Transformational Books: Enlightenment Now
At the beginning of the year, I committed to writing a blog article on every book that I complete during 2018. The latest book to reach the finish line is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker (2018). Pinker argues that the ideals of The Enlightenment have resulted in tremendous and irrefutable progress for mankind, and that these same principles will propel us to greater things in the future. It is a large book, and on Audible, which is how I “read” it, it was a particularly heroic undertaking, clocking in at just under 20 hours.
The challenge in writing a blog article about a long audio book is that I don’t actually have the physical book to reference. However, Pinker was kind enough to include a supplemental PDF with all 75 of the charts used in the book. It is the first time I’ve encountered this, and I have to say that I appreciated the supplement.
Why Enlightenment Now?
I decided to read the book specifically because of the press and endorsements it received prior to publishing. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft Corporation and Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, came out with a public pronouncement that it is, “My new favorite book of all time.” How could I not read it? Plus, having just completed Age of Anger and Homo Deus, the debate over Enlightenment philosophy was fresh on my mind.
Pummeled Into Submission
Does the book succeed in its mission? It’s hard not to be impressed with the sheer scope of human progress presented in those 75 charts and graphs. From life expectancy to child mortality, deaths from famine, GDP, prevalence of extreme poverty, war and many many other areas, the charts show dramatic improvement as enlightenment ideals take hold – first in the west and then globally. Occasionally, you get the sense that a statistic cited doesn’t exactly match the argument it is intended to support. But this is rare.
Of course, a few of the charts are dedicated to the looming problems that are arising from modernity. Examples include the increase in accidental deaths from poisoning, driven in part by overdoses related to the current opioid epidemic, and the increase in carbon emissions that is impacting the rate of global warming. Without minimizing the importance of such challenges, Pinker’s prescription is, not surprisingly, more enlightenment. It’s like taking medication for a condition and then needing additional medications to address the side-effects of the first medication. At some point, it becomes a house of cards, ready to come down around you at any moment.
Still, it’s hard not to have an appreciation for the arguments and evidence presented. At a time when the media, the extreme left and the extreme right have become exceptional at depicting the world as doomed, society as valueless, science as soulless, all politicians as corrupt and civilization as on the verge of collapse, Pinker provides the transformational evidence for us to say, “Yay us – keep up the good work!”
The world is not coming to an end. Society has advanced in myriad ways, freeing and enriching people at all socio-economic levels. Science has helped us to eliminate or minimize countless sources of human misery. There are more free societies and democracies.
The transformational lesson is that we move forward by investing more in the arts, sciences and humanities, not less. We move forward by urging and investing in ever higher levels of education and continuing education, not lower. We move forward by investing more in foreign aid, global health and human rights, not less. And we move forward by transcending our tribal, factional and political divisions to advance the health, security, freedom and happiness of humans everywhere.
Steven Pinker says, “Yay us.” There is still a lot of work to do, but I can be on board with that.
This article is the fifth in the category, Transformational Books. In 2018, I will write articles on the books that I complete during the year and explain how they had a transformational influence. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress you can click on the affinity program link to Amazon.com in this article.