Category: Book review

Life is better than ever for most of humanity.

Life is better than ever for most of humanity.

In 2019, I wrote a book review of “Enlightenment Now” by Stephen Pinker. I revisited this review in 2022. In these three years, I’ve experienced a worldwide pandemic, Russia at war with Ukraine, and domestic turmoil in the US. Despite the turbulent times, I still agree with Pinker. Here’s my review; this is a book worth reading.

Life is better than ever for most humanity; despite a barrage of media that paints a dismal picture of life on Earth. Most of society would agree with Barack Obama’s 2016 view “…. if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.” [1] In “Enlightenment Now,” Stephen Pinker provides a quantitative assessment of how life has improved throughout human history. He asserts:

“…. I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. …. I will present a different understanding of the world, grounded in fact and inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment: reason, science, humanism, and progress.” [2]

The book starts with three chapters that explain the Enlightenment, some basic science, and the counter-Enlightenment. The majority of the books, seventeen chapters, deal with progress in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. The final three chapters deal with reason, science, and humanism in our world.

First, Pinker asks: What is the Enlightenment? He starts with Immanuel Kant’s 1784 definition:

“Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” — that is the motto of Enlightenment.” [3]

Of course, if the Enlightenment was so great, why aren’t all human problems solved? Pinker says:

“And if you’re committed to progress, you can’t very well claim to have it all figured out. It takes nothing away from the Enlightenment thinkers to identify some critical ideas about the human condition and the nature of progress that we know and they didn’t. Those ideas, I suggest, are entropy, evolution, and information.”

Pinker next explains entropy, evolution, and information. I found this chapter a bit hard to grasp. Perhaps my engineering background causes me to yearn for straightforward definitions. Let’s say that entropy is the tendency towards disorder (such as in my office), and energy is required to counteract entropy. A brief synopsis of Pinker’s description:

[Entropy] “Living things are made of organs that have heterogeneous parts which are uncannily shaped and arranged to do things that keep the organism alive (that is, continuing to absorb energy to resist entropy).”

[Evolution] “The replicating systems would compete for the material to make their copies and the energy to power the replication. Since no copying process is perfect—the Law of Entropy sees to that—errors will crop up, and though most of these mutations will degrade the replicator (entropy again), occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that’s more effective at replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition.”

[Information] “Information may be thought of as a reduction in entropy—as the ingredient that distinguishes an orderly, structured system from the vast set of random, useless ones.” [4]

Here’s a summary of why we should care about entropy, evolution, and information:

“Getting back to evolution, a brain wired by information in the genome to perform computations on information coming in from the senses could organize the animal’s behavior in a way that allowed it to capture energy and resist entropy. …. Energy channeled by knowledge is the elixir with which we stave off entropy, and advances in energy capture are advances in human destiny.” [5]

Next chapter, there are some details of the counter-Enlightenment. Pinker provides four alternatives:

  1. Religious faith
  2. “People are the expendable cells of a superorganism .…”
  3. [declinism] “One form of declinism bemoans our Promethean dabbling with technology.”
  4. [scientism] “… the intrusion of science into the territory of the humanities ….

A summary of why the counter-Enlightenment should be transcended:

“Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance—a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.” [6]

The majority of “Enlightenment Now” deals with progress in many areas of human life. Here are a few of my most significant findings from Pinker’s extensive research, supported by much data.

[Sustenance] “… in spite of burgeoning numbers, the developing world is feeding itself. Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated from all regions outside Africa.”. … “Famine as an endemic problem in Asia and Europe seems to have been consigned to history.”…

“Once the secrets to growing food in abundance are unlocked and the infrastructure to move it around is in place, the decline of famine depends on the decline of poverty, war, and autocracy.” [7]

[Wealth] “Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created. It is created primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor. The corollary, just as radical, is that we can figure out how to make more of it. …. “Also, technology doesn’t just improve old things; it invents new ones. How much did it cost in 1800 to purchase a refrigerator, a musical recording, a bicycle, a cell phone, Wikipedia, a photo of your child, a laptop and printer, a contraceptive pill, a dose of antibiotics? The answer is: no amount of money in the world. The combination of better products and new products makes it almost impossible to track material well-being across the decades and centuries. “[8]

[Inequality] “Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing.” … “As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative, or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved….” [9]

[Environment] “The key idea is that environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge. …. humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide.” “An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them.” [10]

[Knowledge] “Homo sapiens, “knowing man,” is the species that uses information to resist the rot of entropy and the burdens of evolution. …. But some of the causal pathways vindicate the values of the Enlightenment. So much changes when you get an education!

