions of enlightenment (good I believe) I think he puts too much of a straight line/causation between enlightenment philosophy/thinking and progress (in terms of advancing human lives).

    We had enlightenment thinking for decades during classical antiquity (both in the Med and in ‘the East’) which didn’t lead to the types of improvements he uses as evidence of the enlightenment. The world continued to be a dark and difficult place for centuries and even millennia after these classical era enlightenment thinkers lived.

    What I believe Pinker misses is technology as the real engine of improving the quality of human lives. It’s technology which drives societal ability to organize for the common good and creates medicines that saves lives. While there is certainly a link between technological development and enlightenment thinking it’s not a direct or clear one.

    The greates improvement in the quality of human lives in modern history has happened in modern China, a society which certainly is technology-driven but definitely not in a progressive enlightenment way.

  47. Pinker extols the merits of science and reason. The problem with “Enlightenment Now” is that it is fundamentally irrational and unscientific. Consider, for example, what he has to say about morality, which he discusses under the rubric of humanism. He agrees with Darwin that it is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “human nature” if you will. If that is the case, then there can be no such thing as objective morality. Darwin practically spoon fed us this truth in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” The illusion that there is an objective morality, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter, complete with objective goods and evils, is as much an illusion as the belief in God, yet Pinker, in spite of accepting the innate basis of morality, makes the fundamentally irrational claim that the illusion is real. Nowhere in the book do we find a disclaimer to the effect that what he has written about morality merely represents his personal opinion. On the contrary, he speaks of it as an objective thing, imposing duties on the rest of us. It comes complete with “moral imperatives” and even an “authority,” based on what Pinker describes in glowing terms as the values of the Enlightenment. These values themselves, however, cannot be distilled from pure reason, any more than a computer can program itself. Hume pointed this out long ago. Try to trace Pinker’s reasons for embracing the values of the Enlightenment back to their “rational” source, reason by reason, and you will find that his reasons only end up chasing their own tails. In the end, those values, too, must have a root cause or source in innate predispositions, or emotions, if you will, that exist by virtue of natural selection. Since these predispositions exist by virtue of a natural process, they cannot have a purpose. They are simply facts of nature. They could not have a purpose of the sort claimed by Pinker unless a God or other creator existed who gave them purpose.

    Pinker is well known as an opponent of group selection. He confirms his belief that the emotional roots of morality exist by virtue of natural selection, and are selected at the level of the gene, in the following passage:

    “Today’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which the unit of selection is the group, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest group in competition with other groups, and humans have been selected to sacrifice their interests for the supremacy of their group. (This contrasts with mainstream evolutionary psychology, in which the unit of selection is the gene.)”

    He then commits the fundamentally irrational non sequitur of claiming that we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with, and jury-rig it so that it goes well beyond group selection, and promotes “the good of the species!” For example,

    “Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.”


    “Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind.”

    How can it possibly be deemed “rational” to “reprogram” morality in this way? We are dealing with a manifestation of human nature that evolved at a time radically unlike the present, in which the very existence of “all of humankind” was unknown. It evolved because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Pinker would have us believe that it is “reasonable” to “fool” morality into serving other ends that may well result in outcomes that are not only dangerous, but the very opposite of the survival of those genes. The “other ends” Pinker has in mind are the “values of the Enlightenment,” which he describes in noble, glowing phrases, but which are really just expressions of other emotional predispositions not unlike those that give rise to morality. We can certainly reason about whether we want to promote “the values of the Enlightenment” or not as individuals, but to bowdlerize morality in order to serve those ends, harnessing powerful illusions of “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” which can just as easily promote violence and warfare as they can “the values of the Enlightenment” is nothing short of foolhardy. I suggest that we would all be better served by reducing the scope of such a powerful emotional phenomenon as much as possible.

    As far as Pinker’s embrace of “reason” is concerned, consider all the passages in the book in which he condemns Trump and all his works. He would have us believe that Trump is no less than a follower of Hitler and Mussolini, inspired by a careful parsing of the works of Nietzsche. Anyone who supports him, and that would amount to half the population of the United States, give or take, must therefore be either a Nazi or a dupe of the Nazis. In what way does such a claim support the notion of a “rational” dialogue with all these people? I am certainly not in the habit of calmly and rationally discussing things with people who initiate the conversation by claiming I’m a Nazi.

    In fact, a major reason Trump was elected, and the main reason a great many voters supported him, was his promise to enforce our immigration laws. Not only was this not irrational, it was actually an embrace of Enlightenment values. Was not one of those values respect for the law? “The rule of law” was deemed so important that it was actually inscribed as a motto on French coins after the Revolution! Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construe the furious attacks on Trump that appear so frequently throughout the book as “reasonable.” They are far better understood as virtue signaling to Pinker’s academic tribe. He has often subjected that tribe to pinpricks here and there, but he is well aware that he dare not attack the fundamental shibboleths that define his tribalist ingroup, and one of those shibboleths is currently blind allegiance to the notion that Trump is a manifestation of pure evil. Respect for the shibboleths of his tribe is how Pinker has managed to avoid being denounced as a heretic and ostracized after the fashion of Charles Murray or James Watson. Need I add that there is nothing “rational” about tribalistic virtue signaling, other than the fact that it is a common trait of our species?

    • Dan Love says


      Excellent response, and it reflects the thoughts I’ve had as well. That could have been published as a review all on its own.

      He avoids a rational deduction of his values because they are axioms he hopes everyone agrees with, not derived conclusions. He’s selling a Ferrari missing an engine.

      • @Dan Love

        Yes, and we have it on the word of no less an authority than Darwin that no engine will be forthcoming. For example, from Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man,”

        “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”


        “If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience.”

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  49. The Enlightenment was a declaration of war on the existence of transcendent, non-material reality and ultimately, on the human soul. It imprisons intellectuals in a kind of magic circle, in which only that which is measurable and rationally comprehensible exists, and nothing outside that circle matters. Many of us know intuitively that this is incorrect and very damaging, but we don’t use graphs to try to prove it because that’s not our methodology. Every culture before the Enlightenment understood that there is more to existence that this passing material world, that there is magic, gods, spirits, eternal souls, etc. Only the Enlightenment cult of the spiritually deaf, dumb and blind was crazy enough to posit the opposite, and try to build a civilization that inverted our entire human heritage, nature and common sense. Not surprisingly, some of them now conclude that the logical culmination of their project is the replacement of human beings with machines. But this madness, too, shall pass, and these arrogant people will be forgotten. The human soul will survive the Steve Pinkers of the world and the soul-killing regimes their kind produce, though it could be a rough ride for awhile here at the end of the age.

  50. mccult says

    This marks the first time I’ve ever been disappointed in a Quillette comments section. Hopefully it’s not a trend.

    • JWatts says

      “This marks the first time I’ve ever been disappointed in a Quillette comments section. Hopefully it’s not a trend.”

      This place isn’t an Echo Chamber.

