The case for reason, science, humanism and progress, by Steven Pinker
Book Review by Roger Titcombe.
Steven Pinker is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University.
I am a fan of Pinker and as well this, his latest book, I possess copies of, The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. I agree with his arguments in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that human society is massively less violent now than in the past. Although he is not an educationist, Pinker has greatly influenced my thinking that led to my book, Learning Matters, and the articles on my website.
This does not mean that I agree with him about everything.
However, the cover blurb, which states that, Steven Pinker is one of the world’s most influential writers on the human condition, is undoubtedly true. He writes on the most profound, complex and frequently counter intuitive issues of science and society and does so with outstanding clarity, precision, enthusiasm and conviction, the latter always backed up by data and evidence. The range and depth of his scholarship is astounding. This is indicated by the chapter titles of Enlightenment Now.
Part I: Enlightenment
Dare to understand
Entro, Evo, Info (Entropy, Evolution, Information)
Part II: Progress
Quality of life
The future of progress
Part III: Reason, Science and Humanism
Pinker believes that ‘enlightenment values’, when allied with reason, science and humanism have brought us both ‘capitalism’ and ‘democracy’, which, so long as ‘the enlightenment spirit’ continues to prevail, will result in continuing and limitless human progress, as he states in the concluding chapter of his book.
We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to human flourishing. And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity – to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.
Wow! Pinker has lot to persuade us of, so how does he do it? The answer is with factual data, reason and argument. The book contains 75 charts all of which have ‘y’ axes that measure and set out a vast range of positive or negative attributes or conditions of humanity, plotted against timelines from the (sometimes distant) past almost up to the present.
His conclusion is universally optimistic: everything is better now than it was in the past and there is no limit to how good it can become in the future.
I don’t fully share his optimism about this, but more of this later. For now, I will just point to a few of what for me are some highlights of the book, the quotes from which are in italics.
On the Law of Entropy
Here Pinker recognises the principle of entropy as the ultimate Law of Nature in that, unlike all others, it has universal application. Newton’s Laws of Motion, from which the concept of energy is derived, undergo a profound rethink at their boundaries with Einstein’s relativity. Entropy is not only needed to fully understand the nature and behaviour of energy, it applies to everything; from the ‘Big Bang’ to the end of time; from steam engines to black holes, on all scales from the smallest, precisely described by the quantum theory, to Einstein’s General Relativity, which gives new interpretations to the concepts of gravitation, space and time. The quantum theory and relativity are equally precise and proven within their own scales of application, but so far remain unreconciled with each other.
Perhaps surprisingly for a non-physicist, social scientist, cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author, Pinker’s exposition of the entropy principle is the best I have so far read. Pinker especially addresses the entropy of living as well as non-living systems, including its relevance to evolution and the new science of information. This includes territory where many physicists, chemists and biologists have frequently feared to tread with confidence. ‘Enlightenment Now’ is worth reading for this short chapter alone. Here is a taste.
[The] insight of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was deepened by the discovery of entropy. Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for want of a horseshoe nail.
This is what I obsess about, so I am interested in Pinker’s take on it, especially given that, as far as I am aware, he fails to mention the giants of experimental cognitive psychology, including Piaget or Vygotsky in any of his books. However despite this, as a professional educator himself, he clearly understands their conclusions on what effective education is, and is not about.
Any curriculum will be ineffective if it consists of a lecturer yammering in front of a blackboard, or a textbook that students highlight with a yellow marker. People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems.
Pinker is also well versed in ‘The Flynn Effect’, but he needs to read James Flynn’s latest book if he is to straighten out his thinking on inherited and acquired intelligence.
As recognised and discussed in ‘Learning Matters’, Pinker notes that, The Flynn effect is now petering out in some of the countries in which it has been going on the longest, but this has nothing to with ‘Stein’s Law’, as he asserts. The real reason is the degrading of effective learning in US and UK schools through the take-over of our national education systems by extreme ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism.
The subjugation of evidence driven education through the ideological pursuit of ‘pure’ capitalism, has a direct parallel with the subjugation of evidence-driven agrarian science in Stalin’s USSR through the ideological pursuit of a crude interpretation of communism by an ignorant despot. It is putting evidence-light ideology, that Pinker correctly condemns, before the enlightenment principles of reason and experiment. Pinker readily recognises flawed ideology when it is associated with communism, but seems blind to its emergence as a powerful sectarian capitalist development. The degradation of schooling has been recognised and described in the US by educational blogger Nancy Bailey.
With regard to the ‘Flynn effect’, the importance of which Pinker recognises, he is wrong in his assertion that ‘inherited intelligence’ is different in kind from ‘acquired intelligence’. This error is refuted in both theory and practice by the ‘growth mindset‘ movement in the US and the UK.
On Donald Trump
Pinker does not hold back his concern for the damage that has been, and can in future be done by this powerful enemy of the enlightenment values of reason, science and humanism.
Nothing captures the tribalistic and backward-looking spirit of populism more than Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.
Trump has demonized immigrants and trade partners while ignoring the major disrupter of lower-middle-class jobs, technological change. He has also opposed the measures that most successfully mitigate its harms, namely progressive taxation and social spending.
Trump believes that environmental regulation is economically destructive; worst of all he has called climate change a hoax and announced a withdrawal from the historic Paris agreement.
While Trump has cultivated a reputation for law and order, he is viscerally uninterested in evidence-based policy that would distinguish effective crime-prevention measures from useless tough talk.