• They are less racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and authoritarian.

• They place a higher value on imagination, independence, and free speech.

For all these reasons, the growth of education—and its first dividend, literacy—is a flagship of human progress.” [11]

[The Future of Progress] “Ever since the Enlightenment and the invention of science, we’ve managed to create a tiny bit more than we’ve destroyed each year. But that few percent positive difference is compounded over decades into what we might call civilization . . . . [progress] is a self-cloaking action seen only in retrospect. Which is why I tell people that my great optimism of the future is rooted in history.” Hans Rosling, who, when asked whether he was an optimist, replied, “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist.” [12]

The final part of “Enlightenment Now” explains the importance of reason, science, and humanism. Pinker makes a strong case for using reason to understand the world. Here’s a brief selection of why reason matters:

  • “Making reason the currency of our discourse begins with clarity about the centrality of reason itself.”
  • “The human brain is capable of reason, given the right circumstances; the problem is to identify those circumstances and put them more firmly in place.”
  • “People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems. A second impediment to effective teaching is that pupils don’t spontaneously transfer what they learned from one concrete example to others in the same abstract category.” [13]

Pinker advocates that science is the best tool humanity has to understand the world. Here is his explanation of what distinguishes science from other exercises of reason:

“All the methods are pressed into the service of two ideals, and it is these ideals that advocates of science want to export to the rest of intellectual life.

1. The first is that the world is intelligible.

2. The second ideal is that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.

When scientists are pressed to explain how they do this, they usually reach for Karl Popper’s model of conjecture and refutation, in which a scientific theory may be falsified by empirical tests but is never confirmed.” [14]

The book’s final chapter explains humanism, why it matters, and how it substitutes for religion in the modern world. Here are some of Pinker’s explanations of humanism:

  • “Spinoza: “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.” Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish. The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism.”
  • “There is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.” [15]

Pinker addresses many of the deficits of religion in this chapter. I can’t synopsize all his arguments, but here is one quote that stuck in my mind:

“To begin with, the alternative to “religion” as a source of meaning is not “science.” No one ever suggested that we look to ichthyology or nephrology for Enlightenment on how to live, but rather to the entire fabric of human knowledge, reason, and humanistic values, of which science is a part.” [16]

One issue I see is that current representations of human knowledge aren’t in a holistic framework that covers the “entire fabric of human knowledge” accessible to most humans. It would be helpful to have an accessible form of humanism, the closest that I’m aware of are Unitarian Universalists.

To summarize, “Enlightenment Now” makes a strong case, using data, references, and compelling explanations, that life is improving for most humans. As Pinker asserts: “As always, the only way to know which way the world is going is to quantify.” [17]

The author makes a strong case that reason and science are the root cause for the progress of human life across many dimensions. In contrast, while Pinker explains well the importance of humanism, in the end, I’m not sure how to truly put humanism into practice in my life and community. That said, “Enlightenment Now” is a profound and encouraging book. I agree with Pinker:

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” [18]

Notes

[1] As quoted in “Enlightenment Now”, Part III
[2] “Enlightenment Now”, Preface.
[3] Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (Was ist
Äufklarung?), 30 September, 1784. Pinker translates the Latin “Sapere aude!” as “Dare to understand!” Instead of “Have courage to use your own reason!”
[4] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 2. I’d note that the majority of living things are single cell organisms but that doesn’t change Pinker’s observation.
[5] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 3.
[6] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 3.
[7] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 7.
[8] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 8.
[9] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 9.
[10] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 10.
[11] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 16.
[12] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 20.
[13] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 21.
[14] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 22.
[15] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.
[16] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.
[17] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 14.
[18] “Enlightenment Now”, Chapter 23.