      • JWatts says

        To quote directly from Quillette’s founder:

        “Lehmann presented her project as a well-intentioned effort to escape echo chambers and engage in intellectual risk taking. “We just want to capture the highly educated but open-minded, curious, heterodox audience,” she claimed, “wherever they are.””

        This series of comments seems to be exactly what she was aiming for. A heterodox audience arguing back and forth about the merits of the article.

  51. NotQuite says

    ‘I chose the one with the most alarming trend—CO2 emissions—and four with positive trends (emissions within the United States, deforestation, oil spills, and protected areas). ‘


    WASHINGTON — America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, according to a preliminary estimate published Tuesday.
    Strikingly, the sharp uptick in emissions occurred even as a near-record number of coal plants around the United States retired last year, illustrating how difficult it could be for the country to make further progress on climate change in the years to come, particularly as the Trump administration pushes to roll back federal regulations that limit greenhouse gas emissions.

  52. Jezza says

    I tried to make the point (not very well) that to be human is to experience emotions and to deny your emotions is futile. Fear, anger, love, disgust, all emotions that YOU engender in others are reactions to YOUR actions, and likewise the emotions you experience are just reactions to external stimuli. It is pointless to deny how you feel – not only pointless but dishonest. You do not choose your emotions. They just are. Try telling a traumatized soldier not to be traumatized and see where it gets you.

  53. Hamish O'Conner says

    And exactly how was slavery abolished? By scribblers and twitterers? No. It was forced up an unwilling humanity by the canons of the navy of the British Empire – you know, that evil “Imperialism”. I guess maybe we’d have all been better off if the gunships had stayed at home eh Professor Pinker?

  54. Lydia says

    He lost me at .”Authoritarian Populism”. Is that mob rule? If so, the only people practicing that here are the left.

  55. JWatts says

    “For believers in Enlightenment and progress, the second year Donald Trump’s presidency felt like being strapped to a table and getting a series of unpredictable electric shocks. They include his kissing up to autocratic thugs, undermining a free press and judiciary, demonizing foreigners, gutting environmental protections, blowing off climate science, renouncing international cooperation, and threatening to renew a nuclear arms race.”

    I’m not a fan of Trump, but this is just a hysterical over reaction. Seriously, the second year of Trump’s presidency felt like being strapped to a table and getting a series of unpredictable electric shocks.

    Steven Pinker presents himself as a rational member of the Enlightment. How can anyone take that claim seriously in the face of his own hysterical rhetoric.

    What is Trump guilty of in that list? Mostly he’s guilty of “hysterical rhetoric”. The majority of the complaints on that list are things Trump said, not things he did. So Pinker is guilty of the same behavior that he complains about in Trump.

    Surely an actual Rational person would focus on the changes that the Trump Administration actually made.

  56. TD2000 says

    Glad to see Pinker backtracking 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 stood out like a sore thumb in an otherwise excellent book.

    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.

  57. Frank says

    “People easily slide back into motivated cognition, magical thinking, tribalism,”

    A look at the historical record shows that conflict between different groups has been common throughout human history. Tribalism is the default mode of human political organization. The world’s largest land empire, that of the Mongols, was a tribal organization. But tribalism is hard to abandon, again suggesting that an evolutionary change may be required. Cooperative defense by tribal peoples is universal and ancient and it is bound to have boosted the genetic fitness of those who acted to further the interests of their group. Under such circumstances it would be odd indeed if natural selection did not mold the human mind to be predisposed to ethnocentrism.

    Homo Sapiens are distinguished by our ability to believe in fictions. The cognitive revolutions starts with the first set of hypothetical stories we allow ourselves to believe in whether they are true or not. The real importance is that the family, kin, friends, and community share those beliefs. Cosmopolitanism/Enlightenment is the mythical ideology that all human beings belong to a single community based on an inclusive morality, a shared economic relationship, or a political structure that encompasses different nations. A nice thought but human nature trumps such Utopian beliefs.

    Isabelle Stengers has stated that a cosmos detached from politics is irrelevant. The cosmopolitical proposal is ‘idiotic’ in so far as it addresses those who reject the consensual, without presenting an alternative. Where as advocates for ‘a good common world’ take cosmopolitanism as a vehicle of tolerance, Stengers refers to cosmopolitics as the cure for what she calls ‘the malady of tolerance’

    • Yes, the outgroup have ye always with you. Ethnocentrism is a common manifestation of the underlying predisposition to ingroup/outgroup behavior. Robert Ardrey, who thoroughly debunked the Blank Slate in a series of popular books back in the 60’s and 70’s used to refer to it in the Freudian jargon popular back then as the “Amity/Enmity Complex,”

      As it happens, Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and several others were really the ones who initiated the slow collapse of the Blank Slate in those days by making its high priests a laughing stock among intelligent laypeople. When I started reading Pinker’s “The Blank Slate,” I expected to find Ardrey and the rest vindicated as heroes. To my surprise, I found that, instead, Pinker had dismissed them in the following paragraph:

      “The Noble Savage, too, is a cherished doctrine among critics of the sciences of human nature. In Sociobiology, Wilson mentioned that tribal warfare was common in human prehistory. The against-sociobiologists declared that this had been “strongly rebutted both on the basis of historical and anthropological studies.” I looked up these “studies,” which were collected in Ashley Montagu’s Man and Aggression. In fact they were just hostile reviews of books by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the playwright Robert Ardrey, and the novelist William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies). Some of the criticisms were, to be sure, deserved: Ardrey and Lorenz believed in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of a hydraulic pressure and that evolution acted for the good of the species. But far stronger criticisms of Ardrey and Lorenz had been made by the sociobiologists themselves. (On the second page of ‘The Selfish Gene,’ for example, Dawkins wrote, ‘The trouble with these books is that the authors got it totally and utterly wrong.’)”

      When I checked the passage cited in “The Selfish Gene,” I was even more surprised to find that Dawkins never claimed that the authors in question were “totally and utterly wrong,” period. In fact, Dawkins showed a great deal of respect for Ardrey in the book. All Dawkins had written was that, at least in his opinion, they were “totally and utterly wrong” about group selection! Pinker never mentioned this rather salient fact. After all, the underlying theme of all Ardrey’s books was not group selection, but that human nature exists, and it is important.

      In reading the rest of the book, I found that Pinker had anointed E. O. Wilson, a member of his own academic tribe as opposed to the “mere playwright” Ardrey, as the “real” knight in shining armor who had slain the Blank Slate dragon. See, for example, pages 108-112 of the paperback version. In fact, nothing that Wilson wrote about human nature in “Sociobiology,” or “On Human Nature,” was more than an elaboration of what Ardrey, Lorenz, and the rest had written long before. The Blank Slaters themselves spilled the beans in their response to the publication of “Sociobiology” in the “New York Review of Books” where they wrote,

      “From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.”

