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Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

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If you think the world is coming to an end, think again: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science.

Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases. Instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise, not just in the West, but worldwide. This progress is not the result of some cosmic force. It is a gift of the Enlightenment: the conviction that reason and science can enhance human flourishing.

Far from being a naïve hope, the Enlightenment, we now know, has worked. But more than ever, it needs a vigorous defense. The Enlightenment project swims against currents of human nature–tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, magical thinking–which demagogues are all too willing to exploit. Many commentators, committed to political, religious, or romantic ideologies, fight a rearguard action against it. The result is a corrosive fatalism and a willingness to wreck the precious institutions of liberal democracy and global cooperation.

With intellectual depth and literary flair, Enlightenment Now makes the case for reason, science, and humanism: the ideals we need to confront our problems and continue our progress.

576 pages, Hardcover

First published February 27, 2018

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About the author

Steven Pinker

72 books9,676 followers
Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging explorations of human nature and its relevance to language, history, morality, politics, and everyday life. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of numerous books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, and most recently, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

He was born in Canada and graduated from Montreal's Dawson College in 1973. He received a bachelor's degree in experimental psychology from McGill University in 1976, and then went on to earn his doctorate in the same discipline at Harvard in 1979. He did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a year, then became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University. From 1982 until 2003, Pinker taught at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and eventually became the director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. (Except for a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1995-6.) As of 2008, he is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

Pinker was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2004 and one of Prospect and Foreign Policy's 100 top public intellectuals in 2005. He has also received honorary doctorates from the universities of Newcastle, Surrey, Tel Aviv, McGill, and the University of Tromsø, Norway. He was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, in 1998 and in 2003. In January 2005, Pinker defended Lawrence Summers, President of Harvard University, whose comments about the gender gap in mathematics and science angered much of the faculty. On May 13th 2006, Pinker received the American Humanist Association's Humanist of the Year award for his contributions to public understanding of human evolution.

In 2007, he was invited on The Colbert Report and asked under pressure to sum up how the brain works in five words – Pinker answered "Brain cells fire in patterns."

Pinker was born into the English-speaking Jewish community of Montreal. He has said, "I was never religious in the theological sense... I never outgrew my conversion to atheism at 13, but at various times was a serious cultural Jew." As a teenager, he says he considered himself an anarchist until he witnessed civil unrest following a police strike in 1969. His father, a trained lawyer, first worked as a traveling salesman, while his mother was first a home-maker then a guidance counselor and high-school vice-principal. He has two younger siblings. His brother is a policy analyst for the Canadian government. His sister, Susan Pinker, is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the author of The Sexual Paradox and The Village Effect.

Pinker married Nancy Etcoff in 1980 and they divorced 1992; he married Ilavenil Subbiah in 1995 and they too divorced. He is married to the novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, the author of 10 books and winner of the National Medal of the Humanities. He has no children.

His next book will take off from his research on "common knowledge" (knowing that everyone knows something). Its tentative title is: Don't Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,241 reviews
Profile Image for Bill Gates.
Author 10 books515k followers
May 17, 2018
For years, I’ve been saying Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature was the best book I’d read in a decade. If I could recommend just one book for anyone to pick up, that was it. Pinker uses meticulous research to argue that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. I’d never seen such a clear explanation of progress.

I’m going to stop talking up Better Angels so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book, Enlightenment Now, is even better.

Enlightenment Now takes the approach he uses in Better Angels to track violence throughout history and applies it to 15 different measures of progress (like quality of life, knowledge, and safety). The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better. It’s like Better Angels on steroids.

I read the book slowly since I loved it so much, but I think most people will find it a quick and accessible read. He manages to share a ton of information in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and easy to digest.

It opens with an argument in favor of returning to the ideals of the Enlightenment—an era when reason, science, and humanism were touted as the highest virtues.

I’m all for more reason, science, and humanism, but what I found most interesting were the 15 chapters exploring each measure of progress. Pinker is at his best when he analyzes historic trends and uses data to put the past into context. I was already familiar with a lot of the information he shares—especially about health and energy—but he understands each subject so deeply that he’s able to articulate his case in a way that feels fresh and new.

I love how he’s willing to dive deep into primary data sources and pull out unexpected signs of progress. I tend to point to things like dramatic reductions in poverty and childhood deaths, because I think they’re such a good measure of how we’re doing as a society. Pinker covers those areas, but he also looks at more obscure topics.

Here are five of my favorite facts from the book that show how the world is improving:

1. You’re 37 times less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than you were at the turn of the century—and that’s not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. It’s because we have better weather prediction capabilities, improved safety education, and more people living in cities.

2. Time spent doing laundry fell from 11.5 hours a week in 1920 to an hour and a half in 2014. This might sound trivial in the grand scheme of progress. But the rise of the washing machine has improved quality of life by freeing up time for people—mostly women—to enjoy other pursuits. That time represents nearly half a day every week that could be used for everything from binge-watching Ozark or reading a book to starting a new business.

3. You’re way less likely to die on the job. Every year, 5,000 people die from occupational accidents in the U.S. But in 1929—when our population was less than two-fifths the size it is today—20,000 people died on the job. People back then viewed deadly workplace accidents as part of the cost of doing business. Today, we know better, and we’ve engineered ways to build things without putting nearly as many lives at risk.

4. The global average IQ score is rising by about 3 IQ points every decade. Kids’ brains are developing more fully thanks to improved nutrition and a cleaner environment. Pinker also credits more analytical thinking in and out of the classroom. Think about how many symbols you interpret every time you check your phone’s home screen or look at a subway map. Our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age, and it’s making us smarter.

5. War is illegal. This idea seems obvious. But before the creation of the United Nations in 1945, no institution had the power to stop countries from going to war with each other. Although there have been some exceptions, the threat of international sanctions and intervention has proven to be an effective deterrent to wars between nations.

Pinker also tackles the disconnect between actual progress and the perception of progress—something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones? He does a good job explaining why we’re drawn to pessimism and how that instinct influences our approach to the world, although I wish he went more in depth about the psychology (especially since he’s a psychologist by training). The late Hans Rosling explains this more fully in his excellent new book Factfulness .

I agree with Pinker on most areas, but I think he’s a bit too optimistic about artificial intelligence. He’s quick to dismiss the idea of robots overthrowing their human creators. While I don’t think we’re in danger of a Terminator-style scenario, the question underlying that fear—who exactly controls the robots?—is a valid one. We’re not there yet, but at some point, who has AI and who controls it will be an important issue for global institutions to address.

The big questions surrounding automation are proof that progress can be a messy, sticky thing—but that doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction. At the end of Enlightenment Now, Pinker argues that “we will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing."

The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books734 followers
February 17, 2018
You’ve never had it so good, and Steven Pinker has the stats and charts (over 70!) to prove it. Wars are fewer and less severe, homicides are down, racism is in decline, terrorism is a fading fad, democracy rules, communicable diseases and poverty are on their way out. Life expectancy is up, and police are killing fewer people, both black and white. Even the poor have refrigerators. Inequality is a requisite sign of success. So appreciate the wonderful state of affairs you find yourself in. This is the message of Enlightenment Now, with a title that sounds like a protest placard, but which is actually a survey of the world by the statistics that states collect.

We’re so “progressive”, we’re beating back entropy itself. Steven Pinker takes 500 pages to create a world where everything is so fabulously much better than it ever has been, that anyone who says different is perpetuating an intellectual lie. This is why it is your enlightenment. The book is an endless, uplifting editorial. If you’re buying.

He’s at his best criticizing politics and science. He shows precisely how our biases prejudice our most thoughtful conclusions, and bemoans the lack of respect for science and the humanities. He says science is presented in some schools as “just another narrative, or myth”. Humanities are in danger of extinction, and they are critical to progress.

Pinker has a nice tendency to support his arguments with examples and charts. Unfortunately, he balances this with a tendency to ignore states or countries that don’t conform to his claims, and he swings numbers around to make them look better. He claims when he measures what people consume as opposed to what they earn, the poverty rate in the USA is 3%. So really, everyone is thriving. Even if they’re visibly not.

I fully realize Pinker is untouchable and slated for sainthood, but many things he says don’t add up, and a lot of it is just outrageous on its face. Let him speak for himself:

-On war: “Virtually every acre of land that was conquered after 1928 has been returned to the state that lost it.” (Something must have happened in 1927 for him to pick 1928, but he doesn’t say). Where do you even begin to refute this? Kaliningrad? Mauritania? The South China Sea? Crimea? Donbass? Palestine?

-He defends the demolition of the middle classes in the West. Yes, a hundred million Americans are worse off. But a billion Chinese are better off. “The tradeoff is worth it,” he says. That the extremely rich got fabulously more rich is fine with him, too.

-On terrorism’s “decline”, Pinker points to recently low numbers of victim deaths to show how safe we really are. He doesn’t mention all the freedom of movement, assembly and privacy we have lost to the terrorists. He’s satisfied they don’t kill that much, and that they will eventually fade away.

-On the mellowing of war: “Weapons don’t come into existence just because they are conceivable or physically possible.” Yes, they do. And worse, everything can be weaponized, from food to mouseclicks. Pinker goes even further, claiming “most historians” don’t think the atomic bombings caused Japan to surrender in three days, but rather it was the potential of Russia turning its attention from west to east.

-There is a great deal of nonsense about how much cheaper life is today. The provision of a light indoors would have cost the equivalent of £40,000 in the middle ages (if anyone could read), while today, lights cost fractions of pennies. And 100 years ago it took 1800 hours’ work to afford a refrigerator (among too many more such examples). But Pinker never bothers with the other side of the coin. That today, everyone must spend $150 a month on cable, $125 on phone (after purchasing a phone every two years, with each costing more than the fridge), a $20,000 car, a mortgage, and $50,000 in school debt (none of which were factors in the cost of living in the middle ages ) or be unable to function in society. His endless comparisons are pointless.

-He keeps repeating that because even the poor have flush toilets and refrigerators, they are much better off today than ever. He says even the fabulously wealthy Rothschilds didn’t have a washing machine like nearly everyone (80%) now supposedly has.

Pinker dismisses ecology as a pastime of the affluent. The more educated and wealthy we become, the more eco-conscious we become, so everything works out. He completely ignores the fact we have crossed the red line. That the oceans are toxic, that there is trash and plastic everywhere, that the carbon levels are at unseemly record levels. That the Paris Accord has not dented the damage one bit. But, he says, the air over London is no longer purple every day.

The book ends with an interminable bashing of religion, which Pinker considers “intellectually bankrupt”. He cites all the usual contradictions and hypocrisy, narrow-mindedness and longing for a cleaner era that never existed. Basically, religion and enlightenment are oil and water.

So you can look at Enlightenment Now in two ways, according to your own various biases. Either the greater message of positivism is too important (and correct) to criticize Pinker’s maddening claims, or the maddening claims make the whole exercise suspect.

David Wineberg
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
1,012 reviews606 followers
February 14, 2018
When this book was not boring me it was irritating me.

All of the author’s anecdotes I had read elsewhere. Science is good. I don’t need convincing. Vaccines work. Poverty is bad and is getting better throughout the world. Everyone who wants to know this stuff already knows it.

