Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Seven years after his The Better Angels of our Nature, the book in which he presented abundant statistics and reasons why violence has declined, Steven Pinker has published an even more ambitious tome defending the idea and ideals of Enlightenment. The controversy that arose from the ‘cautiously optimist’ view he presented in 2011 might have come as a surprise to the esteemed Harvard professor and has likely motivated him to double down on his claims in this new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress‘.

It is a delight to digest the statistics of progress (decline in crime, war, disease, poverty, slavery, racism) that Pinker presents and discusses in the second and strongest part of the book, although at times it seems that prof. Pinker has made the stats look prettier than a scientific worldview would allow. In that sense, the book is Enlightenment propaganda, and this has backfired as we can read in the many reviews on Goodreads and especially in this in-depth rebuttal by Jeremy Lent and this critique by Guardian columnist George Monbiot that focuses on the environment.

Every serious critic agrees with Pinker’s enlightenment worldview. Unfortunately, as these critics have pointed out, he might have succumbed to enlightenment zealotry, which might have led hem to defend the Enlightenment against a benighted strawman rather than against its own unforeseen and unwanted consequences. There are some occasions of cherry-picking and rather annoying ridicule of Marx, Nietzsche, environmentalism and the dangers of strong AI.

The Enlightenment cannot function without a healthy dose of skepticism. Monbiot writes: What looks like a relentless enhancement in human welfare could emerge instead as an interlude between one form of deprivation and the next. Another reviewer accuses Pinker of defending an ‘anodyne, mythical Enlightenment can give them what they crave, which is relief from painful doubt.’

The story he presents at places like the Economic Forum in Davos, the story that is bought by the likes of Bill Gates, is a heart-warming and hopeful one, to be sure. The idea that we humans have come so far can foster more solidarity as we go forward solving the remaining problems – and the new problems that will arise as an indirect result of the enlightenment, such as environmental degradation and rising inequality, which Pinker has attempted to defuse out of fear they could be used as an argument against enlightenment thinking. There is the irony of this book: By exaggerating and massaging the numbers on the enormous progress we have made he seems to obfuscate the most important property of an enlightened position: that of relentless self-criticism and the willingness to engage with opposing views, so long as they are reasoned.

This critical self-awareness has now come from his serious critics – a reminder that the Enlightenment is indeed not advanced by lone intellectual behemoths, but by the concerted efforts and dialogue of humble minds. It is Pinker’s merit that he uses data rather than ideological narrative, and his book is a fruitful starting point of a debate that eschews the ideological in favor of the factual. That doesn’t make the vitriol of either ideological camp disappear, but it forces both sides of the aisle to think more scientifically. A world in which both progressives and conservatives are equipped with better reasons is a better world;-

Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker was originally published on Meandering home


Review: Spent by Geoffrey Miller

Cover on Goodreads

Geoffrey Miller’s 2008 book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior about conspicuous consumption uses the relatively new science of evolutionary psychology to analyse modern humans’ consumerist behavior. The bottom line is that we engage in conspicuous consumption to show potential mates, like animals, that we have desirable traits. Through countless examples, some of which are funny, Miller shows that this signalling game has gotten out of hand and turned into plain stupidity. He details the six commonly recognized basic personality traits (Honesty-Humility, Emotionality, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience) and shows how advertisers appeal to a combination of them.
The narrative of the book is largely funny, but one can be put off by the cynical overtones.
In the final chapters, Miller presents some solutions to conspicuous consumption, for example a consumer tax on luxury items.

Review: Spent by Geoffrey Miller was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Cover on Goodreads

Being Wrong is a well-written account of our understanding of error. The author points out how central error is for all aspects of cultural proress. It is not an academic treatise, but still gives the history of thinking about scientific and religious truth a fair treatment, by mentioning for example St. Augustine’s fallor ergo sum, expressed an entire millennium before Descartes. It gives the beautiful definition of the French Larousse dictionary from the 1600s: Error is “a vagabondage of the imagination, of the mind that is not subject to any rule.”
The book references the idea of household philosophy names like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, but its real strength and appeal are the many well-researched anecdotes. Being deceived by our senses is illustrated by the story of captain Ross and the phenomenon of a superior mirage; there is the story of the Millenarians who thought the world would end in 1844 (and how they behaved as it the apocalypse didn’t happen); there is the story of a woman losing faith twice and an apt description of the emotional twilight zone in between; there is Abdul Rahman who converted from Islam to Christianity (losing everything), or Alan Greenspan, who after the financial crisis of 2008 found the courage to admit his entire way of thinking was wrong. We also find a gripping crime story of innocent prisoners who are eventually released on the basis of dna-evidence. The author documents the ultimate deception of divorce by visiting a celebrity divorce lawyer. The wealth of anecdotes makes this book an entertainining and interesting read. I learned that it takes courage to be wrong in the right way.