      Now for the kicker. In his last two books, E. O. Wilson himself has emerged as a full-fledged group selectionist! He must be “totally and utterly wrong” too! Pinker will have to anoint a new knight in shining armor.

      As for Ardrey’s and Lorenz’s belief “in archaic theories such as that aggression was like the discharge of hydraulic pressure,” it’s again prudent to check the footnotes. The work cited as the “authority” for this was entitled, “A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior,” and it appeared in “The Quarterly Review of Biology” back in 1953. Obviously, it couldn’t have been directed at Ardrey, as he was still a “mere playwright” at the time. The author, one Prof. Daniel Lehrman, was a Blank Slater of the first water, who didn’t even believe that geese had instincts. If you don’t believe me, by all means, read the paper. It’s online. It gets worse. Lorenz never had a “hydraulic theory.” He often did use a hydraulic model to illustrate the kinds of behaviors he saw in his experiments with animals. It was, in fact, an accurate model, as anyone who takes the trouble to raise the geese or fish described in Lorenz experiments can observe for themselves. Lorenz never described it as any more than that. However, Lehrman claimed that, because Lorenz used the model to illustrate his experiments so often, it must really be a theory! In other words, he put words in Lorenz mouth. The “theory” was a pure invention of Lehrman! Lorenz never claimed that anything like his simple hydraulic model was what actually happened in the brains of his animal subjects.

      In short, in reading Pinker’s work, it may be prudent to actually check the footnotes occasionally.

  58. Chris says

    Can I be the first to defend milo yiannopoulos here. It looks like Pinker has read (tho it’s not in the bibliography) this Medium article.. https://medium.com/@TXHart/milo-yiannopoulos-is-an-atomic-battering-ram-1a73128006eb ..which pairs MY with Richard spencer as polar opposite users of Nietzsche: RS just running with the Left’s own usage, MY turning it against them. I’m not sure this distinction comes across in Pinker’s re-use. It just reads like a bit more guilt by association. Maxima culpa.

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  61. All the fuss about slavery ignores the fact that it goes back thousands of years. In ‘Christendom’ it took the form of bound tenants. The basic cause was that all goods and services depended on human labour, and the only way anyone got rich was getting more labour (eg, Greek and Roman civilisations). What really got rid of slavery was the industrial revolution, where the work of many could be done by machines. Sure it also resulted in many working in terrible conditions, but it was steam and tractors that made workers able to produce goods. Later servants were not so necessary due to washing machines and vaccume cleaners. These are what makes possible what we call the the Middle Class. The problem now arises as to what to do with the portion of the population that was capable of doing washing or hoeing under supervision, but not much else.

    It is no accident that it was British warships that enforced the new morality – they were ahead in the industrial revolution, and at the forefront of those who no longer needed slaves to get rich.

  62. Paul Bigioni says

    Pinker’s reliance on GDP per capita as a measure of progress, combined with his indifference to income inequality make his work less scholarship and more advocacy for the status quo.

  63. For a counter-intuitive critique of Pinker’s argument in ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’
    – one that closely (and radically) examines the nature of ‘the feud’ and ‘vengeance’ in non-State societies, destabilising the notion of ‘social control’ as a universalised social imperative (see Christopher Boehm), as well as challenging the analyses of thinkers such as Douglas Fry and R. Brian Ferguson
    – see “The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,” by Peter Harrison.

  64. Dr. Pinker: please name at least ONE source to support your claim that Nietzsche was adored by the Bolsheviks. At least one!

  65. Charlie says

    Enlightenment is bringing the light of reason, a sense of proportion, of self control into the darkness of superstition and uncontrolled base desires.

    At the fall of the Roman Empire until 1000 AD war bands ravaged Europe, does anyone think modern day life is worse ? There is little knowledge of what happened in Europe from about 410 to 700 AD because civilisation almost died out; forests regrew, roads disappeared, Christianity and with it literacy died out in places.Attila and the the Huns slaughtered and enslaved anything in their path. Before Christianity , Saxon and Scandinavian Gods were worshipped as ultimate warriors. To obtain entry to Valhalla one had to kill the enemy. Weak and cowardly men had no use in warrior societies. The Vikings were successful because they were stronger, taller, heavier and more violent than any other race and slaughtered their way across Europe. I do not think many modern day men have the will and ability to fight the Vikings or Mongols. The Mongols under Genghis Khan killed 40 million and there are some cities in Central Asia which never recovered. Timu the Lame, the Tarta killed 17 million plus. The invasion of the Sea Peoples in about 1200 BC destroyed many Bronze Age civilisations in the near east.

    Ever since Sumer evolved in about 3600 BC, history records barbarian peoples invading and slaughtering effete civilisations. This why to civilised peoples, barbarian and foreigner are synonymous.

    Diseases such a bubonic plague in the 540 and 1340 AD killed up to half the population of the various civilisations it touched.

    For much of history, until the 1800 AD there was the continuous problem of hunger which combined with manual work, meant most people died by the age of 40 years.

    Most medieval cities were full of filth and disease as were those where massive expansion occurred in the 19th century- read factory inspectors report on Bradford of1850.

    The problem Pinker faces is that most people have an inadequate knowledge of history. It used to be the case that an educated person, pre WW2 and especially pre WW1 had a broad knowledge of history; they understood Greece , Rome, the collapse of Rome, The Dark Ages, the Vikings, the rise of Europe post 1000 AD, the Crusades, The Renaissance , the Baroque, the replacement of the Baroque by Classicism and the architecture of Palladio( influenced by Greece and Rome). What is being ignored is that Greek was not taught in Medieval Europe. Greek comes back with the Renaissance and the Fall of Constantinople. In England Colet founds St Paul’s School and re-introduces Greek. What creates The Enlightenment are the re-introduction of Greek ideas- curiosity about the World, self control, proportion( physical, mental ,emotional) logic, rationality, mathematics, development of complicated machinery from clocks to mills, measurement and the start replace superstition with rational argument. The Enlightenment founders are Palladio and Newton. Wealthy Britons went on the Grand Tour and become obsessed by the Classical World which encourage the study of Greek.

    In the last one to two hundred years, we have become so successful in Western society in freeing people from hunger, insanitary conditions, over crowding, damp housing, hard dangerous work in unpleasant conditions, large families, dirt and squalor. There are affluent people who have never known poverty, war , dirt or disease not in their lifetime, or their parents, grandparents , great grandparents or even great great grandparents. It is quite possible for those who made money in the 1870s to have enabled their descendants to have avoided poverty and war ever since. In WW1 and 2 many middle white collar types, especially if graduates and not very fit worked as bureaucrats and avoided combat.

  66. Mark A. Plus says

    The white Colonial and early American men who owned slaves had no trouble attracting white women who wanted to marry them and bear their children. You wouldn’t find an incel among them, even the relatively unattractive ones.

    Why? Because it took a badass to keep Negroes in subjection and make them productive on his farm. The slave owners had that “bad boy” thing going for them which many white women find irresistible.

