Book Review: Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker

post by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-10-21T23:12:43.485Z · EA · GW · 6 comments


  Who should read this book?
  Who shouldn’t read this book?
  What questions does this book raise for the EA reader?
  Favorite Quotes
  Further Reading

For most of history, it didn’t matter what century you lived in. With few exceptions, you would have suffered what we today consider “extreme poverty”:

But a few hundred years ago, things began to change. The world’s wealth exploded...

Source: Our World in Data, Roser 2016, based on data from the World Bank and from Maddison Project 2014.

...which gave us access to medicine, supermarkets, lightbulbs, and all sorts of other good things. Steven Pinker attributes this to the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement he breaks into four “themes”:

Reason: Reason is our attempt to understand the world using evidence and logic, and to test our beliefs so that they evolve towards truth. During the Enlightenment, the spread of literacy and scholarship helped reason compete with its predecessors: “Faith, dogma, revelation, authority, [and] charisma.”

Science: Science is the process of applying reason to understand the natural world. We’ve recently transitioned from near-universal superstition to an era when many people have a basic understanding of science. Millions of people work as professional scientists who expose new truths, or engineers who apply those truths to create wonders. Pinker sums up one of the greatest triumphs of science in two words: “Smallpox was.”

Humanism: The Enlightenment created a new system of morality: one which “privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion.” This humanism has taught us to tolerate and care for each other to an ever-greater degree. In the process, war, slavery, and capital punishment have withered to husks of their former selves.

Progress: In Pinker’s view, the Romantics of the 19th century (and the despots of the 20th) believed in twisting people to fit their ideals. But Enlightenment thinkers preferred twisting their ideals to fit people -- they tried to build a world more suitable for humans. In universities, governments, and markets, they created norms, laws, and machines that made our lives better in a thousand different ways. The Romantics sought “utopia”, but Pinker sees the goal of Enlightenment as “protopia”: we may not perfect the world, but we can always improve it.

Though he discusses and defends the first three themes, Pinker’s main focus is progress, which he implies is driven by a virtuous cycle of increasing wealth, knowledge, and tolerance:

In a steady progression of strikingly similar graphs -- lines moving up for good things, down for bad -- Pinker shows that in the last few centuries, we finally escaped from stagnation. Human life has gotten better in almost every way, from a twenty-fold rise in average income since 1800 to a 50% reduction in young children killed by disease since 2000.

There are too many statistics to summarize, but some are especially surprising:

Pinker holds that these improvements, while often grudgingly acknowledged, aren’t taken seriously enough by the modern counter-Enlightenment. Populist politicians attack every pillar of our present-day prosperity. Thinkers on the left and right criticize the “complacency” of modern society. And the media skips boring good news to promote negative stories.

Proposing a solution to these issues would require an additional book. Pinker mostly lets the numbers make his arguments for him, though he also addresses a few common counterarguments and pokes holes in his opponents’ logic. (When they even use logic, that is: one reviewer refers to Pinker’s numbers on violence reduction as “amulets” and “sorcery”).


Pinker is a stylish, entertaining writer whose book tells a number of important truths. His main claim -- that the world is getting better -- generally seems to be correct, and he backs up his best points with blistering prose.

But the claim isn’t universally true. And when the facts aren’t fully on his side, Pinker can descend into strawmanning and dodgy figures to justify his grand thesis.

One of the weakest chapters in the Progress section deals with existential risk -- which seems highly relevant, since even centuries of progress could be undone by a disaster of sufficient magnitude. As he tries to persuade us that we live in the best of times, Pinker undersells two problems that could endanger civilization: nuclear war and the development of artificial general intelligence.

On the nuclear side:

Still, he offers sensible proposals for reducing nuclear risk, and at least admits that the issue is worthy of attention. I left the chapter worrying slightly less about nuclear annihilation than I had before.

His discussion of artificial intelligence, on the other hand, felt perfunctory, as though he didn’t think the issue worthy of his full attention:

Writers with relevant expertise (Scott Aaronson, Phil Torres [LW · GW]) have contested Pinker’s points at length. I will add only that, given Pinker’s belief that humans have achieved incredible power and wealth through the use of reason and cooperation, it seems odd that he thinks AI will never be similarly capable. (Especially when so many people stand to make money by building smart, flexible systems that work well together.)