Why equate Al Gore with Theodore Kaczynski (The Unabomber) as the author seems to do regarding the environment? Is Fox News really right when they said the poor can’t be poor because they have cell phones and air conditioning today? The author defended that absurdity though he doesn’t mention that Fox used to argue that when Obama was president.

And why did the author make a false equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Trump? Sanders didn’t believe ‘climate change is a Chinese Hoax’, or pick someone in his cabinet who thinks vaccines cause autism, or wanted to build a wall and claim Mexico will pay for it, or feed our hate against Muslims, Browns, Asians or anyone who strikes his fancy for the day even kneeling football players.

This author always seemed to have some pie in the sky anti-humanist post-modernist Strawman he was easily demolishing for some reason I couldn’t figure out. He mentioned the in-gratitude were in the 9th circle of hell and implied Dante had a point and people most of us have never heard of such as Heidegger, Adorno, and Neitzsche, and I think he also mentioned Marcuse belonged there for their in-gratitude. (I’m going to venture a guess, since I didn’t read all of the book: the author doesn’t like ‘identity politics’ and gets bothered by ‘political correctness’ and thinks ‘both sides’ are to blame. I don’t know if that’s where he was going, but I wasn’t going to find out by wading thru a familiar story I’ve read better told in other books).

The author is completely out of his depth on economics and inequality. I suggest you read Piketty’s book instead of this author’s poorly constructed deconstruction of Piketty’s wonderful book, and then tell me again why inequality is not real or not a big deal! His Enlightenment and Romanticism knowledge seemed superficial. Of the 8 or so Voltaire quips he provided, I had heard them all elsewhere.

I stopped this book after 5 hours. I got my credit back from Audible. I seldom do that. This author was teaching me nothing I didn’t already know, and worse than that seemed to have a disregard for the truth by trying to defend his own thesis beyond what the facts would take a reasonable person.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
805 reviews3,860 followers
April 23, 2020
This concoction and Roslings´ similar „Go on, everything is super.“ Factfulness were the reasons for me to leave the soft space of some humanities that are nothing more than appeasement, belittlement, and deception.

A mix of different quotes from the book and thoughts and impressions I had while consuming this fairytale. Some points might be redundant, sorry for that, but this is what happens when taking notes about a book that is nonsense:

1. He´s attacking the ones who aren´t grateful, says everything is fine, takes the premise that because some things became better everything is great, based on unbearable pseudoscience.
2. Hey, what about talking just about the positive things and avoiding anything negative or controversial?
3. Of course, there is only the great Western way of living, capitalism ineluctably always leads to the best society in the world.
4. If some things have become better thanks to technology in the last hundred years, there is of course everything great and no more problems with anything.
5. Wait a moment, what exactly is Pinkers´ legitimation to talk about those topics, he must be an expert, maybe a unique ingenious polymath, in many different fields to make serious prognosis, not just assumptions, no even certainties about the whole society and the future? Oh yes, he is a linguist and cognitive psychologist that wrote some good works in his field and thought after that: „Hm, why not write some happy go lucky books based on nothing except what media, government, and the economy want me to highlight to boost my sales.“
6. One of the funniest things about such books is that they are close to impossible to suss if one has not read some progressive, alternative literature in contrast to what is permanently repeated in mainstream media and science.
7. Sweatshops aren´t that bad.
8. Capitalism already solved and will solve the few, little problems it created. Sure, a problem repairs the problems it creates instead of creating greater problems.
9. He finds the fact that people call humans under the current economic system a malady to the planet evil, discriminating, hateful, and wrong, although it´s the truth.
10. He is biased, does the ultimate replication crisis demonstration.
11. Philosophical, out of context, bla yada drivel that isn´t even close to the real philosophers, but fine tuned and modified to fit to the agenda and dogma of this book.
12. „Peak car“. Why, show me the extrapolations.
13. He ignores so much hard based science that doesn´t fit to the conclusions he wants that it´s hard to endure.
14. He states that richer states have less environmental pollutions and get cleaner. So let´s go jogging in an industrial center and go swimming in the local lake afterward. Who survives can pick some berries and vegetables grown outdoors and will be gone soon too.
15. He compares the environmental protection movement with extremists, calling it „misanthropic environmentalism“. He does as if the wide consense about habitat destruction and the sixth extinction doesn´t exist and compares it to pessimistic people who spread viral fake news ideas.
16. He loves to use those techniques:
17. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaga...
18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychol...
19. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_m...
20. He praises science, knowledge, wisdom, creativity, intelligence as wordy as possible while being an ignorant apologist for the perfect, current system, ignoring and attacking any other opinion than his own.
21. His arrogance, joviality, condescension, and belittlement in his writing and in interviews are disgusting.
22. There is no problem with distributive justice, everything is fine because so many people aren´t extremely poor anymore, but now just poor or close to poverty.
23. He talks about ideas, concepts, humanities, avoiding anything substantial, profound, and hard science-based.
24. He and Rosling have the same concept: „Look, stupid people of the world, here is the manipulated data you are too dumb to understand in the way I want you to understand it, so let me explain it you while warmongering and hate trolling against anything that doesn´t confirm my opinion.“
25. He keeps repeating general knowledge about many things that have improved, stating that it will continue to get better.
26. He picks any person, anecdote, or fact out of context to mostly demonstrate a pro capitalistic world-view.
27. He knows everything about the climate, he is a weather God. Nobody else, thousands of scientists aren´t sure what will happen with climate change, global warming, how earths´ systems and the sun really function, and how bad it will become, but Pinker knows that everything will be fine now, in 100 years, always and forever. The sun always tells him how it will shine.
28. „Combat poverty instead of reducing inequality.“ Of course, give a man a fish a day instead of showing him how to angle or allowing him at least to fish, but the lake and the sea are privatized, sorry. Give tiny parts of wealth to the poor instead of changing a dysfunctional system.
29. Overconsumption and consumerism are absolutely no problems, we should just reduce the environmental damage it does by…magic and positive thinking and not listening to the lies those pesky pessimists are telling.
30. In this so called age of new enlightenment anything progressive, alternative, or different of the dogmas is deemed a conspiracy theory. He got me, I also never quote or show the hard facts, links, I am inventing any review because the secret reptilian overlords are telling me to do it, I am completely bonkers because I am a dirty leftist inventing conspiracy theories about military industrial complexes and post democracy and you don´t want to know what else, it´s terrible for the kids.
31. The compulsion to have a positive mentality of being mindful, calm, meditating, and not negative and pessimistic. Forced happiness without reason and logic.
32. Much talk about the sock puppets of politics he doesn´t like, no meta analysis or mentioning of the puppetmasters or politicians he likes.
33. Extremism is caused by a power vacuum of disinterest in politics and the ideals that made democracy so great and it´s the peoples´ fault who are used to this and don´t appreciate it and has nothing to do with the system.
34. He calls marxism a pseudo fringe science. Oh wait, and of course, because of this socialism is pseudo too and capitalism is based on hard science or what?
35. He doesn´t understand that faith and dictatorships that were criticized by the thinkers of the true enlightenment have been turned in our economic system that does exactly the same, but more perfidious and mendacious. And that he´s actively attacking and denying the thesis of the ones who work for a new enlightenment.
36. Truth can´t be constructed. Wait, why do you do it yourself Mr Pinker, if it´s impossible?
37. He uses data, sources, graphs, statistics out of context or out of unscientific sources, sometimes relating to just one article, book, study, that is highly controversial.
38. He bashes anything left or progressive in science, education, and universities, but doesn´t mention the overwhelming right-conservative majority in politics, governments, and economics with a single word.
39. Black people are not more likely to be shot by police than white people in the US.
40. He is great at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular....
41. The evil news media are always hyping about crises and problems that don´t really exist.
42. He says that there is far less violence (for privileged people in rich states and rich people in poor countries), but he should ask a prison inmate, the impoverished population of Western countries or the poor majority of the worlds´ population in Afrika, Asia, and Latin Amerika. I am sure that they are enthusiastic about the fact that there are fewer wars driven by political and economic interests of wealthy nations and they now just have to deal with crime, starvation, illness, extreme poverty and violence, and very low life expectancy. Oh, and of course with the regular financial crisis, land grabbing, and trade wars fought on and for their territory.
43. „The rate of extinctions has been reduced by 75 %.“ What, I thought the contrary was the case and that we don´t even know how many species we exterminate on a daily basis because we don´t know how many exist.
44. Osama bin Laden owned a copy of a Chomsky book. So left, socialist, ecosocial is the devil, don´t you understand?
45. Progressivism, activism, scientific results he doesn´t like, are described as useless.
46. He is switching his opinions, saying that something is bad if it´s a point he doesn´t like, changing to great about the same thing, institution, philosophical concept, science, if it´s something he likes, mixing it with psychobabble and worst bad pseudo fringe science lying with statistics stuff. And he doesn´t even seem to recognize that he is contradicting himself because the book is a collection of such inconsistencies, it´s not even logical drivel.
47. He is not even mentioning that some of his crude theories could be wrong, as any good scientist I´ve read does in humility and self- criticism, instead, he deems himself all knowing and is vilifying any opposition, using subtle hate speech.

It´s so bizarre because of the combination of points I´ve already mentioned: He is no specialist in any of the fields the talks about and it would need a few of them to draw a realistic and objective picture. Or at least an author who does his research and combines all points to an objective overview. Instead, he believes to reach god mode by combining cherrypicking, mentioned replication crisis, wrong attacks against anyone saying he is wrong, integrating anectotism instead of long-time data, and mixing it up to a numbing phantasmagoria of an idyllic world that is, in reality, breaking in pieces.

What shocks me the most and what is the worst thing a scientist can do, is that he integrates this hallucinations in the minds of intelligent, literate, educated people who infect others with this viral garbage, so that they stop activism and avoid progressive, alternative thinking and real, productive contentions about the topic, instead telling each other how great Pinker is and which of his amazing, brilliant ideas they find most astonishing. Possibly they should combine it with Roslings´ pseudo Factfulness for the full dosage of brainwashing and leave reality forever.

It´s sad that Pinker started as a real scientist with his first books and switched to writing disinformation nonsense with „The better angels of our nature“, that seems so follow the same pattern of empty yada bla gossip. He quickly got richer, but lost his reputation forever.

Alternative economists and political scientists with ideas that could really change the world aren´t read because of stuff like this.

Continued in the comments, because there is no space left here.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,993 reviews298k followers
July 3, 2018
Steven Pinker makes a strong argument for enlightenment principles and, essentially, not giving up on the world because Donald Trump is president. We are not, contrary to popular belief, going backwards, and have in fact made astounding progress in all measurable areas, such as wealth, health, safety, education and equality.

Faced with the numbers, it's hard to disagree, though I went into this fairly convinced already. We do not, by any measure, live in a great world, but we do live in a better world than we did fifty, one hundred, one thousand years ago. Pinker presents this information, using charts and tables, in this extensively-researched book.

However, some of his claims are not really backed up by the evidence, either because he uses limited sources or engages in some avoiding the issue fallacies. The lengthy breakdown of how much things cost compared to how much they cost in, say, the Middle Ages, is irrelevant to the discussion of wealth because Pinker doesn't consider new kinds of expenses - mortgages, insurance, electric, gas and phone bills (etc.).

I also looked up a couple of the references he uses and now I'm skeptical about the others.

