Steven Pinker's new book: Enlightenment Now

I recently finished reading “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” where Steven Pinker argues that a broad range of measurements of human well-being indicate that humanity is better off now than at any time in history. I found the case to be compelling since Pinker draws his conclusions from large datasets that are often plotted as percentages or somehow correct for the fact that there has been a huge population increase over time. Now more than ever, people are, on average, living longer, safer, and happier lives. Obviously, there is much more to be done to improve the human condition, but we have made a lot of progress, and Pinker claims this progress can be traced back to the widespread embracement of Enlightenment values.

The first part (of 3) defines "the Enlightenment" and examines how it changed humanity’s modes of thinking from beliefs steeped in superstition and dogma to a prevailing belief that, through careful empirical observation, the world is understandable. The most engaging topic of this section was when Pinker introduces some fundamental concepts that the Enlightenment thinkers did not know about. Namely, the concepts of entropy, evolution, and information. All organisms expend energy to slow the relentless push of entropy (the tendency for disorder seen through the gradual breakdown of bodies or cells). In the same vein, societies generate rules or cultural norms that create order (reduce entropy). Evolution has endowed humans with brains optimized to survive in bands of hunter-gatherers – not large complex societies. In this respect, all humans are flawed, but we establish institutions and laws to create functional societies to combat a natural tendency towards entropy. Information, the third concept, leads to knowledge. Pinker writes, “Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny.” With improving knowledge of food production, human societies we able to convert more of the sun’s energy into food with less manual labor. These 3 concepts (entropy, evolution, and information) come up throughout the book and shape a lot of our thinking about the world today.

In the second part of the book, Pinker takes a deep dive into the data, showing that human well-being has increased in almost every way one can imagine. The odd thing is that very few people seem to understand or recognize this fact. He argues that one major reason for this lack of recognition is that entropy happens quickly (on the time scale of a news cycle), while societal improvements (order) happen slowly and are therefore hard to communicate to the masses. Our brains have an innate availability bias (i.e., if examples quickly come to mind, those examples, whether indicative of general trends or not, dramatically shape your opinion on any given subject), which drives a general opinion that the world is spinning out of control or is much worse than it used to be. We hear about more shootings on TV and other news outlets, but the broad trend in societal violence is certainly decreasing in most of the world. There are, of course, exceptions, but Pinker is talking about statistical trends in human well-being, so not every country’s specific circumstances can be addressed in the data he examines.

Part 3 serves as a defense of the Enlightenment values that have led to the many improvements demonstrated in Part 2. Pinker rightly claims that these values have some unexpected enemies from both the extreme right and left sides of the political spectrum. This was the most engaging part of the book, and I found myself repeatedly highlighting and starring chunks of text. There is a lot to ponder in this book, but the main take home message, in my view, is that there are many problems in the world, but these problems have robust solutions if we stick to the Enlightenment values (their success is demonstrated by historical trends of increasing human well-being) and are not tempted by our natural tendencies towards superstition, dogma, and authoritarianism. These tendencies can provide “easy answers” but usually have disastrous consequences. Regardless of your political opinions, it would be worth your time to critically examine some of Pinker’s arguments. Like I said, I agree with his message, but I am also open to an honest discussion and want to hear the best arguments against his thesis.

The reviews I have read seem mixed, but most of the critical ones seem to make the same error when they argue against Pinker’s conclusions: They use anecdotes to say that Pinker’s conclusions are wrong. This is generally a poor way to counter an argument from statistical trends; however, if arguing against something like a scientific theory or law, an anecdote is an effective rebuttal. For example, to disprove evolution or at least dramatically change its status, all you would need to do is find a fossil mammal inside of a Cambrian rock (among many other possibilities that have not been discovered). Also, I do not agree with some reviewer sentiments that Pinker is presenting an overly rosy view of our modern world. He specifically mentions that there are numerous threats which can lead to societal breakdown (entropy), but we do have many long-established institutions to resist such disorder. As I think more about the last part of the book, I hope to write more about these topics.