I have not so much read the book as scanned it. For most of the book he builds a case for his basic claim that life, for most people, has improved to an amazing extent in the last 200 years and we can thank science, reason and humanism for all this progress.
I assume he has to provide so much data because he knows this is an unfashionable opinion within the postmodern liberal intellectual elite and this bothers him. By listing all these facts and showing us all these graphs, he thinks he can convince even his most skeptical critics that progress is real, and that it is much more widely distributed than most people imagine. Is there something missing from his account of progress? I think there definitely is. I do not disagree with his claim that progress is real. Hunger, disease, violent death, these are not trivial concerns. The tremendous progress in these areas is real, and it is meaningful. Intellectuals who criticize Pinker by pointing to persistent or new forms of ill health, physical suffering or violence should take a break and actually read the book, they will find that he has the data and it is not bad data. Either argue about his data with better data of your own, or argue on some OTHER grounds. On THESE grounds, he is solid.
But human beings are not just machines for eating and reproducing. Our lives need meaning and just as we are programmed to seek food, sex and shelter, we are also programmed to seek social status and other satisfactions that are not necessarily better delivered to more people today than were delivered to them in older iterations of human society. That many of his critics are wrong about the data, or are straw-manning about science and reason, does not mean all of them are wrong about everything. Yes, Pinker has a powerful point, whatever else you think is important, you cannot deny that food, health and shelter are critically important.. and that they were not delivered by pre-modern societies anywhere close to the levels at which they are delivered to astoundingly large numbers of human beings by modern society. But this still leaves a lot of room for argument about other things (meaning, community, hope, love, family, friendship, power, hate, happiness, the list is endless), argue about those; but if your case is based on some romantic notion of idyllic peasant utopias of the past, then this book should set you right.
So far, so good.
Then you come to the last chapter and Pinker tries his hand at explaining humanism and its philosophical enemies, and boy oh boy, is he bad at it. I agree with him on at least 2 parts of his basic thesis (reason and science have tremendously increased human well being, in ways that most human beings care about very deeply indeed, though not in all ways) and would love to agree with him on humanism too, but cannot. Anyway, that is another story. But even I felt like cutting back to 3 stars or less when I got to his mangling of Nietzsche. My serious suggestion is that you skip the last chapter. You will not lose anything and you may appreciate a lot of the facts in the rest of the book with less prejudice.
Worth a read, especially if you have not read “The better angels of our nature”.. if you have, you can probably skip this one. It is just a more detailed and wider-ranging version of the same book.