One example I checked on was his source for the claim that black people are no more likely to be shot by police than white people in America. Obviously, this is a hot topic and a controversial claim to make. His single source for such a bold claim - here - actually found that black people were more likely to be shot by police than white people, but offered an opinion as to why this might be. Other pieces disagree.

He arrives at a number of these grand conclusions based on a single article, which is often an opinion piece. He cherry-picks information to suit his argument and relies on the unlikelihood that anyone will go check his sources.

It's a shame, to be honest, because I think the central argument is a strong one: that we are indeed making progress. There's a whole lot to suggest that the world isn't going to hell in a handbasket. But Pinker actually risks fuelling a bleak opposite of societal pessimism. While I don't disagree that we are faced with a lot of doom-foreshadowing news stories, there is also an ever-growing misconception that inequality is over. That our society is colourblind and that women are now treated no different to men. Pinker's distortion of facts often supports this theory and it is incorrect.

Things are, overall, getting better, but over-exaggerating the extent to which improvements have been made does not help anyone. Well, other than making rich white men feel better about the state of the world they rule over.

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Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,588 followers
September 7, 2018
A few months ago, I heard Steven Pinker give a talk about this book. I must say that his speaking skill did not impress me. However, his writing skill is brilliant. This is a very important book--epic in scope, comprehensive, well thought-out and structured, incredibly well researched, and full of some very important messages.

The book begins with a student's question "Why should I live?" To which Pinker answers with a profound interpretation of the "meaning of life". I won't repeat his complete answer, but he writes,
[You have] the ability to like, love, respect, help and show kindness--and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues ... You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace.
Pinker writes that the Enlightenment helped us escape from superstition and ignorance. It increased our understanding of ourselves through science. Also, Humanism is a secular foundation for morality. And, it is individuals who are sentient, not the tribe. The Enlightenment helped to abolish cruel punishments and slavery. Also, Humanism helped bring about an increase in peace.

The Enlightenment has helped to eradicate some terrible diseases. Science is the most unambiguous achievement by mankind. Science helped to eradicate smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease that killed 300 million people in the 20th century. And, we have forgotten that on April 12, 1955, "people observed moments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, ... took the day off, closed schools, ... and forgave enemies." That was the day that Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was declared to be safe.

Pinker extols the virtues of genetic engineering, that can accomplish in days what farmers accomplished over millennia, and what Norman Borlaug took years of "mind-warping tedium" to accomplish. Hundreds of studies, every major health and science organization, and over a hundred Nobel laureates have testified to the safety of transgenic crops. Nevertheless, some traditional environment groups persist in denying them to the world.

I just loved this quote from the book:
In 1976, Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died.

Pinker devotes chapters to improvements in the environment, and the problem of climate change. He shows that there is virtually no dissension among scientists that climate change, and specifically global warming, is a significant problem. However, he is optimistic that these issues can, in principle be solved by courageous governmental action.

The book describes the growth of democracy around the world--not steadily, but in waves. Democratic countries have higher rates of economic growth, fewer wars and genocides, better-educated citizens, and almost no famines. The best reason for democracy, stated by Karl Popper, is that it is a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed. And, it gives people the freedom to complain.

Pinker shows how disbelief in human-caused climate change is not correlated with scientific illiteracy, but is due to allegiance to values held by one's social circle. Political tribalism is decried as the most insidious form of irrationality today. And this tribalism exists on the left and the right sides of the political spectrum. Pinker writes,
American conservative politics has become steadily more know-nothing, from Ronald Reagan to Dan Quayle to George W. Bush to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump.
Pinker lists all of the ways in which President Trump has resisted progress, and backtracks to a less advanced way of life: Reversal of health care, reversal of globalism, reversal in the growth of wealth, reversal of the environment, safety, law and order, international trade, equal rights, tolerance, and the judicial system. The president has all the hallmarks of a dictator; he is impulsive and vindictive.

The last chapter of the book is about humanism; the chapter starts out well, but then briefly becomes too philosophical and abstract for my taste. Then the chapter returns to a more accessible, concrete structure. It becomes obvious that Pinker is an atheist. He writes that the "existence of the God of scripture is a perfectly testable scientific hypothesis." And, he list some experiments that could be performed to test the hypothesis. He also shows how the religiosity of nations, and even from region-to-region within the United States, is inversely related to happiness and well being. The United States, being more religious on the whole than West European countries, has higher homicide rates, abortion, STD's, child mortality, obesity, educational mediocrity, and premature deaths. And, Pinker points out that non-religious people in the U.S. tend not to vote--that helps explain why we have Trump in office today.

This is such a fascinating book; it takes up arguments where his earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined leaves off. This is the seventh book that I have read by Steven Pinker--and this one is just as wonderful as his previous books.
Profile Image for Rhys.
731 reviews102 followers
November 15, 2018
A paean to the status quo that can be summarized in four words: ‘don’t worry, be happy’. (Actually five words, as one is contracted). This book will no doubt earn the author a lanyard to every corporate boardroom and conservative think tank in the country.

His thesis is that Enlightenment principles must be defended – but not against mindless consumerism, not against the growing disparities of wealth, not against the disruption of earth systems. No, the Enlightenment must be defended against The Strawman.

The author lets the cat out early in the book: “Intellectuals hate progress” [p.39]. Later, Pinker says: “An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society – which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing at decades of struggle” (p.215). Did your jaw just drop, too? This is a recurring theme in the book – binary positions. If you feel that we have a ways to go regarding bigotry, then you are just not appreciative enough of the gains: intellectuals and progressives are anti-Enlightenment. Just five pages later, he says that “heightened concern … is not futile moralizing but has brought measurable progress – which means that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still” (p.220). Yes, the idea of progressive thinking is that maintaining a heightened level of concern can motivate greater gains towards Enlightenment ideals – unless, that is, you are an 'intellectual' who, when maintaining a heightened level of concern, is just being unappreciative of the meaty bone the status quo has already thrown you.

Pinker says “police shoot too many people, but it’s not primarily a racial issue”. I wonder if the number of people who are shot with their empty hands in the air is a racial issue - maybe a nice chart on that one would be interesting. Maybe he should interview groups of people who live in fear of the police – of being carded while walking, of being stopped on the road because of their appearance.

In his effort to make all of his graphs show diminishing bads over time, he has to fudge GHG emissions to show GHG emissions / GDP. This is a favourite trick of those who wish to delay any meaningful efforts to face climate change – the atmosphere doesn't care how many goods and services an economy creates. Emissions are continuing to increase as our economy expands. Diluting this value with a GDP measure of ‘dematerialized’ services is more of an indicator of what public and personal work has been devoured by The Market than anything to do with emissions. In plain words, it is disingenuous.

Probably the most distressing aspect of this book is Pinker’s unwillingness to engage in a meaningful critique of left intellectuals who he seems to despise. His references to them involve either gross, dog-whistle caricatures, the butt of a Russian peasant joke, or a cheap pot shot – Osama Bin Laden owned a copy of a book by Noam Chomsky … really?! Who cares?

And then he misrepresents Deconstruction and post-modernism as the heartbeat of anti-Enlightenment thought, heirs of the anti-rational Romantic thinkers of the past. Any ‘intellectual’ who explores truth-making (like the Continental philosophers) or challenges the big, empty narratives around freedom, truth, right, etc. becomes anti-rational. Then Pinker unloads the big cliché that you can’t make a rational statement about ‘truth’ being socially constructed, which to Pinker means that what is meant is that there is no truth (binary thinking again), and therefore anti-rational – for a page or two he dances around the logical impossibility of making a rational statement about an anti-rationalist position … as if anyone really holds this position. But when it comes to his tribe, he says in italics: “no Enlightenment thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently rational”. It’s surprising that author could not see that this sentiment cuts both ways? Eg. ‘no postmodernist thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently irrational’ …

“The left, too, has missed the boat in its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism.” What does this even mean? What ‘Marxism’ – the critique of capital? I think this is most revealing, as Pinker dodges any reference to capitalism, or more accurately, a critique of capitalism. The ‘romance with Marxism’ is a sign of Enlightenment principles at work, as opposed to a dogmatic adherence to Capitalism as the best system in the past, and by extrapolation the best system forever. In addition to this bias, Pinker is quick to point out what he considers bad about ‘communist or leftist’ governments, without evaluating their successes and failures on the same principled measures as he applies throughout the book: for example, rather than a chauvinistic dismissal of Venezuela under Chavez, measure his gains or failures in child mortality, longevity, homicides, poverty, literacy and so on. He critiques the numbers of ‘left-intellectuals’ in the academy – a place where ambiguity, honest analysis, and critique is fostered – but doesn’t conduct a similar survey of the ratio of left-to-right thinkers in positions of power - in public office or corporate boardrooms, not to mention the academy.

Later, during his analysis of Islam, he quotes ‘ex-Muslim activist Sarah Haider’ who says: “'Religions are just ideas and don’t have rights.' Criticizing the ideas of Islam is no more bigoted than criticizing the ideas of neoliberalism or the Republican Party Platform” (p.442). I wonder if he feels this way about other, non-Muslim, faith-based states in the region – replace ‘Islam’ with another faith and I wonder what sort of reception his book would have received.

I could go on and on, as every page packs a groaner. Overall, Pinker loses the gist of his thesis in a stew of gross generalizations and what I would consider a contempt for the Enlightenment project as it relates to preserving open discussion of ideals and efforts against the reification of power-structures and narratives that hinder progress. Has humanity come a long way? Sure – who really doubts that? Do we have more work to do? Yes we do – but you wouldn’t feel any urgency to do so from this book.

Pinker says: “Instead, their reputations hinge on their ability to entertain, titillate, or shock; on their ability to instill confidence or fear (in the hopes that a prophecy might be self-fulfilling or self-defeating); and on their skill in galvanizing a coalition and celebrating its virtue.” I would say this is a good description of the author of Enlightenment Now.

Just to be clear: I didn't like this book.
Profile Image for Ross Blocher.
432 reviews1,389 followers
March 26, 2018
Everyone should read Enlightenment Now. It seems odd to require a defense of reason, science, humanism and progress, but we suffer if we do not understand how far humanity has come by application of these principles. Steven Pinker has done us the favor of chronicling that progress, with data, in a compellingly written volume that challenges common assumptions. The news cycle and many prominent intellectuals would have us think that the world is becoming a darker, scarier place; yet the opposite is true. While pessimism makes for good news coverage and stokes political fires, denying progress causes us to mistrust the systems we've put in place. Combine that mistrust with a lack of understanding of WHY we put those systems in place, and you get setbacks like a Trump presidency, a burgeoning flat earther movement, and anti-vaccine advocacy. Acknowledging humanity's successes is not foolishly optimistic or defeatist; rather, it should inspire us to work toward an even better future, because we know our efforts will not be in vain. This is not a Panglossian "best of all possible worlds"; rather, it is ackowledgement that we live in the best world... SO FAR. A quote from Barack Obama summarizes this view: "If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be - you didn't know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you'd be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman - if you had to choose blindly what moment you'd want to be born, you'd choose now."

