The allure of Steven Pinker

Think Again is a podcast that is occasionally interesting and one I listen to once in a while. Recently, however, Steven Pinker was on. The host considered himself a “progressophobe,” and Pinker was able to show him the error of his ways:

I admit it. I confess. I’ve got a touch of what my guest today calls “progressophobia”. Ever since Charles Dickens got hold of me back in middle school, and William Blake after that, I’ve been a little suspicious of the Great Onward March of science and technology.


But you know what? After devouring all 453 pages and 75 graphs of psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now, I admit defeat. The defeat of defeatism.

I didn’t listen because I don’t like listening to people I think are bad talk to sycophants that won’t challenge them.

But it made me want to write about the insidious nature of Pinker and what he does with the heft of supposedly empirical and objective evidence for how wonderful things are – and how it’s all thanks to the Enlightenment and their Enlightened descendants who are slowly but surely bestowing the gifts of freedom, trinkets and technology to the unwashed masses.

I think the desire to justify his privilege sits at the root of what he does (I can be a shitty psychologist too). No one is truly objective, least of all someone who is in the business of justifying the system that has granted him a good life. He probably thinks himself a very fine person – that he has been so justly rewarded by society with money, fame, and prestige only confirms this. From his vantage point, safely insulated from the rabble who only exist as numbers to him, human life has never been better – why are all these Postmodernist/Cultural Marxists complaining?

With his credentials, he is the perfect shoeshine boy for benevolent neoliberal capitalism. His is a clarion call for complacency as the world burns. He proclaims to the affluent, affluent-adjacent, and affluence-aspiring that things are actually pretty great. Moreover, they are not part of the problem – “Rest easy! Your good life is deserved!” Others may struggle, but it’s not too big a deal because science is inexorably leading humanity toward truth, justice and freedom. Those lives, saddled with impediments from the cradle, can easily be reduced to numbers and transformed into statistics that show, I suppose, that their sheer quantity continues to incrementally get smaller and smaller (and some get to have smartphones!). The well-to-do can respond to their plight with a sad nod, but also keep in mind that better times surely await.

At this point in the post I have to admit that I had an epiphany and now, like the host of Think Again, I too am convinced by Pinker’s rosy outlook. I reread the previous paragraphs and am embarrassed of my groundless pessimism. As a recent acolyte I’d like to do my part. So I’m going to create a Kickstarter to purchase copies of Enlightenment Now to distribute to, let’s call them troubled areas. These people need to know that, while they are crushed under the weight of systemic socioeconomic oppressions, their children’s children’s children MIGHT have the opportunity to have lives that MIGHT enable flourishing. I hope Pinker’s book gives them solace while their social betters live generally safe lives in nice neighborhoods; get access to good education and lucrative occupations; eat readily available nutritious and unprocessed food; travel the world; and congratulate themselves on their beneficence.

But that’s not all! I’ll dump a truckload of books into the Salish Sea for the resident Orcas. Orcas are really fucking smart and, I dunno, maybe it will help them understand that we are doing our best – uh, despite the messy fact that we are the primary cause of their impending extirpation in the Pacific Northwest (this is due to subjecting them to noise pollution, poison, and literal bombings, as well as destroying their primary food source (salmon) via insatiable fisheries and natal stream-bank logging). They will likely be just a few of the casualties lost in the service of providing 10 billion people a middle-class lifestyle by 2050. But no worries – orcas and all other impacted non-human animals, after all, only exist for commodification or human edification. Should their viability become completely untenable in the wild, we can just stick them in zoos/aquaria as a haunting reminder that may cause some of us to feel a twinge of regret. Or, and this is exciting, if they go extinct we can develop the technology to clone them back to life in the distant future, when perhaps their habitat isn’t a denuded wasteland.

I have to say, I feel pretty good about the future!



  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    The idea of irresistible progress took root in the Victorian era but then underwent a harsh triple thrashing from World War I, the Depression, and World War II.

    Now we see (along with another Gilded Age like that of Victoria’s later reign) an attempt to put Progress back on its cracked pedestal. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – click “Like” to agree!

    ♫We’ll have pie in the sky when we die!♪

      • Pierce R. Butler says

        Voltaire published Candide in 1759, 79 years before Vickie’s coronation, so we can safely absolve him from acting under her influence.

        Dr. Pangloss represented a caricature of the more optimistic side of the “Enlightenment” posse, which makes him supremely relevant to Pinker’s present pontifications.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    Any observations about progress should be bracketed by loud explanations that, even if faint improvement for some are discernible, that’s only by comparison to how truly shitty things used to be. And as you point out, that doesn’t take into account our the new and exciting ways we’ve figured out recently to wipe out both ourselves and the rest of our ecosystem.

    Here’s how Tennyson put it in 1892:
    RED of the Dawn!
    Screams of a babe in the red-hot palms of a Moloch of Tyre,
    Man with his brotherless dinner on man in the tropical wood,
    Priests in the name of the Lord passing souls thro’ fire to the fire,
    Head-hunters and boats of Dahomey that float upon human blood!
    Red of the Dawn!
    Godless fury of peoples, and Christless frolic of kings,
    And the bolt of war dashing down upon cities and blazing farms,
    For Babylon was a child new-born, and Rome was a babe in arms,
    And London and Paris and all the rest are as yet but in leading-strings.
    Dawn not Day,
    While scandal is mouthing a bloodless name at her cannibal feast,
    And rake-ruin’d bodies and souls go down in a common wreck,
    And the press of a thousand cities is prized for it smells of the beast,
    Or easily violates Virgin Truth for a coin or a cheque.
    Dawn not Day!
    Is it Shame, so few should have climb’d from the dens in the level below,
    Men, with a heart and a soul, no slaves of a four-footed will?
    But if twenty million of summers are stored in the sunlight still,
    We are far from the noon of man, there is time for the race to grow.
    Red of the Dawn!
    Is it turning a fainter red? so be it, but when shall we lay
    The Ghost of the Brute that is walking and haunting us yet, and be free?
    In a hundred, a thousand winters? Ah, what will our children be,
    The men of a hundred thousand, a million summers away?