Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. By Steven Pinker. Viking; 576 pages; $35. Allen Lane; £25.

TO ANYONE who reads a newspaper, this can seem a miserable world. Syria is still at war. Another lunatic has gone on a gun rampage in an American school. The tone of political debate can rarely have been as crass and poisonous as it is today.

Front pages are grim for the same reason that Shakespeare’s plays feature a lot of murders. Tragedy is dramatic. Hardly anyone would read a story headlined “100,000 AEROPLANES DIDN’T CRASH YESTERDAY”. Bad things often happen suddenly and telegenically. A factory closes; an apartment block burns down. Good things tend to happen incrementally, and across a wide area, making them much harder to film. News outlets could have honestly reported that the “NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY” every day for 25 years. But readers might get bored.

Negative news is one reason why people consistently underestimate the progress humanity is making, complains Steven Pinker. To discern the true state of the world, he says, we should use numbers. In “Enlightenment Now”, he does just that. The result is magnificent, uplifting and makes you want to rush to your laptop and close your Twitter account.

The world is about 100 times wealthier than 200 years ago and, contrary to popular belief, its wealth is more evenly distributed. The share of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of that in the 1980s and half a percent of the toll in the second world war. During the 20th century Americans became 96% less likely to die in a car crash, 92% less likely to perish in a fire and 95% less likely to expire on the job.

Mr Pinker’s best-known previous book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, showed that humankind has grown less violent. His new one demonstrates that steady, cumulative progress is occurring on many fronts. For this he credits the values of the 18th-century Enlightenment, summarised by Immanuel Kant as “Dare to understand!” By applying reason to problems, people can solve them—and move on to the next. Trade and technology spread good ideas, allowing rich countries to grow richer and poor ones to catch up.

Best of all possible worlds

Progress has often been stunningly rapid. The vast majority of poor Americans enjoy luxuries unavailable to the Vanderbilts and Astors of 150 years ago, such as electricity, air-conditioning and colour televisions. Street hawkers in South Sudan have better mobile phones than the brick that Gordon Gekko, a fictional tycoon, flaunted in “Wall Street” in 1987. It is not just that better medicine and sanitation allow people to live longer, healthier lives, or that labour-saving devices have given people more free time, or that Amazon and Apple offer a dazzling variety of entertainment to fill it. People are also growing more intelligent, and more humane.

In every part of the world IQ scores have been rising, by a whopping 30 points in 100 years, meaning that the average person today scores better than 98% of people a century ago. How can this be, given that intelligence is highly heritable, and clever folk breed no more prolifically than less gifted ones? The answer is better nutrition (“brains are greedy organs”) and more stimulation. Children are far likelier to go to school than they were in 1900, while “outside the schoolhouse, analytic thinking is encouraged by a culture that trades in visual symbols (subway maps, digital displays), analytic tools (spreadsheets, stock reports) and academic concepts that trickle down into common parlance (supply and demand, on average, human rights).”

Mr Pinker contends that this braininess has moral consequences, since people who can reason abstractly can ask: “What would the world be like if everyone did this?” That is consistent with the observable spread of Enlightenment values. Two centuries ago only 1% of people lived in democracies, and even there women and working-class men were denied the vote. Now two-thirds of people live in democracies, and even authoritarian states such as China are freer than they once were.

Belief in equality for ethnic minorities and gay people has shot up, as demonstrated not only by polls (which could be biased by the knowledge that bigotry is frowned upon) but also by internet activity. Searches for racist jokes have fallen by seven-eighths in America since 2004. Those who enjoy them are dying out: online searches for racial epithets correlate with interest in “Social Security” and “Frank Sinatra”, Mr Pinker notes. Even the most conservative places are loosening up. Polls find that young Muslims in the Middle East are about as liberal as young western Europeans were in the early 1960s.

Many readers will find this bubbly optimism hard to swallow, like too much champagne. We may be materially richer, some will protest, but aren’t we less happy because we know that others have even more? We may have supercomputers in our pockets, but aren’t they causing an epidemic of loneliness among the young? And what about global warming or North Korea’s nuclear missiles?

Mr Pinker has answers for all these questions. In 45 out of 52 countries in the World Values Survey, happiness increased between 1981 and 2007. It rises roughly in line with absolute income per head, not relative income. Loneliness, at least among American students, appears to be declining. Global warming is a big threat, but not insurmountable. The number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen by 85% since its peak.

The rise of populism challenges Mr Pinker’s thesis. Supporters of Donald Trump, Brexit and various authoritarian parties in Europe tend to believe that the old days were golden, that experts can’t be trusted and the institutions of liberal democracy are a conspiracy to enrich the elite. Some want to tear down these institutions and start again—which would at the very least interrupt the incremental progress that Mr Pinker champions.

Without downplaying the risks, he remains optimistic. The checks and balances that populists decry are reasonably effective in most rich countries and will outlast the current crop of demagogues. Supporters of populism will become disillusioned, or will simply die off. Mr Pinker draws especial comfort from the decline of faith. Worldwide, although 59% of people are religious, that share has fallen from nearly 100% a century ago. As people grow richer, he argues, they abandon the crutch of belief and rely more on reason.

Pessimism has its place—it fosters caution. And the human instinct to focus on problems is sound—it means they often get fixed. Nonetheless, Mr Pinker’s broad point is surely right. Things are not falling apart. And barring a cataclysmic asteroid strike or nuclear war, it is likely that they will continue to get better.