STARRED REVIEW
March 2018

How far we’ve come

By Steven Pinker
Review by

Is life getting better or worse? Watching the news these days, it seems that our cities are threatened by violence, our country is more politically divided than ever, and our world is endangered by global warming. The future looks pretty bleak. But Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and bestselling author, offers a different outlook.

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Is life getting better or worse? Watching the news these days, it seems that our cities are threatened by violence, our country is more politically divided than ever, and our world is endangered by global warming. The future looks pretty bleak. But Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and bestselling author, offers a different outlook. Picking up where he left off in 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argued that violence and discrimination have lessened over time, Enlightenment Now posits that life has improved by several measures over the last 350 years, in large part because of the Enlightenment, a global movement that originated in 18th-century Europe and centered on the idea that any problem could be meaningfully addressed through the systematic application of human effort. Pinker further presses that the insights and approaches of the Enlightenment—including reason, science and humanism—offer keys to humanity’s continued success.

Pinker first establishes the book’s philosophical premise, suggesting that a favorable assessment of humanity’s progress since the 1700s is both obvious and provocative. Thinkers and pundits on both the right and the left, Pinker writes, prefer fatalism and radicalism, and position the present moment in a doomsday narrative that belies the truth of humanity’s global well-being. Pinker measures progress as related to particular topics, such as health, wealth, sustenance, equal rights, safety, quality of life and happiness. He does not limit himself to the Western world, but instead seeks a global point of view, relying on academic works from a dizzying array of disciplines (medicine, history, sociology and psychology) to provide evidence for his claims. Because of this vigorous approach and Pinker’s articulate authorial voice, as well as the elegant graphs that accompany each chapter, this ambitious book is an entirely absorbing read. To settle in with Enlightenment Now is to receive the sense that, on the whole, life is on the upswing and, to quote from the popular musical Hamilton, we should “look around” and acknowledge “how lucky we are to be alive right now!”

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now

By Steven Pinker
Viking
ISBN 9780525427575

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