So I finally finished reading Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker this week. I want to write about what I learned and perhaps inspire others to read this book – I did really like it.
First, what are we getting into? Well, I don't have exact numbers on how many hours it took me to read the book, but Enlightenment Now is definitely not a short book. In total, it took me about six weeks to read, and I spent maybe an hour per day on average reading the book.
I decided to read Enlightenment Now as a recommendation from Bill Gates, claiming that it is his "new favorite book of all time". You can read his review of it here. It might just be recency bias, but I have to stand alongside Bill Gates here – Enlightenment Now is my new favorite book.
Enlightenment Now is primarily about human progress with respect to Enlightenment Ideas: reason, science, humanism. In my opinion, the key take-away is that humanity is flourishing more than ever, even in the face of current hardships, and there are no signs of an incoming inflection point, as claimed by many alarmists.
How do we measure human flourishing? The answer is to measure progress in ideas from Humanism, the most popular modern religion. This means improving human health and happiness, safety standards, and the environment around us. It also means decreasing poverty, inequality, terrorism, and war. Enlightenment Now addresses all of these points and more and explains how they have (drastically) improved or why we should at least be optimistic about them.
This book is so convincing at times that it almost made me complacent – but he addresses this idea as well. Humans have an amazing track record of solving problems, but this does not mean we can sit back and relax. Humanity needs politicians, scientists, and activists. We also need people willing to change their habits as a response to politics, science, and outreach. Additionally, progress does not come without setbacks – that can be severe and cause significant harm to many individuals – which is all the more reason to be proactive.
Another topic that is addressed in Enlightenment Now is the election of the most recent President of the United States, Donald Trump. Thanks to being released in February 2018, this book has the opportunity to address this topic at length, and it does just that.
Some of the claimed sources for progress might come as a shock to some people, including myself: Capitalism and Democracy. I will not go into the reasons too deeply, but compared to previous times, capitalism and democracy are way better. Are they the best structures we will ever have? Perhaps not, as there is still plenty of room for improvement, but in the words of Winston Churchill:
Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
In summary, the reason I like this book is because it convinced me that humanity is progressing and that alarmism is dangerous and wrong. Furthermore, Enlightenment Now has inspired me to value progress and to take part in it – and this idea is incredibly valuable to me now.
I will leave you with a couple of references that reinforced the ideas that I learned from this book:
- How Not to Be Ignorant about the World – This TED talk is about dismissing myths about the world collapsing or getting worse, and explains why most things get better.
- Effective Altruism – An organization dedicated to improving charitable giving and identifying the most important areas on which to focus. I recommend reading the introduction.
Lastly, a quote from Barack Obama, featured in Enlightenment Now, that is an incredible summary of the ideas in this book:
If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.
I hope this inspires you to read Enlightenment Now or at least to be more optimistic about the future. Despite the availability of heartbreaking news, humanity really is making progress.