  67. Mark A. Plus says

    The modern, pseudo-scientific emphasis on “education” as the great social leveler traces back to the writings of a specific figure in the Enlightenment named Claude Adrien Helvétius, probably the most important bad philosopher you haven’t heard of:


    Of course this nonsense came out generations before IQ testing and experience showed us the innate nature of children’s intelligence, and especially the difference in intelligence between races. Schooling can’t turn dumb kids into smart kids.

  68. Mark A. Plus says

    Ultimately Pinker’s thesis fails for the reason John Gray articulates: “Social progress” can’t happen because man’s nature doesn’t mysteriously change in the Current Year. You can’t just arbitrarily reshape it like clay to conform to the arbitrary and ever-changing requirements of political correctness.

    The white nationalists, by contrast, come closer to accepting the traditional understanding of the tragedy of the human condition, and they want to create an alternative humanism which rejects our elites’ childish utopianism and operates within reasonable limits. Think of white nationalists as pro-white humanists, in that they want to sustain a feasible goal where white people can flourish securely in their own countries while leaving other peoples to deal with their own problems..

  69. Jezza says

    There is an element in the “Progress of Civilization” which is consistently overlooked, and that is the quality of the tools any particular group had access to and the accumulated knowledge of how to use them. For instance, Vikings had magnificent seaworthy vessels (tools of transport) that must have had hundreds of years of development before they reached their peak, with accumulated knowledge of how to build and why things were done in a certain way passed from generation to generation. Who invented the plumb line? Who figured out how to mark out a perfect 90 degree angle with a piece of knotted rope? Who invented the shovel? The adze? Who were the people five thousand years ago on Barra, north of Scotland, who built a stone wall so smooth it looks as if it has been plastered? What tools did they use with what knowledge? These are very interesting questions. Never mind the history of kings and priests and warriors, the backbone of civilization resides in the trades men and women, people who know how to get things done. The rise of the smart machine has fractured the passage of essential knowledge from this generation to the next. All we have now is lawyers and button pushers. It will be the death of us.

    • Very good to mention these simple instruments , Jezza, they are an often forgotten (and not much appreciated) part of technology. I was googling the adze, and saw it was the small hoe I know from East Africa, I even have one myself, in a box in the attic somewhere, it was an instrument there for the women, with which they cultivated their crops and spent maybe as much as 75% of their time in those maize and bean fields, very useful and indispensable indeed, thus.

      • The adze, I just realise now and here, is the only right instrument to hoe where plants are sown haphazardly, and not in rows, as proposed in the classic On Horse Hoeing. Reason: the blade is light and rather narrow, you can easily work around the isolated plants, or plant clusters, of maize or beans. Other types of adze are used in traditional ship building and other types of construction, my knowledge is with that hoeing, thanks for throwing it up here, Jezza.

  70. Bill Matthis says

    Quillette is one of the strangest places on the internet. A good proportion of the articles are high calibre, thought-provoking and heterodox… but the comments! Good lord, the comments! They might as well come from the John Birch Society’s Youtube channel for kids. And they couldn’t be more orthodox — orthodox Trumpism, orthodox American libertarianism or orthodox get-off-my-lawn revanchsim, take your pick.

    Editors, I think you’re publishing some good stuff, but you’re really failing at heterodoxy when it comes to the readers you attract. As a leftist who strongly opposes identity politics, I was hoping you would provide a sort of common ground for all of us –left or right– who believe in free speech, due process, the presumption of innocence, the abhorrent nature of mob justice and witchhunts, and the forced imposition of ideologies, whatever they may be.

    Not sure how you can achieve this, but I hope you try harder.

    • augustine says


      The seeming contradiction you reference in your comment– high calibre output, coupled with right wing commentary– is not a contradiction at all.

      How good can the article content be good (by your standards) if it attracts this sort of dark matter? Perhaps you are out of step with any perspective that questions or attacks the dogma of the current culture. Any place that is a haven for dissenting views just might sound too strong for you because it is an oasis that often rejects the precepts of modern liberalism altogether. Are you uncomfortable that anyone should push back on liberalism at all? Do you eschew all values in the right side of the spectrum?

      Each of us has a different lens to see things through but I can’t recall any serious comments on Quillette advocating against “free speech, due process, the presumption of innocence” or cheering on “the abhorrent nature of mob justice and witchhunts, and the forced imposition of ideologies”. Maybe that’s you trolling. The “orthodoxy” you decry has provided voluminous and consistent argumentation that supports reasoning in exactly the opposite direction.

      You claim to oppose identity politics but in the same breath you have created a (false) conservative identity of commenters here. Maybe you have not read widely enough because the diversity of quality and viewpoints is unevenly scattered on this site. There is redundancy to be sure, and a toxic spill here and there, but I find most commentary on Quillette to be thoughtful and issued in good faith. I hope you try harder.

      • Bill Matthis says

        Thanks for your response. I think it indicates that I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough. You say:

        > “Perhaps you are out of step with any perspective that questions or attacks the dogma of the current culture. Any place that is a haven for dissenting views just might sound too strong for you because it is an oasis that often rejects the precepts of modern liberalism altogether.”

        Not in the least. Let me explain. I consider identity politics and third-wave feminism (which are what I take you to mean by “the current culture”) to be toxic, as well as a threat to free speech and thought. And their cult-like dynamics frankly terrify me. I suspect most of us here feel similarly.

        But I also abhor these ideologies because I believe they distract the left from what I consider to be vastly more important issues, such as labor rights (for example, I would ban “at-will employment”, which is a vulgar euphemism for arbitrary firing), the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics (which I believe should be illegal), rampant economic inequality (which I would partially address through high redistributive taxes, in order to create a national health system and free university education), and so on. As I said earlier, I am a leftist.

        I suspect these views are exceedingly rare here, just as my views on the “current culture” are increasingly marginalized on the left. But that’s what heterodoxy is all about.

        My hope here is that ALL OF US who oppose identity politics, the culture of victimization, pubic lynching of those who utter non-PC thoughts, and so on can come together on these points and hopefully find a way to change the course of society in these areas, even as we disagree profoundly on a thousand other issues.

        What I see, though, is mostly orthodoxy — for example, opposition to racial identity politics not out of any sort of philosophy or principle (be it leftist or rightist), which we could all potentially share, but out of utterly orthodox and thoroughly puerile racism, which I, at least, cannot and do not share. The following comment is an example of what I’m talking about:

        > “The white Colonial and early American men who owned slaves had no trouble attracting white women who wanted to marry them and bear their children. You wouldn’t find an incel among them, even the relatively unattractive ones. Why? Because it took a badass to keep Negroes in subjection and make them productive on his farm.”

        Such ideas, and the people who espouse them, are thoroughly incompatible with the fight against the “current culture”. Having them associated with this fight will doom it to failure before it even gets started. They will galvanize people who are 90% in agreement with this fight to oppose it.

