Challenging the New Colonialism, and Celebrating the (Almost) Eradication of Polio: An Anthropological Response to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

Challenging the New Colonialism, and Celebrating the (Almost) Eradication of Polio: An Anthropological Response to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

Image adapted from “Weimar’s Courtyard of the Muses,” by Theobald von Oer (1860).

By Elizabeth Marino*

Why I Read Enlightenment Now

Cognitive Psychologist, Steven Pinker, wrote a book called Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. This would have casually rolled around the edges of my conscious mind, and then promptly fallen out, until a piece in the New York Times came out titled: The Mind Meld of Bill Gates and Steven Pinker, in which Gates claimed that Enlightenment Now is his favorite book of all time. It’s unclear whether Pinker’s ideas will have any impact on Gates as a computer guru, but Gates is now of course one of the foremost philanthropists and development strategists in the world. What Gates thinks about the “spreading” of the Enlightenment, about the intellectual veracity of “tribal” [Pinker’s identifier] cultures, and about the role of the West in global development is paramount, especially for me. I am part of a collective of anthropologists and practitioners called the Culture and Action Disaster Network (CADAN). Our collective goals are to make disaster preparedness, response, and risk reduction more sensitive to cultural, historical, and contextual specificities. We are a group of root cause specialists; of cultural particularists, of historical contextualists. Pinker is none of these things, and now we know that neither is Bill Gates.

What Pinker Argues in Enlightenment Now

Pinker’s argument is this:

Pinker argues that the causes of progress, depicted above, are the ones in his title: Reason, Science, Humanism and the practices and institutions that have emerged from them – namely democratic governments, liberal economies, hospitals, research institutes, and schools/universities. These things have made us wealthier, smarter, healthier, and more leisurely. The Enlightenment ideals, in Pinker’s view, are the only things that keep homo sapiens from our natural state of being, which is decidedly Hobbesian: poor, short-lived, toiling, and bored. The book is unapologetic about its praise for Western ideas, and is unconcerned with being historically accurate about what the Enlightenment was, or how and why those ideas became catalysts for global movements (if they did). The critiques of this book have been, and will be, widespread – as has been the praise.

The “Somalia-to-Sweden Continuum” and International Development

What I want to focus on first is how the assumptions of Pinker’s worldview, if embraced, might affect notions of multiculturalism in national and international development agendas. On page 98, Pinker lays out Harvard’s version of Trump’s most direct international policy statement: that there are “shithole countries” which a) have suffered from remedial development models, and, b) as has been widely reported, are not racially and ethnically white. Similarly, Pinker discusses the range of nations as the: “Somalia-to-Sweden continuum, with poor violent repressive unhappy countries at one end and rich peaceful liberal happy ones at the other” (98). History is basically absent from Pinker’s book, and the notion, the word, and the acute pain of colonialism is completely missing. Therefore, the only apparent solution to Pinker’s continuum is to remake Somalia in Sweden’s image.

The Swedenization of the world is certainly one way global actors could cast the development project; but if all the answers lie in Sweden, then development is conceptualized strictly as a process of bringing something good into a place; not making space for the good already present in a place. Somalian ideas are not a thing in Pinker’s book. Pinker’s Swedenization is retro-development. Contrary to his ideas, progressive development specialists have lately been calling for large international programs to partner with civil society in developing countries – those pre-existent institutions that are made up of local peoples and, as such, local belief systems and practices. As Kate Browne (2015), Roberto Barrios (2017), and especially Mark Schuller (2017), remind us – a top down model of development, disaster recovery, or risk reduction that does not speak directly to local culture and histories, will fail, will make life worse on the ground, or will, at best, be inefficient. The “Somalia-to-Sweden continuum” is the (racist, colonial) wrong way to frame progress; we need to understand historically aware and culturally-relevant development.

The Intellectual Tradition(s)

Pinker suggests that the ideas of the Enlightenment led to many social goods, including emancipation values like social equity, racial and ethnic integration, and women’s rights. I started reading the book in February, in black history month, as friends, colleagues, and my podcast line-up were sharing stories about integration and civil rights champions in the U.S. It is clear from these stories that integration and social equity does not flow from Enlightenment-inspired institutions; instead, people (namely brown and black people and women) beat down the doors of these institutions. If that is the case – what worldview really leads to emancipation values? Can Pinker really claim that Kant was the intellectual inspiration for Rosa Parks? Was it the philosophers of the Enlightenment that convinced Martin Luther King Jr. that we are all brothers & sisters (a version of humanism)? Maybe, in part, and Enlightenment values were no doubt part of the philosophical structure that won over white intellectuals in the US to ideas of integration – which is no small feat.

