LONDON — Steven Pinker can’t help but offend a few people every time he publishes a new book.
This might be partly because in a world seemingly full of negativity and perpetual anxiety, the best selling popular science author and evolutionary psychologist is a rare specimen — an eternal optimist.
“I don’t like to call myself an optimist, but a possibilist,” the 64 year old clarifies from his home in Boston, Massachusetts. “I believe it is possible to deal with global challenges — that solutions exist, that we can find better ones, and implement the ones that we will [soon] discover.”
Pinker has recently published “Enlightenment Now: A Manifesto for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress,” a bulky tome attempting to rehash and make relevant today the ideals of the 18th century intellectual Enlightenment movement.
“The Enlightenment encompasses four themes,” Pinker says. “Reason, humanism, science, and progress.
“The main idea is that we acquire knowledge about the way the world works — including ourselves — to develop a science of human nature and improve human welfare, which is defined as health, happiness, long life, knowledge, the pursuit of beauty and social connection,” he says.
But Pinker’s unmitigated optimism might not be the only reason he rubs some people the wrong way. There’s also his tone. Patronizing, it stems from his heavily opinionated pop-science-narrative-style.
This is predominantly directed towards those who do not conform to Pinker’s science-centric Western worldview — which has an obsession for data when proving an argument.
For some, this pull-no-punches approach may come across as fair game: simply stating facts without succumbing to political correctness. For others, however, it might feel downright offensive.
But if Pinker has a number of enemies in the public sphere, it’s not due to how he acts in person.
In conversation, the author is extremely polite, patient, and courteous — if somewhat serious and a little too formal to build a friendly rapport with.
His prose, though, are a different animal entirely.
Pinker spends a great deal of his latest tome lambasting those critics who disagreed with his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which claimed there has never been a safer time to be alive. Violence, the book says, yielded fewer benefits in the second decade of the 21st century than at any other time in human history.
But Pinker’s current book declares that intellectuals “hate progress.” They are are not only profoundly anti-science, but elitist too, he says.
And it isn’t just journalists, literary critics, and existential philosophers who Pinker has presently pitted himself against. The author has also found another group who have just cause to be collectively offended by him: Muslims.
On ‘illiberal’ Islam
To say Pinker firmly puts the boot into the Islamic world in his latest book would be putting it mildly. Pinker writes that Muslim countries “appear to be sitting out the progress enjoyed by the rest [of the world].” Muslim majority countries, meanwhile, score poorly on measures of health, education, freedom, happiness, and democracy too, says Pinker.
The list goes on. “All major wars that took place in 2016 happened in Muslim majority countries or by Islamist groups,” Pinker’s book says, while human rights are “abysmal in many Muslim-majority countries.”
Islam itself, Pinker says, predicts an “extra dose of patriarchal and other illiberal values across countries and individuals.”
Much of this resistance in the Islamic world to progress can be attributed solely to religious belief, Pinker claims. The Enlightenment, as Pinker’s book points out, provided an intellectual and civic public space in the West for church and state to firmly separate. Muslim countries, conversely, have began tying church and state closer together in recent years, says Pinker.
But calling out these anti-humanistic features of contemporary Islam is no way “Islamophobic” or “civilization-clashing,” says the popular science author, who cannot understand why some Muslims might be offended at him denigrating their entire cultural and moral belief system.
“Muslims should not be any more offended than Christians are offended when some of the repressive practices of Christianity are targeted for reform,” says Pinker. “A couple of hundred years ago, Christians burned heretics and tortured Jews into converting. If you were criticizing those practices you were not being racist, you were being a humanist.”
Pinker is adamant that his criticism of Islamic doctrine has nothing to do with with racial and biological differences, but merely points out a cultural difference he disagrees with.
“Islam is not a race [or] an ethnicity,” Pinker adds. “Religions are just ideas, and don’t have rights. So they can be criticized.”
The American alt-right — who are obsessed with racial differences, classifications and hierarchies — recently attempted to portray him as championing their xenophobic and racist views.
The portrayal came after he spoke at a panel discussion put on by the politically radical Spiked magazine at Harvard in November 2017.
“Yes that was a doctored film clip in which I offered reasons to combat the alt-right,” Pinker explains. “So a selected editing was portrayed as a defense of the alt-right. But my book is actually a 500 page refutation of the alt-right.”
How Pinker’s mind works
One of the word’s leading authorities on language and the mind, Pinker presently holds the position as the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. In 2013 Pinker was voted as number three in the world’s top 10 thinkers by a public opinion poll in the British magazine Prospect.
Pinker’s previous books include “How the Mind Works,” “The Language Instinct,” and “The Blank Slate.”
Using Darwinian natural selection as a launching point, these books look at topics like the unique origins of language in humans, as well as the evolution of our reasoning abilities as a species.