        And I see this pattern repeated here and elsewhere in relation to other issues, e.g. people who rally against third-wave feminism not because they oppose victimhood culture or the cult of privilege, but because they’re simply misogynists, and hope to find a bit of respectability and legitimacy by couching their feelings in something more intellectual, which they may not even understand, or care about.

        In short, rather than heterodoxy, or anything even remotely intellectual, much of what I see here, on the idiotically named IDW, and in similar venues is bog-standard emotional bigotry masquerading as freethought. And there’s no future in that.

        • Charle says

          Bill you are concerned about employment, then the most important aspect is technology. An example is that a well English or welsh archer could earn 2d to 6d a day when the average labourer earned 1d . The development of muskets, which could fire a ball which could penetrate armour and did not require 11 years to train someone to use them, ended well paid employment for archers. The development of railways replaced canals and steam ships, sailing vessels; all which created unemployment for some and employment for others.

          The internet is creating massive unemployment for shop and bank workers. It is the freedom of thought and action which is part of The Enlightenment which enabled the Industrial Revolution to occur. Once Newton Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica , he is defining the mathematical principals of Creation and his work leads directly to unemployed shop workers.

          Bill how does one protect workers when technology is evolving at such a rate ? Labour rights are useless when no labour is needed.

    • But BiIl, why think that Quillette opposes identity politics? The hard centrefold of Q. wants to “epater”, not the bourgeois, but the Left, SJW, climate change conscious and the cultural (and any other type of) Marxists (but, maybe, in the meantime, this grouping has become the bourgeois now), a really clear type of identity I would think it is. Please read and paraphrase better.

      • Bill Matthis says

        “But BiIl, why think that Quillette opposes identity politics?” “(but, maybe, in the meantime, this grouping has become the bourgeois now), a really clear type of identity I would think it is”

        I don’t think you understand what identity politics is. You conflate it with having an identity here.

        • -Having an identity-, a good one, because, when young, it was, for me and many others, not really an issue yet, we were the young, and the global people, but now it is an issue, and now,identity means identity policy, I fear. Did you read augustine? I agree with him, nobody eschewes on the abhorrence of witchhunts , but, where labor rights and inequality is your main concern, I can understand your uncomfortable feelings. But, somewhere, I think I understand what you mean by masquerading free thought, yes, might be, but, common grounds and such, what you are after, I fear, does not exist, though, it would be great, of course (and I was brought up with that ideal, yes, surely).

  71. Paul Hawkins says

    Professor Pinker, there is a world of difference between Brian Leiter”s essay on Nietzsche, which sees two Nietzsches, and your comments, which only see one. Assuming both sides are equally important, while you may getting Nietzsche 50% right, you are also getting him 50% wrong.

    • Paul Hawkins says

      Just to add: in other respects, I am a huge admirer of your work, and of course I have never felt that my admiration demands that I assent to everything you say. Similarly, as someone who admires both you and the Enlightenment on the one hand, but also many Romanticist/counter-Enlightenment figures on the other, I have never fully understood the need in you to demonize Romanticism/the counter-Enlightenment as completely as you seem to, and it’s struck me for a while (probably since *How the mind works*) as a bit of s blindspot in you. The counter-Enlightenment was born with or soon after the Enlightenment because “something had been left out” of the Enlightenment worldview (to quote Alfred North Whitehead discussing Wordsworth), and the Counter-Enlightenment is bound to return until we integrate this “shadow-side” within our sense of what the Enlightenment is all about. Nietzsche, Jung, and others you scorn were trying to do this in different ways. I am no expert in Nietzsche either, but I had received the impression from different commmentators that he was far more the prophet who *predicted* the rise of 20th-century totalitarianism rather than being in any way its cause..

      • Charlie says

        Paul Hawkins. There were interesting changes from the mid 19th century onwards. Neo Gothic architecture replaces the classicism first introduced by Palladio. In Germany, Wagner’s opera return to pagan, pre- Christian themes and hence removes Christian charity from discourse. Wagner has anti-semitic views. Prussian Militarism which comes to dominate Germany from 1870 diminishes the concepts of compassion and charity from public discourse. By introducing German pagan themes into the arts such as Wotan and Valhalla one is introducing the cult of the warrior who is judged by the number of enemies killed in battle. Large numbers of artists create images based on German pagan gods from the 1850s onwards. Bismarck’s ” Blood and Iron ” re-introduces the importance of blood ties between people which had been fading away with the Enlightenment

        Finally, the battle for Berlin in April 1945 has Gotterdammerung overtones.

        I would suggest the Enlightenment introduces the ideas of the light of reason, a sense of proportion, balance and perspective physical, mental and emotional into discourse. The reduction of Enlightenment values re-introduces the idea that all that matters is power. Darwin’s ideas are misused by the Prussians and communists to reduce human life to a struggle, that in effect we are part of Nature which is red in tooth and claw.

        • Paul Hawkins says

          Thanks for your comment, Charlie. I think what I’m suggesting is that the Enlightenment creates the Counter-Enlightenment by trying to suppress the “savage” parts of human nature; but also, I’d go on to say that not all expressions of the Counter-Enlightenment deserve to be demonized as Pinker does demonize them: the poetry of Blake and Wordsworth (and the artistic examples you mention) are as much a part of the Counter-Enlightenment as romantic militarism and nationalism, and we don’t need to say that there’s a slippery slope from the “daffodils” poem to the gulag or the concentration camp. That there is such a slippery slope seems to be the implication of Pinker’s take on the Counter-E in *The Better Angels* and *Enlght. Now*. I have a feeling you & I are agreeing with each other—am I reading you correctly?

          • Charlie says

            Yes but Pinker like Peterson appear to have an inadequate grasp of history. One needs to have a knowledge of all the countries not just one. My view is that there ebbs and flows in history and one needs to look at details and the over view. Different countries react in different ways. In Britain, The massive increase in the ” Satanic Mills ” , the of massive furnaces producing coke, iron, steel and railway engines creates a backlash. In the UK this is the poetry of Blake and Wordsworth, Victorian Gothic as opposed to Georgian classicism, Pre Raphaelite paintings and Art and Craft Movement of Morris. In The UK social reform across all parties is based upon Christian ethics; many of the Labour Party are preachers and Sunday School Teachers . Until the 1960s the Labour Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism.

            Intellectually Darwin undermines Christianity and German Theologians question the Bible. in fact recent scholarship demonstrates many Bible stories have historical basis. Darwin comes to be used to justify communism and Nazism- nature is red in blood and claw and only the strong survive.

            In Germany, Bismarck is desperate to unify the German speaking people and encourages Blood and Iron policy and there is massive increase in the history of pre Christian Germany combined with domination by Prussian Militarism . The Thule Society formed in 1918 but all sorts of spiritual/pagan groups develop in the mid 19th century onwards. Bismarck was in conflict with the RC over education and culture.

