Enlightenment Now

by Steven Pinker, Allen Lane, 576pp, £25

Ironically, given its subject matter, this book contains very little in the way of reasoned argument. It is so bad that at times I found myself wondering whether Pinker might not be a double agent dispatched by the very counter-Enlightenment forces he decries in order to discredit us.

Yes, “us” – for I am very much on Pinker’s side. When I began reading this book, I was concerned that it might preach to the choir but accomplish little else. That would have been an improvement. Rather, this is the sort of sermon that makes the choir tip-toe out in mortification. The various nouns listed in the subtitle – Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress – are very good things. Alas, Pinker shows no evidence that he is equipped to comprehend the meaning of those words, let alone muster a defence of them in this dreadful and interminable book.

Pinker tells at least one story adequately: for millennia, the lot of mankind was one of grinding poverty, death in childbirth, children stunted by disease or malnutrition, and utter helplessness in the face of periodic floods, famines and pestilence. The interesting question, as Pinker rightly observes, is not why these conditions persist in certain places, but how it is that any people anywhere were able to escape them, for it is the natural condition of our world.

The answer could form the heart of the greatest heroic epic never written: a story of our species’ subjugation of nature, our conquest of disease, and our mounting triumph over a thousand and one forms of death. Rather than an epic, Pinker’s treatment of this topic resembles an overlong TED talk, with countless charts and graphs. Still, he gets the essential point across, and it is an important one.

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