The Enlightenment was a remarkable time in human history. For many years, humans had lived in an intellectual or cultural “dark ages” where very little changed and people were wedded to their superstitions. Centuries went by and nothing really progressed. Instead of testing the world around them they simply accepted what clergymen or monarchs told them was true and left it at that. They didn’t test their limits; they just read old books and believed the facts in them. But this state of affairs could not last forever. There is an impulse, a curiosity, in humans that seeks sensible explanations. In the 17th century the Enlightenment began. Motivated by trade, the printing press, and a number of very significant intellectual leaders, this period of history saw a lot of the superstitions that guided people’s lives beaten back. Thinkers like Diderot, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson revolutionized the way we think about the world and our place in it. Scientific innovation was also telling us more and more about our world, was exposing the fact that it was not run by ghosts and gods. Things began to change dramatically. People believed that a better world could be created through reason. The first utopians became famous.
The power of science was very important to the Enlightenment and to its idea that utopias were possible. Science was the process people used to explain the world to themselves and it was really coming into its own. People like Galileo had shown us that the moon was not a perfect sphere and that the patterns of the other planets were not quite as perfect as once thought. People began to think that the world was knowable not by divine revelation but through scientific reasoning and measurement. They took up their slide rules and went to their labs to try to explain things. This was a positive thing. But some people also began to applying strict science to things like politics or race—concepts that