On enlightenment and orangutans

by Stan Hirst

The year 2018 is now history and we are left with memories, unfulfilled intentions and  a lot of unread books.  By one estimate some 400,000 new books hit the market in North America every year, so its little wonder I am a bit behind. For me the ones that call out for attention are the ones that contain ideas and concepts and contribute to my patchwork understanding of our complex world.

Many of us had the opportunity last year to read or watch Professor Steven Pinker’s book and TED talk on Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Pinker is a well-known Canadian-born media personality and presently Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

In his book he assures us that we are today enjoying the best of times. He has analyzed the historic trends in 75 indicators of global human progress and well-being (mainly in the U.S. and in western countries) and finds that, overwhelmingly, we are much better off at the present time than at any time in years past.

Homicide rates, poverty levels, pollution, wars, autocratic regimes, and terrorism have all measurably declined up to the present, while positive indicators such as life expectancy, literacy, leisure rates, and the extent of automation have all gone up, in many cases by significant amounts. Humans on Earth are now 89 percent less likely to be killed by droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes or meteor strikes, not because these occurrences have declined but because of improvements in the resilience of our infrastructure. Over the last century we’ve become much less likely to be killed in auto accidents, plane crashes and work-related incidents.

Today more than 90 percent of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write. Westerners work fewer than 40 hours per week, and the amount of time expended on housework has dropped to 15 hours per week. More than 90 percent of the world’s population under the age of 25 can now read and write. National levels of happiness as reported by the citizenry themselves have gone up in an estimated 86% of world populations

Professor Pinker is a protagonist of Enlightenment as defined during the 18th century and which embraces a range of ideas centered around reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Reason is linked closely to ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state. Reason is usually taken to mean the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic (emphasis mine).

This paints a very glowing picture of human progress, all backed up by data and statistical analyses. To his credit Professor Pinker tempers his statements with a reminder that “progress”, as he defines and uses the term, does not necessarily mean that everything becomes better for everyone, everywhere, all the time.

A few other publications saw the light of day during 2018 and which led me to think about Pinker’s enthusiastic assertions and conclusions in a tempered fashion. One is the latest edition of the Living Planet Index published by the World Wildlife Fund. This is not in the best-seller class of Enlightenment Now (for openers it’s free and published online), but its message is every bit as relevant.

The LPI tells us that population sizes of vertebrate species on Earth have, on average, dropped by more than half in the past 40 years. That equates to an average annual decline of 2 percent. There is no sign yet that this rate will decrease. If we extrapolate the current trend to 2020, vertebrate populations will then have declined by an average of 67 per cent since 1970. Reasons for the severe declines are well-known and frequently cited:

  • habitat loss from human exploitation and competition, and
  • exploitation for human food, ivory and folk medicines.

The world lost an estimated 150,000 orangutans over the past 16 years, the main decimator being habitat loss due to the rapid expansion of palm plantations in south-east Asia to supply western demands for palm oil. Orangutans now number less than 80,000 in the wild. There are only 1000 mountain gorillas left on Earth, their central African forest habitats under tremendous pressure from habitat loss. Black rhino numbers are down to 5000 and white rhino to 20000, both species under tremendous pressure from illegal hunting for their horns, erroneously believed by eastern markets to have medical and aphrodisiac properties. An estimated 100 African elephants are killed every day by poachers seeking ivory, meat and body parts, leaving only 400,000 remaining.

Eight to 10 million tonnes of plastic are dumped annually into the world’s marine environments, from shorelines and surface waters down to the deepest parts of the ocean. Lakes, rivers and wetlands are increasingly impacted by habitat modification, fragmentation and destruction, invasive species, overfishing, pollution, disease, and climate change.

The LPI also tells us that while climate change is a growing threat, the main driver of biodiversity decline has always been the overexploitation of species, agriculture and land conversion. Today only a quarter of the land surface on Earth is substantively free of the impacts of human activities. By 2050 that figure will probably drop to just 10%.

I’m trying here to reconcile the messages contained in these 2018 publications.

Do we need palm oil to protect us from homicides, poverty, pollution, wars, autocratic regimes and terrorism as we progress upwards to enlightenment? No, we gobble it up because

(a) its cheaper than the alternatives, and/or

(b) because 99.9% of people using palm oil have no clue where it comes from or of the impact of palm oil plantations on orangutans, and/or

(c) if they did know they wouldn’t give a tinker’s cuss about orangutans anyway, except when they appear in Clint Eastwood movies, and/or

(d) its very obvious that you can lead a fine lifestyle and happily kiss off the rest of the planet’s non-human inhabitants.

