I’ve glowingly reviewed other books by Steven Pinker. Here, here, here, and here. He’s a brilliant stylist of inviting English prose, a dazzlingly erudite scholar, a formidable rhetorical gladiator, and a wellspring of intellectual common sense that in his wake seems bloody obvious. I am clearly a fan.

When I heard about his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, And Progress I rushed to put my name on the library’s waiting list. Now having read it, I am not disappointed!

I’m going to let slide the fact that the first text you’ll read (on the cover) is a quote by Bill Gates — whom I am not especially impressed with — saying, "My new favorite book of all time." I never said Bill was an idiot and he’s right to like this book in particular. It strongly advises caution at bath time because, it claims, the baby of progress can be very hard to separate from dirty bathwater like Gates. It is like one of those behavioral economics experiments where you can penalize your adversary a dollar and get nothing, or you can receive a dollar if you award one to your undeserving adversary. I’m not an idiot either. If Bill Gates has to get richer for everybody to do better, fine. I’m not convinced that’s all in order, but Pinker sure makes a good case that rising tides do lift plenty of boats. Without exculpating Bill’s ill-gotten loot, it is true that just living in the first world is an analogous situation to being a billionaire at some level to some people. Ok, ok. What of it?

Well, we are getting richer. All of us. What does that mean? Anything you want. Richer in purchasing power? Yes. In longevity? Yes. Health? Yes. Security? Yes. Not having to watch your kids die? Not dying in childbirth? Yes. Yes. Richer in knowledge? Yes. Culture? Opportunity? Free time? Safety? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes….. 500 pages of yes. What could we do to make all of our dreams come true? If we step back and do the accounting, all of our dreams have come true!

Of course, a quick instinctive reaction to that assertion is: that’s crazy! No way! The road to Hell is not just ahead, but the hand basket we’re in is currently on its off ramp. But here’s the thing. Most of us are not starving to death. Or freezing to death. Or being shipped off to a gulag. I know this because Pinker just told me and backed it up with tons of actual data. We are, if we bother to check the numbers, doing objectively better than humans have ever done. Not only are we not doomed to Idiocracy, humans are, in point of fact, becoming measurably smarter (see Flynn effect). If you can’t believe we’re smart enough to measure such things, then the Idiocracy worry is moot by the same logic. Pinker doesn’t even make use of the fact that human brainpower has recently received a massive upgrade in the form of computational enhancement (e.g. Kasparov’s Law).

This can be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first. Like the premise of Pinker’s book The Better Angels Of Our Nature — violence in our species is decisively declining — it can be surprising to learn that our worst dread is actually not so bad at all. And getting a lot better all the time in a way that seems inexorable. It’s not just violence that’s getting better. It’s every damn thing. Maybe every damn thing is related to how much we kill each other?

I know it can be hard to take this victory lap. Thinking about all the idiots out there and all the suffering they’ve caused, it sure can seem bleak. But after World War II there really was a huge decline in massive genocides, pogroms, holocausts, wars, and so on. The 20th century seems like a giant skull and crossbones warning to the future that things are probably not going to go well.

What finally sold me though was thinking about all that death of the 20th century and then comparing it to one little statistic. In the 20th century, 300 million people did not die from smallpox. Many more were not maimed or partially incapacitated by it. Let’s all stop and take a deep breath and remind ourselves that smallpox was one of the worst foes of our species' history and we utterly vanquished it. In the 20th century. Hell ya.

And that leads to the book’s title which I just realized is a bit of word play. According to the IMDB

John Milius explained how he had come up with the title "Apocalypse Now". Apparently, this was derived from, at that time (1965), a very popular tattoo amongst the hippie community of a peace sign that said "Nirvana Now".

And that hippie community’s hopeful wish for something good is winning the fight against a more sinister apocalyptic outcome. Pinker rightly points out that it is not mystical woo that is winning this war — it is the intellectual framework of the Enlightenment.

