Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. By
Steven Pinker. Viking; 576 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £25.
TO ANYONE who reads a newspaper, this can seem a miserable world. Syria is still at war. Another lunatic has gone on a gun rampage in an American school. The tone of political
debate can rarely have been as crass and poisonous as it is today.
The world is about 100 times wealthier than 200 years ago and, contrary to popular belief, its wealth is more evenly distributed.
The share of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of that in the 1980s and half a percent of the toll in the second world war. During the 20th century Americans became 96% less likely to die in a car crash, 92% less likely to perish in a fire
and 95% less likely to expire on the job.
Best of all possible worlds
Progress has often been stunningly rapid. The vast majority of poor Americans enjoy luxuries unavailable to the Vanderbilts and Astors of 150 years ago, such as electricity,
air-conditioning and colour televisions. Street hawkers in South Sudan have better mobile phones than the brick that Gordon Gekko, a fictional tycoon, flaunted in “Wall Street” in 1987. It is not just that better medicine and sanitation allow people
to live longer, healthier lives, or that labour-saving devices have given people more free time, or that Amazon and Apple offer a dazzling variety of entertainment to fill it. People are also growing more intelligent, and more humane.
In every part
of the world IQ scores have been rising, by a whopping 30 points in 100 years, meaning that the average person today scores better than 98% of people a century ago. How can this be, given that intelligence is highly heritable, and clever folk breed no more
prolifically than less gifted ones? The answer is better nutrition (“brains are greedy organs”) and more stimulation. Children are far likelier to go to school than they were in 1900, while “outside the schoolhouse, analytic thinking is encouraged
by a culture that trades in visual symbols (subway maps, digital displays), analytic tools (spreadsheets, stock reports) and academic concepts that trickle down into common parlance (supply and demand, on average, human rights).”
Two centuries ago only 1% of people lived in democracies, and even there women and working-class men were denied the vote. Now two-thirds of people live in democracies, and even authoritarian states such as
China are freer than they once were.
Many readers will find this bubbly optimism hard to swallow, like too much champagne. We may be materially richer, some will protest, but aren’t we less happy because we know that others have even more? We
may have supercomputers in our pockets, but aren’t they causing an epidemic of loneliness among the young? And what about global warming or North Korea’s nuclear missiles?
Mr Pinker has answers for all these questions. In 45 out of 52 countries
in the World Values Survey, happiness increased between 1981 and 2007. It rises roughly in line with absolute income per head, not relative income. Loneliness, at least among American students, appears to be declining. Global warming is a big threat, but not
insurmountable. The number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen by 85% since its peak.
The rise of populism challenges Mr Pinker’s thesis. Supporters of Donald Trump, Brexit and various authoritarian parties in Europe tend to believe that
the old days were golden, that experts can’t be trusted and the institutions of liberal democracy are a conspiracy to enrich the elite. Some want to tear down these institutions and start again—which would at the very least interrupt the incremental
progress that Mr Pinker champions.
Without downplaying the risks, he remains optimistic. The checks and balances that populists decry are reasonably effective in most rich countries and will outlast the current crop of demagogues. Supporters of populism
will become disillusioned, or will simply die off. Mr Pinker draws especial comfort from the decline of faith. Worldwide, although 59% of people are religious, that share has fallen from nearly 100% a century ago. As people grow richer, he argues, they abandon
the crutch of belief and rely more on reason.