However, the directionality and dichotomies of Pinker’s framework leave out the possibility that emancipative values also stem from intellectual traditions outside of Europe; that humanism, science, or even reason itself is conceived of as well, or better, in the intellectual traditions and languages of peoples of color, or of Indigenous peoples, or of US immigrants. Pinker happily shows us his hand on this point. On page 326 he calls out the “benighted backwaters” that give rise to “barbaric customs”. On  page 260 he claims, “there can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today.” He says this despite the fact that it is an era in which ½ of the worlds languages (stories, metaphors, wisdom) will likely cease to be spoken. This is where overlooking the colonial legacy of globalization is so irresponsible it boggles the mind; but this erasure is intentional and Pinker skates the edge of justifying the colonial project. As early as the introduction he qualifies everything that exists outside of his narrowly defined category of “reason” as “magical thinking” – the latter of which, for Pinker, is something to be overcome.

Reason vs. Magical Thinking.

Of course, anthropologists (I don’t want to speak for others) are sending up a collective, disciplinary cry of anguish. But let us stare in the face the fact that this dichotomy is re-emergent has never gone away. Don’t mistake me, I’m not promoting a false equivalency between reason and magic; I just shudder to think of all the deeply empirical, epistemologically sound, metaphorically rich, and practically successful intellectual traditions that Pinker would put in the wrong category.

The Eradication of Polio (Almost)

I wrote an ethnography called Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground about climate change impacts in Shishmaref, an Inupiat community in Alaska. A colleague, hunter, and traditional expert from Shishmaref, Fred Eningowuk, approached me after it was published and told me he had read the book. I respect Fred and was nervous to hear his opinion, so in emotional defense, I self-depricatingly asked, “what’s wrong with it?” True to form, and as straight and wise as anyone I know, Fred said to me, “I didn’t read it to find what was wrong with it.”

In the last half of Enlightenment Now, I took Eningowuk’s advice and tried to understand what Pinker was trying to get me, his close reader, to see – without finding what was wrong with it. True to graph, it is this: we (Westerners, intellectuals, scientists, humans, homo sapiens, Swedes [the we for Pinker is dangerously slippery]) have accomplished things, and we have not celebrated them nearly as much as we could have done.

{please insert for yourself ways in which ‘the West’ has been plenty self-congratulatory}

With that {caveat}, I take his point.

My mother had polio. When she was 18 months old she was put in quarantine because medical experts didn’t know how the disease was spread. One of my favorite stories about my beloved grandfather was that he stood outside of her window at the hospital, making funny faces, so she wouldn’t feel abandoned: this baby, untouched, suffering, in the bleached hospital room, alone. There are now less than 40 known cases of polio. The crippling disease is only found in three countries and has been reduced 99% since 1988. It is almost eradicated completely. My family has never talked about that. I have never really stopped to be wowed by the fact that this definitive disease, is now mostly gone. As Pinker tells us, the eradication of polio is not a miracle – it happened because of the extraordinary efforts of scientists, doctors, humanitarian workers, and vaccine recipients. Pinker wants me to awake to the fact that this is progress, and, subsequently, to support those human efforts which brought about the eradication of polio; and I do, more so now than before I read the book.

If White Man Bravado was a Recreational Drug and Other Concluding Thoughts

I wish this book was the start of a conversation. It’s not. Pinker diagnoses anyone who disagrees with him as suffering from availability bias, or Negativity bias, or calls them a host of derogatory names, including a historical pessimist, a dystopian, a lacker of conceptual tools, etc., etc. The rhetorical tone of this book is amazing to me. If white man from Harvard bravado was a recreational drug, I would go broke.

Why I predict this book is absolutely important for anthropologists to pay attention to (in tone and content) is that Pinker is giving us (and remember Gates is taking it) a template for what a large part of the white liberal pendulum swing from Trumpism may be: humanism over multiculturalism, Science over sciences, science over intellectualism, tech fix over root cause, talking loudly instead of listening, and, especially, plowing ahead instead of coming to terms with our histories. Another recent article in the New York Times calls CEOs our newest culture warriors. Pinker gives a full-throated endorsement of neoliberalism and carves out a hero’s charge for the “risk-taking” elite – CEOs (the new culture warriors?) are going to love this book; and we better be prepared with good reasons for why they, and everyone else, should not.