Even when Pinker writes about present progress instead of future problems, some of the same problems emerge. George Monbiot’s deep dive on the environmental chapter found sketchy data and further out-of-context quotes. And while the numbers I spot-checked myself were accurate, some of them still had an odd spin. For example, Pinker argues that the true U.S. poverty rate has dropped sharply because today’s poor Americans can afford to buy more than poor Americans in past eras. This is true and important, but skirts other aspects of poverty -- feelings of inferiority, harassment by police, a lack of self-determination -- that haven’t necessarily changed for the better.

That said, most of his statistics are solid and well-selected, and the data-heavy sections are by far the strongest. The book begins to flag when Pinker turns away from numbers and toward his critics; he’s not particularly charitable in the book’s more argumentative sections, rarely yielding to a single opposing point.

The arguments also suffer from a simple lack of space. His critique of religion is shallow by necessity, since he can spare it only a few pages; the same goes for his critique of Romanticism, his critique of leftist academics, and so on. These sections read like newspaper op-eds; they’re fine, but they don’t give Pinker time to exert his full strength as an academic.

I almost wish he’d turned the social criticism into a separate book. I’d prefer a version of Enlightement Now that focused entirely on material and social progress, with complaints about Donald Trump replaced by deeper explanations of counterintuitive statistics.

If I had to summarize all my complaints, I’d say that Pinker tends to over-argue his conclusion. Is everything really getting better? Are all risks truly decreasing? Is there really nothing of value in the Romantics and Postmoderns who followed the Enlightenment?

A few other points of note:

Source: The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.

Source: George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center.

One last observation: Enlightenment Now has a lot more “now” than “Enlightenment”. As other reviewers have noted, the book is light on intellectual history. Pinker gives a brief tour of names and ideas, but barely mentions how those ideas developed over the centuries, or how the Enlightenment’s philosophy influenced the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. (Did we need Voltaire and Mill to get steam engines and assembly lines?) His most important points still hold without this material, but I wish he’d done more to connect his four “themes”.

In the end, I strongly endorse half of Enlightenment Now, tread with caution around a quarter, and would prefer the last quarter to have been published somewhere else. But the good material is often great, and Pinker’s occasional missteps shouldn’t obscure the beauty and joy of the facts he presents, which remain underrated. I’m glad we have him as a counterpoint to most of the media.

Who should read this book?

Who shouldn’t read this book?

What questions does this book raise for the EA reader?

Here are a few that were on my mind after I finished. Your questions might be entirely different; Pinker offers a lot to think about.

Favorite Quotes

Further Reading


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by kbog · 2019-01-26T22:25:45.805Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Nice to see a review of this book from someone I can trust to be unbiased about it.

Replies from: aarongertler
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-01-27T16:53:52.999Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think you can trust me to be unbiased, but I appreciate the compliment!

Ways my analysis could have been systematically flawed (a non-exhaustive list, of course):

  • I'm not an expert on any of the areas Pinker discussed, and Gell-Mann amnesia would imply that I'm therefore liable to overrate the quality of his analysis. (Note that I found him weakest on AI issues, the area where, relative to the quantity of available literature, I'm probably best-read compared to other areas he discusses.)
  • I'm inclined, philosophically and aesthetically, toward the same generally science-humanistic views as Pinker. I found it helpful to read this review by an arch-conservative non-utilitarian, as a balancing factor.

comment by JonathanSalter · 2018-11-10T17:10:54.758Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for a great summary Aaron, much appreciated! Will you continue to summarise EA-relevant books? My book list is too long for comfort!

Replies from: aarongertler
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2018-11-11T22:31:46.961Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Book summaries are one of many CEA content projects; I'm not certain how much time we'll devote to them going forward, but we'll certainly take your feedback into account!

comment by philosophytorres · 2019-01-26T22:19:45.374Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sloppy scholarship. Please do take a look, if you have a moment:

Replies from: aarongertler
comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-01-27T16:45:18.505Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I read your full critique of the Existential Risk chapter, and agreed with nearly all of your points, as I think I mentioned when you posted it on the Forum. (I also linked to you in this post, in case you didn't see that on your first reading!)

Did you have other criticism of the book beyond that chapter that you felt I should have pointed out?