This account of progress plays out on a variety of quantifiable measures, and it's not just good news for denizens of first world countries. Pinker is careful to tease apart the trends that typically begin in developed countries and then spread globally. Average life expectancy worldwide was stalled at 30 years until the late 1800s, but has now skyrocketed to 71. Child mortality has plummeted. "For an American woman, being pregnant a century ago was almost as dangerous as having breast cancer today." Infectious diseases are being driven to extinction (and many already have). Caloric intake has increased across the world, even as population continues to grow, to the point that in many countries the poorest people are over-fed rather than under-fed. Undernourishment is fast becoming a thing of the past, and famines are now incredibly rare and lack the destructive potential of their predecessors even a century ago. All people are becoming, on average, wealthier (wealth inequality is a separate topic that is also addressed, but the trend is still positive across the world), and have more disposable income and opportunities to learn and travel. Literacy has grown, and with it IQ. Work hours have decreased, and child labor is in steep decline. Violence and death are down across almost every single measure (as Pinker detailed in another book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and expands on here). Representative government has spread to a majority of the world's countries and individuals. These improvements, surprisingly, also play out in sustainability (a chapter in particular that challenged many of my assumptions), energy use, pollution, and population growth. Pinker is no Pollyana: he does carefully address some of our most pressing problems, namely climate change and the threat of nuclear war. Even for these serious quandaries, he provides cause for optimism and some potential answers.

All these charts and trends have ragged trajectories that dip and rise along their paths. None of these improvements come all-at-once or unceasingly. As Pinker says, that would be magic... and science isn't magic. There are reasons for these improvements - and those reasons can be applied to solving new problems. Pinker also unpacks the importance of appealing to reason, the power of scientific thinking, and a basis for secular morality that transcends religious identity. He identifies and argues against the worldviews that oppose the ideals of the Enlightenment. This is a long book, but it is important, timely, and a delight to read.
Profile Image for Alex MacMillan.
142 reviews56 followers
February 23, 2018
In his newest book, (Neoliberalism) Now: The Case for (Positivism), Scien(tism), (Atheism), and (Globalization), Steven Pinker seeks to cash in on the Trump election by rushing out what is mostly a rehash of material from his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. His method of reasoning and tone of argument seeks to preach to the choir rather than persuade the unaffiliated. Unlike his classic works, The Blank Slate and The Sense of Style, this book will not be something we return to decades from now, except as a time capsule into the conventional wisdom of Economist-reading Davos attendees during the early 21st century.

The book is divided into three parts:
Part I: This would make a great TedTalk.

Part II: Where it doesn't lift entire sections from Better Angels, this is Pinker's longwinded literature review of the work of economic historians. If you are interested in learning about humanity's recent exponential growth in material wellbeing, there are much better books on the subject that I highly recommend to you instead, such as Bourgeois Dignity, The Rational Optimist, The Ultimate Resource, or The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Part III: Pinker uses pop psychology to pathologize anyone who disagrees with him politically. (He strangely criticizes social science departments for lacking ideological diversity only a few pages after having relied on the studies produced by these same departments to smugly dismiss opposing viewpoints.) Pinker's key syllogism appears to be that "If you're not a global citizen who completely prioritizes humanity's material wellbeing over the interests of your community or country, then you're a benighted bigot, as whatever maximizes global utility is progress."

Pinker's strawman of what constitutes "progress" (who isn't in favor of progress?) allows him to avoid having to seriously contend with the core anxieties about the pace of globalization that underlie populist movements on the left and right. For example, his chapter about rising economic inequality has an elephant-shaped graph showing how globalization has occurred at the expense of people in developed nations who lack college degrees. This fact suggests a rational basis for Sanders and Trump supporters to intuit that the idea of "a common market, with open markets and open borders" may have reached the point of diminishing returns. Pinker does not have a rejoinder to the arguments of cultural pessimists like Charles Murray other than that governments should further expand the welfare state to compensate the losers from free trade. Pinker's hoped-for future where the majority of Americans are living on the dole, mollified by painkillers and online entertainment, is not "progress," no matter what Pinker and other technophiles may think.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,385 followers
March 13, 2018
Tudo o que esperava e um pouco mais. O livro é uma continuação do Os Anjos Bons da Nossa Natureza: Por Que a Violência Diminuiu, onde o Pinker escreve porque a humanidade está progredindo em quase todos os sentidos, apesar de termos a impressão do contrário.

Para alguém como eu, que não tem a menor bagagem filosófica, esta obra foi excelente. Pinker explica muito bem o que foi o Iluminismo (na interpretação dele) e porque o humanismo foi tão importante para mudarmos conceitos éticos, políticos e culturais. Na argumentação dele, ainda estamos surfando as mudanças trazidas pelo humanismo e os métodos nos quais ele passa a se basear (como a ciência). E o livro traz uma discussão sobre todo tipo de índice de desenvolvimento, econômico, de saúde, de violência, de educação, etc. para mostrar que esse é o caso.

Grande parte do miolo do livro funciona como uma repetição do Os Anjos Bons da Nossa Natureza que, na minha opinião, dispensa a leitura do livro anterior. Traz também avanços em democracia, saúde, ambiente e desigualdade que não lembro muito de aparecerem no livro anterior. Se você não leu Anjos Bons, parta direto para este que traz uma lição mais abrangente e mais bem argumentada, ainda que menos detalhada, sobre como a humanidade está avançando a passos cada vez mais rápidos.

O destaque para mim ficou com a parte 3 onde ele combina ciência, razão e conhecimento para argumentar por onde poderíamos caminhar para avançar ainda mais rápido. É a área que ele mais domina e traz contribuições que achei muito mais pertinentes do que autores mais ligados à humanidades que já li.

É uma das obras que coloco como recomendadíssimas para qualquer um. Sapiens me explicou muito bem como chegamos aqui, Homo Deus para onde vamos. Este livro me explicou muito bem onde estamos.
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
656 reviews7,105 followers
January 22, 2021
Single Quote Counter-Review:

Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom—desire coordinated in the light of all experience—can tell us when to heal and when to kill.

~ Will Durant
Profile Image for Charles Haywood.
505 reviews780 followers
February 16, 2018
As with Steven Pinker’s earlier "The Better Angels of Our Nature," of which this is really an expansion and elucidation, I was frustrated by this book. On the one hand, Pinker is an able thinker and clear writer, free of much of the ideological cant and distortions of vision that today accompany most writing about society (for society is what this book is about), and he is mostly not afraid to follow his reasoning to its conclusions. His data on human progress is voluminous, persuasive, and extremely interesting. On the other hand, Pinker regularly makes gross errors about history, some of little import, but some that undermine the entire thesis of his book—which is that that the Enlightenment is the sole cause of the human progress he illustrates.

I like Pinker for his clarity of mind. And since I have been reading a steady diet of books whose central claim is that the Enlightenment was a mistake, and moreover I am personally enamored of Reaction, the idea of creating a new thing by reference to the old, it is only fair that I consider the opposite ideas presented as well as possible. Moreover, this book claims to answer exactly a current question of mine—is the material marvel that is the modern world the child of the Enlightenment? I was not disappointed; this book is just what the doctor ordered, at least to clarify my own thoughts, though probably not with the result Pinker intended. He wants to prove the Enlightenment is responsible for everything that is good in the modern world, and every good thing that will be in the future, but he ends up, for the most part, refuting himself on all his key claims. Still, the ride is interesting enough and that alone makes his book worth reading.

On the second page of his book, Pinker enunciates the core of his argument, by referring to “the Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.” The next sentence, by implication, defines the Enlightenment further as “the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress.” The following paragraph says the Enlightenment is “also called humanism, the open society, and cosmopolitan or classical liberalism.” All this creates a somewhat confused definition, but once you read the whole book, it’s evident that to Pinker, the middle sentence is the key—the Enlightenment consists in the primacy to human societies of “reason, science, humanism, and progress.” His book revolves around these four concepts, and we will return to each of these concepts in turn.

Pinker divides his book into three parts. The first, shortest, part expands on what Pinker means by “the Enlightenment.” Here, Pinker begins by turning to the driver of all the progress that he details at great length later in the book, namely, the Scientific Revolution. “The Enlightenment is conventionally placed in the last two-thirds of the 18th century, though it flowed out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century.” Given that the term “Age of Reason” is only used in one other place in this book, at the very end in a similar context, while the terms “Enlightenment” and “Scientific Revolution” are used continuously, it seems fair to conclude that Pinker believes that the Scientific Revolution (actually beginning in the 1500s, and possibly earlier, not “in the 17th century”) was the necessary first step that combined with the Enlightenment to produce the benefits of the modern world. Pinker reinforces this conclusion by summarizing the modern understanding of scientific progress to include entropy, evolution, and information. Grasping these three underlying drivers of scientific progress, Pinker tells us, allows a more complete approach to scientific understanding, and thus of the Enlightenment.

All this is true. The problem with this definition of the Enlightenment, though, is that it is all about the Scientific Revolution, from its inception to today, and when you look closely at it, has nothing to do with the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution led to technology, which ultimately (with some other drivers that are endlessly debated) led to the Industrial Revolution, which created nearly all the progress Pinker spends the second part of his book documenting. But this eliding of the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution is the fatal error of Pinker’s entire book—every chapter, and practically every page, is shot through with it. Pinker claims for the Enlightenment, a system of political and philosophical principles with a nearly exclusive focus on increasing liberty, the advantages of created by the Scientific Revolution, a pre-Enlightenment happening whose success, and whose single-handed creation of the modern world, had essentially nothing to do with the Enlightenment. Pinker does this because he wishes to advocate for Enlightenment principles (in particular, emancipation and atheism), but justify those principles almost wholly by reference to the achievements of the Scientific Revolution. This is a neat parlor trick, but intellectually dishonest. I cannot tell whether Pinker realizes the dishonesty, or merely has wandered so far into the weeds he cannot think clearly. In either case, the effect is to make some parts of the book fascinating, and others risible.

There are many, many claimed reasons for why the Industrial Revolution occurred, and why it only occurred in the West. But no serious historian claims that it was the Enlightenment that caused the Industrial Revolution, which is no doubt why Pinker glosses over the supposed linkage and offers no citations tying the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution (or, for that matter, to the Scientific Revolution). For a man dedicated to carefully parsing the evidence and linking causal chains through reasoning, this is a glaring omission. Fortunately for the reader, though, these first philosophical musings, or ramblings, only take up the first thirty-five pages of the book. The next 300 are an endless, and endlessly fascinating, series of statistical analyses about various forms of (mostly material) progress. In the final sixty pages, the last third of the book, Pinker returns to philosophy, attempting to synthesize the progress he has demonstrated with his other claimed keystones of the modern world, reason, science, and humanism.

Pinker’s basic point about progress is a broadening of his claims about peace in "The Better Angels of Our Nature"—that those who think the world is getting worse are wrong, not (mostly) from malice, but from various forms of psychological bias, such as the “Optimism Gap” (people see their own lives as better than other people’s); “Availability Bias” (we make decisions based on data easily available to us, which is often weighted toward the negative); and “Negativity Bias” (it’s easier to imagine how things could be dramatically worse than how they could be dramatically better). To prove this, Pinker offers fourteen separate chapters, each covering a totally different area of progress, demonstrating that since the Scientific Revolution human conditions have gotten better.

