Humans have made progress because of reason, science, and humanism. If we let these Enlightenment principles guide us, we can continue to enhance human flourishing.
This is the story told by Steven Pinker. It sounds age-old, but Pinker has achieved to tell it with whole-hearted patience and factual eloquence. He accepts the challenge to assuage fears of failure to prevent catastrophic global warming. He rebukes the claim that Trumpism is the new normal. He speaks out bravely against post-modern humanities and theistic morality. I see the world as a better place after reading his book.
On a personal note, as a former student of economics, my instinct is to attribute any human progress to changes in incentive structures. But Pinker reminds me sometimes we should just owe the success to reason and science. For example, annual death by accidental falling has dropped significantly by 70% in the US since the 1930s. Pinker's explanation for this specific feat is as follows:
"...epidemiologists and safety engineers tabulate accidental deaths with almost plane-wreckage attention to detail, classifying and sub-classifying them to determine which kill the most people and how the risks may be reduced. (The International Classification of Diseases, tenth revision, has codes for 153 kinds of falls alone, together with 39 exclusions.) As their advisories are translated into laws, building codes, inspection regimes, and best practices, the world becomes safer."
I do not doubt an incentive mechanism is working in the background. Nevertheless, I should give credits to human effort and reasoning reflected in industrious tabulation and coding.
That being said, however, I still think Pinker could strength his argument by seeking help from economics. I am surprised he almost never mention the role of institutions as complements of enlightenment principles (such as how patent laws encouraged innovations). I feel it over-reaching when he speaks of liberal democracy, free market, and equal rights as fruits of reason and humanism (on a lighter note, it might be OK to say welfare states are results of humanism). Reason and humanism must have played a role, but aren't the achievements also a result of various historical forces? Pinker uses increased acceptance of emancipative values among birth cohorts and stability of political orientation along life-cycle as encouraging sign of less tribalism in the future, but shouldn't he discuss whether we have the right institutions/incentive structure to curb tribalism as well?
Last but not least, I am disappointed Pinker does not discuss the increasing repressiveness of the Chinese regime and its threat to world peace and freedom. From a historical and a world perspective, not speaking about China is defensible for two reasons: 1) China is far less menacing than the USSR; 2) the more daunting USSR collapsed in the end. But as a Chinese, I worry about my fellow people, who live in a place more and more like the actualization of both 1984 and Brave New World. I also worry about the encroachment of global liberty by a populous regime, whose seemingly innocent marketing keeps implicating rich and powerful people around the world.
Stray observations and quotes:
• I found safety a particular aspect of human wellness I am blind to. For example, before reading this book, I never thought so many people could die from falling (more than from drowning or fire).
• Readers who worry about the rise of Trumpism can fast forward to chapter 20.
• It's comforting to hear dematerialization is happening because of digitalization and share economy. Getting rid of stuff is liberating…
• Pinker rebukes several myths in his book: Easterlin paradox of wealth and happiness, high suicide rates in Sweden, social media usage lead to stress due to jealousy, nuclear war nearly broke during Cuban Missile Crisis.
• I never appreciated the effort in nuclear disarmament because I thought of any use of nuclear weapons as an apocalypse catastrophe. But the decrease in the number of nuclear warheads can reduce the chance of an accident and eliminate the possibility of a nuclear winter. Another example of how fear blocks rational thinking.
• I find the chapter on democracy the weakest and chapter 19/20/21 the strongest.
• "The discovery that political tribalism is the most insidious form of irrationality today is still fresh and mostly unknown."
• "The principal reason people disagree about climate change science is not that it has been communicated to them in forms they cannot understand. Rather, it is that positions on climate change convey value—communal concern versus individual self-reliance; prudent self-abnegation versus the heroic pursuit of reward; humility versus ingenuity; harmony with nature versus mastery over it—that divide them along cultural lines."