Enlightenment Now | Steven Pinker

Summary of: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By: Steven Pinker


Welcome to the enlightening journey through Steven Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress’. This book dives deep into the extraordinary period in European history called the Enlightenment, which radically shaped the future of Western society. As you read through this summary, you will explore the profound influence of four key themes – reason, science, humanism, and progress – which collectively challenged pre-existing beliefs rooted in ignorance and superstition. From the abolition of slavery to the leaps in life expectancy, you’ll discover the positive impact of the Enlightenment, debunking modern-day claims that we are in a period of decline.

Unraveling the Enlightenment Era

The Enlightenment, also known as the age of reason, was a transformative period in European history, emerging in the first half of the 18th century. This era provided a much-needed reprieve from the ignorance, fear, and superstition that had previously gripped society. The Enlightenment comprised four key themes: reason, science, humanism, and progress. The emphasis on reason led to a questioning of previously unchallenged practices, such as slavery, and helped dismantle them. A growing focus on scientific knowledge allowed for the development of neuroscience, psychology, and cultural anthropology, paving the way for humanism. This secular approach enabled people to understand and respect one another beyond religious constraints, while also providing a moral framework to reject destructive behaviors like genocide. Humanism gave rise to cosmopolitanism, a modern value system that rejects tribalism and promotes equality among all individuals, regardless of their country of origin.

Overcoming Entropy Through Diversity

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the establishment of global trade and diverse connections contributed to a more resilient system against entropy. Entropy, described by the second law of thermodynamics, posits that closed systems will gradually fall apart due to outside forces. Critics argue that society is in decline as reason is disregarded and chaos reigns. However, organisms are not closed systems and can fight entropy by absorbing energy from various sources, increasing order. Hard data shows that various measures of “the good life” continue to improve, exhibiting the ongoing fight against entropy and the enduring influence of the Enlightenment.

In the early 1800s, the formation of global trade networks and diverse interconnectivity laid the foundation for a resilient system capable of withstanding entropy. Entropy, as defined by the second law of thermodynamics, implies that closed systems will inevitably disintegrate under the influence of external forces. Sandcastles crumble under the wind, tide, and human activity because they are closed systems.

Entropy affects humanity and the universe as a whole, leading some to claim that society is in decline. Critics argue that reason is losing its foothold amid prevalent war, violence, crime, and a rise in tribal mentalities. However, this bleak worldview has significant flaws.

Organisms, unlike closed systems, can resist entropy. This ability to defy entropy is among the reasons the Enlightenment has persisted and thrived. By drawing energy from a multitude of sources, organisms can maintain or even increase order, rather than succumb to entropy. Examining factual data spanning the last century reveals that various aspects of our world are experiencing continued improvement.

From life expectancy and crime rates to happiness levels, wealth, and overall quality of life, just about every quantifiable aspect of living the “good life” has improved and shows no indication of stopping. Consequently, as we examine these upward trends across diverse indicators, we gain a clearer understanding of humanity’s ongoing battle against entropy and the lasting impact of the Enlightenment.

Unraveling the Longevity Revolution

The global life expectancy has dramatically increased since the mid-eighteenth century, largely attributed to a decrease in child mortality rate, advances in healthcare, and near eradication of famine. These improvements can be appreciated across socioeconomic classes, with more people living longer and healthier lives than ever before. With a stronger emphasis on science and knowledge, progress has been made to ensure that such benefits reach a broader segment of the global population.

At the dawn of the Enlightenment era, the average human life expectancy was a mere 29 years. This figure was surprisingly lower than that of our hunter-gatherer forebears, who are believed to have lived up to around 32.5 years. However, since then, an incredible transformation has swept the globe, leading to greater longevity for people worldwide.

One of the most significant driving forces behind this change is the reduction in child mortality rates. A steep decline in infant deaths helps to contribute to higher life expectancy figures, alongside increased survival rates for mothers during childbirth. As a result, people of all ages live longer lives than their ancestors enjoyed.

For instance, a British 30-year-old in 1845 could only expect to live for an additional 30 years, whereas a person of the same age in 2011 would likely enjoy 52 more years on this planet. Even 80-year-olds in the present day can anticipate roughly nine more years of life, a remarkable jump from a mere five years in the past. These longevity advancements are not unique to developed nations; in Ethiopia, a ten-year-old in 1950 could expect to live for 34 more years, while today, that same age group can hope for an additional 51 years.

Alongside these developments, future generations can expect to encounter fewer health issues, thanks to modern medicine’s capabilities to eliminate diseases such as smallpox and measles. Previously, infections posed a significant threat to everyone, regardless of wealth or social standing. The value placed on science and knowledge in the present day underscores the importance of public health measures, such as handwashing and sanitation.

Lastly, the threat of famine has also sharply diminished, courtesy of advancements in agricultural science. In the nineteenth century, children in countries like Sweden faced the risk of starvation, while 35% of the world was malnourished just 45 years ago. Thanks to research and innovation, fewer people go hungry, even as the world’s population continues to grow.

Together, these aspects shed light on how progress in healthcare, agriculture, and public health practices have shaped a global shift, leading to better health and increased life expectancy across the globe.

Eradicating Inequality Through Growth

Long before the Enlightenment, the world’s poor were subjected to grueling labor with minimal compensation. With 90% of the global population in extreme poverty in 1820, the principles of the Enlightenment ignited a shift. Newfound prosperity grew rapidly as global income tripled between 1820 and 1900, due, in part, to nations replacing religious differences with trade for mutual benefit. The world income tripled yet again between 1900 and 1950 and continued accelerating, with South Korea and Singapore experiencing rapid wealth increase, and countries like Vietnam, Rwanda, and El Salvador doubling their income every 18 years. As this growth occurred, anticipated inequality surged before finally declining as predicted by the Kuznets curve. Developed countries began investing more in social programs to further reduce poverty, exemplifying Wagner’s law. Nowadays, nations spend an average of 22% on social welfare, positively impacting the lives of the once impoverished.

Declining Violence Through Progress

Despite ongoing conflicts like the Syrian war, global violence has significantly decreased over time. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on problem-solving has guided the vision of organizations such as the United Nations, which has been influential in resolving disputes and maintaining international relations. As more nations prosper, the incentives for uprisings and civil wars are diminished, creating a more stable and peaceful world.

In today’s world, it may seem like we’re faced with an overwhelming amount of violence and conflict, especially when considering the tragic events in Syria. However, taking a broader view of history reveals that we are actually experiencing a decline in worldwide warfare. Contrary to popular belief, the number of refugees and displaced people today is not unprecedented. Historical events such as the 1971 Bangladesh War, India’s border shift in 1947, and World War II have affected millions more lives.

The Enlightenment era brought with it an emphasis on problem-solving and rational thinking, and these values have continued to shape our approach to conflict resolution. The formation of the United Nations in 1945, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marked significant achievements in promoting peace and stability. These organizations, bolstered by trade and commerce agreements, have contributed to the overall decline of violence in the twenty-first century.

Over the last 70 years, wars have become increasingly rare. By 2009, a number of civil wars ended, including conflicts in Angola, Chad, Peru, and Sri Lanka. As wealth grows in many nations, the likelihood of militant groups gaining support decreases. Prosperity allows for improved healthcare and education, which in turn reduce the chances of civil unrest.

Data from around the world reflects this trend, demonstrating that as prosperity increases, incentives for violent crime and war diminish. This overall decline in global violence lends hope to a more harmonious and peaceful future.

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