Book Review: Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker

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”:

  • You’d spend your time hunt­ing, gath­er­ing, or farm­ing, us­ing al­most all your en­ergy just to stay al­ive. De­spite this effort, you’d eat the same food al­most ev­ery day, and that food would barely be ed­ible by mod­ern stan­dards.

  • Your only defenses against ill­ness would be herbs, bed rest, or surgery performed with prim­i­tive tools and zero anes­the­sia.

  • You’d sleep when the sun went down—light was ex­pen­sive.

  • And you’d prob­a­bly die be­fore the age of 60.

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:

  • New dis­cov­er­ies pro­duce wealth, which can be used to fund more dis­cov­er­ies.

  • Some dis­cov­er­ies help us com­mu­ni­cate globally, in­creas­ing our tol­er­ance of “strangers” who no longer seem strange.

  • Wealth also makes us more tol­er­ant. Na­tions with am­ple re­sources can af­ford so­cial welfare pro­grams and even the pro­vi­sion of aid to strangers in other na­tions.

  • Tol­er­ance helps us pro­duce wealth by trad­ing, and gives us ac­cess to the ideas and dis­cov­er­ies of other peo­ple. (You get the idea.)


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:

  • Lethal light­ning strikes in the U.S. are down 97% since 1900. In fact, there’s been a sharp de­cline in deaths from falls, fires, work­place in­juries, and most other “ac­ci­dents”. Our longer lives are due partly to medicine, but also to laws, reg­u­la­tions, and norms which pro­mote safe be­hav­ior.

    • Note: Pinker of­ten fo­cuses on the U.S., though his­tor­i­cal trends are broadly similar for other de­vel­oped coun­tries (and many that are still de­vel­op­ing).

  • Deaths from nat­u­ral dis­asters have also fallen dras­ti­cally. Our wealth and knowl­edge give us in­nu­mer­able small ways to defend our­selves (bet­ter hos­pi­tals, tougher struc­tures, bet­ter early-warn­ing sys­tems, etc.).

    • For an ex­am­ple of this, see Pa­trick McKen­zie’s es­say in “Fur­ther Read­ing”, at the end of this re­view.

  • The av­er­age Amer­i­can has hun­dreds of hours of ex­tra leisure time each year, com­pared to the early 20th cen­tury. This in­crease was driven both by shorter work­weeks and by re­friger­a­tors, wash­ing ma­chines, and other ap­pli­ances. Since 1900, we’ve cut weekly house­work time in half.

  • Thanks to this ex­tra time, Amer­i­can par­ents—both moth­ers and fathers—spend more time with their chil­dren than they did a cen­tury ago.

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”).


Commentary

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:

  • He makes ir­rele­vant points about the num­ber of books us­ing the words “nu­clear war” and the poli­ti­cal es­tab­lish­ment’s cur­rent lack of in­ter­est in nu­clear is­sues. (I don’t trust the poli­ti­cal es­tab­lish­ment to pri­ori­tize im­por­tant prob­lems, and I sus­pect that Pinker doesn’t, ei­ther.)

  • He also notes that “if we can re­duce the an­nual chance of nu­clear war to a tenth of a per­cent, the world’s odds of a catas­tro­phe-free cen­tury are 90 per­cent”, but never ac­knowl­edges that a 10-per­cent chance of nu­clear war is still un­com­fortably high.

  • Fi­nally, he points out the de­cline in nu­clear dan­ger since the end of the Cold War, but de­clines to men­tion new con­flicts that could arise in the fu­ture; this is un­der­stand­able, since he isn’t a mil­i­tary ex­pert, but I’d have liked to see more ev­i­dence that our cur­rent low-risk state is sta­ble.

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:

  • As he did years ago, he con­tinues to state that the AI safety com­mu­nity fears in­tel­li­gent sys­tems that are malev­olent or om­ni­scient. But the ex­pert con­sen­sus is more sub­tle and re­al­is­tic. Safety re­searchers gen­er­ally be­lieve that a pow­er­ful AI doesn’t have to be evil or all-know­ing to be dan­ger­ous. It just has to be ca­pa­ble of pur­su­ing goals that en­dan­ger hu­mans with enough in­tel­li­gence to ac­com­plish those goals.

  • He de­clines to en­gage with in­tel­lec­tual ar­gu­ments about cen­tral top­ics like or­thog­o­nal­ity or the con­trol prob­lem. In­stead, he cites 2001: A Space Odyssey (as well as Get Smart, a shlocky com­edy from the Six­ties) as a coun­ter­point to Nick Bostrom’s Su­per­in­tel­li­gence. One of his few ex­pert quotes is an out-of-con­text line from Stu­art Rus­sell, whose views on the topic are nearly op­po­site Pinker’s.

