Life gets busy. Has Enlightenment Now been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
Find out why Bill Gates refers to Enlightenment Now as his new favorite book of all time.
Enlightenment Now is Steven Pinker’s follow-up to The Better Angels of Our Nature. The latter asserts that human life is getting healthier and longer. The world is now safer, less violent, and wealthier. Pinker identified six major trends and five historical forces for this change. The most important one is the humanitarian revolution that the Enlightenment and its associated cultivation of reason brought. Enlightenment Now elaborates this argument by using social science data. It shows reason, science and humanism have brought us a general improvement of the human condition over recent history. Humanism is the belief that people can live by reason, rather than religious faith. Pinker explores the nature and importance of reason more in his next book, Rationality.
We can use the ideas of the Enlightenment to understand things better and solve climate change – the biggest problem humanity faces.
There are grounds to be hopeful about the future, despite the challenges. The world may improve for many more decades if we stick to the values of the Enlightenment.
It is refreshing to think the world is a better place and will continue to improve. Join us to find out if you agree with the overarching theme of hope in Enlightenment Now.
About Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is one of the world’s leading authorities on visual cognition and psycholinguistics. He is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Time magazine listed Pinker as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Pinker was born in 1954 to a middle-class Jewish family in Montreal, Canada. His grandparents immigrated to Canada from Poland and Romania, and owned a small necktie factory in Montreal. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a high-school vice-principal.
He received his BA from McGill University and his Ph.D. from Harvard. He has been a psychology professor at MIT and Harvard University.
His popular and highly praised books include The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. He also writes frequently for the New York Times, The New Republic, and other magazines.
StoryShot #1: The Enlightenment is The Age of Questioning, Understanding, and Critiquing
The Enlightenment has given us a gift; the notion that reason and science can increase humanity’s ability to thrive. Enlightenment’s motto, as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant proclaimed, is “Dare to know!”. Its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.
The Enlightenment period, also known as the Age of Enlightenment, was a philosophical movement prevalent in 18th-century Europe. It sought to question everything. The practitioners believed that we understand through continual questioning. Through understanding, we can handle any sort of criticism.
The Enlightenment endorses reason. This has led to some critics confusing it with the unrealistic claim that humans are perfectly rational beings. But this perception of perfect humans is far from the truth. Psychologists insisted we could hope to overcome irrationality only by calling out its common sources. The deliberate application of reason was necessary because our common habits of thought are not reasonable.
If we question, try to understand, and then deal with criticism in the same way, we can look at the world now and realize it’s a better place. Learning to view the world rationally is one of the most valuable skills one can have. This realization is an incredible story and not widely publicized.
Pinker outlines the ideas and values of the Enlightenment with a core motto: Sapere aude. In Latin, this roughly translates to ‘dare to know.
- Reason: Some things in this world are facts and thus non-negotiable. Some things are true, regardless of what religious or political authorities say.
- Science: We can discover facts about our existence through experiments. We can also pass them on to future generations through structured reasoning.
- Humanism: All of us are in this together. Tribalism and random groupings are as primitive as voodoo magic.
Pinker describes humanism as non-theism which aims to promote human well-being. That includes life, health, satisfaction, knowledge, freedom, love, and richness of experience. Sadly, some people think humanism is outdated and unrealistic.
Humankind’s progress was previously undervalued. This was because the ideals of the Enlightenment (reason, science, and humanism) were ignored. Enlightenment ideals are inspiring and noble. They are a reason to live with gratitude.
Contrary to popular assumptions, our world is growing better – not worse. The facts speak for themselves, rather than rhetorical flourishes. Technology is not being “wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled fools”. Instead, technology enables upcoming generations to discover the world and broaden their horizons. Today, we’re in a far better position than we were even a few decades ago. Yet, it appears not many are paying attention.
StoryShot #2: There Are Three Ways To Understand: Entropy, Evolution, Information
Pinker introduces three concepts that are key to understanding: Entropy, Evolution, and Information.
What’s the deal with the triple combination?
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy is inevitable. As entropy increases, isolated systems grow less structured. This continues until they hit a gray equilibrium and remain there.
What does entropy mean in human affairs?
There is a counter-Enlightenment movement that believes humanity is not unique. Things are getting worse every day. One day, we’ll all fall to the same monotonous gray equilibrium of decline.
