79 pages 2 hours read

Steven Pinker

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


Enlightenment Now is a 2018 nonfiction book by Canadian anthropologist and linguist Steven Pinker. Pinker holds that Enlightenment-era values—namely reason, humanism, and science—are underappreciated and that those who believe in a free, liberal society should defend them. He argues persuasively that the pessimism prevalent in modern society and political discourse is largely unfounded—and that this cynicism results from ignorance of the impressive progress in human rights, safety, health, governance, and technology of the last several centuries. Through quantitative evidence, such as study data, surveys, and graphs, the author illustrates that society is improving rather than worsening and that people can continue to improve it by espousing Enlightenment values.

This study guide refers to the Kindle edition of the book.

Content Warning: This guide references mental health conditions, anti-gay sentiment, death by suicide, sexual servitude, abuse, police violence, slavery, torture, and murder.


In his preface, Pinker outlines the purpose of his work and thanks the scholars whose research he uses in his arguments. Borrowing Immanuel Kant’s line “Dare to Understand!” as the title of Chapter 1, Pinker explains that Kant, a renowned Enlightenment philosopher, argued that instead of obliviously following religious dogma or political authority, people should rely on reason to constantly question and improve practices and institutions—and that no one should obstruct progress. Pinker emphasizes the irrational religious beliefs and superstitions that informed pre-Enlightenment worldviews about everything from nature and the weather to government, law, and crime. He credits Enlightenment-era reason and humanism with helping society “escape from ignorance” and “terror” (10) by recognizing individual sentience and abolishing practices like slavery and torture. Chapter 2, “Entro, Evo, Info,” explores three forces that shape the universe and life: entropy, or inevitable decay or chaos; evolution, or change over time; and information, or the ability to interpret surroundings and communicate with others. Pinker notes that humans have always fought entropy and the accidents, natural disasters, and disease it entails—and he hints that Enlightenment thinking provided effective tools to do so.

Chapter 3, “Counter-Enlightenments,” identifies three forces that inherently oppose Enlightenment thinking: religious faith, nationalism, and declinism. Each of these ideologies encourages unquestioning faith in a theology, social group, or idea rather than relying on reason and science to guide thinking. In Chapter 4, “Progressophobia,” Pinker criticizes intellectuals who irrationally insist that societies haven’t progressed or are even in decline, despite what data suggests. He laments that many dismiss the Enlightenment view—that knowledge can improve lives—as naive or overly idealist. Pinker attributes modern society’s pessimism to news media’s disproportionately negative reporting, which often highlights violent and unfortunate events, triggering our brains’ “availability heuristic” and leading us to overestimate the likelihood of negative events and feel more cynical. Pinker argues that this pessimism is unfounded and that we should instead rely on quantitative data to evaluate progress objectively via markers such as human rights, life span, health, wealth, and literacy.

Chapter 5, “Life,” shows that the average human lifespan globally has increased dramatically in recent centuries. Graphs and statistics illuminate how global infant and maternal mortality rates have substantially decreased as advances in medicine and nutrition have increased lifespans. In Chapter 6, “Health,” Pinker shows how scientific research helped improve billions of lives by identifying diseases, finding cures, inventing vaccines, and more. These advances saved and extended people’s lives worldwide but are often taken for granted. Pinker reminisces on the gratitude people felt when vaccination eradicated polio in the US and argues that people today don’t have the same respect for scientists and medical inventors, whom he considers “heroes.” Chapter 7, “Sustenance,” explores how all human societies endured crop failure, famine, and starvation until recently. Pinker charts the substantial agricultural progress of recent centuries and credits modern farming technology, improved plant breeding, and the invention of fertilizer with increasing crop yields. He argues in favor of genetically modified plants as part of the “green revolution” that improved crop strains and prevented widespread starvation.

