By Luke Roberts
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism & Progress
Steven Pinker, Penguin, 2018
A Short Philosophy of Birds
Philippe J Dubois, Élise Rousseau, Penguin, 2019
A Philosophy of the Insect
Jean-Marc Drouin, trans. by Anne Trager, Columbia University Press, 2019
You would be forgiven for thinking that the world was ending as you read this. It does not take more than 10 minutes of television or scrolling through online news outlets to be reminded that the world is currently suffering a plague, imminent nuclear war, global poverty, and accelerating climate change. If you asked Steven Pinker, though, apparently we’re doing just fine. In his most recent book, Enlightenment Now, he offers a simple, optimistic response to the great majority of modernity’s challenges – from unhappiness to inequality to the environment – and one that purports to sweep all anxiety away. If anyone were to be drawn in by its statistical smoke and mirrors, it would serve only to delay and weaken responses to the dangers which are so immediate. The recent works of Drouin, Dubois and Rousseau offer a more suitable alternative, far removed from Pinker’s human-centric ‘rationalism’. Prompting us to learn from insects and birds, these works seek to restructure our relations with the world and with others. They may not be able to simplify complex problems in the way that Pinker does: instead, in the winged and the small, we find vessels for the deepening of our understanding of the world and our place within it.
Pinker’s paradigm encourages us to view the onslaught of global crises staring us down daily not as fundamentally different challenges from those that came before, but as part of a wider process of overcoming which is definitional of the course of human history. It is a proudly Whiggish view that identifies our current era as one like any other, and one wherein Enlightenment philosophy, characterised by Pinker by its pillars of reason, science, and humanism, is capable of continuing humanity’s relentless progression further away from pre-Enlightenment darkness. This view is evidently naïve in terms of both its understanding of history and its optimism regarding the future, but it deserves some credit. Pinker is clearly not wrong, for instance, when he claims that we no longer burn witches: human understanding has plainly made great gains in the last few centuries on that count. It is a trajectory which, at surface level, is both compelling and appealing, but what this optimism hides - behind its facade of neutrality - is a static ideology without either nuance or applicability. The ‘rationalism’ that Pinker espouses is not that of the Enlightenment, but rather an ideological, apologist rationalism. It is an instrument for explaining contemporary society independent of those who are engaged in it, whereby solutions are singular and objective, and progress an unquestionable process of universal betterment. By searching for alternative views on progress and problem-solving, the cracks in Pinker’s rose-tinted glasses become unavoidable and egregious, offering more value by virtue of being “not pessimistic” rather than being positively anything at all.
A Short Philosophy of Birds operates on a more personalised level than Pinker. Rather than dealing with humanity as a whole, with all its shared anxieties and angsts, it returns us to a more quotidian, individual perspective. Its 22 life lessons cover love, loss, and whether or not birds have an appreciation of art (which, apparently, they do). And while it is often hard to suppress a dreary cynicism—at one point a hen tells us ‘carpe diem’, like a New Year’s yogi spouting namaste—its innocence and optimism are welcome, and certainly worth suspending delusion for. In this sense it is a book to welcome in 2020: a nest of resolutions – personal, but not individualistic. Identifying the problems individuals face does not automatically make it a work of pessimism, despite what Pinker says about ‘progressophobic’ ‘prophets of doom’ who dare identify emergent issues, a phrase recently used by Trump to promote optimism among business leaders at Davos. It offers optimism of a different kind: optimism regarding what humans can be, not simply what they are. Dubois and Rousseau identify aspects of birds’ lives that we might learn from, on issues as wide-ranging as morality, relationships, and acceptance. Overcoming the human superiority complex may entail becoming a little more bird-ish, but it reveals a pragmatism embedded in lived experience, whether ornithological or anthropological, that is independent of historical precedent. One’s problems are always more real than those of someone buried a millennium prior.
Pinker’s inevitable progression appears entirely disconnected from and devoid of human life. For all his talk of humanism, he fails to discuss humanity in anything other than the abstract. Even when he touches on the level of the individual, in brief forays away from graphic generalisations, it remains quantified. We must accept that the average European is “better off” than probably all of their ancestors, but this does not necessitate an immediate rejection of postmaterialist concerns in the way that is suggested. Simply because what we are faced with may not bring about our demise does not detract from the fact that it has an influence on one’s life: acknowledging that you may be unhappy and yet not be starving is not to be ungrateful, it is an inescapable possibility of human reality. Very few people question the fact that great swathes of the world’s population live more comfortable lives than their forerunners, and from this it becomes necessary to ask with whom exactly Pinker is arguing. Nobody is really in opposition to progress conceptually, and those that appear to be are of such an insignificant minority that they are certainly not worth a book of well over 400 pages. The discarding of continental philosophers is based on a misreading of their core tenets that we will generously deem to be wilful; but when he enters extensive passages arguing against individuals that are calling for a wholesale return to the Dark Ages, he begins to come across more as an angry “Boomer” who has spent too much time on Twitter than a professor adding to a legitimate academic debate.
More interesting than Enlightenment Now is the search for whom Pinker appeals. The front cover heartily includes Bill Gates’ declaration that this is his ‘new favourite book of all time’ – a troubling thought, and one that reveals Pinker in the most honest light. Gates is, in fact, a financial supporter of the source of the data used by Pinker – Our World in Data, housed in the Oxford Martin School – which is already guided by the principle that ‘most of the long-run trends are positive and paint an optimistic view of our world’. It represents just one connection in a large network of self-congratulatory pseudo-intellectuals. This blind, flawed optimism serves to justify high levels of inequality: an apologist liberalism that excuses the existence of billionaires and those that are similarly disconnected from global lived experiences. Perhaps then the real value of Pinker’s philosophy is as a defence to the extremely wealthy and their practices.