Pinker disagrees, and believes it’s time to admit that humanity is “evolving.”
What’s the reason for this?
The Enlightenment has made us realize we are not a single, isolated system. Instead, we are part of a much larger and more complex organism known as Humanity. If we want to keep progressing, we need to commit even stronger to these principles.
What proof do you need?
Information will reveal that the situation is far better than it appears.
StoryShot #3: The Enlightenment Has Boosted Global Wealth
Pinker claims the Enlightenment increased wealth while reducing poverty and inequality. He offers scientific evidence to prove his point.
Over 90% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty just two centuries ago. That figure is less than 10% of the population. This is because global income quadrupled between 1820 and 1900. Pinker argues that higher living standards and economic freedom resulted from Enlightenment principles.
Even the poorest countries, such as El Salvador and Rwanda, experienced dramatic growth. They see their incomes quadruple every 18 years.
The “only the wealthy get richer” argument is common against global economic growth. Pinker calls this “utter nonsense.” He cited the declining number of impoverished people and the Kuznets curve to back his point. The Kuznets theory, introduced in the late 1950s, explains income distribution irregularities.
The Scientific Revolution sparked rapid innovation and industrialization in the 16th century. It created an age of reason, trade, global exchange, new industries and technologies. It resulted in the pursuit of wealth. These developments were the key drivers behind the Enlightenment era.
StoryShot #4: The Enlightenment Improves Life Expectancy
“What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.”— Steven Pinker
Death is something people desire to avoid at all costs. Centuries ago, human life expectancy was approximately 33 years. Then, we saw “the Great Escape” in the nineteenth century. Scientists, doctors, government officials and businessmen started to seek truth, rather than obediently accept dogma, and began to experiment. As time passed, the average lifespan increased considerably. During the 20th century, life expectancy increased by seven months every year!
The figures are more dramatic in poorer countries. It is now possible to predict a 51-year life for a ten-year-old in Ethiopia. In 1950, the same number was 34.
The decrease in child mortality also improves life expectancy. Mothers survive childbirth at a higher rate than previous generations.
Pinker also attributes life expectancy increases to better global health and nutrition.
Infectious diseases have constantly threatened human health. Homo sapiens have fought back against disease using a myriad of remedies. Traditional remedies included a dead hen, bloodletting, and toxic metals. Yet, everything changed with the invention of vaccines in the nineteenth century. The struggle shifted when scientists accepted the germ theory. Early disease prevention measures saved millions of lives. These included hand-washing and water chlorination.
Before the turn of the twentieth century, cities were swarming with excrement. You’d wash your clothes and drink from the murky liquid that flowed down the rivers.
Visiting your primary care physician was a risk to your health. The dried blood and feces on his black coat looked disgusting. They would do an autopsy first and then examine your wounds. Later, another brilliant mind thought of cleaning and sterilizing medical equipment and hands.
Even more remarkable, famine is almost non-existent now. During the long winters of the 18th century, many Swedish children starved to death. About half a century ago, a third of the world’s population was undernourished. But in 2015, it hit a record low of 13%. That the global population has grown by 5 billion in this period makes this even more astounding. Thanks to advances in agricultural technology, we now have scalable farming efficiencies.
StoryShot #5: Life Is Safer Thanks To The Humanist Movement
An examination of statistics reveals the increase in human safety post-Enlightenment. Natural disasters, crimes, wars, and political persecution now kill far fewer people. In the last century, global violence has decreased significantly. Death sentences have decreased by 98%. Cruel and unusual punishment is also now a thing of the past.
Before the Enlightenment, torturing people was a common practice. Now, it is rare. There are only a few cases of capital punishment each year even in countries where it still exists.
One of the major movements influencing these tendencies is the United Nations. The 1945 Universal Declaration of Human Rights established certain unassailable rights for everyone. Since its founding in 1945, the UN has grown to include 193 countries. It continues to play an essential role in promoting international cooperation.
The Enlightenment didn’t just make us safer; it made us more moral. Humanists are the reason for humanity’s growing morality. By studying science, technology, and philosophy, people become less violent, prejudiced, and nationalistic.
