Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
★★★★ Recommended for anyone interested in a wake-up call about the progress made over the past few centuries.
Enlightenment Now makes the case that reason, science, and humanism have driven the greatest advances in the history of human civilization. The book is divided into three parts: the history of the enlightenment, the progress we’ve made, and the enlightenment ideals that must be defended going forward. The meat of the book, and Pinker’s passion, is clearly the middle section, which is a thorough and data-based walk through fifteen areas where human lives are almost indistinguishably improved from just 10 generations ago, including health, peace, freedom, inequality, the environment, and happiness. Pinker’s enemies are “progressophobes” on both the right (the anti-science forces, the Trumpian politics of grievance) and left (New York Times-style liberal handwringing and catastrophizing). Both sides are prone to populism and a desire to return to an imagined utopian past. Pinker is successful in his main goal of thoroughly debunking that such a past ever existed.
Enlightenment Now has a lot in common with Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, which I wrote about recently. Pinker is quite a bit longer and goes much deeper, so if you’re the type to ask for the data backing each claim, this might be the better book for you. I also thought Pinker was much more successful in grounding his celebration of human progress in a memorable framework.
Both books suffer from a relentless optimism that can feel a bit strident at times. For Pinker, I thought this was most evident in his discussions of inequality and happiness, both of which felt a bit blithe to me. I think there is good reason to reject the most pessimistic takes on these: that more wealth doesn’t make people any happier or even that people are less happy these days, that inequality within a society is far more important than absolute means. Pinker does a good job making the case that inequality is not equivalent to poverty, and that “in some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.” He makes a compelling argument that happiness is directly related to wealth, in particular using Stevenson & Wolfers studies. But these are not the same as proving “the irrelevance of inequality to happiness” or demonstrating that individual happiness is primarily driven by wealth. I thought these sections would be stronger if they didn’t reach quite so far.
I agree with Pinker that reason, science, and humanism are critically important to human well-being globally, and these days it does feel a defense of them is needed. While I doubt that many who disagree with the thesis would even pick this book up, Pinker does make a similar point to Rosling that many of the most well-educated, including academics, are unaware of how much progress actually has been made through Enlightenment ideals. So perhaps there is hope that books like this could have a positive influence.