Enlightenment Now: A book review

Enlightenment Now is a worthwhile read for Classical Liberals, who believe that reason – not force or blind belief – is the fundamental driver of progress.

Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker, was written in response to the growing sense of cynicism about the future of humanity. It shows how life has become ‘better’ over the past few centuries, with people having applied their minds to the problems confronting them. They have, in short, been able to use reason to do this. This makes Enlightenment Now a worthwhile read for Classical Liberals, who believe that reason – not force or blind belief – is the fundamental driver of progress.

Life Expectancy

One social topic that I found interesting in the book was life expectancy. The evidence that Pinker analyses demonstrates that life expectancy has increased drastically over the centuries. During the mid-18th century, the average age for men and women in America and Europe was 35. Today, however, the figure around the world has risen to 71,4 years. This was a remarkable improvement. The turning point in longevity happened during the “Great Escape”. The economist Angus Deaton used this term describe the era in which significant accomplishments were made in humanity’s efforts to escape early death, poverty and disease. This process happened during the 18th century, which lead to developments that included the acceptance germ theory and increased access to public sanitation. Understanding the factors that undermined health and striving to overcome them increased life expectancy.

Increases in life expectancy were not limited to the wealthier parts of the world. These increases have spread, albeit unevenly, to nations which have been poor and underdeveloped historically. Wealth, compounded with developments in healthcare, have helped to spread the increase in longevity to other parts of the world. This shows that overcoming socio-economic challenges such as poverty is a powerful force for extending people’s lives and raising their life quality. The broad direction of progress also shows that the world seems to be experiencing the benefits of progress collectively, albeit at different rates.

Equal Rights

I found the chapter on equal rights relevant to South Africa’s context, where news concerning racial issues seems constantly to be elevated beyond its true importance. It leads to the view that South Africa is a country where there is a sweltering culture of racism towards people who happen to be African, coloured and Indian. Examining this is the context of the US, Pinker uses research by the Pew Research Center on the attitudes of Americans and found that that their views on race, gender and sexual orientation experienced a shift towards tolerance and respect towards the rights of others. Other research presented by Pinker showed that in America, hate crimes towards minorities decreased dramatically. The improvement in attitudes towards racial harmony, and the decline in hate crimes tracks the decline of poverty rates.

The world is more respectful now

These developments create the perception that the world is indeed moving in a direction where hostility based in identity is becoming less frequent than what it was in the past. The world is becoming – and certainly has become when measured against conditions a few hundred years ago – a rather more liberal and respectful place towards everyone, irrespective of their racial or religious identities. This is not to underplay the tensions and difficulties that remain, but it is an encouraging picture, and one out of sync with the world that is depicted in much of the media and academia.

Similar research has shown how South Africa has experienced a not dissimilar trajectory amongst its public, even though unscrupulous politicians seek to use racial tensions to promote themselves. Contrary to the depiction of a society at virtual breaking point, polling by the South African Institute of Race Relations has found that a solid 8 out of 10 South Africans believe in equal treatment for all, irrespective of race, respect one another and want a country that works for all.

There is much more to be explored in these pages. Enlightenment Now is a thoroughly researched and well substantiated book and readers are encouraged to dive into it. It will set out a rich variety of ideas, that help one to be confident about humanity’s trajectory, and the tools that have been successful in steering it. I would highly recommended.




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