  • In gen­eral, through­out the sec­tion, he se­lects weak points (some of which I’ve never seen ar­gued by any­one in the com­mu­nity) and at­tacks their ob­vi­ous flaws. In many other chap­ters, he takes time to find strong op­pos­ing ar­gu­ments and make data-driven coun­ter­points; by com­par­i­son, the pages on AI feel rushed.

Writ­ers with rele­vant ex­per­tise (Scott Aaron­son, Phil Tor­res) 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:

  • Pinker makes a solid at­tempt to an­swer the trou­bling ques­tion at the heart of Yu­val Harari’s Sapi­ens: “For all of our progress, are we ac­tu­ally hap­pier?” He finds some ev­i­dence that ris­ing wealth has made most of us more satis­fied with our lives. And while he avoids eras of the deeper past (know­ing how the an­cient Ro­mans re­ally felt is be­yond us), he points out that our an­ces­tors also suffered from bore­dom and en­nui and a lack of time spent with fam­ily, all of which I’ve heard cited as is­sues spe­cific to us mod­erns.

  • An­i­mal welfare goes un­touched, as it did in Pinker’s The Bet­ter An­gels of Our Na­ture, which cor­rectly noted a de­cline in hu­man vi­o­lence… against hu­mans. It’s un­der­stand­able that Pinker wants to fo­cus on a sin­gle species, but graphs about the num­ber of farm an­i­mals, many of whom live ter­rible lives, don’t look nearly as rosy:


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


  • Pinker never tries to prove that eco­nomic growth will con­tinue in the face of (the­o­rized) tech­nolog­i­cal stag­na­tion, the ag­ing of the de­vel­oped world’s pop­u­la­tion, and the ever-in­creas­ing cost of re­search. This is harder to ex­plain than the lack of an­i­mal welfare; eco­nomic de­cline could be just as dan­ger­ous as a nu­clear ex­change to Pinker’s “pro­topia”.

  • Along the same lines, while Pinker praises the mod­ern reg­u­la­tory sys­tem, he barely men­tions the costs. Reg­u­la­tion cer­tainly saves a lot of lives, but it can also be­come ex­ces­sive and slow down eco­nomic growth. Like health and wealth, reg­u­la­tion tends to in­crease over time; un­like health and wealth, there is such a thing as too much reg­u­la­tion.


Source: Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity Reg­u­la­tory Stud­ies Cen­ter.


  • Mean­while, Pinker at­tributes the rise of sci­en­tific reg­u­la­tion, in the form of overly cau­tious ethics boards and bioethi­cists who slow med­i­cal progress, to the “stigma­ti­za­tion of sci­ence”. But an­other fac­tor seems to be at work: have we not sim­ply got­ten car­ried away with our en­light­ened love of safety? Again, some of what Pinker defines as “anti-En­light­en­ment” just looks like an over­abun­dance of progress.

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?

  • Pes­simists who don’t think the world is get­ting bet­ter and want lots of coun­ter­ar­gu­ments.

  • Op­ti­mists who like happy lit­tle graphs.

  • Peo­ple of any out­look who want a brief tour of the last two cen­turies from a ma­te­ri­al­ist per­spec­tive, with lots of cita­tions for fol­low­ing up.


Who shouldn’t read this book?

  • Peo­ple who fun­da­men­tally dis­trust ma­te­ri­al­ist per­spec­tives.

  • Peo­ple who pre­fer a few deep ar­gu­ments to many sur­face-level ar­gu­ments.

  • Peo­ple who are fa­mil­iar with this genre and don’t feel the need to re­mind them­selves of all the ways things have got­ten bet­ter.


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.

  • Given the mas­sive his­tor­i­cal gains driven by eco­nomic growth, might it be worth putting more EA effort into re­search on growth and de­vel­op­ment?

  • If peo­ple re­ally are more satis­fied with their lives to­day than they were prior to the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion, how much of that satis­fac­tion was de­pen­dent on ma­te­rial progress? Are there ways to cap­ture similar life-satis­fac­tion gains with­out an at­ten­dant or­der-of-mag­ni­tude in­crease in GDP?

  • How many of the lesser-known im­prove­ments cited by Pinker might help us think about new cause ar­eas?