Pinker starts with Life—he shows how life expectancy, both at birth and at later periods of life, has dramatically increased over time—or, rather, since the Industrial Revolution in the West, and since the early twentieth century in much of the rest of the world. Next is Health, to much the same effect. In both chapters, Pinker relies heavily on Nobel Prize-winner Angus Deaton’s "The Great Escape," a fascinating book. But Pinker’s philosophical confusion shows up every time he makes other than statistical claims—for example, he tells us that “Deaton notes that even the idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment—knowledge can make us better off—may come as a revelation” to some (i.e., the non-Western) parts of the world. There are two problems with this. First, that is not the “idea that lies at the core of the Enlightenment,” it is in an idea that, in the West, far pre-dated the Enlightenment, as I discuss further below. More to the immediate point, that’s not what Deaton says (since I have a copy of his book, I checked). What Deaton actually says is that people in poor countries are often satisfied with their health, not knowing it can be better. He saying nothing about the Enlightenment, or knowledge in general. Unfortunately, such appeals to authority are common in Pinker’s book (surprising, since appeal to authority has been identified as a basic logical fallacy for millennia), and when the authority is mis-cited, it makes matters worse. (The reader’s suspicion is further exacerbated by Pinker’s frequent habit of not offering page cites, just footnotes to books as a whole, though he does give a page cite to Deaton’s book.)

Anyway, Pinker next turns to food (Sustenance), where he again talks about the Scientific Revolution (including its modern continuation in Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution) feeding the world, and then tries to claim that it was an accomplishment of the Enlightenment, and failure to feed people as shown by Stalin’s terror famines was because (supposed) Enlightenment values weren’t honored. That’s a stretch. Next is wealth, where Pinker focuses on GDP per capita, showing the takeoff since the Industrial Revolution in the West and more recently in some Asian countries, and the reductions in extreme poverty in other countries that have not experienced the same kind of takeoff.

Following is Inequality, which Pinker acutely and subtly analyzes (channeling Thomas Sowell in some cases—you can tell that Pinker is, in many areas, broad-minded by the several times he cites Sowell for different propositions, since Sowell is anathema to doctrinaire leftists). Then Environment, noting that other than global warming, the environment is doing just fine and shows every sign of doing better in the future, on every metric. In particular, he notes how resource apocalypses, from Peak Oil to supposed shortages of rare earth elements, are invariably falsified, by technology in general and by hard work enabling us to produce better things with less material. He also covers Peace, updating his earlier book Better Angels, and Safety, noting the declines in homicides and accidents. He quickly dismisses Terrorism as a tempest in a teapot.

It’s not just material progress that Pinker covers, although that’s the focus. It’s also moral progress—we are, among other things, nicer to people. Less torture, fewer executions, more value assigned to human life and happiness. True enough, but a necessary leg of Pinker’s entire argument is that there was no significant moral progress prior to the Enlightenment, since prior progress would disprove the causation he claims. But prior progress in the West was very great, as anyone with any grasp of history knows. Christianity immediately obviated many of the worst moral behaviors of the Ancient World (variants of which are still common in non-Christian cultures), from infanticide to the Roman practice of starving children to death in sight of a banquet, to distill their organs into love potions that would enhance desire. Christianity further led to the rule of law and was instrumental in the creation of the institutions that made possible the Scientific Revolution. All these moves forward, as Pinker documents while glossing over their cause, led to further moral gains. To hide his embarrassment at these pre-Enlightenment advances, Pinker chants, over and over again, the same trite phrases about “endless religious wars” and repeats boring anecdotes about witchcraft and bearbaiting.

After these convincing chapters (convincing for their substance, at least), Pinker covers some softer topics, somewhat less successfully. Generally, the less harder-edged and susceptible to statistical analysis the topic, the worse Pinker does in showing that actual progress is being made. In fairness, though, it is true these softer topics, to the extent one agrees they constitute actual progress comparable to that covered in the earlier chapters, are more tied to actual Enlightenment ideas.

First up is Democracy, which he claims is increasing, but Pinker helps himself over the finish line by defining democracy as basically any good government, one which “threads the needle, exerting just enough force to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself.” That, along with other definitional broadening from Karl Popper and John Mueller, means that democracy is redefined as any government with the rule of law and some responsiveness to public opinion. But in any case, there’s more democracy, however defined, and that’s Progress. Next is Equal Rights, where Pinker goes full Left, trumpeting all emancipation as good for what ails a society, and all failure to emancipate as evil incarnate (although he seems confused, since what is evil, anyway, to someone who denies the reality of moral abstractions other than utilitarian ones?) He does try to give a scientific gloss to his philosophical attachment to emancipation, ascribing it to more wealth means more people seek self-actualization, and want the same for others. This he then extrapolates to a claim that liberal values are spreading everywhere, with a lot of graphs (though we’re never told what “liberal values” are being measured, but by implication they overlap with “emancipative values”).

Then Knowledge (we know more, and we’re getting smarter); Quality of Life (we work less and both the necessities and luxuries of life are cheaper); and Happiness (we are happier, largely because we’re richer, though Deaton covers this much better and more subtly). Along with Daniel T. Rodgers, Pinker huffily rejects Robert Putnam and others who point to the atomization of American lives as a problem, with the flip response that “Users of the Internet and social media have more contact with friends” and they “remain as satisfied with the number and quality of their friendships as in the decade of Gerald Ford and Happy Days.” But this is obtuse. Putnam’s claim wasn’t that people didn’t have friends anymore, it was that the intermediary institutions that were the entire basis of the success of any successful, and in particular, the successful American, society had been completely destroyed, resulting in the cascading baleful effects that Tocqueville and Robert Nisbet had earlier identified and feared. Pinker totally fails to make this connection, or more likely deliberately obfuscates it (which is probably why he refers to fears of social atomization as a “hysterical misconception”—that’s protesting too much). Not to mention that Putnam would have told him, too, that the problem was well under way by the time of Gerald Ford, so the 1970s are probably not the best comparison decade to today.

Finally, Pinker points out that Existential Threats, from Y2K to bioterror, are grossly exaggerated. Sure, we can’t know the future, but on balance, we’re not all likely to wink out of existence next week, or next millennium. Of the supposed threat from artificial intelligence, he says “the scenario makes about as much sense as the worry that since jet planes have surpassed the flying ability of eagles, someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle.” Ha ha. He’s also heinously sexist. “There is no law of complex systems that says that intelligent agents must turn into ruthless conquistadors. Indeed, we know of one highly advanced form of intelligence that evolved without this defect. They’re called women.”

I like all this, and agree with much of it (although I could do without the constant references to Mama Cass and the Beatles, reminding me Pinker is stuck, in many ways, in the 1960s). I am mostly a techno-optimist myself. However, Pinker’s greatest technical error, as opposed to failure of vision, is to believe (like Joseph Tainter) that if it can’t be quantified, it doesn’t exist. I’m a quantitative guy, personally—I have an MBA with finance and accounting concentrations from the Booth School of Business, and my wife correctly says I view the world as Neo does in the last scenes of "The Matrix"—as cascading columns of numbers underlying the perceived, but merely surface, reality of things. Certainly, non-quantifiable views of human flourishing are subject to errors of perception, which is probably why Pinker repeatedly excoriates the Romantics. But Pinker is too quick to reject that humans seek transcendence, and all the new flavors of Doritos and life extension in the world isn’t going to change that. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Pinker is fond of quoting Jesus, always with a sneer, but he does not offer us that truth, because it scares him, since it cannot be quantified.

But the unquantifiable aspects of progress are a topic too long to get into in this review. Pinker wraps up Progress by talking about its future. He does this by making totally unsupported claims about the origin of Progress. “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81.” “The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” Therefore, it’s going to continue, don’t you know? No logic is offered, just repetition of the mantra of “knowledge” and trying to tie the Enlightenment to the Scientific Revolution by repeatedly mentioning them in the same breath. It’s not convincing; in fact, it comes across as desperate.

Embedded within all this proof of progress (for proof is what it is—we can quibble, or call it incomplete, but only a fool would say that material progress since the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution has not been immense), is the truth, difficult for some to accept, that all this progress was caused purely by, and until recently only affected, the West. It is the Western world has gotten better—and finally, after 400 years, some of those benefits have been adopted by others. That’s it. This is not a global phenomenon in cause, and it may not be a global phenomenon in effect, if the inferior cultures of the world, for whatever reason, refuse to accept the gifts offered by the Western Scientific Revolution. Pinker doesn’t make this point, either, though I can see why—it’s inflammatory and distracts from his argument. (He does admit that his first love, the Enlightenment, was a wholly Western phenomenon, a topic he shuffles away from quickly, mumbling about how ideas have no home, which may be true, but they do have a birthplace.)

[Review continues as first comment.]
Profile Image for Morgan Blackledge.
624 reviews2,042 followers
June 3, 2018
If you had to chose a time to be alive, and (here’s the catch) you couldn’t pick what race, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status or nationality you were. You’d be flat wrong if you chose any other time than right fuckin’ now!


Steven Pinker would like to convince you otherwise.

According to Pinker. Humans (on average) have never had it so good. And he’s got 500(+) pages and 75(+) graphs and charts that illustrate exactly that.

And quite convincingly so.

My favorite part is.

He’s an equal opportunity hate hater.

Pinker takes aim at both the far left and alt right in an all out data rich blitz attack on the histrionic, anti-intellectual fear-mongering both sides of the American political divide reliably trade in.

Pinker argues that DJT’s populist uprising was a direct result of these exact misinformation wars.

According Pinker’s diverse compilation of world health data, beginning in the mid nineties and continuing to the present and foreseeable future, global life spans, individual purchasing power, heath and wellbeing (by a multitude of measures) are all hella on the rise, while violent crime, poverty and disease are on the yard dart (see footnote at end of review) like trajectory nose dive decline.

That being said, the average ideologue of either flavor very reliably believes that things are going to heck in a hatbox (to put it nicely).


Pinker posits that precisely this ‘armageddon is upon us’ style sentiment enabled Donald Twitler’s P. T. Barnum style ascent, lending support to the O.G.’s (difficult at this particular historical juncture to deny) assertion that there’s ‘a sucker born ever minute’.

Pinker invites us all to simply stop watching cable news (the overwhelmingly ‘uge’ beneficiaries of the Trumpster fire none of us can easily take our eyes off of) and have a look at some Good Organized Data (GOD).

His point is not to inspire pollyannish optimism, but rather to stimulate (i) critical thinking and (ii) a commitment to solving the problems we face rather than trying to scare the undecideds into action, with the unintended, but predictable effect of scarring people into paralysis.

People of the world: ideology is mental illness. Cable news is for retards. Our best (no only) hope is to figure out what kind of life we all want, and adopt a data driven, rational, naturalistic, pragmatic, realistic approach to getin’ er done.

In a nutshell, Pinker urges us to recommit to enlightenment ideals e.g. science and humanism, and ditch the bleeding and leading hokum drizzled in snake-oil sauce pumped at us by the 24/7 alternative fact machines on both sides of the ideological sinkhole.


FOOT NOTE: for those of you too young to remember yard darts. It was this insanely dangerous lawn game that was comprised of two hula hoops laying on the grass at about 10 yards apart, and these approximately 5-7 pound mettle darts with a heavy sharp end, that you chucked underhanded up in the air and attempted to land in the other persons hoop. The SHUNK sound they made when they pierced the lawn was SO satisfying it defies words. And they were hugely popular in the 70’s. But they were eventually banned because of the (retrospectively obvious but at the time not so much) danger that you could hit your pal in the top of the dome with one of those bad boys and, well, if they didn’t die on impact, it’s all but certain they would be severely brain damaged. It is entirely plausible that the increase in lifespan indicated in Pinker’s research was significantly positively effected by the entirely rational ban of this ridiculously lethal toy.
Profile Image for Jillian Doherty.
353 reviews66 followers
August 11, 2017
Ever since Bill Gates tweeted his endorsement for Pinker's Better Angels, fans have rushed to support his writing of big ideas by big thinkers!