            In summary, The Enlightenment starts with Palladio and Newton where logic, order, balance, reason , proportion, perspective and geometry develop to shine light into the darkness, chaos and superstition of the feudal ages. The Enlightenment enables the start of agricultural and industrial revolutions which lead to society becoming dominantly urban and industrial , with many living in horrendous poverty and squalor. Marxism is an urban religion. In Britain intellectuals in the 1870s pine for the gloriously beauty of countryside of the 1820s and earlier which results in criticism of Enlightenment values which had created the Industrial Revolutions. In Germany there is Bismarck. In France there is the conflict between Catholic Conservatives and Marxist atheists and similar conflicts in Russia. In Italy, Garibaldi is heralded as a progressive , forming Italy in opposition to feudal aristocracy and RC Church.

            Is the misuse of Darwin to undermine Christian compassion and Charity plus promote a false view of the World as a life and death struggle, where only the strongest and fittest survive the ideology which creates the post Enlightenment and mass slaughter of the 20th century?
            Lenin says the only morality is that which promotes communism so mass slaughter, torture and rape is acceptable. Communism and Nazism worship power, demand absolute obedience, are prepared to mass slaughter obedience mock any Christian values of charity and compassion.

            What is amusing is that those middle class types who support communism, Nazism Islamism tend to be puny, weak and cowardly men who actually need the shelter of a society based upon Christian compassion and Classical logic, reason and proportion, for their survival. The Huns, Mongols and Vikings were societies where only the warriors good at killing their enemies survived and prospered; do we really want to return to those times? The Enlightenment is the end of the Dark Ages and rejection of those ideas and Christianity meant instead of mass slaughter by the sword, arrow, spear and axe, we used railways to transport people to their death.

          • Paul Hawkins says

            Very informative post, Charlie. Of course, we never want to leave the Enlightenment behind—it is the voice of our “better angels,” to use Pinker’s terms—but we also need to preserve some part of the Counter-Enlightenment, because it voices and can help us understand the “demons” of our nature that won’t go away. What Nietzsche I have read has struck me as a profound psychological reflection on human nature, and the divisions of human nature. Nietzsche and anything he might have spawned—including the novels of Thomas Mann—Pinker just wants to write off as wrong-headed, and that evinces a dangerous blindness to the potential for Enlightenment values themselves to become corrupted, or for Enlightenment values—e.g., freedom, democracy—to be invoked as a smokescreen whenever the West does something horrific.

          • @Charlie: to mention the agricultural revolution in one breath here with the enlightenment, OK, I can understand that, if you think that reason and belief in chemistry and rational agriculture is the name of the game. However, the real green revolution started in the late middle ages, in Flandres and Brabant, with the invention (merely experience and tradition) of crop rotations with clover or other nitrogen binding crops after wheat or rye. This practice was the start of more and more people, on less and less area. And also the yield of many soldiers for the European wars (30 yr wars and many others). Not all what is worthwhile started with enlightenment, logic and reason. Nohow!

  72. Jyn Ranlom says

    @ JC:

    Was slavery a value that happened to be in ascendency during the enlightenment?

    Was slavery a value that was instrumental to the fabric of (the society of) the enlightenment?

    Was slavery a value that was fostered by “freethinking” (some are born to be slaves – some are not) that the enlightenment encouraged?

    Let’s for the sake of argument take the position that the 3rd proposition is actually true, which would also affirm the first two. We are talking about the internal thoughts of historical individuals, after all. So, likely #3 and the rest WERE true in materially significant numbers in 17 and 18 c America.

    Then what?

    Race(?) Ethnicity based hiring / capital outlays?


    The disclosure I would like to volunteer is that I am 51 y/o, White, Male. Nothing human is as simple as it seems. My father came to this country from eastern Europe in 1958. My mum’s side goes back much further here and was never any farther south than Boston. What if both sides came from Alabama. Would that change this discussion? What if I was a French citizen?

    I don’t know how you’d respond to those questions, I thought I should ask in service of the discussion.

    I could write pages on this (these) topics. But I’m not getting paid for this, so I choose to limit my time. I am not “already rich”.

    Existence in human form is a bitch in one way or another, no matter how you slice it. “Slavery” was a pillar of human civilization and smaller societies for millennia, as far as I can tell by casual but interested reading. For much of human history, as near as I can tell, it was much safer to be a servant – call it a slave depending on the circumstances – than to be an average, non-land or non-wealth holding man or woman trying to stay alive out in the woods or out on the plain. In many times in many places, you didn’t have a choice. If you were an unattached male, you’d be prospected until you joined the right gang or you’d be killed. If you were woman, the threat was being “stolen” or killed.

    Granted, the chattel slavery of the nascent USA was not the indentured servitude that functioned on varying degrees of reciprocity. It was lubricated by a fundamental inhumanity. My words.

    So we’re back to proposition #3. Now What?

    That was then. This is now. Believe me, I have historical events in my life that stick to me like a ton a lead. And then there are the things I did of my own volition out of rage and despair, that have taken quite some to neutralize, if indeed I’ve come to that point yet. I’m not dead yet, or severely handicapped. I still have volition that comes from as clear of wellspring as I can maintain. It’s part of the daily work. I have desires that I’ll probably never fulfill. And then I’ll die. How is my life different from yours in those respects?
    I don’t know if it is or isn’t, I’m just asking.

    • Charlie says

      Paul Hawkins. I agree with your views on Nietzsche. He appears to understand the savagery in the deepest and darkest depths of the human soul which the Enlightenment and Christianity had not expunged. Nietzsche appears to understand the fragility of civilisation. Nietzsche talks about resentment, in the French sense which is more bitter. Muggeridge says the Communist/Cheka had a grudge against civilisation and their fellow man.

      If one looks at the period of say 1870-1914, Britain in particular had been a hundred years without a major war. Many highly educated and affluent people like the Prime Minister Asquith lived a Shangrila existence. In the Strange Death of Liberal England, the Liberals and Labour supporters main concern is funding welfare and were utterly deluded in ignoring the fact that industrial warfare could occur.

      I think one needs to examine each western country. Prussian militarism was widely condemned in the UK. Nietzsche lives in country where Teutonic Paganism and Prussian Militarism are on the march and due to Darwin, Christianity and compassion is on the wane. It is almost as if Nietzsche had an epiphany how the Enlightenment is only a thin patina of civilisation overlying still existing primitive savage instincts which if combined with massive industrial might can cause slaughter and destruction. Dostoevsky appears to have had similar insights.

      My criticism of progressives is civilisation is only 10,000 years old at most and within the archaeological record there is evidence that humans have been cannibals. The Huns, Tartars and Mongols and then the Nazis and Communist in the 20th century have shown modern people are capable of mass slaughter. Therefore to weaken or undermine any traditions or religious belief which hold in check our savage emotions is very dangerous. What I find absurd is that most of the university educated progressives are people who have benefitted the most from Christianity and the Enlightenment. We no longer live in a warrior society. One only has to read about the Vikings sacking the abbeys and murdering or enslaving the monks to realise the quill is not mightier than the battle axe. Even in the middle ages, the only hope for those men who were not strong enough to labourers or knights and especially archers was to become priests or monks. What all progressives need to ask themselves ” If I strip away the conventions of Western Civilisation , how safe am I? Am I good at fighting ? The toughest people in the West today are mostly those in elite combat units and the Police who tend to be traditionalists and often devout Christians and these are the people the progressives needs if they are being attacked by those who do not have Enlightenment and Judeo Christian values .

