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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Steven Pinker

(Viking; US: Oct 2011)

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined was released to great fanfare and for perhaps good reason: it challenges a conventional wisdom amid our era of the global “War on Terror” that violence is on the increase. Over nearly 700 pages of text, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, argues instead why our period of history is less fraught with senseless war and bodily harm than we might imagine – at least in comparison to the past. It’s a novel position, and his book depends upon this element of counter-intuition.


Indeed, this book fits into a particular niche of non-fiction that might be called the “Harvard school of popular writing” that involves spanning the academic and non-academic worlds, at times from an arcane angle. Think of the ecologist E. O. Wilson (if only we understand the nature of ant civilizations, we could understand humankind better!) or the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (the world is the outcome of contingent natural selection, like baseball!) or, more recently, historian Niall Ferguson (the United States is an empire, embrace it!), all of whom are or were Harvard faculty. Pinker fits into this select group, by possessing excellent writing skills and having the bravado to court controversy for ideas that test social consensus.


Pinker is closest to Gould in terms of the range of his thought and sources, which are both scientific and from the humanities. His passing points of reference include the crucifixion of Jesus, the Peloponnesian War, Thomas Hobbes, Bob Dylan, and Abu Ghraib, among many others. But he is also the academic opposite of Gould, who argued against the evolutionary psychology that Pinker embraces with some revision. Pinker’s thesis is that violence has declined as the result of institutions that have mitigated our innate mental propensity toward using conflict as a means of social, political, and personal gain.


In short, it’s not so much that human nature as such has evolved toward betterment by itself, but that social and political conditions have changed to a point that there are more incentives to handle individual and global disagreements without physical violence than there are to pursue violent means. To make his case, Pinker takes a long and sweeping view that traverses across a number of topics and disciplines – archaeology, political theory, primatology, human rights discourse, social psychology, and genocide, for example – accompanied by statistical data and flashy illustrations to make his point.


After an introductory chapter that argues how the past is indeed a foreign country in relation to violence (Pinker is unafraid to offer vivid detail of Roman techniques of crucifixion to prove his point), the book ventures forth to explain why the past was much more deadly, with a series of periods to frame a pattern of eventual decline. Pinker refers to the first period as “the pacification process” as discussed in Chapter 2, a chapter that starts with primates and Jane Goodall, but is largely inhabited by the spirit of Thomas Hobbes and his masterwork Leviathan (1651) that argued for the importance of centralized states for establishing political order. Pinker essentially buttresses Hobbes with statistical data to demonstrate that, yes, the rise of state institutions has contributed to a decline in violence.


This period of change spanning from human prehistory to the present is overlaid with a second period defined by a “civilizing process” that started during the Middle Ages and also continues to the present. The German Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias (1897-1990), whom Pinker calls “the most important thinker you have never heard of,”  is the residing influence here, whose book The Civilizing Process (1939) gives the title to Pinker’s third chapter and, as Pinker readily confesses, is a key inspiration for his book as a whole. Elias essentially argued that violence declined in Europe over several centuries from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment of the late 18th century, a transition marked by a shift from a “culture of honor” that sanctioned revenge to a “culture of dignity” that favored self-control. Elias’s argument has since been substantiated through statistical analysis, and Pinker discusses how state centralization and economic growth were two major contributing factors to this evolution. Indeed, these elements were mutually reinforcing, with the interconnected nature of these twin developments making conflict and the instability it could generate less appealing.


The next three chapters parse these two broad processes, addressing in particular the modern period and the twentieth century especially. Pinker discusses the humanitarian revolution since the late 18th century, paralleling the decline of corporal punishment, capital punishment, slavery, torture, and killing based on superstition with the rise of personal income, literacy, and secular education generally. Regarding the last century, Pinker works against the idea that it was among the deadliest, given the death toll of two world wars, by instead focusing on mortality in proportion to population, arriving at the contrasting notion of a “long peace” over the past 100 years, with the Cold War’s character of détente essentially balancing the mortal effects of the First and Second World War. This long peace is defined by a general decline in the number, longevity, and magnitude of wars, and Pinker explores a range of inter-connected reasons for this trend, including lower rates of military conscription, smaller sizes of standing armies, nuclear threat, the spread of democracy, a rise in global trade, a rise in global media, and the stabilization of a nation-state system that has respected sovereignty and de-legitimated new territorial acquisition by war and other means.