Review: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Cover on Goodreads

Status anxiety is “the price we pay for acknowledging that there is a public distinction between a successful and an unsuccesful life.” In this book, de Botton explores our social lives from the perspective of status, and arrives at a remarkably comprehensive account of human society, that is erudite as it is entertaining. Essentially, the book is a story of our love affair with society: “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first—the story of our quest for sexual love—is well known and well charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second—the story of our quest for love from the world—is a more secret and shameful tale.”

The book points out how important status is for our balloon-like ego that suffers from every ‘pinprick of neglect’. In our current meritocracy, failure is not attributed to bad luck, but it is our own fault. Falling short of our expectations results in a culture of anxiety penetrating all aspects of life, from the economy to politics to art and religion. De Botton discusses these themes systematically in this essay, that reminds me of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. The first five chapters discuss the causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence) whereas the second half offers solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia). De Botton’s erudition is enjoyable, albeit – oh sweet irony – anxiety-inducing for writers who have similar ambitions.

Our postmodern age has produced a modest literature criticizing mindless consumerism, and De Botton’s book is a welcome addition to it. As somebody who strongly dislikes conspicuous consumption, I enjoyed the reference to the broader idea of ‘bohemia’ and Thoreau (“man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without”).

This is a dense book, that I would recommend a second read.

Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Image from goodreads.comPrisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall has been a very exciting read for me, and many readers on Goodreads agree (there are 1400 reviews available). It is the best book on geopolitics that I have read so far and it has helped me consolidate what I already knew and taught me a lot of new things as well.

The book is organized in ten chapters on different regions and this way of storytelling made it amazingly easy to remember facts. Weeks after reading this book, I had retained 90% more than I would have retained from a book without geographical organization, and I attribute this to the loci technique of memorizing.

It opens with Russia’s geographical prison, namely its vulnerability because of the Northern European Plane and the absence of a warm-water port. It discusses the inevitability of the US rising to become a world power as a two-ocean nation. It shows what we can expect from China’s rise and why Tibet is important for geological reasons (origination of the great rivers).

Marshall gives an account of the complicated relationship between the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, and the issue of Pakistan. He explains the strategic importance of a divided Korea, the rise and fall of Japan, an island nation with very little natural resources. Geography also explains convincingly why Africa never developed like Western Europe: no navigable or connected rivers (except for the Nile in Egypt), no deep water ports, and too many infectious diseases. He also reminds us of one of the most horrible yet underreported conflicts of our time, that in the DRC Congo. Similar arguments are made for Latin America, so we can understand the limitations of Brazil’s economy and the strategic importance of the Chinese-planned Nicaragua canal. By the time the book closes with a detailed account of the Arctic region, we understand its importance for the contesting nations (Russia, Canada, US, Norway, Denmark).

The book constantly reminds us of the importance of geographical features such as navigable rivers, warm-water ports, tall mountains, impenetrable forests, fertile land, straits. It makes the reader feel like a little expert on geopolitics.

I recommend this book to everyone who wants to understand the current geopolitical situation – even a few years after its publication.

Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Capitalism by Jürgen Kocka

This is the first of some short book reviews here on creativechoice. I love reading and will share my thoughts about the books that I are think are worth my readers’ while.

Cover from goodreads.orgThe short book Capitalism: A Short History begins with a concise discussion of the most important figures in the history of the concept of capitalism: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Josef Schumpeter. Kocka also mentions other thinker such as Karl Polanyi.

The book has a wider view of capitalism than Marx, who looks mainly at the mode of production and the way labor is organized. Kocka shows that the merchants of the Middle Ages already operated in a capitalistic way because they were profit oriented and seeking expansion. Apart from what is generally considered the heartland of capitalism, he sketches the development of proto-capitalism in the Arab world (where profit seeking was, unlike interest, compatible with Islam) and China (where it was politically controlled and embedded).

Kocka tells the story of the inevitable expansion of capitalism. He discusses colonialism and the plantation economy, pointing out that the mode of production of capitalism does not require free labor. The Joint Stock Companies such as the VOC and the beginning of finance capitalism is discussed. The book shows how in mining, agrarian capitalism and proto-industrialization capitalism encroaches on the domain of labor.

The expansion eventually led to managerial capitalism in which the manager is no longer the owner of the enterprise, like during the Industrial Revolution. Kocka identifies the ‘autotelic character’ of capitalism:  “the concentration on goals of profit and growth coupled with a simultaneous indifference to other goals” (p.  114). This trend had started with managerial capitalism but reached new heights in financialization.

The book concludes with some thoughtful reflections about the current state of affairs and how capitalism is always embedded in a social, cultural and political context – and its reform is a ‘permanent task’.

Review: Capitalism by Jürgen Kocka was originally published on Meandering home