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An optimistic treatise celebrates the enlightened thinking that has made us happier, healthier, and safer than ever

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

Steven Pinker
Viking
2018
576 pp.
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For most of us, it is easier to imagine the world going to hell in a handbasket than it is to picture a rosy future. We can readily conjure up incremental improvements such as increased Internet bandwidth, improved automobile navigation systems, or another year added to our average life span. But what really gets our imaginations roiling are images of nuclear Armageddon, robots run amok, and terrorists in trucks mowing down pedestrians. The reason for this asymmetry is an evolved feature of human cognition called the negativity bias, a phenomenon explored in depth by the Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker in his magisterial new book, Enlightenment Now.

This new book is an estimable sequel to Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which Bill Gates called “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” This is not hyperbole. Enlightenment Now is the most uplifting work of science I’ve ever read.

Pinker begins with the Enlightenment because the scientists and scholars who drove that movement took the methods developed in the Scientific Revolution and applied them to solving problems in all fields of knowledge. “Dare to know” was Immanuel Kant’s oft-quoted one-line summary of the age he helped launch, and with knowledge comes power over nature, starting with the second law of thermodynamics, which Pinker fingers as the cause of our natural-born pessimism.

In the world in which our ancestors evolved the cognition and emotions that we inherited, entropy dictated that there were more ways for things to go bad than good. Thus, our modern psychology is tuned to a world that was more dangerous than it is today, he argues. Because our ancestors’ survival depended on vigilantly scanning for negative stimuli, good experiences (e.g., a pain-free day) often go unnoticed, as we attempt to respond to the failures that could spell the end of our existence. But instead of interpreting accidents, plagues, famine, and disease as the wrath of angry gods, vengeful demons, or bewitching women like our medieval ancestors did, we enlightened thinkers now know that’s just entropy taking its course.

In 75 charts and graphs and thousands of statistics, Pinker documents how we have systematically applied knowledge to problems in order to propel ourselves to unimaginable levels of progress. Since the Enlightenment, he reveals, more people live longer, healthier, happier, and more meaningful lives filled with enriching works of art, music, literature, science, technology, and medicine. This is not to mention improvements to food, drink, clothes, transportation, and houses, nor the ever-increasing ease of international travel or instant access to much of the world’s knowledge that many of us enjoy today.

Exceptions are no counter to Pinker’s massive data set. Follow the trend lines, not the headlines, he urges. For example, although military engagements make the news daily, “[w]ar between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world’s surface.” “In most times and places, homicides kill far more people than wars,” he adds, “and homicide rates have been falling as well.”

We’re not just less likely to fall victim to an intentional death. On the whole, we are safer than ever. “Over the course of the 20th century, Americans became 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car accident, 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 59 percent less likely to fall to their deaths, 92 percent less likely to die by fire, 90 percent less likely to drown, 92 percent less likely to be asphyxiated, and 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job.”

Each area of improvement has specific causes that Pinker carefully identifies, but he attributes our overall progress to “Enlightenment humanism,” a secular worldview that values science and reason over superstition and dogma. It is a heroic journey, Pinker concludes with rhetorical flair: “We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart.” Nevertheless, “human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy—for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.”

This is our story, not vouchsafed to any one tribe but “to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being.” With this fact, there is reason (and science) for hope.

About the author

The reviewer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a presidential fellow at Chapman University, and the author of Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.