In “Enlightenment Now” Steven Pinker shows how the world is better than ever thanks to the values of the Enlightenment, but declinism and misunderstanding are leading us to doubt the foundations of our progress. He calls for people to reclaim the pride and moral conviction once rightfully associated with Enlightenment values to continue progress and challenge the new problems we are facing. Europe has a unique responsibility to answer this call to arms and show that Reason, Humanism, and Science can lead to an alternative way of life which is poverty-free, ecologically-balanced and meaningful while at the same time respecting Human Rights and Democracy.
“Enlightenment Now” is Steven Pinker’s latest and most comprehensive book. It follows in the footsteps of “The Better Angel of our Natures” to continue to demonstrate that the world is getting much better, much faster, whatever our survival-optimized brains think. Then it quickly turns to why this is happening, the values of the Enlightenment: Reason, Humanism, and Science. And how a majority of Enlightenment-friendly citizens is letting this progress slip by turning or permitting more demagogic doctrines to flourish.
Pinker starts by setting out the values of the Enlightenment, Reason, Humanism, and Science. Explaining how these values gradually took over from values easier to implement in our simian brains like Superstition, Deism, and Declinism. It then goes on to demonstrate empirically how these values have brought forth the best period ever in a wide number of dimensions:
- Violence is orders of magnitude down whatever measure you take and peace has become the norm
- Health has improved dramatically throughout the world, with the country with the shortest lifespan today (Swaziland at ~50 years) matches the one with the longest life expectancy in 1890 (Sweden at ~50 years). Safety from murder or accident has also been improved beyond 10x in most cases. Even Terrorism has improved, even if it is anecdotical in terms of the real risk it represents
- Poverty is being reduced at an astounding rate with the extreme poverty reduction millennium development goal being reached 5 years ahead of schedule
- Inequality having been reduced substantially at a global level, even if some middle classes in developed countries have lost ground compared to the rich.
- Democracy and Human Rights have expanded across the world with increasingly higher standards across the board.
- Quality of Life and the Standard of Living has multiplied. With technology allowing a kid in sub-Saharan Africa more access to communication, information, and entertainment than a US president had two decades ago while work hours diminish and leisure increases. Even measures of happiness and psychological well-being have improved, even if they are subjective and difficult to standardize.
At the same time, Pinker recognizes that the majority of us doesn’t seem to recognize this and many tend to think the world is actually in decline. This is related in part to our biological information processing biases, the way the news industry works, and the incentives of populists and pundits. At the same time, there are a number of real problems we are facing as a species which need a solution:
- Substantial poverty, violence, war and human rights violations in many parts of the world which still need to be improved beyond the incredible progress we have already made.
- Climate Change and environmental destruction, which we have the technical prowess to tackle but which are a grand-scale “tragedy of the commons” that could endanger our civilization, standard of living and progress.
- Winner-take-all economic dynamics and automation that are leaving a substantial part of the population in developed countries with limited access to economic opportunity with financial and psychological consequences, unless met with redistribution at a new scale.
- Limits to the current implementations of democracy which lead to radicalized partisanship and bias, anti-scientism, “post-truth”, populist alternatives and a generalized distrust of institutions and disenchantment with democracy itself.
- Finally, “existential dangers” are out there, with nuclear annihilation being still a real and present danger and others like AI-replacement of humans potentially lurking in the future.
However, the real threat that Pinker perceives is that declinism and disillusionment have sapped the popular support and faith in the Enlightenment values. An epidemic of lack of meaning, psychological issues and chemical addictions in the developed world are pushing people to embrace more primitive ideologies. Ideologies that have already shown their fatal flaws, but that are attractively simple and comforting for our brains:
- Populist authoritarianism, which as Donald Trump has shown in the US is a direct consequence of economic disenfranchisement, wild inequality, and democratic manipulation. It could also sap the ability to keep progress going and forestall dangerous developments (e.g. Climate Change)
- Tribalism, with calls to put race, nation or other supposed “natural groups” in the circle of trust, while keeping “others” out.
- Religious fundamentalism, especially in the Muslim world. Where strict adherence to scripture is freezing the development of progress of a large part of the world which was at the forefront six centuries ago and now accounts for most wars, terrorism and many human rights violations.
- Illustrated authoritarianism, embodied in China. In which a technocratic elite decides what is better and implements quickly and without opposition.
In the end, the book concludes with a strong call to arms. We need to reclaim the pride and moral conviction of our enlightenment ancestors to defend and expand Reason, Humanism, and Science as the values that have brought prosperity and happiness to millions. We need to continue to push these values as the way to overcome existing and coming challenges, and defeat and defuse long dead alternatives which are threatening to come back even if they have proven to be disastrous already. Pinker stresses that the “we” that spouses this values is the largest and growing section of the population. However, the more virulent ideologies like authoritarian populism or religious fundamentalists are able to make much more noise as they are excited to concerted action.
I believe this call to action is especially relevant for Europe. The world needs Europe to show that there can be another path beyond authoritarianism, inequality, and fundamentalism. A path based on the European values of democracy, human rights, the welfare state, freedom, and progress. Europe is one of the largest economies and talent pools and the best place to live in the world. However, we are still under the cloud of shame and self-doubt brought by two world wars and the crimes of colonialism. We need to embrace our mission and show the world that technology makes it possible to create a poverty-free, ecologically-balanced and meaningful way of living while enjoying human rights and democracy.
In a sense, the US did its job in the second part of the twentieth century promoting progress, democracy, and human rights, China has taken hundreds of millions out of poverty in an orderly and efficient way, and now it is up to us in Europe to contribute and show that a better world is possible.