Review of Enlightenment Now

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  • Comprehensive
  • Analytical
  • Eye Opening


Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker argues that for more than 200 years, the Age of Enlightenment has been the wellspring of steady human progress, especially in quality of life. The Enlightenment – which, he explains, is “placed in the last two-thirds of the 18th century, though it flows out of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason in the 17th century” – follows a set of primary principles and ideals: “reason, science, humanism and progress.”

The foremost Enlightenment principle is the primacy of reason as an avenue for understanding the world and human life and for rejecting religious dogma and faith. Science sprang from the Enlightenment’s devotion to reason and gives people a way to understand the processes of the natural world and of human nature. Humanism depends on reason and science. It concerns ethical life and how people organize themselves into societies. Humanism grounds ethics in reason, rather than in religion, and it prioritizes individuals over their community, nation or race. The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are products of the Enlightenment. In Pinker’s analysis, Enlightenment ideals have fueled progress in every area from human health and human rights to efforts to combat poverty, crime and war.

The principal weakness of Pinker’s opus, other than its density, is his palpable impatience with – and quick dismissal of – many balanced, reasoned critiques of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment spread crucial ideals, but it also produced some of the worst depredations of capitalism and mechanized warfare. Still, Pinker argues his thesis with vast data and startling graphs. His optimism and enthusiasm are infectious. getAbstract recommends this monumental tribute to human progress to anyone who wants to remain hopeful about the future.

About the Author

Steven Pinker, PhD, is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His other books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Blank Slate and The Better Angels of Our Nature. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist whose won many awards for research, teaching and writing, he was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today and Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers.


Pinker offers the following lessons:

1. “Entropy” is important in grasping the human condition.

The phenomenon of entropy is central to the human condition. According to the second law of thermodynamics, entropy describes how the elements in a “closed system” gradually disperse over time and become less useful. When a fire dims, for example, and its heat dissipates, it can no longer boil water or cook food. This law is important in understanding human life. Human biological structures, like that of any organism, allow people to absorb the energy they need to remain alive and to survive and counteract entropy. How could such an improbable being come into existence? Religious thinkers assert that only God could design such a complex creature. To the extent that Enlightenment thinkers were religious, some were deists, theists or pantheists. And some were atheists and not religious at all. Deists believed that only a deity could explain the origins of complex organisms like human beings, and that “God set the universe in motion and then stepped back, allowing it to unfold according to the laws of nature.”

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