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, Pinkers book is ranked number 4 on Amazons list of
politics and social sciences titles, and Petersons book is Amazons 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. Petersons volume is
avowedly a self-help book, but (deep down) so is Pinkers. Despite these commonalities,
they approach their subject using significantly different assumptions and
reach conclusions that are starkly incompatible in many ways.
Pinkers central argument is that bleak assessments of the state of the world are
not just a little wrongin fact, they are flat-earth wrong, couldnt-be-more-wrong
(p. xvii). Rather, we have already achieved a great deal of enlightenment andif
antienlightenment forces can be held at bayare on course for unending future
progress. Pinker makes this argument as a modern social scientist wouldwith 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 Pinkers 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 livingliquid metals, carbon dioxide sequestration, composites, nanofiltration, C4
rice, cancer therapies, artificial intelligence tutors, and moredriven 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 wont 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 groupsthat spending by ordinary citizens directly
on the young, poor, and aged (often themselves or their family members) doesnt 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 progresshow we
have overcome the chaos suggested by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The
achievement, he argues, was due to Enlightenment ideas of the pastideas that must be
defended from todays 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 ones existence, awe at the beauty and immensity
of the universe, and humility before the frontiers of human understanding
(pp. 43334). 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
dont care about you (p. 434). Thats 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 otherand many will rue the experience of agreeing to take a look at
the world through Pinkers eyes.
If Steven Pinkers book were to be organized as a series of rules, they might go
something like this:
RULE 1: Dont listen to doomsayers and pessimists. They are almost always wrong.
RULE 2: Count. Use data. It will give you a clearer sense of things. Youll see progress
RULE 3: Dont lie to yourself and others so that youll 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. Dont 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 ones existence
(p. 30, emphasis in the original). These people will destroy progress. Dont listen
Although Pinker claims to be an equal-opportunity critic of the Right and the Left,
one gets the sense that he doesnt 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 Googles 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, lets
turn to Jordan Petersons 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. Thats
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 desirebecause 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 Pinkers 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
Although Peterson is a psychologist, he doesnt come across as social scientist. He
doesnt 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, Petersons
first rule is stand up straight with your shoulders backif 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
Peterson aims this advice primarily at menbecause 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
hasnt 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 Petersons admonition that a woman
should look after her childrenalthough that is not all she should do. And a man should
look after a woman and childrenalthough 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. 32930)? (This advice has been called patriarchal, but patriarchal
means rule by fathers, and Petersons advice is for fathers to serve rather than to rule.
My mother and my schoolteachers, almost all of them women, taught thisand knew
how to motivate boys to excel.) If they are healthy, women dont want boys. They
want menmen 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 persons
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. 11819). Therefore, fix what you can fix.
Dont be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility. . . . Become aware of your
own insufficiencyyour cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatredand try to
fix it (p. 198, emphasis added).
Steven Pinker and Jordan Peterson are ultimately after the same thinghuman
flourishing. No one will dismiss Pinkers 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.