Enlightenment Now illustrates Pinker's practical yet tangible style, but is freshly positive as well. His explosive understanding toward social science and political empathy will appeal to all big thinkers and affirmative readers alike.
Profile Image for Maria Espadinha.
1,028 reviews374 followers
April 6, 2020
Progress Where Are Thou?

“Here's the shocking fact: The world has made fantastic progress on all indicators of human welfare. A second shocking fact: Virtually no one knows this.“

Bad news are always extremely loud. Just by reading those huge headlines we’ll instantly know how sick is the world we live in!

On the other hand, good news are usually silent. So silent that a good new is — most of the times — a no new.
That’s why this book was born — to be the voice of those silent news!

Surprise, Surprise, Guys:
The world is turning into a better place and we didn’t even know about it! 😉 😂👍
Profile Image for Nika.
152 reviews162 followers
March 17, 2022
3.5 stars

" The appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made ."

Steven Pinker focuses on the welfare of humankind and progress that it has made in the last 250 years. The book covers many aspects of progress, such as life expectancy, provision of food, healthcare, access to education and world literacy rates, human rights, the long-term decline of violence against women, the victimization of children, hate crimes, and interstate wars.
But even if they are not wiped off the face of the earth, they can be reduced further, including violence against women and children, hate crimes, civil war, and homicide.

Not only has violence declined, but the attitude to it has changed. Today we are much less tolerable towards images containing violence, etc.
After the end of WWII the world entered the period that has been called the Long Peace, something that most people in the 19th century would have thought improbable.
After analyzing a large amount of statistical data, Pinker is convinced that the life of a typical modern human being is apriori better than that of a typical man or woman, say, 100 years ago.
Figures show that life has gotten “longer, healthier, richer, safer, happier, freer, smarter, deeper, and more interesting.”

Pinker admits that there are some parts of the world where the situation may become and sometimes does become worse, but that’s how global trends work.
For example, as the data show, world literacy rates have been steadily increasing over the last 50 years. However, in some regions, the indicators have fallen during this period.
But such contrasting with the overall picture facts do not countermand the positive trend according to which people across societies are becoming more literate and educated.
Setbacks and periods of stagnation may happen and usually do not negate overall progress.

Pinker disavows certain myths that are present in our collective consciousness.
The number of people who consider themselves religious is declining in the modern world.
Contrary to common belief, the rate of suicides across the world is also on the decline.

I liked how Pinker commented on contemporary media and its current role in society. They often exploit one of the manifest features of the human brain.
According to cognitive scientists, we tend to pay more attention to nasty things than to good and happy ones. As a result, hardly anyone speaks of the plunging number of people living in extreme poverty or of increasing literacy rates worldwide.
Instead, content creators focus mainly on sad events, such as terrorist attacks and the victims of car crashes. We are flooded with catchy headlines promising to inform us of some violent event in one or another part of the world.

Talking about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the author does not regard income inequality as a factor that hinders progress. According to him, the fact that the rich are getting rich does not mean that the poor stay poor.

Certain comparisons look dubious. For ex., his statement that conditions even in the poorest parts of the world are now somewhat similar to those in the rich developed countries 70 years ago.
At times the author seems to simplify the complex processes that shaped our current world.

Among the existential threats, Pinker names climate change, but even that could be dealt with given that the world work in concert (well, subjunctive here becomes an imperative).
One may ask whether it is correct statistics-wise to approximate a large set of data, say from 1300 to our days, as the author does in his charts. One need not be a statistician to suggest that the data available for the year of 1350 must be much less complete than those available for 2015.

A lot of problems exist today, and problems will always remain. But Enlightenment with its four ideals - reason, science, humanism, and progress - teaches us that most problems are solvable.
As Pinker himself puts it, progress is demonstrable through figures, but, of course, it does not apply to all. If everyone in the world were touched by progress, it would be a miracle, but progress does not equal miracles. Progress does not mean that everything starts being better for everyone everywhere.
The positive trends the world enjoys today may be reversed in the future. No one can guarantee constant progress.
We must continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

Despite some qualifications, Pinker’s ideas sound too optimistic to me. Perhaps, one might say that Pinker is on the bright side of modern intellectual life.
Not all agree with Pinker’s theories. Some argue that his graphs and statistics are not often reliable. For example, they believe that he gives an unduly optimistic picture concerning famine and other similar measurable indicators. Some think that he focuses too much on developed countries with rich populations.
My knowledge does not permit me to decide which side is closer to the truth - Pinker or his opponents - but I find at least one of his ideas relevant and helpful.
He insists on progress and its feasibility. The author proves his point with figures and graphs because he wants to show humanity that its problems could be solved by using knowledge and reason, or at least they could be significantly diminished.
Pinker warns against the dangers of what he calls thoughtless or fact-free pessimism. If humanity is doomed, as some skeptics tend to believe, why should anyone bother to make an effort to improve the human condition?

To sum up, almost all measurable elements that define the quality of life, such as sustenance, health, life expectancy, peaceful relations between countries, lowering of crime rates, gender equality, literacy, and the protection of childhood, have been improving over the last decades.
According to Pinker, these measurements point to socio-economical, political, and moral progress.

I would like to end this review with the following quote.
Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these .”
Steven Pinker? Bill Gates?.. Ovid.
Profile Image for Bharath.
643 reviews474 followers
January 24, 2021
The short summary of this book is that despite the considerable negative news we are subjected to every day, life is progressively getting better and for people at large. Though some of the inferences are simplistic and also unreliable, this is an intellectually stimulating book.

The point Steven Pinker makes is that though some political leaders claim that the situation is deteriorating in terms of prosperity, safety and well-being, that is not really the case. He has a lot of data & references to make his case, including an analysis of news coverage over the years. The coverage we are exposed to is far more negative than in the past decades. He makes the point that capitalism and free markets have created wealth and in turn improved quality of life, health, safety, knowledge and made people happier. The Enlightenment ideals anchored by reason and science are the way forward, and people & nations who pursue that agenda are surging ahead.

At a broad level, there is not too much to debate with the data or the reasoning which Pinker presents. Quite clearly, global poverty has dipped and living standards have improved. Pinker does concede that aggregates can hide pockets where things have not improved much. The book, however, steers clear of discussing these areas. At one point Pinker suggests a pandemic is very unlikely – after all there is the leap needed from animals to humans – a bet he has clearly lost in the circumstance. Pinker in his narrative also ignores the fact that there is a power structure in the world order which decides who will be heard and who will not. This allows a lot of rulers to stay secure that their military & economic power ensures that they will never be called out for serious censure. Also, though there is a lot of data, not all of it is reliable. Since years, I have read summaries of reports published on human rights, media freedom etc which either rely on poor media coverage or are influenced by powerful sponsors. In many cases, a local school going kid would have provided a more reliable perspective of the countries referenced. I also read the critical essays of Nassim Taleb on the data & analysis Pinker presents. That said, there is not too much which changes in the aggregate picture which Pinker paints though and I see little purpose in quibbling over individual data points. Some of the correlation Pinker suggests around wealth, happiness, religion, science is a stretch, but that scientific temper and reasoning should be held paramount is obviously something most of us would agree with. While the early sections with the data points are important, I actually found the latter sections which debate political alignment, science, etc to be more interesting.

Things are better than they were say a century ago, yes – and yet that is not a reference point most of us hold day to day. If the world can get so much better with such inconsistent co-operation, groupism among nations and luck, what can it be if nations actually planned for the future to be better collectively?

While there is quite a bit of the book which I obviously can debate about and some which I do not agree with, these are important matters which actually should find more coverage among the political leadership, academia and many of us. This is a book which substantially elevates the level of discourse, and for that I strongly recommend it for reading.

My rating: 4.5 / 5.
Profile Image for Otis Chandler.
392 reviews114k followers
January 8, 2019
An eye-opening book. I picked this up because I saw the authors TED talk, and then Bill Gates called it the best book he's read in a decade (his review is worth reading)

The book starts with a premise that many people generally have an impression that the world is full of of serious crises.

"Magazine covers warn us of coming anarchies, plagues, epidemics, collapses, and so many “crises” (farm, health, retirement, welfare, energy, deficit) that copywriters have had to escalate to the redundant “serious crisis.” Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen."

Basically, we worry a lot. A LOT. We live in dark times (with a scary president), etc. Pinker points out why we worry so much: the news. The news cycle is designed to play on our fears, and thus it is largely negative, focusing on all the bad things that are happening in the world. And we are consuming more news than ever in human history! And if the news focused on all the good things, the ratings would plummet, after all. But one of my favorite lines in the book points out that we would be hard pressed to find negative news if we were covering the last 100 years, instead of the last day.

"Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy."

And that was the eye opening thing about the book - if you take a long term view, every metric you can find has gotten better. Life expectancy, health, extreme poverty, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, literacy, leisure, and even happiness - he has chapters and graphs for each of them, showing them vastly improving over the past centuries and usually with most gains in the past century. An interesting point is that most graphs show third world countries only being ~20-30 years behind first world countries, but the shape of the graphs looks the same in terms of the rate of progress. I won't recap all the graphs and numbers, but here is a small example of how life has gotten better.

"In the mid-19th century it took twenty-five men a full day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain; today one person operating a combine harvester can do it in six minutes."

This is not to say that there aren't still large problems in all of those areas left to solve. Nor that we haven't created other problems - the book has chapters on some of those, notably climate change and nuclear war - but again there we have actually made progress. For some reason I haven't quite fully fathomed, Pinker and this book have gotten a lot of criticism. I think some of this is from people who object to him saying "the world is great" because there is so much progress left to be made - yet Pinker often admits that in the book. Or from people who think he is measuring progress along the wrong metrics, and we are all headed for an apocalypse. Certainly, there are lots of books about apocalypse, but it's much more pleasant to be an optimist, and believe that as long as we keep applying reason and science and making progress, the world will keep getting better.
Profile Image for Amirography.
198 reviews113 followers
April 29, 2018
This book is a sequel to Steven Pinker's other book "The Better Angels of our nature". The "The Better Angels of our nature" is a detailed comparison of violence in history. And how it reduced. The reasons for reduction and existence of these violences was covered.
But "Enlightenment now" Covers other topics such as health, wealth, knowledge and many more.
These two books have changed my mind about many of my core beliefs such as anarchism, nuclear energy, and endless other topics.

Profile Image for Ryan Boissonneault.
198 reviews2,069 followers
February 17, 2018
Francis Bacon once said that “some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” This is one of the few.

The main thesis of the book is that the enlightenment values of reason, science, and humanism have led to scientific and moral progress and that the embrace of these values will continue the trend. This, as opposed to counter-enlightenment values (religious faith, nationalism, tribalism, relativism, declinism), is the recipe for the maximization of human flourishing and the minimization of human suffering.