Pinker’s intellectual public sparring matches usually occur with those who refuse to use data in their arguments to back up their claims.
Postmodernists are one group who are guilty of this crime, Pinker believes, especially in how they have attempted to explain and rationalize the Holocaust by connecting it to the Enlightenment and scientific values.
Here, Pinker points to the late French critical theorist Michel Foucault, who once argued that the Holocaust was the inevitable culmination of “bio politics” that began with the Enlightenment.
Similarly, the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman — who died earlier this year — blamed the Holocaust on a central Enlightenment ideal: to remake society and to conform to an overall scientifically conceived plan.
Pinker says such claims not only let Nazis off the hook from their genocidal crimes, but represent lousy history, too. The idea that Nazi racial theory — used as justification to annihilate millions of Jews in the Holocaust — originated from the ideals of right wing scientists is just factually incorrect, Pinker stresses.
Pinker admits that eugenics was indeed advocated by many scientists, including the British Victorian polymath Francis Galton, who invented the term. However, Pinker is keen to stress the eugenics movement — before it was hijacked by the Nazis and then subsequently disowned by the rest of the world — was also embraced by a variety of progressive writers, humanists, and political figures in the early 20th century. These included Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and Theodor Roosevelt.
“Contrary to popular belief, [eugenics] was a reactionary movement that was part of the progressive movement. So it was a left wing, not a right wing belief,” Pinker says. “It’s a cautionary tale. That hubristic program for radical reform, particularly if it involves concentrating power in the state, can lead to pernicious consequences.”
“Eugenics had a surprising amount of support among progressive intellectuals until it was discredited by the Nazis,” says Pinker. “What the Nazis practiced was sometimes called negative eugenics — that is, the mass murder of the ‘unfit.’ As opposed to Galton’s idea of positive eugenics, which was encouraging the talented to have more children.”
Pinker has his own personal stake in a subject that attempts to explore tragic Jewish history with sound analysis and reasoning. He was, after all, born into a Jewish family in Montreal.
As subtle plug for Spinoza
The home he grew up in was one where “argument, debate, knowledge, and disputation were highly valued,” Pinker says.
Pinker claims his Jewish roots gave him a “Jewish sense of humor, which in turn, allowed him to think deeply — at a distance and often in abstraction — about human nature and the human condition itself.”
Pinker has a particular interest in Jewish culture and history, he explains, especially in how it has shaped and influenced the modern intellectual world.
He says that following the Haskalah — the Jewish Enlightenment of 18th century central and Eastern Europe — Jews have become a “cosmopolitan people, and thrived in every society they have found themselves in.” This happened precisely, says Pinker, “because the Jewish Enlightenment pushed back against tribalism and insularity.”
Pinker regards the Dutch Sephardi philosopher Baruch Spinoza as one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the modern age.
“Here I have to mention my other half, Rebecca Goldstein, who is the author of ‘Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity,’” Pinker says, cracking a rare smile.
“Rebecca identifies Spinoza as the source of ideas that would later blossom into the ideas of the Enlightenment,” Pinker continues. “This included the application of reason to all questions; skepticism to religious orthodoxy and dogma; the movement of ethics and politics; and universal interest in human reason too.”
“These are themes that we tend to take for granted now,” Pinker says, “but that originated in Spinoza’s thought and writing.”
In one chapter in his book that discusses existential threats to the globe — and what we might possibly do to mitigate them — Pinker travels back into the history of Jewish thought and ideals to explore and develop his argument a little further.
He says there has always been a seduction in apocalyptic thinking in Jewish culture.
“This goes all the way back to the Hebrew prophets, who mixed their scolding their contemporaries of moral failings, with predictions of doom,” Pinker says.
Concluding the conversation, Pinker turns to the future. Namely, the quest for human immortality. Presently, in Silicon Valley, a culture of tech-utopianism is all the rage and where transhumanism is a dominant meme.
In such a world, it is hoped, human life can go on indefinitely. The movement is being led by figures such as Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Pinker, however, believes the laws of science will put a halt to such science fiction-like fantasies.
“There are a number of scientific reasons that militate against the quest for [human] immortality,” says Pinker.
The first of these is the evolution of senescence, which Pinker explains in detail.
“So whenever evolution was faced with a trade off between building a young vigorous body that might wear out and a slightly less vigorous body that would last a long time, it would opt for the former, because of the asymmetry of time,” Pinker says.
“Every single one of our genes has been selected under that inherent asymmetry,” he adds.
Another reason immortality is almost impossible is due to the second law of thermodynamics, as Pinker points out. “It conspires against immortality by degrading the cellular machinery that fight off degradation,” he says.
“So while it’s unwise to say nothing could ever happen,” Pinker concludes, “the odds are steeply stacked against human immortality.”