Practical SoCal PCT Section Hiker Guide

Practical SoCal PCT Section Hiker Guide

I found Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California: Section Hiking from Campo to Tuolumne Meadows by Shawnté Salabert a helpful reference while hiking 110 miles of California Section A of the PCT in April 2022. The author starts with a 60-page introduction covering the history and logistics of hiking the 943 miles of the Southern California PCT. It’s worth reading, even for experienced hikers. 

The following ten chapters, each roughly 60 pages, describe the sections that comprise the Southern California PCT. In our April 2022 six-day hike of Section A (from Campo to Warner Springs), I found it helpful to read the description before the day’s hike. Here’s one great example: “The climb out of Hauser Canyon is serious business – you face over 1000 feet of elevation gain in about 1.5 miles. Dehydrated, overheated, and underprepared hikers are rescued near here every single year; sadly, one hiker died after making the grueling climb in 2014. Consider timing your ascent for a cooler time of day, make sure you’re hydrated, and ensure that you eat enough to keep your motor running.” I can attest to the truth of those words (See Day 1 Hiking PCT Section A SoCal April, 2022).

The maps were effective for planning. Each chapter had an overall map that divided the section into legs based on distance and elevation.

The author suggested itineraries of varying lengths and times to cover an entire section. For example, she recommended trips of 7 to 9 days to walk from Campo to Warner Springs. Being a little crazy, we did this in six days; however, we used her legs for planning. Each leg had its maps, which I appreciated. While writing in my blog about the adventure from Campo to Warner Springs, the chapter photos and maps refreshed my memory. 

The author’s description of the section hikes of the Sierra, from Cottonwood Pass to Tuolumne Meadows, also matches my memory of my past tramping in this region. The book finishes with some valuable appendices, especially the description of trail towns and services.

Recommend this book for section hikers in Southern California; my rating is 4.5 stars. I read the paperback book but subsequently bought and reviewed the Kindle version. 

Book Review

On Hollow Ground by Donald Gavron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


If it seems clear, you haven’t understood this book. The author weaves a tale that revolves around the protagonist Troy Fox and a mysterious book of knowledge. There’s a lot of ambiguity as Troy proceeds in an underworld odyssey through the world. Does whoever controls the book control the world? Or, is the book just a string of self-help aphorisms worthy of a late night infomercial? The author takes us on a journey where we may find this out (or not). It’s a short fast read; more a novella length than a novel. There are four short stories included at the end; they are pretty good, One is horror and a couple seem autobiographical.




View all my reviews

A Brief review of Underestimated : an autism miracle by J. B. Handley

The heart of this book is the question: How non-speaking people with autism can communicate.The authors detail a potential breakthrough method – Spelling to Communicate (S2C).  A brief summary of S2C:a  non-speaking person with autism answers questions by pointing to one letter at a time on a letterboard held by an assistant. The reported results are amazing; non-speaking people with autism are able to communicate complex thoughts for the first time. The authors of the book are a father-son pair, the son Jamison is a non-speaker. It touched me how deeply the entire family wanted the best for Jamison. Reading the book, I realized that if my son couldn’t speak, I would certainly embrace S2C. 

A major  issue with S2C is that it doesn’t land within the domain of  current speech therapy science. The best science I can find to support S2C (cited in the book) is by V.K. Jaswal and colleagues at the University of Virginia. It would be great to see some additional supporting papers using other measurement techniques in the neuroscience toolbox. If the results can be substantiated, S2C would be a paradigm shift for non-speaking people with autism. Below is a reference to the paper in question, I would urge those who are interested in the science of S2C to read it.

Jaswal, V.K., Wayne, A. & Golino, H. Eye-tracking reveals agency in assisted autistic communicationSci Rep 10, 7882 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64553-9

I searched for a paper that would provide a factual counterbalance. This essay by Stuart Vyse provided some cogent discussion of additional experiments that would affirm or deny the usefulness of S2C.

Vyse, S. Of Eye Movements and Autism: The Latest Chapter in a Continuing Controversy.

 I’m an engineer but I have spent a few years educating myself in neuroscience. In particular, I have studied advances in brain-computer research. Locked-in quadriplegic patients regain some movement capabilities using brain-computer systems. The best suggestion I have to validate S2C is to develop a system that takes the human assistant out of the loop after some training.