Prof. Pinker points out early in this book that people have a tendency to marshal evidence that confirms their convictions whilst dismissing evidence that contradicts them. I’m as guilty of that as most people, and on the evidence of this book, my own convictions are similar to the author’s. Prof. Pinker’s book largely provides me with reinforcement for my pre-existing opinions and on that basis it’s not surprising I rate it highly.
A large part of the book is taken up with the author arguing that the ideals of the Enlightenment have led to levels of health, wealth, human rights, peace and security, and all-round happiness that were unimageable to people in the pre-Enlightenment age. Also part of his argument is an attack on the surprisingly common belief that the world was a better place in the past than it is today. I’ve always felt that rose-tinted views of the past fly in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and overwhelming evidence is what Prof. Pinker provides, with a barrage of statistics and graphs about how the world has changed since the Enlightenment era. I had a few minor quibbles about some of his arguments, but nothing that affected the overall merits of his case.
Of course, saying that things are far better than they were is not to say that we live in Utopia. Prof. Pinker would be the first to say that the world still faces many problems, and he addresses those that could reverse the gains of modernity. The hoary old chestnuts of resource depletion and “the Population Bomb” are despatched without much ado. He’s completely dismissive of the Elon Musk/Stephen Hawking arguments about the threat of AGI, (which made me feel rather foolish, since on this website I’ve previously written a favourable review of a book which articulates those fears). He does rate climate change and nuclear war as potentially serious threats (though again, if you had asked political commentators in the 1950s or 1960s about the chances of getting to 2018 without nuclear weapons ever being used, most would have rated the chances as close to zero).
I’m a little less sanguine than Prof. Pinker when it comes to the threats to progress posed by nationalism, populism, political extremism (of the left and right) and religious fanaticism, all of which seem to be on a world-wide upswing at the moment. Prof. Pinker seems to be think that we’re just going through a bit of a bad patch and that it’ll all turn out right in the end. I hope he’s right.
I had to take my time reading this book, as I had to consider the arguments carefully, and also because I kept stopping to read the references. They’ve given me a few ideas for future reading material. Overall for me this was a 4.5 star rating, but objectively it deserves 5 stars