Just as in The Blank Slate, Pinker had to anticipate his critics objecting to some pretty absurd stuff. In the Blank Slate, he knew some people were still adamant about the incorrect fact that no behavior, none, is genetically passed from parents to children. This stupid belief defies common sense and he had to forfend the same kind of nutty thinking in this book too. For example, he had to explicitly address the concerns of people who think that humans going extinct might be for the best. You may wonder who could possibly be against "progress"? Pinker reminds us and destroys their faulty reasoning. Some people gravitate towards disastrous (it has been shown by history) authoritarian regimes which restrict liberties we take for granted in the rich world. A rich world that has become rich precisely because of the liberties involved in tolerance, free expression, open-mindedness, scientific thought, impartial inquiry, free markets, evidence, logic, etc. If you think that everyone is on board with the Enlightenment, Pinker sets you straight. He then sets the doubters straight.

Almost all of the arguments in this book perfectly coincided with my beliefs. For example…

The lifeblood of science is the cycle of conjecture and refutation: proposing a hypothesis and then seeing whether it survives attempts to falsify it.

— p. 391

Popper’s book, completely changed how I think about science as I describe in my Review: Conjectures And Refutations.

Some points of agreement were uncanny. Check out these matches with things I’ve publicly said in the past.

Health care is being reshaped by evidence-based medicine (which should have been a redundant expression long ago).

— p. 380

The insane phrase "evidence-based medicine" did not exist before 1990. And even today it still needs to exist.

— @chrisxed 20171215 13:09

One technique [to avert Tragedy of the Belief Commons] was discovered long ago by rabbis: they forced yeshiva students to switch sides in a Talmudic debate and argue the opposite position.

— p. 379

In a debate if you can’t make your opponent’s best points, you can’t make yours.

— @chrisxed 20180305 19:13

…because what’s self-evident isn’t always self-evident.

— p. 413

If only the meaning of self-explanatory was.

— @chrisxed 20171128 08:46

But Pinker covers a lot of ground and he tips a lot of sacred cows. There’s something to make everyone grumble. I was most unsettled by his enthusiasm for nuclear power. But after reading his argument, I am convinced. Not that it is the way to go, but that it is worth exploring and keeping an open mind about. (In short, his argument is that first pass 1950’s reactors built on seismic faults are probably a bad idea, but new generation modern reactors are orders of magnitude safer and represent the only plausible way to do what really needs to be done with respect to climate change.)

Pinker definitely isn’t saying that there are no problems. He’s not saying everything is perfect. But he is saying that the best way to approach the problems that remain for our species is the way that we’ve met with dominating success beyond our ancestors' wildest hopes: Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism, liberty, progress. He believes that framing our serious problems, like climate change, as engineering problems is not only the best hope at solving them, it is the only coherent non-stupid thing to do. By all means you can try prayer and crystal energy fields also if it makes you feel better but here in the real world, applying reason and scientific thinking is the only way to proceed.

An interesting reflection I had after reading this book is that it is the anti-news. In the "news", the goal isn’t to plainly inform (for that, I recommend the Wikipedia Current Events Portal). No, news agencies are trying to attract attention. They compete to generate the most sensational ledes possible. And our human limbic system is not wired to snap to attention when things are smoothly going well. It is designed to be deeply affected by potentially dangerous calamities. And, because of how our system is setup, that’s all we are ever shown, out of proportion to how much we really need to know about such terrible spectacles. But even that trend is highlighting strife and misfortune in a way that makes it even more intolerable for us compared to never knowing about it happening far, far away. As a consequence we are eradicating these problems at a pretty historically impressive pace.

This book is a wonderful antidote to the toxic news cycle. If everybody stopped watching the news for a month and instead read this book, the world would be a much better place. But as this book shows, if deep historical trends persist, it’s going to be a much better place anyway. We should not get complacent but nor should we be despondent. We are a species of extreme champion problem solvers! We got this!