Pinker defends this thesis with massive amounts of data demonstrating that just about every meaningful dimension of human well-being has improved since the Age of Enlightenment. He also describes the drivers of progress and provides highly rational and sometimes unexpected conclusions about a variety of issues including climate change, artificial intelligence, and income inequality.

The data, ideas, and philosophy in this book are extremely important, but unfortunately, people’s natural aversion to the concept of progress leads to some common objections that I’d like to address.

Common Objections

Objection #1: I already know all of this

No, you don’t, and you almost certainly haven’t read the book if you say this. This massive undertaking examines the progress of human welfare in almost all aspects of life, and covers the most pressing questions about health, income, inequality, violence, safety, democracy, freedom, human rights, knowledge, happiness, climate change, artificial intelligence, and more.

To claim that you know all of this is the epitome of hubris by suggesting that you already have figured out the best ways to think about and handle the world’s toughest challenges. IF you read the book, you will learn something. Not to mention Pinker is a skilled writer, the content is interesting, and the history of progress is history we should be proud of.

Objection #2: Bad things still happen so isn’t progress an illusion?

Pinker never makes the claim that violence, death, disease, suffering, or poverty has or ever will reach zero instances. This is not a book about achieving some kind of utopia. But pointing out specific examples of bad things that still happen does nothing to refute the overall thesis that astronomical progress has been made over the last few centuries since the Enlightenment.

You can’t measure progress by citing specific examples or anecdotes. For example, the worldwide poverty rate has fallen from 43 percent just in 1990 to 21 percent in 2011. That’s a lot of people that have escaped poverty, and pointing out the people that are still poor says nothing about the trend.

Pinker uses 70+ graphs and an overwhelming amount of statistics to make his case, so I’m sure if you wanted to you could find something to nitpick at. But you’ll also probably lose sight of the big picture and the more important numbers, trends, and points.

Also keep in mind that the most troubled parts of the world prove Pinker’s point rather than refute it, as the most violent parts are also the least secular, democratic, literate, educated, and wealthy and embody counter-enlightenment ideals.

Objection #3: Ok, so material well-being has increased, but the world is in no better shape spiritually. Pinker’s view of the world is materialist and reductionist.

This objection usually comes from the religiously-inclined. It results from the false assumption that if you’re not religious you’re a reductionist or that you practice “scientism.”

Science may not be able to determine our values, but philosophy, particularly Enlightenment philosophy, can. With its emphasis on human well-being and flourishing, Enlightenment philosophy sets the agenda to make us healthier, wealthier, wiser, freer, and happier.

And once we all agree that life is better than death, wealth is better than poverty, and well-being is better than suffering, science can help us get there, which it already has and which is painstakingly documented in this book.

The conditions for happiness are available to most of the world’s population. And as for higher purpose, plenty of people find great satisfaction in charity work, championing worthwhile social causes, pursuing meaningful work, spending time with friends and family, enjoying culture, traveling, and taking advantage of unprecedented amounts of leisure time. We’re responsible for creating our own meaning and we now have a plethora of choices in how to achieve this.

Inexplicably, this still leaves some people cold. In the words of Pinker:

“The idea that the ultimate good is to use knowledge to enhance human welfare leaves people cold. Deep explanations of the universe, the planet, life, the brain? Unless they use magic, we don’t want to believe them! Saving the lives of billions, eradicating disease, feeding the hungry? Bo-ring. People extending their compassion to all of humankind? Not good enough—we want the laws of physics to care about us! Longevity, health, understanding, beauty, freedom, love? There’s got to be more to life than that!”

Objection #4: It’s naive to think progress will continue.

Pinker distinguishes between two kinds of optimism. The first is complacency optimism, whereby you expect a positive outcome without extending any effort to influence the outcome. The second is conditional optimism, whereby you directly influence an outcome by identifying problems and proposing solutions.

Pinker is of the second variety. He admits that progress is by no means guaranteed, but at the same time human history has been defined by its ability to identify and solve problems. This is productive optimism and makes you wonder what the benefit of pessimism is, exactly.
Profile Image for Fadi.
58 reviews29 followers
February 24, 2020
OK, Boomer!
“Evolutionary thinkers who insist on a moralizing orientation when considering a complex biocultural phenomenon such as religion are not meaningfully advancing their field. But Pinker makes matters worse by compounding ideological bias with historical ignorance.” ~Modernity & Cultural Decline.
Profile Image for Ayse_.
155 reviews73 followers
July 28, 2018
Enlightening indeed! Very uplifting reading, especially for pessimists like me. He clearly points out the effect of distorted/exaggerated news, the negative bias of people, dirty politics and the lack of reason behind all the sky-is -falling attitude that seems to dominate communities.

I have learned so many good facts from this book that helped me view things differently such as the global Cosmopolitanism, 8x increase in number of countries ruled by democracy within the last 50 years, the increased life quality and expectancy.

He believes in our ability to create solutions and adapt. He pinpoints the evidence that we are evolving to a better vision of ourselves despite the fluctuations that may seem like a step-back at times. Lets hope the carbon emission will be under control soon..AND that the people will trust in science more than their own beliefs and superstitions. (and act accordingly)

Great book, I am so glad I read it.
Profile Image for Michael Sebastian.
18 reviews4 followers
January 5, 2019
Steven Pinker's book, Enlightment Now, has a pretty basic premise. Things have gotten better as a whole for humanity in the past century, especially compared to the conditions in which most people lived not that long ago. For some reason though, Pinker not only needs to make the case that life has gotten better, but, because most things are better, everything must be great. A good chunk of this book is spent chastising people that are trying to make the world better for not being "grateful" enough, and downplaying things that are real problems. One of the examples that stood out to me the most was his defense of sweatshop labor, saying: "while working on the factory floor is often referred to as sweatshop labor, it is often better than the grandaddy of all sweatshops working in the field as an agricultural day worker."
This seemed like an extreme claim to me, so I did a little digging and found this article in the New York Times that talks about this same subject. From the article:

People who worked in agriculture or market selling earned about as much money as they could have at the factory, often with fewer hours and better conditions. We were amazed: By the end of a year only a third of the people who had landed an industrial job were still employed in the industrial sector at all. It would be easy to see this as the normal trial-and-error of young people starting out careers, but actually the factory jobs carried dangerous risks. Serious injuries and disabilities were nearly double among those who took the factory jobs, rising to 7 percent from about 4 percent. This risk rose with every month they stayed. The people we interviewed told us about exposure to chemical fumes and repetitive stress injuries.

Quite a different picture than the one given by Pinker in his book. There are definitely positives to a country becoming more industrialized, and I think there is a valid argument to have on the sacrifices that need to be made to get to a point where the society can benefit from that industrialization. But Pinker completely glosses over the real suffering of people in these sweatshops so that he can pretend that the entire process is amazing. This is disingenuous and doesn't help anyone, but when it comes to other issues, like race, he misleads in even more blatant ways:

"The data suggest that the number of police shootings has decreased, not increased in recent decades, and three independent analyses have found that a black suspect is no more likely than a white suspect to be killed by the police"

On face value that claim seems absurd, but even the article he cites for this information confirms that what he's saying is wildly misleading: "According to the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Report, 31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the general population."

The article goes on to say that this is the case because black people have more encounters with the police. Pinker never mentions that blacks are over represented in police homicide by two and a half times, he only cherry picks what he wants from the article, and discards the part that's inconvenient to the story that he's trying to tell. It's hard for me to imagine that he read that article, and what jumped out to him was "a black suspect is no more likely than a white suspect to be killed by the police" instead of "31.8 percent of people shot by the police were African-American, a proportion more than two and a half times the 13.2 percent of African-Americans in the general population." It's pretty blatant misrepresentation and really made me question all of the other "facts" he put into the book.

Another argument made in this book is that economic inequality isn't really a problem: "The confusion of inequality with poverty comes straight out of the lump fallacy--the mindset in which wealth is a finite resource... As we just saw, wealth is not like that: since the Industrial Revolution, it has expanded exponentially. That means that when the rich get richer, the poor can get richer, too."

But the United Nations report on Extreme Poverty in the United States seems to tell a different story. From the report:

"But its immense wealth and expertise stand in shocking contrast with the conditions in which vast numbers of its citizens live. About 40 million live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty. It has the highest youth poverty rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the highest infant mortality rates among comparable OECD States."

It seems to directly contradict Pinker's assessment that the richest country in the world has the highest youth poverty rate in the OECD. If "when the rich get richer, the poor can get richer, too" then this wouldn't be the case. Aside from the dubiousness of the claim that a rising tide lifts all boats, Pinker doesn't seem to understand the full extent of how inequality damages a society. He thinks that people raising issues about economic inequality see wealth as a finite resource, but he doesn't take the next step and address the fact that power is a finite resource. From the UN report again:

"What extreme inequality actually signifies is the transfer of economic and political power to a handful of elites who inevitably use it to further their own self-interest, as demonstrated by the situation in various countries around the world."

There is never any serious conversation in this book about the power the ultra rich have gained over our society. Not only in the private sector, but their ability to influence the democratic sector as well. Pinker has a chapter about democracy as a liberating force in modern society, but ignores some of the fundamental ways it's undermined by the concentration of power in the hands of a few.

I have more issues with this book, but it would require a lot more text than this to rebut every single claim. There's a pretty good response to his critique of environmentalists here. In terms of "facts", it's hard to trust a lot of the claims that this book makes, and I think someone would be better off doing the research on their own or just reading another book. Some of the stuff in here is blatant misinformation, but a lot of it is just manipulated to match the author's own personal biases. I don't even disagree that the world has gotten better for most people in the past century, but sugar coating it's current problems isn't helping anyone. Not only is it actively standing in the way of people making a better world, but it could push the world into even worse situations if some of these festering problems aren't addressed.
Profile Image for Maria Espadinha.
1,028 reviews374 followers
September 18, 2019
Levanta-te e Anda...

No Humanismo integram-se a solidariedade, a compaixão, a empatia,...
É o respeito pelo indivíduo como indivíduo e não como membro dum grupo determinado por crenças religiosas, cor da pele, etc, etc,...
Somos todos humanos e é quanto basta!...

E sempre que o Humanismo se alia à Ciência, obtemos Progresso.

Os media tendem a bombardear-nos com o Negativo em detrimento do Positivo, e este livro propõe-se actuar como contra-peso, reunindo factos e estatísticas que comprovam o Progresso como um aqui e agora presente, e não como fantasma dum devir à la longue ...

“Eis o facto chocante: O mundo conseguiu um progresso fantástico em todos os indicadores do bem-estar humano. Um segundo facto chocante: Praticamente ninguém sabe isto.”

Animem-se que o Mundo está a melhorar, é a mensagem positiva (e comprovada) que iremos encontrar neste livro!
A continuar assim, daqui por mais um século ou dois (mais coisa, menos coisa), já a Mafalda poderá contar a toda a gente que o Mundo está curado, e finalmente, com o maior cuidado, chutá-lo para fora do leito!... 😜

Força nisso, Mundo: Levanta-te e Anda!... 😜
Cristo já não está cá para dizê-lo, mas legou-nos a sua milagrosa frase 😉
Profile Image for Richard.
1,147 reviews1,044 followers
October 2, 2018
Pinker’s latest is getting a lot of press, of course.