Despite the high-profile endorsements, Enlightenment Now’s quantitative approach is fundamentally jeopardised. Despite Pinker’s claim that progress does not stand still, and that his approach does not wish to invoke a passivity in relation to the bettering of the human situation, the comparative measures used are entirely static and absolute. In the first case, this represents a failure to allow for the emergence of new problems; but more pressingly it involves a failure to look into the reality that these figures depict. A 100% increase in income for those in the lowest economic bracket would undoubtedly be an improvement, but is it enough if that raise is one from 25 cents to 50? This underlies a theme throughout: hidden beneath a blinding confidence, there is a reliance on highly selective data that, when explored, serves to seriously undermine his claims to reason and rationality. Pinker’s avoidance of these facts is nothing more than a sly attempt to bypass the simplest cognitive powers of his readers.
Escaping the limited realm of data, Drouin’s A Philosophy of the Insect provides a dense, detailed look at the role the insect has played in all walks of human history: creative, scientific, political, and social. It maps the study and interpretation of insects that has taken place for thousands of years, and places them in our own lives as those small creatures with which we share so much, both spatially and habitually. Their world, in which contact forces are of far greater influence than the gravity that determines ours, appears at once distant and familiar, as it is borne out in the projection of human values onto their lives. This uncanniness forces us to view nature through a ‘filter’ of human culture, from which we then discover the historical misuse of evidence with all its consequences. Socio-biology, when it has been extended to apply justification to human behaviour and reason, has allowed the label of “natural” to cloud more pressing human problems. Drouin’s offering indirectly demonstrates the possibility of diving deeper into the animal world to solve our own problems. In the abstract, this might be evidenced by the many ways that anthills and beehives have been used as proof of God’s existence, or for devising the ideal political society; but in more concrete and modern ways, the use of ‘ant colony algorithms’ in artificial intelligence demonstrates their continued usefulness. As Drouin’s work makes clear, we have always been keen pupils of the animal world, but it is now a matter of rekindling that curiosity and applying it to the abundance of modern problems that have not yet benefited from such an approach. The depth at which Drouin explores his subject is at times a little tiresome, and, as the most niche of the three books, it requires an interest in the minute, above and beyond any demands made by Dubois and Rousseau or Pinker. Once this has been overcome, however, its rejection of the human superiority complex is gratifying. It is unusual that in looking to those creatures we often do not even lend the privilege of feeling pain in order to protect both their existence and our own. As Drouin’s detailed study demonstrates, this is a process that is necessarily complex.
What the Pinker paradigm offers, in contrast, is a belief about the world that is compelling only in its simplicity; there is an unwillingness to appreciate either interrelationships or causal chains that extend beyond two steps. In the defence of those institutions that have supported and underwritten many of the gains of the last few hundred years, there is a refusal to acknowledge their shortcomings or the possibility that there may be alternatives. Again, nobody is firmly opposed to progress, but that need not prevent criticisms of its misappropriation. The most striking example of this is Pinker’s rejection of Said and Fanon, post-colonialist philosophers who dared question the institutionalisation of imperialist thought, and who are simply cast aside for their scepticism regarding “Western progress”. It is surprising just how far the fetishisation of science is taken, as it goes so far as to criticise the presence of ethical standards for ‘jeopardising the progress of science itself’. This is Pinker at his most ideological: still under the guise of scientific objectivity, but beginning to use an array of conservative buzzwords and arguments. He makes reference to an apparently rampant army of social justice warriors, as well as outlining his view of the irrational Muslim world, thereby dividing the world into a triad of the rational scientist, the public, and the anti-scientist – with the last always opposing the first to the detriment of the second.
To achieve Pinker’s simplicity, there is a systematic ignorance of complex social dynamics, especially that of manipulation and power. He bemoans the pessimism and distortion of the media yet fails to appreciate its ulterior motives embedded in a modern political system that encourages the pursuit of these agendas. Technology has opened up ever-increasing new avenues for manipulation, but the acknowledgement of this does not necessitate technophobia, only a concern with the misuse of those tools which have, and which can further have, the power to improve the lives of so many. This wilful disassociation of knowledge from power is such that, in the closing chapters of the book, Pinker foregoes the use of that empirical evidence in which he had previously placed so much stock, opting instead to take up position as a liberal evangelical. He proudly claims victory against intellectual zephyrs – shadows of his own casting – while ignoring the complexities of the social world. His attempts at justification become so weak as to be an insult to his readership.
The best to be said of Enlightenment Now is that it is well-intentioned, but in its fundamental ignorance it fails to appreciate that, in the constellation of global crises, not all are born equal. Of course, on the terms that Pinker sets out, things have improved and will continue to do so, but his terms are static, shaky, and they ignore the fact that, beneath the seeming absolutism of well-designed graphs, things might be going wrong on a more intricate level. In contrast, the more recent works by Drouin and Dubois and Rousseau provide ideas for how the terms on which we discuss and consider our approaches to existential problems might be changed in order to better reflect the realities of contemporary human existence. We must reject any demand for optimism that is depersonalised and detached from the vicissitudes of daily life, but the bees and the birds suggest a plenitude of ways of reaffirming an optimism oriented towards the individual. A bird in the hand is worth more than a bush full of Pinkers.
LUKE ROBERTS reads Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Corpus Christi. He firmly believes that Aalborg is the centre of the world.
Art by Isabella Lill