Review – Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker


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

The ideals of the Enlightenment, says Pinker, are reason, science, and humanism, and their pursuit has led to remarkable improvements in the human condition.  A blurb by Bill Gates calls it “My new favorite book of all time.”  I am a bit less enthusiastic.

He has a beef with those who don’t agree.  Religion gets a brief dismissal, but his true scorn is reserved for some of his liberal intellectual colleagues, especially those of the left.  Marxism and some related religions of the left get their juice from the real and imaginary diseases of capitalism, and especially from Marx’s conviction that the internal contradictions of capitalism would lead to a fatal pass.  Pinker makes the case that that apocalyptic hope is a mirage.

The book is listed at 556 pages, but it seems longer, even though the last 100 pages consist of notes and index.  I found the repetitious style and interminable lists, mostly of how everything is getting so much better all the time, annoying and tedious.  The brilliant stylings of The Language Instinct sometimes seem to have degenerated into verbal tics.

But what about the content?  Pinker has a mountain of facts, and he assembles them in regular arrays.  Chapters typically begin with a catalog of complaints about modernity and the degeneration, or imminent collapse from a vast assemblage of doom sayers.  After our brains have been duly beaten into insensibility, the facts are mustered and summarized in a neat graph or two, clearly demonstrating that things were much more hellish in the past.

The data is impressive and sometimes inspiring. Poverty, disease, and starvation are in headlong retreat. Scourge after scourge of humanity is in headlong retreat.  War, genocide, famine, murder, infant mortality, and death in childbirth have all seen drastic declines.  Humanity collectively is richer, freer, better educated, and freer from fear than ever before.

I think he makes his case that the enlightenment virtues, combined with technology and capitalistic trade, have been tremendous boons to humanity.  He doesn’t neglect some existential threats, notably nuclear war and global warming, but sees reason to hope there too.  He is more dismissive of some other threats, notably artificial intelligence, and I found his argument less than persuasive.

I do think Pinker makes his case, and that makes this an important book.  I might have liked it better as a 50 page pamphlet with mostly just the graphs.


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