It might seem odd to jointly review Enlightenment Now and 12 Rules for Life, but I am struck by the parallels between the two. Both Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson are Canadian academics. Both are psychologists. Both have been tenured at Harvard (although Peterson later moved to the University of Toronto). Both books are best sellers (as I write this review, Pinker’s book is ranked number 4 on Amazon’s list of politics and social sciences titles, and Peterson’s book is Amazon’s number 3 best seller of 2018 across all categories). Both try to answer the same big questions about how to make the world a better place and how to escape “chaos.” Peterson’s volume is avowedly a “self-help” book, but (deep down) so is Pinker’s. Despite these commonalities, they approach their subject using significantly different assumptions and reach conclusions that are starkly incompatible in many ways.

Pinker’s central argument is that bleak assessments of the state of the world are “not just a little wrong”—in fact, they are “flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong” (p. xvii). Rather, we have already achieved a great deal of “enlightenment” and—if antienlightenment forces can be held at bay—are on course for unending future progress. Pinker makes this argument as a modern social scientist would—with copious data. As individuals and members of society, we are prone to faulty reasoning and pessimism. To counter this tendency, “the answer is to count” (p. 43, emphasis in the original). The book contains more than seventy figures quantifying trends in everything from life expectancy to inequality to oil spills to genocide deaths to hate crimes to literacy to leisure time to happiness. These figures are almost worth the price of the book. Pulling them together and simply demonstrating the gains that have been made over time all around the world in so many areas is Pinker’s primary achievement. I found more than a dozen charts that I intend to use in my Introduction to Economics and Natural Resource/Environmental Economics courses.

Most of the chapters in the “Progress” section of the book document trends that almost any reader will agree reflect genuine progress: rising life expectancy; falling levels of dementia; improved health; declining levels of undernourishment and famine deaths; reductions in global absolute poverty; improvements in environmental quality; massive declines in violence, war, and occupational accident deaths; the spread of democracy and literacy; increases in leisure time and self-reported happiness, for example. In many of these chapters, Pinker adds significant value to the mere numbers by fleshing out the story, drawing on an amazing breadth of sources (I estimate that he cites more than one thousand references) and knowledgeably explaining diverse topics from genetically modified crops to Gini coefficients to nuclear power to the Flynn effect.

An interesting chapter on “existential threats” facing mankind discusses the dangers of too many false alarms and makes the reasonable case that worries about artificial intelligence run amok are unrealistically oversimplified. It is followed by an optimistic panorama of “the future of progress,” which predicts a surge of technological breakthroughs that will make life even better and may accelerate increases in standards of living—liquid metals, carbon dioxide sequestration, composites, nanofiltration, C4 rice, cancer therapies, artificial intelligence tutors, and more—driven by a democratization of platforms for invention, the rise of technophilanthropists, and a million people from among the bottom billion who have genius-level IQs.

Throughout the book, Pinker generally takes the long-term view. One apt insight is that the short-termism of the media warps them toward negativism (he fittingly adds a graph showing that this media negativism has increased over time). Newspapers would be more accurate if they printed good news with headlines such as “NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years” (p. 89), but that might get old fast, even though standard statistics demonstrate that the claim is true. Classical liberals won’t be surprised that Pinker attributes this progress to markets rather than to redistribution: “A market economy is the best poverty-reduction program we know for an entire country” (p. 107). However, he later suggests that a free market is compatible with any amount of governmental social spending and then remarks that “a century ago, richer countries devoted one percent of their wealth to supporting children, the poor, and the aged; today they spend almost a quarter of it” (p. 322). This statement implicitly assumes that only money spent by government supports these groups—that spending by ordinary citizens directly on the young, poor, and aged (often themselves or their family members) doesn’t count. Ultimately, Pinker is not much of a free marketer. He instead aims to remake the United States in the image of Canada and Europe, claiming that “countries that combine free markets with more taxation, social spending, and regulation than the United States (such as Canada, New Zealand and Western Europe) turn out to . . . trounce the United States in every measure of human flourishing” (p. 365, emphasis added). Slightly higher numbers for a few measures apparently make for a “trouncing.”