In Chapter 8, “Wealth,” Pinker argues that the world’s wealth has steeply risen in recent centuries because of trade globalization and the introduction of market economies to formerly communist nations. People in most countries and economic classes benefit from these systems. Pinker emphasizes that extreme poverty was once commonplace everywhere and compares this condition with today’s wealth distribution, showing that extreme poverty has greatly declined and that most people are better off than previous generations. Chapter 9, “Inequality,” explains that increasing inequality doesn’t necessarily mean increasing poverty because everyone can become wealthier—but if they gain wealth unevenly, inequality increases (as he notes is happening in the US). Therefore, he concludes, equality isn’t a fundamental measure of human flourishing, and he cites research showing that many are happier in less equal societies if wealth accumulation is based on merit. In Chapter 10, “The Environment,” Pinker acknowledges pollution and climate change as major problems requiring significant planning and policy to mitigate. However, he defends industrialization as a necessary tradeoff for quality of life and highlights the progress of environmental causes in recent decades, such as reducing contaminants, saving endangered species, and beginning to heal the ozone layer. Pinker is “conditionally optimistic” about the planet’s future and argues that we can continue to live well if we invest in green technology and nuclear power.

Chapters 11-13—“Peace,” “Safety,” and “Terrorism”—explore these topics in light of society and its progress. Pinker notes that after World War ll, the world entered a relatively peaceful period: Wars between nation-states declined dramatically, which he attributes to governmental stability and centralized power. Crime rates have dropped too, while greater workplace and vehicle safety help protect people. Pinker argues that as countries become wealthier, they direct more resources to health and safety, and he credits good policy, activism, and inventions. He then notes that injury and death resulting from terrorism are statistically low relative to other crimes and even accidents. Although terrorist groups receive much media attention, Europe experienced more terrorism in the 1980s than today. Pinker thinks that because terrorists negotiate from positions of weakness, merely hoping to stoke fear in populations, terrorism will remain ineffective and likely decline.

In Chapters 14 and 15, “Democracy” and “Equal Rights,” Pinker examines politics and human rights. While many fear that human rights are under threat, Pinker argues that they’re more robust than ever and will continue to expand. He cites data that demonstrates how democracies have doubled in recent decades and some authoritarian countries have become less repressive. While racism, sexism, and anti-gay sentiment remain problems, Pinker celebrates the steady liberalization of attitudes. He uses survey data and cites hate crime rates and human rights legislation—such as women’s suffrage and marriage equality—to show the progress in the last century. He argues that we can—and should—acknowledge that improvement while continuing to push for progress.

Chapter 16, “Knowledge,” shows that the world’s population is more educated and literate than ever before. Pinker even argues that people are smarter than in previous generations, citing improved nutrition, exposure to fewer toxins, and education that emphasizes analytical thinking and abstract concepts. He argues that as countries become wealthier, healthier, and more educated, quality of life improves because the cost of necessities declines and people have more leisure time. He compares the expensive and time-consuming necessities and self-care of the past, from house lighting to laundry, with today’s relatively cheap and convenient options and notes that increased access to hobbies and luxuries has improved life as well. Pinker resists the argument that modern society has made people more shallow and materialistic, and he condemns the moral judgments people make about how others choose to spend their free time.

In Chapters 17 and 18, “Quality of Life” and “Happiness,” Pinker uses survey data to show that people aren’t less happy than in previous generations. He considers quality of life and happiness separately because people can be comfortable but still unhappy, and he argues that millennials are mentally healthier and happier than their parents. In Chapter 19, “Existential Threats,” Pinker considers natural disasters, pandemics, and terrorism, concluding that though we can’t eliminate these risks, increased wealth and technological innovation better equip us to deal with such scenarios. Moreover, studies show that people often cooperate after disasters rather than descending into anarchy. Chapter 20, “The Future of Progress,” encapsulates Pinker’s argument that wealth, safety, equality, and knowledge have steadily increased since the Enlightenment era. However, he acknowledges the serious issues we still face—such as misogyny, poverty, and child labor—and urges people to view them as solvable problems.

Chapters 21-23—“Reason,” “Science,” and “Humanism”—grapple with the threats to these three pillars of Enlightenment thinking. Pinker identifies biases—particularly politicized biases—as a major obstacle to reason and argues that political discourse should routinely include fact-checking and references to data. Pinker refutes arguments that questions about existence and life’s meaning are outside the realm of science or that it’s a less meaningful pursuit than the arts. He emphasizes science’s contribution to our understanding of nature, the universe, and existence as well as its immense achievements in medicine and other areas. Pinker then tackles religious and political opposition to humanism and claims that as the world becomes more cosmopolitan and secular, more people will embrace humanist goals, which will help society continue to make progress.