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

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

The follow-up to Pinker's groundbreaking The Better Angels of Our Nature presents the big picture of human progress: 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 eleg...

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Title:Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Author:Steven Pinker
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Jillian Doherty

    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.

  • David

    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

    To which Pinker answers with a profound interpretation of the "meaning of life". I won't repeat his complete

    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

    To which Pinker answers with a profound interpretation of the "meaning of life". I won't repeat his complete answer, but he writes,

    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:

    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,

    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

    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.

  • Atila Iamarino

    Tudo o que esperava e um pouco mais. O livro é uma continuação do

    , 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

    Tudo o que esperava e um pouco mais. O livro é uma continuação do

    , 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

    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.

  • Ross Blocher

    Everyone should read

    . 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

    Everyone should read

    . 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,

    , 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.

  • Bill Gates

    For years, I’ve been saying Steven Pinker’s

    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

    so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book,

    , is even better.

    For years, I’ve been saying Steven Pinker’s

    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

    so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book,

    , is even better.

    takes the approach he uses in

    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

    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:

    —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.

    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

    or reading a book to starting a new business.

    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.

    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.

    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—

    . 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

    .

    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

    -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

    , 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.

    is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.

  • David Wineberg

    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

    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

  • Emily May

    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

    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 -

    - actually found that black people

    more likely to be shot by police than white people, but offered an opinion as to why this might be.

    .

    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

    , 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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  • Gary  Beauregard Bottomley

    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 condition

    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.

  • Trevor

    Why I won't be reading this:

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