The legendary entrepreneur has read a new book by Stephen Pinker on the progress of humanity and recommends it to everyone.
For a very long time, I considered Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature to be the best work I’ve read in the last decade. If I needed to recommend only one book to a person, I would choose it. Pinker, relying on careful research, argues that we live in the most peaceful time in the history of mankind. I have never seen such a clear explanation of progress.
Now I seem to stop talking so much about “The Best in Us” because Pinker has surpassed himself. His new book, Enlightenment Now, is even better.
It uses the same approach as in the book “The Best in Us” to track the manifestations of violence throughout history and compare them with 15 different indicators of progress (for example, quality of life, level of knowledge and safety). The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better.
Pinker generously sent me a preliminary copy, although the book will not be released until the end of February. I read it very slowly, because I liked it very much, but I think that most people will find it easy enough to read. The author manages to present a huge array of information in such a way that it looks convincing, memorable and easy to digest.
The book opens with an argument in favor of a return to the ideals of the Enlightenment – an era when reason, science and humanism were considered the highest virtues.
I am certainly for reason, science and humanism, but 15 chapters that looked at each indicator of progress separately seemed to me more interesting. Pinker does this in his best style, analyzing historical trends and using data to describe the context of the past. I already knew most of the information that he shares – especially about health and energy – but thanks to a deep understanding of each topic, he is able to present the information in such a way that it seems new and fresh.
I love the way he readily dives deep into the primary data sources and pulls out unexpected signs of progress. I single out among them a sharp reduction in poverty and child mortality, because I believe that these are good indicators of our activities as a society. Pinker examines these areas, but also touches on less obvious things.
Here are five of my favorite facts from the book that show how the world is getting better:
1. The chance of being killed by lightning is now 37 times less than at the turn of the century, and this is not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. This is because we are better able to predict the weather, know more about security, and more people live in cities.
2. The time required for washing was reduced from 11.5 hours a week in 1920 to one and a half hours in 2014. This may seem mundane amid more grander things. But the proliferation of washing machines has improved the quality of life, freeing people – mostly women – time for other activities. It takes almost half a day every week and can be used for anything from watching a series or reading a book to starting a new business.
3. The probability of dying at work has become much less. Every year, 5,000 people die from industrial accidents in the United States. But in 1929, when our population was less than two fifths of the current population, 20 thousand people died at work. At that time, fatal workplace accidents were perceived as one of the costs of doing business. Today, we have become smarter and come up with ways to produce things without risking so many lives.
4. The average IQ in the world is growing by about 3 points every ten years. The baby brain is developing better through improved nutrition and a cleaner environment. Pinker also draws attention to the fact that there is more analytical thinking in and out of school. Think about how many characters you interpret each time you look at your phone screen or subway map. Our world today encourages abstract thinking from a young age, and it makes us smarter.
5. War is illegal. This thought seems obvious. But until the creation of the United Nations in 1945, no institution could force countries not to lodge with each other. With few exceptions, the threat of international sanctions and interventions has proven to be an effective means of deterring war between countries.
Pinker also raises the problem of the lack of connection between real progress and perception of progress, which I thought a lot. People all over the world live longer, healthier and happier, so why do many people think that life is getting worse? Why do we miss positive news and focus on the negative? Pinker gives a good explanation of why we gravitate towards pessimism, and how this instinct affects our attitude to the world, although I would like him to go even deeper into psychology (especially since he is a psychologist by education). Hans Rosling explains this in more detail in the excellent Factfulness book, which I plan to talk about shortly.
I agree with Pinker on most points, although I think he is too optimistic about artificial intelligence. He quickly rejects the idea that robots can overthrow their human creators. And although I do not think that we are threatened by a script in the spirit of the “Terminator,” the question that underlies this fear remains urgent – who really controls the robots? This time has not come yet, but at some point this question, who has AI and who controls it, will become extremely important for world institutions.
A lot of questions related to automation are proof that progress may not be a very nice thing, but that does not mean that we are moving in the wrong direction. At the end of Enlightenment Now, Pinker argues that “we will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to look for it.” But there are no boundaries for the improvements that we can achieve if we continue to apply knowledge to increase human prosperity. ”
The world is getting better, even if it’s not always tangible. I am glad that there are such brilliant thinkers as Stephen Pinker who can help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker has written. This is my new favorite book of all time.