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“Enlightenment Now” is a passionate defense of scientific reason and liberal humanism. This school of thought flourished in Europe during the mid-17th and late-18th centuries. What is human progress? Is it happening? Can it continue? These are some questions that author Steven Pinker posed in the book.
Two-thirds of the book appears like a sequel to his bestselling “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” It shows chapter after chapter that life has been better for most people. “How can we soundly appraise the state of the world?” he asks. “The answer is to count.” The list encompasses health, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, democracy, and so on.
The world, as he shows, is much better off now than it was earlier. This is true even if few individuals are aware of or appreciate human progress. As Pinker points out, there are grounds to be hopeful about the future. Is he a modern-day Pollyanna because of that? Not at all. Pinker is aware of the obstacles that lie ahead. But he is adamant that the world may improve for far more eras if we stick to Enlightenment values.
Below we outline some key ideas of the book.
Steven Pinker’s Perspective
Steven Pinker is a celebrity intellectual, a rare kind in America. The Harvard professor is a frequent guest on PBS and the Joe Rogan podcast. He enlightens audiences on complex topics.
Pinker was born in 1954 to a middle-class Jewish family in Montreal. His father was a lawyer, while his mother was an assistant principal.
Pinker is a psychologist known for promoting computational psychology and evolutionary psychology. He says the human mind is simple and has several flexible mental skills. His idea covers both sensory and combinatorial symbol manipulation in human cognition.
StoryShot #1: A Purpose For Existence
Pinker provides three chapters describing the Enlightenment’s fundamental concepts and values.
First of these three, “Dare to Understand!” introduces these concepts. The second explains why they are necessary. And the third rallies against those who dispute or corrupt them.
According to Pinker, Enlightenment principles have worked. He considered it perhaps the greatest story that has not been widely publicized.
Despite popular assumptions, our world is growing better, not worse, argues Pinker. For him, facts speak for themselves rather than rhetorical flourishes. He claims technology is “wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled fools.” Today, we’re in a far better position than we were even a few decades ago. However, it appears none of us are paying attention.
He thinks the achievement was undervalued because reason, science, and humanism were ignored. Today’s intellectuals consider them with apathy, skepticism, and often disdain. He believes the Enlightenment’s ideals are stirring, inspiring and noble. They are a reason to live when appreciated.
StoryShot #2: Enlightenment Boosted Global Wealth
Pinker claims Enlightenment increased wealth while reducing poverty and inequality. He offered scientific evidence to prove his point.
Over 90% of the world’s population lived in abject poverty just two centuries ago. That figure stands at less than 10% of the total population as of this writing. This is because global income quadrupled between 1820 and 1900. In another 50 years, it would quadruple once again, and by 1984, it would have tripled a third time.
Even the poorest countries, such as El Salvador and Rwanda, experienced dramatic growth. They have seen their incomes quadruple every 18 years. It happens every 35 years in the wealthiest countries, as well.
The “only the wealthy get richer” argument is common against global economic growth. Pinker called this “utter nonsense.” He cited the declining number of the impoverished and the Kuznets curve to back his point. The Kuznets theory, introduced in the late 1950s, explains income distribution irregularities.
Further proof came from economist Adolph Wagner, another scientist. According to Wagner’s law, as a state’s wealth increases, so does the amount it spends on social welfare. A century ago, in Europe, only less than 2% of the population was covered by a safety net for the poor. Currently, over 20% of state budgets are set aside for it.
StoryShot #3: Enlightenment Improves Life Expectancy
Death is something people desire to avoid at all costs. Human life expectancy used to be approximately 35 years in the past. Then, fortunately, in the nineteenth century, we witnessed “the great escape.” Pinker said, as time passed, the average lifespan increased significantly. During the 20th century, life expectancy increased by seven months every year!
The figures are more dramatic in poorer countries. Between 2003 and 2013, life expectancy in Kenya increased by nearly ten years. They hadn’t taken a single step toward death after a decade of living and striving!
Pinker attributes the increase in life expectancy to better global health and nutrition.
Infectious diseases have constantly threatened human health. These vile critters live off of us, traveling from person to person in the form of insects and worms. Traditional remedies included a dead hen, bloodletting, and toxic metals. Everything changed when a brilliant inventor of vaccines appeared in the nineteenth century. The struggle began to shift when germ theory was accepted. Millions of lives have been saved in Africa by early disease prevention measures. That includes handwashing and water chlorination.
Before the turn of the twentieth century, cities were swarming with poop. You’d wash your clothes and drink from the murky liquid that flowed down the rivers.
Visiting your primary care physician was actually a risk to your health. The dried blood and puss on his black coat looked unsightly. He’d do an autopsy first and then proceed to examine your wounds. Thankfully, another brilliant mind thought of cleaning and sterilizing medical equipment and hands.
Obesity remains a health issue for us now, but it’s a positive thing compared to the past famines. The developing world has only recently begun to provide for itself. A child’s life expectancy is shortened when he is malnourished.
A rise in agricultural production was made possible by the Green Revolution. It took 12% more land to produce the same amount of food from 1961 to 2009. Yet food production increased three times more.
StoryShot #4: Humans Are To Blame For Climate Change
Pinker acknowledges that climate change threatens human progress and survival. Yet he notes that politicizing the issue is absurd.
Pinker particularly called out a movement heavily backed by fossil fuel interests. He called their denial of greenhouse gas warming fanatical and deceptive.
Research is conclusive that climate change is real and humans caused it. Moreover, the scientific community is essentially in agreement. Only four out of roughly 70,000 peer-reviewed studies questioned man-made global warming.
But despair isn’t the correct reaction, even if it’s popular. Instead, Pinker suggests framing the issue as a problem to be solved is effective. Success, he says, drives people to work hard if they feel issues can be addressed.
Since we haven’t nuked the planet yet, he thinks we should find out what has gone properly. This way, we can do more of whatever it is.
He notes, though, that optimism does not imply relaxation. So, if you want a treehouse, you receive the wood and nails to build one. Meanwhile, a person who expects to dismantle a treehouse fast will not start pounding.
StoryShot #5: Keep Working
Labeling Pinker an optimist, as virtually everyone does, ignores his urge to act. He doesn’t claim we’ve achieved and thus should just be content.
He believes work brought us to the level of progress we have now. Therefore, we should forge ahead. Our success in conquering obstacles must inspire us to seek more.
Pinker urges us to keep striving and fighting for democracy and other concerns. Likewise, he wants us to focus on identifying ideals and acting on them.
He’s not suggesting progress implies we’ve solved problems. He’s saying we’ve found what tends to work and should keep working.
In his book, Pinker strives to offer direction and build expectations of accomplishment. He highlights the importance of purpose, value, and reason to perform successfully.
Pinker doesn’t believe we’re living in the best possible world. He acknowledges that contemporary life’s resources are unfairly allocated. Moreover, poverty, sickness, dictatorship, violence, and ignorance persist. Yet, he wants us to know that we’ve made progress against these old wellsprings of misery.
Pinker believes we can make even more progress. But only if we don’t succumb to fatalism, tribalism, or revolutionary fanaticism.
Pinker may be described as a conservative progressive. To him, science, democracy, and capitalism have benefited humankind. So, he adds, let’s keep doing what we’ve been doing well for the past few centuries and make the world a better place.