*Dr. Elizabeth Marino is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sustainability at Oregon State University – Cascades. She is interested in the relationships among climate change, risk perception, slow and rapid onset disasters, human migration, and the social construction of vulnerability. Dr. Marino is the author of numerous articles; her book “Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground: an Ethnography of Climate Change in Shishmaref, Alaska” was released in 2015.


Barrios, Roberto E. Governing Affect: Neoliberalism and Disaster Reconstruction. Lincoln; London: University of Nebraska Press. 2017.

Browne, K. E. Standing in the need: Culture, comfort, and coming home after Katrina. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2015.

Schuller, M. Humanitarian aftershocks in Haiti. New Brunswick, London: Rutgers University Press, 2016.

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11 Replies to “Challenging the New Colonialism, and Celebrating the (Almost) Eradication of Polio: An Anthropological Response to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now”

  1. Here’s a question. You mention “deeply empirical, epistemologically sound, metaphorically rich, and practically successful intellectual traditions that Pinker would put in the wrong category.” Could you provide a few examples and describe concrete accomplishments?

    Consider, for example, Chinese traditions. That they are deeply empirical and metaphorically rich is undeniable. When it comes to practically successful, the resilience to survive the rise and fall of multiple dynasties for over two thousand years, in the face of repeated foreign invasions and ecological disasters is not too shabby. Epistemologically sound? By scientific standards—systematic search for data that contradict assumptions—the answer is mostly, “No.” Still, a case can be made for taking these traditions seriously. See Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Lou The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I very much agree that it is important for anthropologists to engage with Pinker’s newest blockbuster. Thank you for putting in the effort. I’ve added this as an update to something I wrote on Pinker’s earlier essay Science is Not Your Enemy, which apparently was a starting point for “Enlightenment Now.”

    1. Thanks for this response, and for your essay on Pinker and the role of anthropology in responses to these ideas, Jason. I laughed (good heartedly) at the phrase “a generous anthropological perspective” in your update. Mostly because of how many expletives I had written in the side margins of Pinker’s book. (ha!). It was really a challenge to think about what tone to use to respond to this work – how much to take seriously – and at what scale to respond. I could definitely have spent 1600 words on what Pinker thinks about climate justice, or 1600 words on root causes, or 1600 words on the role of the police. I chose to focus on broad themes and to think seriously about what civil discourse with these ideas would look like because I believe this is one way to translate anthropology to a wider public. I’m still not sure this was the best decision. There are so many particularities and problematic framings that I completely skimmed over in this response; but I am interested in further discussions – with you?; as a discipline? – on how to engage this conservation without requiring our interlocutors to have read Derrida, or Ingold (though I wish everyone could read Ingold!); or have a working understanding critiques of Dawkins. In any case, thank-you for reading and it’s good to know that we are standing in solidarity.

  3. As a white man with 3 degrees from Harvard who thoroughly dislikes Steven Pinker’s view of reality almost as much as I dislike Jared Diamond’s, I wish you hadn’t phrased your commentary at times the way you have, but thank you for your insightful take on his new book.

    Years ago I bought How the Mind Works foolishly thinking that because the author was a professor of cognitive sciences at MIT reading it might be an easy way to get an up-to-date feel for cognitive science.

    By half way through the book I had become so disgusted with the % of rhetoric over evidence that I shoved it under my bed before turning out the light. Out of sight, out of mind. It was months before I rediscovered it (shows you how much housecleaning I do). Took it to my office. Never opened it again.

    But I gave him a 2nd chance when The Blank Slate came out. “Massive modular” my @$$. By the time my Oxford book on human friendship came out in 2014 I only needed to mention Stevie briefly as a foil in my remarks about the silly notion of “tribalism” & violence. Don’t get angry, get even.

    I think you may like what my son and I are saying in our new book about human nature and the brain about what we label there as the “Enlightenment fallacy.”

  4. I gather my earlier comment saying I was in agreement with the sentiments, but as a white man with 3 degrees from Harvard I felt more than a little put down was considered inappropriate?

  5. Not at all John. It just took a little bit of time for me to come in and manually clear out the comment queue here at the blog. Normally individual authors clear their own comments, but because this was a guest post I, the site-wide comment moderator, had to do it, and I usually only get on once a week or so. Apologies for the delay to you and others whose comments have suddenly appeared on this and other threads.

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