In the next chapter, Pinker moves beyond a nation-state emphasis to attend to “new wars” involving paramilitaries, guerrillas, terrorism, and ethnic conflict, for example, that have animated recent violence, particularly in parts of the world outside of Europe and the United States. Here again, the glass is half full with Pinker calling this period after the Cold War the “New Peace” given once more the objectivity of number crunching that undermines the images of chaos and instability that we see in the news.


In making these points, Pinker walks a careful line between proving his argument for the decline of violence and acknowledging the very real effects violence has had on communities and people across the world. Furthermore, his argument raises two significant questions. First, given the longevity of this trend, what does this say about the future? Moreover, what does this say about human nature?


Pinker offers two approaches to answering these matters. The first is the emergence of various “rights revolutions” for women, minorities, and other identity groups that have occurred over the past century that he believes indicate a progressive insurance of respect, self-control, and dignity over violent conflict. The second approach plays to his expertise: an analysis of the psychological motives for violence, complete with brain diagrams, through issues like social dominance, overconfidence, sadism, and revenge. Pinker’s discussion is not entirely a rehash of Hannah Arendt’s popular argument for the banality of evil, but he does propose that the impulse to violence is within the capacity of every normal person. Fortunately, the aforementioned qualities of aggression can be balanced by parallel feelings of empathy and self-control.


Regarding the question as to whether there is an evolutionary reason for the decline of violence, Pinker suggests that there is little evidence for this kind of change and, moreover, the time frame for much of this decline is too short for a genetic factor to take hold. But people are apparently becoming more intelligent, an observation based on increasing IQ scores over time known as the Flynn Effect.


Pinker ultimately concludes with what he calls the Pacifist’s Dilemma: that there are few incentives for seeking peace in the abstract, since there is little to gain and a lot to lose potentially. He consequently places his faith in state institutions, commerce, feminization (espousing feminine values and moving away from male qualities of competition), increasing global interconnection, and “the escalator of reason”, by which he means secular humanism, as important elements for encouraging non-violence in the present and future.


So here we are. Did I mention this is a long book? In many ways, The Better Angels of Our Nature is a bravura performance of interdisciplinary synthesis, and in truth, as a full disclosure, I am the exact target audience he has in mind: middle-class, educated, liberal, believing there is not enough peace in the world, even when statistical evidence, at least of the kind he has to offer, indicates we are in an era of relative peace. As Pinker might say to me, this perspective of yours is based on your psychological circuitry and the information you receive and perceive through daily news rather than any objective truth. Perhaps this is the case, Professor Pinker, but I have several questions.


First, your analysis is primarily centered in the West, as noted by other critics, which raises questions of violence and its geographic distribution over time. If there is declining violence in the West, might it be escalating elsewhere? Did not the “civilizing process” beyond Europe entail brutal forms of imperialism and colonization? There is a potential here for contradiction that deserves fuller treatment.


Second, your argument is substantiated primarily through statistics, which introduces concerns about who is producing these statistics and for what ends. While they appear to be objective, numbers can be notoriously manipulated to favor certain viewpoints. Might states and other institutions lower mortality figures for political ends?


Finally, not to get too eggheaded, but where is Michel Foucault in this discussion? Is focusing on transparent violence as you do, perhaps, a distraction from the ways in which power has transformed itself into non-violent forms, but is nevertheless still power? For example, homicidal violence may be on the decline in the US, but the prison system and the number of people occupying it has never been larger. Is this something to feel good about? Does this reflect the better angels of our nature?


A book of this magnitude will always draw critics, and my point is not necessarily to undermine Pinker’s study, given that I am convinced by much of it. I am more interested in the debate and research that ensues than making an outright dismissal. But I think a larger point is being missed. It’s unclear what to do with a conclusion of this kind – that violence has declined – except to appreciate our age and be attentive to the importance of institutions and trends that have made it so. Pinker says as much, recognizing the tragedy and waste of violence while lauding the ways in which “enlightenment” and “civilization” have brought us to this point. But this raises questions of whose enlightenment and whose civilization and the ongoing importance of defining these notions.


Moreover, with a growing global population and increasingly scarce resources, it’s unclear if existing institutions and “reason” will be able to handle these pressing matters. There is good evidence that they will not.


In short, while Pinker may be correct up to now, I hesitate, no, worry with conclusions of this kind that, improperly understood, can encourage passivity rather than vigilance, giving opportunity for another cycle of violence, even if it’s a statistical aberration like World War II, as Pinker at one point suggests. The Second World War certainly did not feel like simply a fluke for those generations who had to endure it. And the human potential for violence, as Pinker duly notes, is always there.


As General Corman grimly says in Apocalypse Now (1979) when speaking of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, “there’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.”

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