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book review

Steven Pinker.Rose Lincoln

It's been said that there's a Simpsons reference for everything. So why shouldn't there be one for Steven Pinker, the Canadian-American psychologist and pop-science author? Consider the episode in which our hero, Homer Simpson, recasts himself as an inventor. Among his ill-conceived doohickeys is the Everything's OK Alarm, a retrofitted smoke detector that makes an obnoxious shrieking sound every three seconds, "unless something isn't okay."

Pinker's latest, Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, reads like a long-form Everything's OK Alarm. Wealth distribution? It's fine. Terrorism? No big deal. The environment? Some challenges, sure, but we'll work them out. Quality of life? Democracy? Equality? Don't sweat it. Even the most apocalyptic-seeming dilemma is just a problem to be solved. Progress marches ever-onward, bringing light to the darkness, and order to chaos. For nearly 600 pages, Enlightenment Now sounds the siren that everything's okay.

Enlightenment Now is a lengthy riposte to what Pinker regards, a bit hysterically, as swelling counter-enlightenment sentiment. He writes a lot about the "Two Cultures," following British author C.P. Snow's diagnosis of the radical split between the hard sciences and the humanities. (As a cognitive psychologist, Pinker is himself a sort-of-scientist; one imagines him donning a lab coat to sneak to into Serious Science Parties to which he was otherwise uninvited.) As Pinker puts it, "the disdain for reason, science, humanism and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic culture." Later, he's even cattier: "Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves 'progressives' really hate progress."

It only makes sense that Pinker is eager to drum up the stakes with such spiky rhetoric. After all, the academic in-fighting between the hard science and the humanities has, to the average reader, about all the dramatic intrigue of watching two competing brands of paint dry. It's also – even as a reader who, admittedly, gets a bit exhausted about all the chest-puffing talk of progress and the Enlightenment, while nonetheless enjoying their fruits – fundamentally difficult to argue against Pinker's general thrust. Yes, on the whole, civilization has improved since the Dark Ages. Medicine is better, life expectancies are longer and democracy (of a sort) has flourished where once there was tyranny. We are undoubtedly much better off than we were hundreds of years ago, when we succumbed to plague en masse, or thousands of years ago, when we clubbed each other over the heads with femur bones and feasted upon the goo seeping from cracked skulls. Hooray, Enlightenment! But the nagging question remains: Are we better off enough?

Pinker's gripe is largely aesthetic. A prominent egghead who writes and composes himself with Spock-like coldness and clarity, he seems annoyed at the frenzy (and so, irrationality) of "editorialists," "climate justice warriors," "relativists," and the "politically correct" left. What Pinker never substantially considers is that such frenzy – whether deployed as a deliberate political tactic, or manifesting as the sputtering incoherence of the true believer – may help mobilize the spirit of change and progress; dams and ditches of passion that channel the turbulent tides of Enlightenment.

For example: Late in the book, Pinker launches into a lengthy broadside against German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a prominent figure of the so-called "Counter Enlightenment." Pinker wonders: "[I]f Nietzsche's ideas are repellant and incoherent, why do they have so many fans?" He then, a few paragraphs down, essentially answers his own question, when he begrudgingly admits that Nietzsche was "a lively stylist" whose work expressed "literary panache." This is precisely it. People like Nietzsche in large part because his writing, and his thought, is forceful and fully alive; because it is rousing and stirring even if it's faintly ridiculous. This is arguably the whole appeal of Romanticism: It inspired people. Of course, to Pinker, it inspired nothing short than the horrors of totalitarianism, citing Mussolini and Steve Bannon as Nietzsche admirers, and noting that Nietzschean thought served as a "key influence" on the work of German philosopher and Nazi Party affiliate Martin Heidegger.

An irony skilfully evaded by Pinker is that there are whole (coherent) systems of thought that make the same claims against the Enlightenment. Take Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which decried the notion of reason as some disinterested historical force, claiming that logic, rationality, scientific method and other gifts of the Enlightenment were often marshalled toward nefarious ends, under the guise of ambivalence and the lie of inevitability. Pinker would no doubt shoo away these claims, and the ensuing half-century's worth of similar arguments, as the work of second-culture, postmodern, mandarin, progress-haters. He does so at his – and, more importantly, his readers' – peril.

While many of the Enlightenment's fruits are juicy and succulent indeed, the governing ideology of progress, like all ideologies, demands sustained criticism. And maybe that's a way forward for the two warring solitudes of the humanities and the hard sciences: testing and clarifying each others ideas, their hostility driving toward accord. If Pinker and other contemporary Pollyanna-bros are resigned to place their faith in the forward-march of progress, then the duty falls to the more critically minded to question the character of that progress – to sound the alarm that, despite appearances and upward-trending graphs, maybe everything's not okay.