The ideal of knowledge – that one’s opinions should be based on justified true beliefs – has been mocked by Trump’s repetition of ludicrous conspiracy theories.
Most frighteningly, Trump has pushed back against the norms that have protected the world against the possible existential threat of nuclear war. He questioned the taboo on using nuclear weapons, tweeted about resuming a nuclear arms race, mused about encouraging the proliferation of weapons to additional countries, sought to overturn the agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and taunted Kim Jong-un about a possible nuclear exchange with North Korea.
These are just a few examples from Pinker’s selection of alarming ‘Trumpisms’, but despite their threat, he remains optimistic that in the longer term even Trump will be unable to undo a quarter of a millennium of post-enlightenment progress.
Let us hope that he is right.
There are some areas where I would suggest a challenge to Pinker.
The neural network model of conceptualisation and consciousness
A momentous discovery of twentieth century neuroscience is that networks of neurons not only can preserve information but can transform it in ways that allow us to explain how brains can be intelligent.
Neural network connectivity has applications in ‘artificial intelligence’, but it is a very long way from explaining human intelligence. I am with the experimental cognitive psychologists in taking the view that human intelligence is not rooted in a ‘hardware’ of neural networks that can physically and rapidly change their configurations and connections to simultaneously map and facilitate long and short term memory while supporting the understanding of high level concepts like entropy, let alone explaining the ongoing mystery of consciousness itself. Why aren’t ‘Google’ and ‘Yahoo’ conscious entities? They certainly have many more orders of magnitude of ‘bit’-processing power than neuron-connected human brains.
Neither is the development of cognition to higher levels, as described by Piaget, compatible with smooth and systematic growth of neural connections. Cognitive development is bumpy and punctuated by flashes of insight. It is hard to believe that the neural configuration of the brain of Archimedes just after his Eureka moment in relation to the Law of Flotation, was any different after his bath-time flash of inspiration from how it was before.
If the number and complexity of neural networks and their connective configurations really did directly map higher order cognitive function in humans, then there would be no doubt about the intellectual superiority of men compared to women, given their much larger brains and therefore greater number of neurons (16 percent more). This is neither evidenced in male and female IQ test scores nor regarded as a serious proposition.
It seems clear to me that the mysteries that underpin the power and developmental potential of the human mind are more likely to be revealed through the experimental study of its mental software than its neural hardware.
Sustainability and limitless economic growth
Pinker is dismissive of ‘greenism’ and ‘sustainability’ and makes some strong arguments. He is right that, ‘The stone age did not end because of a shortage of stones’. However, the UK fishing industry was certainly decimated by a shortage of fish leading to EU ‘sustainable’ fishing quotas, which appear to have been effective in maintaining stable fishing industries in EU states. Pinker would argue that fish farming will fill any sustainability gap. However, fish waste and left over food spill out from farming nets into the ocean, causing nutrient pollution. This may lead to oxygen depletion in the water, which can stress or kill aquatic creatures. In addition, antibiotics or pesticides used on farmed fish can affect other marine life or human health. These nutrients and chemicals sink to the ocean floor, where they may impact its biodiversity. Fish crowded together in nets or pens are more susceptible to stress, which can foster disease and parasites that may then spread to wild species. Farmed fish sometimes escape into the ocean, breeding with wild species and affecting the population’s overall genetic diversity.
Pinker is right that there is still scope for huge increases in food production through the application of science to farming, especially in the developing world, and he speculates about ‘pivoting’ to limitless new scientific innovations that include, genetically modified organisms, hydroponics, aeroponics, urban vertical farms, robotic harvesting, meat cultured in vitro, artificial intelligence algorithms fed by GPS and biosensors, the recovery of energy and fertilizer from sewage, aquaculture with fish that eat tofu instead of other fish, and who knows what else – as long as people are allowed to indulge their ingenuity.
But there are environmental downsides to intensive agriculture and meat production, which Pinker tends to play down. He is a strong advocate of democracy, which he rightly sees as a prime ‘enlightenment virtue’, but can he be confident that ‘enlightened’ voters will share his future preferences in relation to limitless growth of production versus the conservation of our natural environment?
Pinker is no ‘climate change denier’ and clearly recognises the dire risks to our planet through anthropogenic global warming, but his solutions are the massive expansion of nuclear power and if necessary, geo-engineering (eg modifying the upper atmosphere of the entire planet to reflect sunlight) rather than limiting consumption and switching to renewable energy sources.
Is there a crisis of neo-liberal capitalism?
If there is Pinker does not mention or allude to it. There is little evidence in his book that he has fully considered the negative consequences of the ‘neo-liberal’ economic models that are increasingly challinging the ‘mixed economies’ that he applauds in his chapter on ‘happiness’, other than recognising that the US and the UK are seriously negative outliers in the general global pattern that GDP growth per capita = increased population happiness. (See fig 18 – 1)
I conclude with some recent pessimistic news stories from the UK that challenge the view that economic growth really can be limitless and that capitalism can be relied on to solve all our present and future problems.
Steven Pinker may be criticised, vilified even, by ideologues on the political left and the right, but whatever labels some may seek to pin onto him, this cannot detract from the scholarship and integrity of his thoughts. ‘De-platforming’ as a strategy of the closed minded is all too common and profoundly anti-enlightenment. This book will enrich our understanding and arm all of us that believe in honest debate and arguments based on evidence, for whom ‘Enlightenment Now’ is essential reading.