    • For ex­am­ple, is there some form of tech­nolog­i­cal progress that could, like the wash­ing ma­chine, save peo­ple mul­ti­ple hours of te­dium each week, and that EA could help bring into be­ing? (Off-the-cuff ex­am­ple: Push­ing for­ward full le­gal ac­cep­tance of self-driv­ing cars by a few years might save billions of hours and many traf­fic deaths.)

    • Or are there par­tic­u­lar safety reg­u­la­tions that could mas­sively cut down on some ob­scure cause of death like in­dus­trial ac­ci­dents, and might be rel­a­tively easy to push for­ward? What could we learn from an Open Phil “his­tory of reg­u­la­tion” case study?


Fa­vorite Quotes

  • “Our great­est en­e­mies are ul­ti­mately not our poli­ti­cal ad­ver­saries but en­tropy, evolu­tion (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in hu­man na­ture), and most of all ig­no­rance—a short­fall of knowl­edge of how best to solve our prob­lems.”

  • “Bad things can hap­pen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day [...] if a news­pa­per came out once ev­ery fifty years, it would not re­port half a cen­tury of celebrity gos­sip and poli­ti­cal scan­dals. It would re­port mo­men­tous global changes such as the in­crease in life ex­pec­tancy.”

  • “Time spent on laun­dry alone fell from 11.5 hours a week in 1920 to 1.5 in 2014. For re­turn­ing “wash­day” to our lives, Hans Rosling sug­gests, the wash­ing ma­chine de­serves to be called the great­est in­ven­tion of the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion.”

  • “In 1919, an av­er­age Amer­i­can wage earner had to work 1,800 hours to pay for a re­friger­a­tor; in 2014, he or she had to work fewer than 24 hours (and the new fridge was frost-free and came with an ice­maker). Mind­less con­sumerism? Not when you re­mem­ber that food, cloth­ing, and shelter are the three ne­ces­si­ties of life, that en­tropy de­grades all three, and that the time it takes to keep them us­able is time that could be de­voted to other pur­suits.”

  • “On April 12, 1955, a team of sci­en­tists an­nounced that Jonas Salk’s vac­cine against po­lio—the dis­ease that had kil­led thou­sands a year, par­a­lyzed Fran­klin Roo­sevelt, and sent many chil­dren into iron lungs—was proven safe. Ac­cord­ing to Richard Carter’s his­tory of the dis­cov­ery, on that day, ‘peo­ple ob­served mo­ments of silence, rang bells, honked horns, blew fac­tory whis­tles, fired salutes, . . . took the rest of the day off, closed their schools or con­voked fervid as­sem­blies therein, drank toasts, hugged chil­dren, at­tended church, smiled at strangers, and for­gave en­e­mies.’”


Fur­ther Reading

  • Civ­i­liza­tion and Cap­i­tal­ism, by Fer­nand Braudel, ex­plores hu­man ma­te­rial progress in metic­u­lous de­tail. (Braudel spends as much time dis­cussing im­prove­ments in bread qual­ity as Pinker does im­prove­ments in GDP.) The full book is free on­line, but you should start with this ex­cel­lent sum­mary.

  • MIT pro­fes­sor Scott Aaron­son’s pos­i­tive and pes­simistic re­view of En­light­en­ment Now (also linked above) in­cludes a de­tailed cri­tique of Pinker’s views on ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

  • Tyler Cowen, economist and cham­pion book-reader, wrote a brief and thought­ful re­view of En­light­n­ment Now.

  • Nathan J. Robin­son offers a de­tailed re­but­tal of Pinker’s defense of in­equal­ity. (The re­but­tal has its own flaws, of course, be­cause ev­ery­thing is more com­pli­cated than it seems).

  • Pa­trick McKen­zie pro­duced a stir­ring, de­tailed es­say about the effec­tive­ness of mod­ern dis­aster re­sponse (in the spe­cific con­text of the 2011 Ja­panese earth­quake).

  • One form of progress Pinker didn’t men­tion: The pro­por­tion of Wikipe­dia ar­ti­cles that meet a set of ex­act­ing qual­ity stan­dards has been steadily in­creas­ing for years.

  • Many more forms of progress Pinker didn’t men­tion: Gw­ern lists the ways life has im­proved in the last three decades (the coffee has got­ten bet­ter, for ex­am­ple).

  • Our World In Data dis­plays a set of sur­veys which show that most peo­ple are pes­simistic about global de­vel­op­ment—save for those in coun­tries where the most de­vel­op­ment is hap­pen­ing, like China and Kenya.