Tag Archives: progress

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.

The Way of the World, David Franklin

Browsing a Vegas Goodwill shop for some throw-away layers to wear at the cold early-morning start of a marathon, decided to pick up a lightweight travel–read as well, and this slim volume peeped out from among the shelves and shelves of generic cops and lovers. In 239 highly-readable pages Franklin traces human-kind’s progression from purely survival-driven tribalism to today’s globe-girdling, technology-dependent, relatively-rational and somewhat-open-minded civilization, postulating 8 major steps that got us here:

Becoming Human; Inventing Civilization; Developing a Conscience; Seeking a Lasting Peace; Achieving Rationality; Uniting the Planet; Releasing Nature’s Energies; and Ruling Ourselves

Echoing others who have called the Twentieth ‘The American Century,’ he presents a case that the USA’s eminence is due not to any inherent moral superiority but simply to the lucky accidents that allow it to embody humanity’s most progressive (most progressive to date, he might caution) traits and achievements. With that as back ground, he then speculates on what the next century might hold for our blue, white, green and brown orb. Nearly twenty years in on that adventure now, it is interesting to note that Franklin wrote here in 1998 of the threat posed by the most-radical factions in Islamic cultures (and fundamentalism in general), rightly characterizing it as a rejection of rationalism; a willful step backward on our communal journey. Clear evidence, if any were needed, against those who imply that those forces only became visible on 9/11, and a prescient analysis of our current big picture.

Most striking of Franklin’s observations are those which connect over the centuries – ancient Greek thoughts and actions which seem eerily apt descriptions of contemporary ones; and Rome’s struggle to survive, which appears so similar to some scenarios of our own system’s woes. Of course this author is not the first to make such connections, as he himself points out.

Ultimately optimistic in its view of a species whose intelligence has, for six thousand years, led to the gradual but unmistakable improvement of most persons’ lives, this is also a cautionary tale – progress is neither continual nor assured. But, the record suggests that it is possible, and should we continue to avoid self-destruction, any periods of stagnation or back-sliding are likely to be followed by eras of further progress.

A comforting outlook that extends past any one moment of circumstance; the very exemplar of why History is worth studying.

Unlike the second-hand hoodie I purchased that morning and tossed onto a pile near the start line outside St. George, this book is staying on my shelf.