Although the dozens of data series discussed in Enlightenment Now are valuable, Pinker has much grander plans. Unfortunately, this broader agenda makes the book an utter disappointment. His goal is to explain why we have made this progress—how we have overcome the chaos suggested by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The achievement, he argues, was due to Enlightenment ideas of the past—ideas that must be defended from today’s anti-Enlightenment forces on the right and left that might disrupt the march of progress. His goal is to convince the reader that his views on “reason,” “science,” “humanism” and “progress” are definitive and that those who oppose them are unenlightened.

Unfortunately, as Pinker pins his hopes for the future on reason, science, and humanism, he demonstrates an understanding of the “spiritual” that is limited to things such as education, peace, and democracy, and he vigorously attacks any ideals that go beyond the material. This criticism starts early with a statement that prayer is “quackery” (p. 62), continues with an implicit dismissal of religion as self-inflicted “immaturity” (p. 289), and culminates with a statement that “the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person . . . requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value” (p. 394). “Humanism” in his circumscribed view is defined as “good without God” (p. 410) because “few sophisticated people today profess a belief in heaven and hell” (p. 430). He then oddly suggests that part of what makes life worth living can be a sense of “gratitude for one’s existence, awe at the beauty and immensity of the universe, and humility before the frontiers of human understanding” (pp. 433–34). However, it is not clear to whom or what one would be grateful for this beauty and immensity. Rather, Pinker asserts that “the first step toward wisdom is the realization that” (pause here to think of your own answer) “the laws of the universe don’t care about you” (p. 434). That’s not exactly something to be grateful about. Fortunately, most people will conclude this sentence differently than Pinker, whose attitude often comes across as the antithesis of humility. Many readers from across the political spectrum will feel him smirking at those who disagree with him. Only a small percentage of readers will escape the book without being aggrieved by this attitude in some section or other—and many will rue the experience of agreeing to take a look at the world through Pinker’s eyes.

If Steven Pinker’s book were to be organized as a series of rules, they might go something like this:

RULE 1: Don’t listen to doomsayers and pessimists. They are almost always wrong.

RULE 2: Count. Use data. It will give you a clearer sense of things. You’ll see progress everywhere.

RULE 3: Don’t lie to yourself and others so that you’ll fit into your community— either on the left or on the right.

RULE 4: One big danger comes from the highbrow Left, especially those who disdain science, think it is oppressive, think it has destroyed the planet and all the good things in life, protest its intrusion into their hallowed areas of expertise, and teach science as “just another narrative or myth” (p. 34). These people will destroy progress. Don’t listen to them!

RULE 5: Another big danger comes from the Right, especially those who disdain science, “value souls above lives,” and believe “that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence” (p. 30, emphasis in the original). These people will destroy progress. Don’t listen to them!

Although Pinker claims to be an equal-opportunity critic of the Right and the Left, one gets the sense that he doesn’t understand those on the right at all or how they could be legitimately pessimistic about cultural developments over the past few decades. The graphs that Pinker omits from Enlightenment Now are telling. What would we see if he included figures on the trends in the worldwide number of abortions, the percentage of people with stable life-long marriages, the use of coarse language (try putting a few four-letter words into Google’s Ngram viewer), or acceptance and use of pornography, for example? He briefly mentions abortion, considering it “emancipative” (p. 224), so perhaps he simply dismisses deep concerns from the right as stupid, reactionary, or even patriarchal.

Speaking of rule makers and those who have been of accused of patriarchy, let’s turn to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. If you are a progressive, Peterson will alienate you, just as much as Pinker alienated me.