Here are a few links:

His own synopsis at the Wall Street Journal: The Enlightenment Is Working (paywall; try Googling wsj The Enlightenment Is Working and clicking through from Google, maybe into “private browsing mode”. Works sometimes.)

Ezra Klein of Vox is a pretty good interviewer, and he hooked up with Pinker at his podcast. I really liked that they both name-dropped Dan Kahan's work at his Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School. Even though Kahan's research has a slightly skewed focus on risk, that he points to "identity-protective cognition" is central how I perceive the tribal partisanship our country is in. The compound adjective is key; many folks now believe that motivated reasoning can create an intrinsic cogntive bias, but far fewer realize how it is typically used: subconsciously, in protection of part of a person's social identity.

It's also kinda cool that this is now officially Bill Gate's "new favorite book of all time". I'm ambivalent about Gates. On the negative side, I still despise how Microsoft, under his control, violated so many norms of fair play in pursuit of monopoly. And I know he's just doing that thing that plutocrats always do once making more money seems fruitless: build libraries. Oh, sorry that was the similarly amoral robber baron Andrew Carnegie. Same difference, right? But then I recall that Gates seems to be doing good things (as did Carnegie), while some others use their wealth in ways I mostly dislike. So: ambivalence.

Will I read it? Dunno. I really liked his Better Angels, but my gut reaction is that his argument is facile: technically correct, but overlooks too much. For example, there's this, which is scary even before that whole identity-protective motivated reasoning thing is added in. Maybe Pinker addresses that, though.

And frankly, there’s just so much more to read out there. I know I'll be reading How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future before Pinker.

Update 19-Apr-2018—

Pinker’s short interview with the Economist was well done, and made me think some about what I think his argument is, and why I think it’s flawed. The crux is this: Pinker is mostly dealing with materialist goals and the progress we are making in meeting them. To that extent, he’s undoubtedly correct. What we learned due to the Enlightenment has done marvels in gradually pulling us into a better future than Pangloss could have imagined (he refers Pangloss in his interview response).

The problem is that he doesn’t perceive a deeper problem: that the Enlightenment did not provide us with a sense of meaning, purpose, or any hints about how to find them elsewhere (other than “hey, just make up your own!”). I ended my slam of Matt Ridley’s similar (but much more amateurish effort), The Rational Optimist. Here’s the text from that review — if you yank out Ridley and insert Pinker, I strongly suspect my critique of Enlightenment Now would be congruent:

Ridley points out that humans have evolved into incredibly efficient organisms at solving the problems our paleolithic ancestors faced. Most humans alive today have access to food, health and a length of life that would astonish even our great-grandparents.

And given how important those things are in our life, I’m also optimistic that we’re going to keep getting better at them. Given the staggering amount of research that’s going on, it would be very surprising if the coming decades don’t provide continuing delights at keeping people healthier and living longer.

But here’s the problem: when I look around me, most of the people I see are already pretty satisfied on those counts. Sure, it’ll be really sweet when we finally cure cancer, and when we can reliably prevent Alzheimer’s, etc., etc. But the existential threats that drove paleolithic existence aren’t reflected on most folks’ day-to-day anxiety list, are they?

The upshot of this is a little tricky: if the existential threats present during evolutionary time aren’t what drives us today… what does? Something I think is important to realize is that no matter what the answer is to that question, it isn’t embedded in our nature, at least certainly not in the same way as the old threats. Which means it is a very flexible thing, informed by culture, preference, and contingency. And that means individual and societal choices will vary widely, and might often contradict each other. I can easily imagine some of those drives being cause for pessimism — whether they be growth-for-growth’s sake of the capitalist, or the holy wars of various religious extremists. Those mimetic constructs could, in turn, put a damper on the pollyannaish future presented here.

Since Ridley merely examines how good we are at meeting the materialistic goals of cavemen, he really never gets it. The pessimism of the post-modern isn’t about Malthusian crises, but about the lack of focused direction for our post-materialist civilization to take.

Ridley doesn’t see that problem, and his book is fundamentally flawed.
My complaint has broadened in the eight years since I reviewed that book, because it has been informed by the social crises we face today, especially regarding how social identity in the modern world has become a more salient dividing point between populations, despite the astonishing fact that it is often quite arbitrary. Modernity has a whole host of problems which are becoming ever more germane.

So now I’m a bit more curious, and might have to read this to see if Pinker even notices that a whole host of new problems face humanity.
Profile Image for Ian.
767 reviews65 followers
March 3, 2020
Prof. Pinker points out early in this book that people have a tendency to marshal evidence that confirms their convictions whilst dismissing evidence that contradicts them. I’m as guilty of that as most people, and on the evidence of this book, my own convictions are similar to the author’s. Prof. Pinker’s book largely provides me with reinforcement for my pre-existing opinions and on that basis it’s not surprising I rate it highly.

A large part of the book is taken up with the author arguing that the ideals of the Enlightenment have led to levels of health, wealth, human rights, peace and security, and all-round happiness that were unimaginable to people in the pre-Enlightenment age. Also part of his argument is an attack on the surprisingly common belief that the world was a better place in the past than it is today. I’ve always felt that rose-tinted views of the past fly in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and overwhelming evidence is what Prof. Pinker provides, with a barrage of statistics and graphs about how the world has changed since the Enlightenment era. I had a few minor quibbles about some of his arguments, but nothing that affected the overall merits of his case.

Of course, saying that things are far better than they were is not to say that we live in Utopia. Prof. Pinker would be the first to say that the world still faces many problems, and he addresses those that could reverse the gains of modernity. The hoary old chestnuts of resource depletion and “the Population Bomb” are despatched without much ado. He’s completely dismissive of the Elon Musk/Stephen Hawking arguments about the threat of AGI, (which made me feel rather foolish, since on this website I’ve previously written a favourable review of a book which articulates those fears). He does rate climate change and nuclear war as potentially serious threats (though again, if you had asked political commentators in the 1950s or 1960s about the chances of getting to 2018 without nuclear weapons ever being used, most would have rated the chances as close to zero).

I’m a little less sanguine than Prof. Pinker when it comes to the threats to progress posed by nationalism, populism, political extremism (of the left and right) and religious fanaticism, all of which seem to be on a world-wide upswing at the moment. Prof. Pinker seems to be think that we’re just going through a bit of a bad patch and that it’ll all turn out right in the end. I hope he’s right.

I had to take my time reading this book, as I had to consider the arguments carefully, and also because I kept stopping to read the references. They’ve given me a few ideas for future reading material. Overall for me this was a 4.5 star rating, but objectively it deserves 5 stars.
Profile Image for Daniel Clausen.
Author 11 books469 followers
July 28, 2020
In many ways, reading this book was similar to reading Pinker's book "Better Angels of our Nature." The theory of the book was straight-forward, the evidence was well-organized, and the insights from the data were presented clearly. The first drawback to reading this book is that it covers a lot of the same ground as "Better Angels of our Nature." The second drawback to this book is that...well, even if the conclusions of this book aren't common sense, to people who are roughly familiar with enlightenment ideals and are fairly well-read on current affairs, it sort of is common sense. That's a nice way of saying that there are few ideas in this book that will leave you awe-struck.

That's not to see that Pinker isn't capable of writing such a book. I found "The Blank Slate" to be just such a book. That book remains one of my favorite books to this day. That is also the book I point to when I want to convince people what a great thinker Pinker is.

Pinker's argument is straightforward and comes in the preface: "I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Enlightenment ideals, I hope to show, are timeless, but they have never been more relevant than they are right now." (page 12).

If Enlightenment ideas are timeless, then why do they need a defense? Pinker's answer: "The ideals of the Enlightenment are products of human reason, but they always struggle with other strands of human nature: loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, the blaming of misfortune on evildoers" (page 18).

In many ways, "Enlightenment Now" is similar to "Factfullness" in its use of quantitative data to make the case that life is indeed getting better. Pinker's earlier book "Better Angels of our Nature" was also a book that relied heavily on quantitative data. However, by my recollection, that book did a better job of reflecting on how the numbers were arrived at. I think numeracy is an important skill, and too often it is easy to be wowed by numbers without realizing how they are produced and the difficulty of getting reliable numbers in certain contexts -- for example, the distant past and developing countries. My recollection of "Better Angels" is a few years removed, but I seem to remember Pinker doing a better job with educating readers on how numbers were arrived at. Having said that, I do think the graphs are presented in a useful and simple way. Often, the data comes in the form of time series line charts. I think the repeated use of these kinds of statistics is great for more casual readers who need to be convinced.

Another drawback to this book is that it tends to ignore and short-change the possibility of cataclysmic blowups. The discussion of the disruptive power of AI is discussed briefly, but pales in seriousness to Yuval Harari's analysis in "21 Lessons for the 21st Century." The benefits of enlightenment are discussed abundantly, but Frankenstein monsters like mortgage-backed securities are barely mentioned. In addition, one of the most important trends of the 21st century, the explosion of debt is barely discussed. The looming debt crisis (or, I should say crises since we are talking about various kinds of debts, government, municipal, shadow banking, and private) as well as other potential crises with systemic implications -- climate change, the growing use of social media, the introduction of disruptive technologies -- are under-discussed in this book. And because these systemic crises are under-discussed, Pinker fails to deal with the mother of all questions about modernity.

Does modernity increase the risk of catastrophic blow-ups?

Since nuclear war, climate change, and contagious financial panics are the product in one way or another of modernity, science, and globalization, is there a likelihood that more potentially catastrophic phenomena could be birthed from them? And, if so, what can we do to prevent potential catastrophic blow-ups from occurring?

Another way to think about the question is this way: In what ways is modern progress like a financial bubble?

For me, a high point of the book was its discussion of tribal epistemology. I have read short articles on tribal thinking, but the review of the literature here was excellent. And for those who are searching for literature that discusses this topic, the book can make for an effective gateway.

This was written in the Guardian about this book: "More pertinently, the failed 2016 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Remain demonstrated that, in the eyes of many people, “progress” simply meant more of the same. When people feel trapped and patronised by progress, then any alternative – even regress – will feel like freedom. Informing them that the policies of the past 40 years are still the best available starts to sound hopeless." (Full review here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...)

Perhaps that's another way of saying that technocratic modernity (complete with its wonky charts) can feel emotionally ungratifying. Instead of gradual improvements and progress by a thousand nudges, there is a part of the soul that yearns for liberation, heroism, and love. People like stories with heroes and villains. Enlightenment often sees the world in terms of mechanical and quasi-mechanical cause and effect relationships. Heroism seems less like heroism when it requires design and system-thinking rather than great sacrifices.

Nassim Taleb, another writer whose work I admire, steeps his writing in decidedly non-modern ideas and sentiments -- his thinking perhaps is best described as classical and romantic. I believe anyone who reads this book ought to put it in conversation with some of Taleb's writing (one or two books is enough).

I'm sure each of the authors would hate to hear it, but I'll say it anyway -- they are better read together than separately. The unabashed modernist/enlightenment thinker is better with a classical/romantic counterpart and vice versa.

I will repeat this: People who are only familiar with Pinker for "Better Angels" and "Enlightenment Now" ought to read his earlier work "Blank Slate." That book, more than his more recent works, demonstrates that he is a true thinker and not simply a chart-jockey or dataphile.

Overall, even if you do not need to be convinced of the merit of enlightenment ideas and ideals, this is a wonderful book to read.

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