  73. Chris Milburn says

    This is one of the most irrational, off-topic comment sections I’ve seen on Quillette.

    There are a number of things I strongly disagree with Dr. Pinker about (his interpretation of Nietzsche, I feel his choice of metrics doesn’t at all prove that the environmental situation is OK, or that human population growth is sustainable, or will peak soon). All that said, the man is brilliant, he’s open to new facts (I’ve heard him debate and watch him interact), and his book makes a lot of great points. It’s sad that people enjoy internet trolling so much, and are so happy to dismiss an entire work with a wave of their hand, and give hyperbolic, highly selected counterexamples rather than reasoned, well-supported counterarguments (because I think there are good ones in some cases)

    • But you can also see Marx at work, Chris, thesis (Pinker’s cherrypicked, but thoroughly worked out trends), antithesis (the counter arguments of commenters), synthesis (the followup and further working out of the opponents). Freedom for all.
      But I read not only the counterarguments you are talking of, many started even with an appraisal.

  74. Tersitus says

    The good doctor might have concluded that we should simply cultivate our gardens— one citation would have sufficed.

  75. Tersitus says

    The totalizing solution, Lorna? But tell me again— what is it? But maybe I just posted it.

  76. Tersitus says

    Thanks, JC, for reminding me just how compelling the idea of forcing men to be free can be. Don’t forget to breathe.

  77. Tersitus says

    And thanks, Mike, for lightening my day— some of us do, indeed, squeeze off virtue signals like toots— they permeate the air of polite discourse. Hang fire, y’all.

  78. Tersitus says

    How about a more down-to-earth, less inflated view of what the Enlightenment was about— something like, say, a bunch of mostly Western white guys challenging dogmatism and absolutism. Most of the rest is an ongoing cost-benefit analysis.

  79. I cant believe so many illiberal alt-right idiots read quillette. Ever wondered if u are reading the wrong website?

    • X. Citoyen says

      Would it better if they were reading Mein Kampf instead?

    • augustine says

      “I cant believe so many illiberal alt-right idiots read quillette.”

      But they don’t leave any comments, so how would you know?

  80. Tersitus says

    Thanks, X. I’d prefer Shirer’s Rise and Fall myself.

  81. Tersitus says

    And would somebody please circumscribe the terms “illiberal” and “alt-right” for me (I can manage “idiot” on my own) so I’ll know when I’ve crossed that line in the shifting sand.

  82. Tersitus says

    The scratchings of the Baggini (Derridean “eperons” — spurs) smirk of a lurking snark. Careful, Anastasia, for the dark is light and full of shadows. Tread rightly.

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  84. Aaron says

    My understanding of Pinker is that he’s on a fundamentally conservative mission, by which I mean he wants to discourage modern progressives from attacking and undermining institutions that, though imperfect, he credits with having delivered “radical” progress from an historical point of view. My main criticism: it may be that the incremental change he celebrates was made possible by radical threats to the status quo. Here’s the irony: history suggests that incrementalists like Pinker may need the radical reformers he obviously distrusts.

  85. All what Pinker says, Aaron, is: it’s not as bad as you think, or are made to believe by the press and the SJW, and I think, it’s high time that somebody says so, and explains, and comes forth with his data. Even where I believe that he exaggerates, and cherry picks. Whereever the cart goes to one side, somebody must guide it to the other.

    • Aaron says

      Dirk: It’s quite possible he offers a needed corrective to conventional wisdom. You may be right. I’m just not sure we have the tools to access whether what we need as a society – what would constitute progress in retrospect – is a nudge in this or that direction. From my reading of his work, he’s very much an incrementalist, in the sense of believing that reason and knowledge are responsible for the progress we have made over the last century, and that incremental progress, driven by the steady accumulation of reason and knowledge, is the best we can hope for in the future. I agree, in principle. I just think his view of history / causation is a touch naive. It’s a bit like arguing that MLK would have secured civil rights legislation without the background of much more radical black thinkers / activists, or that we would have adopted so many “socialist”, pro-worker policies at the turn of the century without radical pro-labor activists. I guess what animated my first comment is this: when historians look back on the progress of the 21st century (or lack thereof), what kinds of ideas and social movements will they credit with making the decisive contribution?

  86. About those radical threats to the status quo you argue for as decisive, Aaron, have a look at the picture chosen by Q. to illustrate the article: the orator is the poet and activist Schiller, revolutionary, fighting for freedom and equality, against the nobility of the time (a fugitive of the German duke he worked for), and preaching for soulmates like Goethe (standing with hand in chest) and Herder, at the left. The picture is from Theobald von Oer. All romanticists, so, having more affinity with feelings, blood, soil and identity than with reason, and, in my view, not such a good illustration of Pinker’s crusade for reason. But, maybe, more an illustration for the philosophy you are leaning at. For some reason, the picture was chosen to increment the idea of enlightenment (but, romanticism was not completely alien to the enlightenment, of course).

    • augustine says

      I think Aaron’s first comment makes a good point about what is “necessary” for a certain kind of progress. It brings to mind protagonist-antagonist, liberal-conservative, and your own feelings-reason example. Whatever side one is on, or no side at all, it is good to reflect on occasion that these polarities are ultimately interdependent and not necessarily adversarial.

  87. Interdependent, and not adversarial. I agree, augustine, but don’t tell this to Pinker, he won’t agree. Because, he quite clearly also likes polarity, with his unifocal admiration of enlightment. The nice thing here is, the enlightment was French, not German, but the illustration here above, chosen by Q., is somewhere in Germany, all the persons there are famous romanticists (read my comment above), so, not only ratio and logic, also soil and tradition, identity, humanism (nobody is going to tell me what I think, or what I do, Schiller). E.g., empathy is not the result of the invention of printing press (as Pinker thinks), but also of innate feelings, the Noble Savage, as Rousseau thinks it is. Who’s right? Nobody, and everybody, that’s how I see it.

    • augustine says

      Yes, dirk, yet somehow such insights always are fleeting, and before long we are on to the next thing that brings concern or fear (the next Quillette piece maybe?). An ancient heritage certainly. I was thinking today also that so many things we usually cast in a negative light have been absolutely necessary for survival and for the development of great things. But the basis of fear-based ideas, combat, conflict, etc., does not wash away easily, even amidst generations awash in safety and prosperity. How could any force effect our seemingly progressive evolution unless it were ultimately tied to our deepest fears? There is something in this of actual value and probably “immortality” or transhumanism would only exacerbate these dynamics. At the same time, it is not so difficult to see how the transcendent is more than a passing interest for our species.

