A review of the fascinating book “Enlightenment Now” by Steven Pinker (2018)

The Enlightenment took place from the mid 17th century to the late 18th century but, 300 years later, the triumphs of Enlightenment thinking and values, with their emphasis on reason, science and humanism, still need explaining and defending to a world in which populism and so-called post-truth are seeking to challenge the fruits of progress.

The aim of this book by the renowned American professor of psychology Steven Pinker is “to restate the ideals of the Enlightenment in the language and concepts of the 21st century” and the main theme is that, if we look beyond the headlines to the trendlines, we find that on so many measures of human welfare we are on the whole living in the best of times for humankind. As Pinker puts it: “Here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.”

This is quite a tome: a main text of some 450 pages and then another 70 pages of notes and references. The opening three and closing three chapters are quite heavy going, but the middle 17 chapters – replete with informative data and containing no less than 75 fascinating graphs – eloquently and convincingly make the case for just how far humankind has progressed, especially on the following 14 dimensions:

  • Life: For most of human history, average life expectancy was around 30 years but today it is over 70 years and still rising.
  • Health: More than five billion lives have been saved by medical advances ranging from the discovery of blood groups to the development of vaccines.
  • Sustenance: The use of machines, the development of fertilisers and the Green Revolution have enabled us to feed billions more with less land and much less labour.
  • Wealth: In the last 200 years, the rate of extreme poverty in the world has fallen from 90% to 10%, while GDP per capita has soared in almost every country.
  • Inequality: In the past 30 years, global inequality has declined (most notably in China) although inequality within rich countries has increased (especially in the US and the UK).
  • Environment: Although climate change is a massive challenge, “environmental problems, like other problens, are solvable, given the right knowledge” and a range of intiatives and technologies are discussed.
  • Peace: It is argued that “War in the classic sense of an armed conflict between uniformed armies of two nation-states appears to be obsolescent” and battle deaths have fallen dramatcially (with the notable recent exception of the civil war in Syria).
  • Safety: Over the last century, the rate of deaths from homicides, motor vehicle accidents, aircraft crashes, occupational accidents and natural disasters have all plummetted.
  • Terrorism: Except for 9/11, deaths from terrorst acts are tiny compared to other causes of violent deaths and are not particularly increasing.
  • Democracy: The world’s 103 democracies in 2015 embraced 56% of the world’s population while, of the people living in the 60 non-democratic countries, four-fifths reside in a single country, China.
  • Equal rights: The rights of racial minorities, women and gay people continue to advance worldwide and surveys show that, in almost every part of the world (even the Islamic Middle East), people are becoming more liberal.
  • Knowledge: Now 83% of the world is literate and the number of years spent in schooling has been rising dramatically in most countries.
  • Quality of life: Today almost half of the world’s population has Internet access and three-quarters have access to a mobile phone, while the developed world is leading the way on reductions in working time and more access to leisure activities including tourism.
  • Happiness: The data shows that, as countries become richer over time, their people become happier, athough the United States is an outlier from the global trend in subjective well-being.

My attempt to summarise such a long work might give the impression that Pinker thinks that all is well in the world, but this is not the case. He recognises the challenges we still face but believes we have the tools – including knowledge and reason – to tackle those challenges and, in the meanwhile, we should look at the big picture (and this book has a very broad canvas) and consider the evidence (and this book has so much data). The result is a view of the world which is encouraging and hopeful.


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