Top positive review
Humanism, science and democracy have made our lives much better in the last 500 years. Forget the naysayers.
Reviewed in the United States on April 29, 2018
Pinker argues that humanism (a reasoned commitment to maximizing human flourishing), science, and democracy have resulted in substantial, measurable human progress over the last 500 years. There are 17 chapters setting out evidence (illustrated in some 75 charts) that globally humans are living longer healthier lives (pp. 53-67); developing agricultural methods that are making great strides toward eliminating famine (68-78); increasing per capita income and reducing income inequality (71-120); working on technology and global cooperation to address pressing environmental problems (121-55); decreasing war-related deaths (156-66); increasing safety (167-90); reducing deaths caused by terrorism (191-98); adopting democratic forms of government that promote higher economic growth (200); spreading equal rights (214-32); increasing literacy and the quality of education (247-61); dramatically improving the quality of life (247-61); leading happier lives (262-89); and addressing the existential threats of overpopulation, resource shortages, and the threat of nuclear war (290-321). The book is not triumphalist but consistently evidence-based. I do not have the expertise to assess the details of the evidence Pinker relies on, but he does cite recognized authorities. And some of his conclusions are irrefutable. People are living longer. They are better fed. The rule of law does make people living in democracies safer.
Despite some criticism to the contrary, Pinker does recognize that we still have a long way to go in providing food security, a living wage, and better health to some seven hundred million people who still live in extreme poverty (e.g., 87-89; 325). His argument is that we are not wasting money on trying to eliminate world poverty, that we have made substantial progress in reducing the number of people in extreme poverty by getting some things right. Communism has failed, totalitarian, planned economies are in retreat, and market economies coupled with improved agricultural practices and access to global markets have lifted billions out of extreme poverty in the last 75 years (89-96).
Pinker argues we should think scientifically, not that we should let science decide value questions (390-91). A scientific approach is based on two characteristics: the world is intelligible and we should allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct (329-93). We should let the facts on the ground, not our tribal, cultural allegiances, guide us toward policies and practices that help all people flourish (357-69).
Many will find Pinker's rejection of religion as a guide to human flourishing (30, 392-94, 421, and 428-33) disquieting, if not repulsing. I don't think that argument is essential to the book's main message. Human flourishing is a goal that all of the many religions that populate the globe can agree with. As Pinker points out, basic moral rules have always been agreed to by all societies. He asserts that two thousand five hundred years ago Plato argued in Euthyphro that the gods are not necessary to tell us what is moral (428). We all know that we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, that we should not cause injury to others, or steal their property. Our religious disagreements are not about morality but prescribed practices, rituals, and theological beliefs. Those conflicts should not get in the way of all of us, whatever our religion beliefs, supporting secular society's goal of promoting human flourishing.