“If you think the world is coming to an end, think again: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science.”
That’s the message of Bill Gates’ new favourite book, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.
“The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way,” said Gates, the Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist, after reading it.
The book argues we should use logic to see what really matters, enjoy the fruits that living in the 21st century offers us, and use science and technology to make the world an even better place.
Pinker, a Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and author, also wrote Gates’ previous favourite read, The Better Angels of Our Nature.
But, writing on his Gates Notes website, the philanthropist said: “I’m going to stop talking up ‘Better Angels’ so much, because Pinker has managed to top himself. His new book is even better.”
Pinker says that instead of being swept up by ideologies of the left or right, which he argues have become “secular religions”, we should apply the thinking of the so-called Enlightenment era, which reached its heights in the 1700s.
People began to look to reason backed by scientific evidence instead of religions to understand the world, and the ideas of liberty, social progress, tolerance and constitutional governments took hold.
The book argues that common advancements and the shared human experience that has developed since the 1700s has made the world a safer and better place to live in.
According to a New York Times review, “Enlightenment Now is a spirited and exasperated rebuke to anyone who refuses to concede that the world is becoming a better place.”
The book also considers why many of us do not feel this is the case.
“None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become,” Pinker writes. “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever.”
Bill Gates’ five favourite book facts
As Gates says: “Enlightenment Now [tracks] violence throughout history and applies it to 15 different measures of progress (like quality of life, knowledge, and safety). The result is a holistic picture of how and why the world is getting better.”
Among the other metrics used to show how much better off we are than our ancestors are things like the reductions in childhood deaths, a cause Gates champions.
But Gates says his five favorite facts from the book that show how the world is improving are the following:
1. You’re 37 times less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than you were at the turn of the century - and that’s not because there are fewer thunderstorms today. It’s because we have better weather prediction capabilities, improved safety education, and more people living in cities.
2. Time spent doing laundry fell from 11.5 hours a week in 1920 to an hour and a half in 2014 ... the rise of the washing machine has improved quality of life by freeing up time for people - mostly women ... [time] that could be used for everything from binge-watching Ozark or reading a book to starting a new business.
3. You’re way less likely to die on the job. Every year, 5,000 people die from occupational accidents in the US. But in 1929 - when our population was less than two-fifths the size it is today - 20,000 people died on the job. People back then viewed deadly workplace accidents as part of the cost of doing business. Today ... we’ve engineered ways to build things without putting nearly as many lives at risk.
4. The global average IQ score is rising by about three IQ points every decade. Kids’ brains are developing more fully thanks to improved nutrition and a cleaner environment … Our world today encourages abstract thought from a young age, and it’s making us smarter.
5. War is illegal. This idea seems obvious. But before the creation of the United Nations in 1945, no institution had the power to stop countries from going to war ... Although there have been some exceptions, the threat of international sanctions and intervention has proven to be an effective deterrent to wars between nations.
The AI debate
But there is one subject in the book on which the philanthropist and the author do not see-to-eye: artificial intelligence.
Pinker is “quick to dismiss the idea of robots overthrowing their human creators”, says Gates.
“While I don’t think we’re in danger of a Terminator-style scenario, the question underlying that fear - who exactly controls the robots? - is a valid one.
“We’re not there yet, but at some point, who has AI and who controls it will be an important issue for global institutions to address.”