By Steven Pinker. New York: Viking/Penguin 2018
A grabby title may sell a book, but it is the subtitle that describes its contents. Stephen Pinker—psychologist, cognitive scientist, megadata analyst, professor at Harvard—published The Better Angels of Our Nature in 2011 with the subtitle, Why Violence has Declined. This surprising good news, about violence lessening across the board, from strapping children to war between states, ran against much of the conventional wisdom of our times. I argued in my review in this magazine (see the Oct.-Dec. 2012 issue) that Pinker had compiled a truly amazing amount of data, bound to warm the heart of the social scientist, and that he was mostly convincing, though he had perhaps downplayed the possibility of catastrophe from nuclear war or climate change, and that to me, as a political economist, he seemed too sanguine about the costs of contemporary globalization.
That was volume one, as it were, of his encyclopedia. Now we have volume two, on the creation and ongoing presence of the Enlightenment, from circa 1700 till today, and on the four primary elements that make up that presence: reason, science, humanism, and progress. This quartet, he maintains, have got us to the mostly good times of today. Reviewers have labeled Pinker an optimist—one says “strident optimist.” His glass is half full, in fact overflowing.
The message is that if the Enlightenment, which has done so much for our lives, is to persist, and if we are to continue to flourish along with it, then we must be vigilant in our commitment to these four ideals. This takes on special importance with the coronation of Donald Trump as the despot supreme who is so clearly the enemy of what Pinker and most of us treasure.
What is really at issue, however, is whether we buy the perspective from which Pinker writes. Ask him why things happen the way they do, his answer is “human nature,” and he has the authority of cognitive psychology linked with neuroscience, which gives us evolutionary psychology, to call upon. It’s a potent paradigm, having pushed even economics aside. Adam Smith famously wrote: “The propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another is common to all men” though it seems to this economist that this Pinker-like statement flies in the face of what economic historians—and anthropologists—tell us.
“Human nature made me do it.” An alternative explanation of what we do and do not do is not human nature but what we might call social nature—the nature, the structure, of society. In our own case, to be blunt about it, the uni versal characteristic of the age of Enlightenment is capitalism and its evolving nature.
Here’s the headline: What happens is explicable as either human nature or the nature of capitalism. Take your choice.
There was a striking example of this dilemma this past summer in a dust-up between the New York Times writer Nathaniel Rich and Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. The Times’ Sunday Magazine of August 5 was solely devoted to the issue of climate change, titled “Losing Earth.” Serious attempts to deal with it fell apart in the late 1980s, a matter on which there is general agreement. According to Rich, the fault lies within ourselves as human beings: we are wired to “obsess over the present, worry about the medium-term and cast the long-term out of our minds.”
Klein angrily rejects this point of view (The Intercept). The late ’80s was the very zenith of neoliberalism, she argues—the contemporary manifestation of capitalism—the worst possible time to deal with the highly charged issue of climate change. It was capitalism triumphant that caused the derailment.
It’s the clout of the capitalists in dealing with the state and getting their way. It’s the making of us into consumers as our wants are turned into needs so there’s no such thing as too much; into workers, fearful that if we talk too much about costs like carbon emissions, jobs will be lost; into true believers in progress, anticipating the technological solution that’s bound to happen in time to save us.
No need to panic. As Pinker puts it: “The key idea is that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge.” That’s a one-sentence summary of a world in thrall to conventional wisdom.
Pinker himself was not part of the debate between the Times and Klein (on behalf of the climate justice movement), but there is no doubt where he stands: “The ideas of the Enlightenment are products of human reason, but they always struggle with other strands of human nature: loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, the blaming of misfortune on evildoers.” That assumption about human nature is the central tenet of cognitive science as defined by Pinker. What is missing is the political: power and protest.
I do agree with Pinker’s point that our brains could not possibly have evolved at a pace equal to that of technology itself. Modern technology, the application of science by capital, is at the core of the Enlightenment. But what does it say about the Enlightenment that it unleashed a rate of technological change beyond our handling? Is that possibly a description of where we are today? Can Pinker’s relentless reasoning and unfailing optimism get us safely out of that technology trap?
Reviewed by Mel Watkins, emeritus professor of political economy, U of Toronto