StoryShot #6: Humans Are To Blame For Climate Change
Climate change threatens human progress and survival. Yet, it is absurd how politicized this issue is. We only need to look at how media and large businesses manipulate facts to achieve their ends. Both left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have become a religion. People only associate with like-minded people, which reinforces their political ideology. They don’t consider the principles of the Enlightenment. They consider asking questions, seeking alternatives, and understanding those alternatives taboo. Media and big businesses manipulate this taboo to further their agenda.
For example, fossil fuel interests back climate change denialists. Pinker calls their denial of global warming fanatical and deceptive.
Research concludes that climate change is real, and humans caused it. The scientific community is in agreement. Only four out of roughly 70,000 peer-reviewed studies questioned man-made global warming.
We should not view climate change as a foregone fatalistic conclusion. Instead, we should frame the issue as a problem we should solve. Success drives people to work hard if they feel they can solve problems.
Since we haven’t nuked the planet yet, we should examine what went well. This way, we can do more of whatever it is.
StoryShot #7: Keep Working
The positive message in Enlightenment Now does not ignore the need to act. Humankind has not accomplished everything, and we should not be content. We should continue to question in the quest to understand with Enlightenment principles.
Work has brought us to the level of progress we have now. We should forge ahead. Our success in conquering obstacles must inspire us to seek more.
Keep striving and fighting for democracy and other concerns. We should identify the best practices and act on them.
Progress does not mean we’ve solved problems. We have found what works and should keep working.
Examining what works offers direction and builds expectations of accomplishment. This highlights the importance of purpose, value, and reason to perform successfully.
We are not living in the best possible world. Poverty, sickness, authoritarianism, violence, and ignorance still persist. But we have made significant progress.
We can progress further if we don’t succumb to fatalism, tribalism, or fanaticism.
Science, democracy, and capitalism have benefited humankind. So, let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing well for the past few centuries and make the world a better place.
StoryShot #8: Humans Have Cognitive Biases When They Perceive Threats
Why would anyone question the progress that has taken place? Humans are prone to overemphasize potential dangers over rewards. Businesses and pundits use this bias to their advantage. Media organizations exploit it to enhance their reputation for seriousness.
It’s time to get real about the numbers and check what empirical evidence tells us. We are less likely than past generations to face social and economic adversities.
Liberals prefer to focus on what’s missing. They remain unimpressed with the progress made. The morality of this may seem unexceptional at first glance. Yet, pessimism can stifle our attempts to enhance and protect our lives.
Ignoring the arc of human progress is a serious liability. Modernity critics undermine the notions of responsible stewards and progressive reformers. Both could help us make even more progress.
Final Summary And Review Of Enlightenment Now
“The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. I wrote this book because I have come to realize that it is not. More than ever, the ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress need a wholehearted defense. We take its gifts for granted: newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket. But these are human accomplishments, not cosmic birthrights. In the memories of many readers of this book—and in the experience of those in less fortunate parts of the world—war, scarcity, disease, ignorance, and lethal menace are a natural part of existence. We know that countries can slide back into these primitive conditions, and so we ignore the achievements of the Enlightenment at our peril.”– Steven Pinker
Pinker believes our salvation lies in a belief in humanism and a quest to understand and continue to ask why, what we can improve, and how we can solve humanity’s problems.
Only Enlightenment can help resolve climate change – the greatest challenge we face. Here’s a recap of the key insights from Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. Let us know which ones you agree or disagree with and why:
- The Enlightenment is the age of questioning, understanding and critiquing
- There are three ways to understand: Entropy, Evolution, Information
- The Enlightenment has boosted global wealth
- The Enlightenment improves life expectancy
- Life is safer thanks to the Humanist movement
- Humans are to blame for climate change
- Keep working
- Humans have cognitive biases when they perceive threats
Criticism and Rating
Pinker’s book has drawn criticism primarily from economists. Some argue it failed to account for increased risks because of globalization. They say individual rationality is becoming illogical for society. Wages and connections are rising, but so are negative spillovers and systemic risks. The gap between what counts and what we have done to curb globalization’s risks is widening. As a result, ecosystems have suffered.
Economists add that nature does not respond to price changes. This resulted in greater overexploitation of natural systems. For example, bulls do not breed more when their horns are more expensive. Pinker mentions climate change, but only as a sobering reminder. Economists say it is the most blatant example of failed internal processes.
We rate this remarkable book, 4.5/5.
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