      • May I comfort you with this, augustine, the Ode an die Freude, from the orator in the painting above, the poet and revolutionary activist Schiller, who’s Ode was chosen by Beethoven for his Ninth, and the European Union for their international hymn (and by Quillette, and, maybe even, by Pinker himself??). God still inspires humanity, just hear:

        Freude, schoner Gotterfunken..
        Himmlische, dein Heiligtum..
        Brueder, uber’m Sternenzelt
        Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen

        The last sentence was changed by him into: Ueber Sternen muss er wohnen, the identitarian, familiar touch reduced, why?

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  89. Joseph Smithe says

    Much respect to Pinker for his book and to Quillette for hosting his article (and for the rest of the site’s quality work too).

    I see that that Pinker’s caricature of Donald Trump has already been discussed (A dangerously impulsive maniac/fool that happened to make a billion+ dollars in a highly complex industry in one of the most unionized and regulated places in the western world? Not very likely.), but would also invite him to be a bit more careful in his language regarding the “alt-right”. The left-MSM and elements in academia have used this classification as a bludgeon to attack and dismiss/censor anyone not in line with their views, including people such as the left-leaning feminist Christina Hoff-Summers, the gay Jewish libertarian youtuber Dave Rubin, and many others far from the left, centre, and centre-right of the political spectrum. This would also include Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay Jew married to a black man who made no secret of his sexual proclivities for black men, and is hated by the self-described Alt-Right at this point in time.

    If by “Alt-Right” you mean the tiny fringe of people lead by Richard Spenser (who calls himself a white nationalist, not a white supremacist BTW), then you are excluding the vast majority of the RIght, including a range of Trump supporters who briefly used this term in the lead-up to the 2016 election. If you are using the term to smear Donald Trump and those who support(ed) him, you are misleading people and degrading the conversation (or at least this small part of it). As a more accurate alternative to the terms Alt-Right and Neoconservatives, perhaps “dissident right” would work.

    Should Pinker or anyone else here wish to cure themselves of their TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome), I suggest the work of Scott Adams (https://blog.dilbert.com/, youtube, or twitter) or Stefan Molyneux (http://www.untruthaboutdonaldtrump.com/, youtube, twitter).

  90. Jim Danielson says

    “…we’re told it’s ab out guns and not about a failing culture lead by socialism schools that seek equity of outcome and opportunity without regard to effort and ability.”

    Perhaps you can tell me what other country IN THE WORLD (besides the USA) regularly has toddlers shooting people? What other first world country has anywhere close to the number of school shootings and spree shooting as the USA?
    According to you it’s your strawman assertion of “socialism schools” (what ever that’s supposed to be), school systems similar to what every other first world country has. They have them without the mass shootings. Are they using easily available knives in the USA to shoot people or easily available firearms? (The answer is in the question, if you look hard enough)

    Just how biased and intellectually blind can a human being be?

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  92. KarenElliot says

    Just a small remark: Of course the enlightenment created the idea of “scientific racism”. That’s on the one hand because enlightenment was central to the development of science and especially its application to the question of human nature and society itself. Racism _had_ to become scientific and replace the earlier unreflected intuitive idea of racism. But the more important point is that practices like slavery and exploitation now actually had to be justified by elaborate concepts like scientific racism. And of course it made sense in the context of knowledge at that time. Blaming enlightenment for posing these questions at all implies that humanity should simply accept a certain set of attitudes and values that are unquestionably good, true and eternal, and that will magically create the best outcome for all of mankind. (Where’s postmodernism when you really need it?)

  93. Well written article, as you could expect from a Harvard Linguist. His quantitative analysis should make us all put into perspective the societal or international issues we deem to be most pressing. Additionally, he is right to say Trump and Brexit represent anti-Enlightenment sentiments, but the only part my much less educated self would take issue with is his dismissal of the irrational people.

    As he himself said in EN, people are not inherently rational. We are all prone to impulse, to an availability heuristic, to negativity bias, so why not make an effort to persuade everyone? The data and facts are amazing but as anyone who has dealt with a conspiracy theorist will tell you: it doesn’t change minds.

    The Jonathan Haidt approach seems to be a good one, although we often know (or think we know) the opposing party is wrong, it is important to listen and understand their reasoning as there may be some truth to it and it helps you to be more effective at persuading others if you know their motivations.

    Enlightenment Now is an amazing book and if anyone hasn’t bought it, they definitely should.

  94. As an old man now, I can tell everybody, listening doesn’t help, useless, even not in personal relations, it’s the convictions that count, and convictions are there not because of logic and reasoning. Nevertheless, in short, enlightenment yes or no, now or later, does not help either, I fear. I live a comfortable life, with a lot of completely different and crazy and otherminded people around me, but also, am happy not to be threatened by them, and that,I realise very well, is not so everywhere in the world.

  95. David Kinsberg says

    Thank your Dr. Pinker for being one of the few select people to dare to criticize Nietzsche for what he really was: an elitist asshole whose writings are devoid of true meaning (the only other critic of Nietzsche I ever came across was Bertrand Russell).

    I can see why the Right – or any asshole who thinks he should be on top – loves him. He’s an elitist, he’s an aristocrat. He despised the weak. But why the Left loves him too remained a mystery to me until recently.

    Nieztsche is an aristocrat, but the hierarchy he dreams of is one where your position is decided by your innate characteristics. The thing is, these characteristics weren’t based on race, gender, class, etc… in other words, they weren’t based on any of the axis of inequalities the Left cares about. Nieztsche attacked Spencer because he thought anarcho-capitalism (what Spencer basicaly was) would lead to degeneracy rather than improvement of the human race. Nieztsche attacked Stirner because he thought the weak does not have a right to be selfish. Nietzsche attacked his rivals on the Right more often than he attacked the Left, that’s why they love him. Yes, Nietzsche wasn’t a Nazi or a Fascist, yet it isn’t surprising given the nature of his writings that they appropriated him. There’s still a genuine “aristocratic core” in his writings.

    The rest of his writings is just vague and incoherent rambling. And please, don’t tell me to put this into context, to read 3 times all of his books – and all those he’s referring to. A work of philosophy, like a work of science, should stand on its own and be comprehensible by an informed reader (the level of information necessary can vary), and not require convoluted interpretations to be understandable.

    The left-wing worshipping of Nietzsche doesn’t suprise me anymore, it’s just the Left being hypocritical as usual, but seeing that much Quillette readers rush to his defense is more surprising.

  96. 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: https://naimisha_forest.silvrback.com/my-folks-sell-me-and-yo-folks-buy-me

    • Did you come across the Ashanti kings, having white slaves, Naimisha? I think, Elsbeth Huxley in her travelbooks on West Africa described it, the kings did not keep them to work the fields, but just to discuss with them, and share tea and dialogue.

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