Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker

Thick with statistics, charts and graphs, this is nonetheless a smooth and enjoyable read, not least because it tells such a palatable story: that humankind has made great progress over the past centuries, especially those since the start of The Enlightenment (roughly 1730 to 1800, give or take a few lifetimes).

Attacking first our flawed habits of perception and thought, then some of the pessimistic myths those have spawned, Pinker makes a convincing case that life for the vast majority of humans is considerably better today than in any earlier era.  And further, that these positive changes have resulted from identifiable strategies employed by humans over time, in light of which he suggests – though not without caution – there is strong possibility of continued progress if only we, as a species and a community, will continue to employ those strategies, which he identifies as Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

(A single example from personal experience: during my childhood Polio was, even in privileged middle class USA, a serious threat.  I sat next to children in class who’d been stricken seemingly at random, suffering permanent disability, disfigurement and limitation of their potential and well-being.  In less than a single lifetime, that terrible disease has been very nearly eradicated – to the extent that many people living today don’t even know what it is – and therefore the miracle of its eradication (literally scores of millions of crippling cases avoided) has no emotional impact, is totally lost in concern over other, often lesser, ailments (dry eyes syndrome anyone? Or hair loss?  Any  condition that is solved by Botox…) which still remain.  This is the sort of mental bias – focusing on the problems left to solve and ignoring all the ones which have already been solved – that Pinker rightly identifies as shaping our pessimism and fears.  And worst, leading some voices to claim there is no point in even trying to progress.)

Pinker wisely avoids any direct reference to Trump and Trumpism until late in his thesis, but it must be clear to any earnest reader long before the name arises that the phenomenon is in direct opposition to all the book espouses.  Fortunately, the breadth of the case made is sufficient to suggest we will eventually self-correct – barring some catastrophic accident or act of impulse.

An immensely valuable book. So good that, after reading it on a library loan (in late 2019), I purchased a hard copy to have on the table and refer to in future.  Now Jennifer is reading that copy and equally impressed.

In a time of such upheaval and so much fear, I can think of few books more worth reading, sharing and keeping close at hand.

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