Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you're looking for a cure for the common pessimism, you might do much, much worse than to pick up this book.
I've read or seen many other examples of the facts portrayed here, but Steven Pinker does a very admirable job of showing us, exactly, how much better the world is now compared to the one we had even a hundred years ago. It's not just time-saving devices or some outright reversals of ecological damage, but how lifespans, general IQ, overall poverty level, and even WAR has improved for the better for all. Not that war is ever really all that great, mind you, but few nations jump into it with quite as little reason or abandon as they used to.
Pinker isn't saying that everything is peachy, of course, but the trend toward real positive progress is undeniable. This is, despite setbacks. And yes, we have many. But for every problem that exists, he makes a very good point that we have it in us to FIX our problems. It's not out of the question.
Global Warming, for example, not only has possible temporary and minor fixes available, such as applying a metaphorical sunscreen to the atmosphere, but we have the means to do much more than cut our carbon footprint down to the bone. We have a history of moving on to different methods whenever resources of one type or another run out, too.
Health and education are at an all-time high.
What we don't have is our optimism. In fact, we have a very solid outlook that things are worse than ever.
Terrorists are few in number and never accomplish their stated goals. They merely rouse the combined might of all the powers to quash them. Most of the first world countries have made a point of living by equality in the sexes and the trend is more of the same across the world. LGBT is already accepted on the same scale.
Pinker attributes all our actual progress to the Enlightenment. The old standard of 19th-century thinking, where humanism reigns supreme.
Look. I freely admit to being a humanist, myself. I LOVE the idea that we all should get along. That every life is valuable. That we should have a high fundamental basis for living for every man, woman, and child alive. It's so pervasive an idea that practically everyone shares it. It's like... OBVIOUS, right?
And as far as I know, Steven Pinker is right. But he also makes a very cogent point about the need to be rational, to use science for what it is intended. Inquiry, truth-seeking. No matter what the result, the truth is much more important than any ideology. He uses this to encourage each and every one of us to see past the doomsayers and the demagogs. Again, I totally agree.
Skepticism is not the same thing as pessimism. Almost everyone I know is a fundamentally decent person and we all want the same fundamental things.
So why didn't I give this book a full five stars?
Because he gives all the credit to humanism. Wishing does not make it so. He might be right, but let's face it: this might be what he, himself warned us about. Selection Bias.
Even so, I love thinking about it and I totally recommend this book for anyone who is sick and tired of the news and wants someone with a lot of facts and good reasoning to pick them up off the ground, dust their shoulders, and tell them that we are, on the whole, doing pretty damn well for ourselves. You know, despite the actual problems. But then, we DO have it in ourselves to FIX THEM. :)
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