Peterson sees a darkness in the world that eludes Pinker. Rather than enumerating and trumpeting the successes that people around the world have achieved (and that should be celebrated), Peterson bluntly asserts, “Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth” (p. 161)—regardless of any material progress humanity has accomplished. It is suffering because Mother Nature is “hellbent on our destruction” (p. 14), and our personal lives are often a mess, wracked by self-destructive behaviors, selfishness, and the letting down of ourselves and other people. It is suffering because we cannot have everything we desire—because so much of what we desire is relative status and because women have a tendency to say “no” to men (however, he does point out that this proclivity, “more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained . . . creatures that we are” [p. 41]).

Unlike Pinker, Peterson deals with the personal rather than with the statistical and the aggregate. Instead of Pinker’s heaven-on-earth drive toward utopia, Peterson starts with the assumption that “every person is deeply flawed. Everyone falls short of the glory of God” (p. 62) and asks people to imagine how they can make themselves better, despite their self-evident flaws. His ultimate advice is to figure out how to take care of yourself so that you can shoulder some of the burden, “take the heroic path” (p. xxxiii), and rise to the goal of taking care of others for whom you have responsibility.

Although Peterson is a psychologist, he doesn’t come across as social scientist. He doesn’t count things. He draws extensively on biological research but also draws heavily on his experience as a practicing clinical psychologist. Years of clinical practice have taught him that psychotherapy can work only when it puts order into lives.

Drawing on biological research, he is especially emphatic about the inevitability of dominance hierarchies (shockingly explaining that when a dominant lobster is badly defeated, “its brain basically dissolves” before it grows a new subordinate brain “more appropriate to its new, lowly position” [p. 7]). This dominance hierarchy has been around for half a billion years: “We were struggling for position before we had skin, or hands, or lungs, or bones” (p. 14). “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society” (p. 15). Accordingly, Peterson’s first rule is “stand up straight with your shoulders back”—if you slump like a defeated lobster, you will be assigned lower status, allowing people to walk all over you and inviting attack. Stand up straight, assert yourself, and accept the terrible responsibility of life.

Peterson aims this advice primarily at men—because it is so crucial to them and because so many in our culture are afraid to offer such sensible advice. Similar rules are “treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,” “make friends with those who want the best for you,” “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today,” and “pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” (pp. 31, 67, 85, 161, all chapter titles). He argues that misguided bombast about patriarchy hasn’t elevated women; it has merely diminished men. Boys like and need competition, and they are underperforming largely because of our educational system and because “men are pushed too hard to feminize” (p. 330).

Would our society do better if we followed Peterson’s admonition that “a woman should look after her children—although that is not all she should do. And a man should look after a woman and children—although that is not all he should do. But a woman should not look after a man, because she must look after children, and a man should not be a child” (pp. 329–30)? (This advice has been called “patriarchal,” but “patriarchal” means “rule by fathers,” and Peterson’s advice is for fathers to serve rather than to rule. My mother and my schoolteachers, almost all of them women, taught this—and knew how to motivate boys to excel.) “If they are healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men”—men who “toughen up by pushing themselves, and by pushing each other” (p. 331). But today political correctness has made “whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men” (p. 302)—“disciplines as diverse as education, social work, art history, gender studies, literature, sociology and, increasingly, law actively treat men as oppressors” (p. 305).

Peterson is deeply conservative because he focuses on self-help. “Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. We have learned to live together and organize our complete society slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus, altering our way of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth . . . is likely to produce far more trouble than good” (pp. 118–19). Therefore, “fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility. . . . Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred”—and try to fix it (p. 198, emphasis added).

Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson are ultimately after the same thing—human flourishing. No one will dismiss Pinker’s arguments that this flourishing can be fostered by the right mix of reason, science, and care for humanity, but Peterson adds that personal responsibility is of the utmost importance and points to the poisonous effects of some cultural changes that many consider to be “progress.” Peterson concludes that achieving true human progress is much more difficult than Pinker envisions because the forces of chaos are much deeper and darker than Pinker can imagine.

Robert M. Whaples
Wake Forest University
Airport SecurityCulture and SocietyFamilyFreedomGender IssuesLaw and LibertyPhilosophy and Religion
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