Do Chinese men really need to ingest aphrodisiacs made from the powdered horn of 1000 rhinos killed illegally every year in South Africa? Bear in mind that any of the 3.5 million qualified doctors or most of the 10 million herbalists in China could tell them the stuff is made of keratin, same as their finger nails.

And so, here on the threshold of 2019 on this ailing planet of ours, I am left wondering about this enlightenment business. As a last resort I went digging for the truth in the form of the original definition of enlightenment as cited by Pinker. Its in an essay by Immanuel Kant published in 1784 in Berlin.

Said the great man, who knew nothing of orangutans, “Enlightenment consists of “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity”, its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority”. He also wrote “(Self-incurred) immaturity is self-inflicted not from a lack of understanding, but from a lack of courage to use one’s reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is “Sapere aude“! – Dare to be wise!!

Couldn’t have said it better myself.




  1. Perhaps the problem is that we excel at solving certain kinds of problems but suck at solving “global” problems. Orangatangs are also enlightened in dealing with “jungle” problems but don’t do well in plantations. Since the end of the last Ice Age we have stored food, kept clean, defended territories and managed our villages BUT now we wander concrete jungles, jungle international trade routes and weave communication networks more complex than those in our brains. Maybe we just outsmarted ourselves.

    1. To Bob Worcester: Thank you Mr. Rousseau. The Noble Savage can deal with the world but we can’t? To me, that’s nonsense.

  2. Not clear as to why we’re less likely to be killed by meteors.

    I will say that as I grow older I have less confidence that humans are “rational,” or even in the concept of rationality itself. On the whole I don’t think we go very far in power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.

    What we have seen since the Enlightenment is an increase in technology that allows us to do things we hadn’t previously been able to. Technology often comes from or is advanced by the scientific method, which you could call rational.

    However, that technology hasn’t been applied rationally in any consistent way. Was the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan rational? The use of automotive technology? The way we use communications technology, like the Internet? The use of plastics ?– no, given the drawbacks of plastic pollution.

    Greed, or the desire to acquire “more” when reason would suggest we have enough, is not rational — but greed is one of the driving forces that make Capitalistic organization possible. Tribalism is not a rational response to living in large national and international configurations. Fear of the Other, when the Other is not a threat (but, for instance a caravan of poor migrants 1,000 miles away) is not a rational response. And so forth.

    However, some non-rational behaviour brings for “good” results. What is rational is not necessarily good, what is irrational does not necessarily result in “bad” results. Capitalistic organization of food distribution has largely reduced hunger in most countries — that is “greed” can produce “good.”

    I call myself an environmentalist basically for aesthetic — not rational — reasons. I prefer cleanliness to mess, the natural to the artificial, the beautiful to the ugly. Why? I just do. I know the scientific reasons we shouldn’t be burning fossil fuels, but really I oppose doing so because to burn coal or oil is to put crap into the air, visible and otherwise.

    I think my point is that human motivation is complex. We are rational only some of the time, and we always will be. To make “progress” (however it is defined), we have to deal with and motivate people where they are at, and not expect that appeals to what we consider the logical will work.

    1. I don’t have a copy of Pinker’s book to hand to check but I suspect he refers to human mortality from big meteors like the one that hit Siberia in 1908 and which had an impact area covering 2000 square kms. The inference is that we now have the technology to detect large oncoming meteors in time to get people out of the impact zone before the strike.

  3. Perhaps part of the problem we have with today’s shortage of Enlightenment is our hubristic definition of Wisdom . I do not think True Wisdom is gained by either reason or intellect, it evolves gradually with experience and humility, and a willingness to admit our mistakes – most frequently made in attempts to fulfill our own personal “ selfish or greedy” desires. The young leaders of today’s “progressive” global community lack both the experience and humility necessary to gain wisdom. The old leaders who have effectively allowed the elimination and degradation of “other” species as was necessary to exploit Nature for personal gain, have failed to gain wisdom from their life experience, and also lack humility to admit this error, but rather prefer their ingrained hubris and financial success. True wisdom is on the same downward slope as is life on earth.

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