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Progress: Its Glories and Pitfalls

Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist and linguist at Harvard and a savant of big ideas, is one of the latest to take on the idea of progress. He does it under the aegis of “enlightenment,” which comes down to a kind of holy trinity of reason, sci­ence, and humanism. His new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, is ambitious and cantankerous and heady with hope. On the whole, Pinker makes a good case for the benefits of progress, but with an overdose of feel-good prose. His greatest failure comes in exaggerating the threats to science and in avoiding some problems altogether. He ignores its complexity, its shadows, its creation of new problems raised by its solutions to old ones. Pinker has a par­ticular animus against bioethics, and he misses what has been, I would argue, at the heart of bioethics from its beginning fifty or so years ago. Bioeth­ics was prompted by a new class of medical dilemmas that require a difficult balancing of harms and benefits. Most of them are still with us, and most of them are the result of the progress of postwar medical research and fast-changing clini­cal practices.

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