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Where Angels Fear to Tread: Steven Pinker's 'The Better Angels of Our Nature'

Is it worst to be killed by a crazed mob wielding machetes or to die via conveyor belt and filing system? The Better Angels of Our Nature keeps falling victim to the halo effect, creating an aura around reason itself.

Steven Pinker reports in The Better Angels of Our Nature that human progress might have an "aura of mystery about it" (p.694). Indeed, the process appears to be so mysterious that humanity can't see itself moving within its own circle of light. The "most important" things that have "ever happened in history" (such as the decline of violence and an escalation of reason) have generally gone unnoticed.

The arc of the moral universe might bend towards the light, but certain inner demons (like fear and ignorance) continue to cast a dark shadow. It isn't difficult to see why perfectly rational people might otherwise think they are living in the darkest period in history. The Holocaust, Hiroshima, September 11, Columbine, the Virginia Tech and Norway massacres (amongst many others) loom large in our memories. Nonetheless, seeing the world as a "nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide and war" (xxi) is merely the result of "historical myopia" (p.193) and 24/7 news cycles.

Indeed , we "may be living in the most peaceable era in our species history" (xxi), and the declines in violence can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment. Those who have noticed the downward trends in warfare and homicide might be tempted to see a "higher power at work", an almost "magical process" that defies rational explanation (p.694, quoting James Payne). They might even wonder whether our moral ascent is actually "evidence of divinity in history" or signs of a "divinely imparted meaning" in human affairs (p.694, quoting Robert Wright). The famed evolutionary psychologist obviously does not succumb to such a temptation.

He locates the apparent design within an adaptable 'human nature' — changes in our moral universe have evolved by means of natural selection. Pinker's deployment of the phrase "better angels of our nature", then, is metaphorical and places the emphasis on the "our nature" part. Our moral progress may be explained by the way certain biological traits have adapted to their environment. Consequently, Pinker wonders whether human evolution "might vindicate some notion of moral realism — that moral truths are out there somewhere for us to discover, just as we discover the truths of science and mathematics" (p.694).

Pinker has clearly written a big book, and at over 800 pages he explores even bigger questions, too. Don't be misled by the size of the tome or the depth of the questions, though. Pinker manages to conjure a death defying story from a range of fields and styles. Whatever its shortcomings, The Better Angels of Our Nature remains a spellbinding instance of pop scholarship: you might also think that your eyes are deceiving you when its pages appear to be turning themselves.

One of the book's biggest mysteries is why it doesn't come gift wrapped. The Better Angels of Our Nature could certainly be taken as humanity's gift to itself. It's no wonder the critical consensus has been overwhelmingly in its favor, and the book so well received in the mainstream press. Indeed, Pinker's book is confirmation that popular culture matters in the evolution of thought. Pinker wants to popularize ideas that have historically been the province of scholars. Consequently, its very presence there may be taken as an article of faith. He manages to appeal to our better natures by including other rational thinkers in the peer review process.

The question, however, is whether the book should be viewed as a jewel in reason's crown or as amongst its costume jewelery.

Unfortunately, Pinker too readily encourages us to see history through the lens of a transparent ideology (free market libertarianism aligning itself with neo Darwinism). This situation is made all the more transparent by the fact that he prefers to use the term ideology when describing belief systems other than his own. Indeed, "ideology" is included on his list of "inner demons" (p.xxv). Pinker's description of history is thereby reverse engineered to ensure that it reflects a world view that would ideally be called higher "intelligence", instead (p. 663).

Pinker clearly views history as a mirror, and so encounters his own reflection there: it's where reason unfolds in nature and can be seen ascending as such. Consequently, Pinker attempts to naturalize contingencies such as the content of his own beliefs and desires. Now, the concern is not so much that Pinker is a committed liberal capitalist: every other page remains testament to his humanism. The principles of human liberty and equality — natural rights as derived from effective history — are taken as a given. Better Angels of Our Nature is at its most persuasive when documenting the humanitarian and human rights revolutions (chapters 4 and 7 respectively). When Pinker recounts developments such as the abolition of slavery and the rise of women and gay rights (amongst many others), it's difficult not to agree with the assessment "If this isn't progress, I don't know what is" (p.133).

While Pinker is obviously on the side of the angels here, he's unfortunately not above making a demon move throughout his books. As philosopher Simon Blackburn observed in his review of Pinker's previous The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, such moves describe the way Pinker's arguments are themselves supposed to progress. (Simon Blackburn, "Meet the Flinstones", 25 November, 2002). The 'demon move' is essentially designed to cast opposing views in a particular light — it typically involves selective reasoning to ensure that it makes particular arguments look more (or less) reasonable.

Despite the author's encyclopaedic knowledge and extensive bibliography, for example, the references too often seem to footnote Pinker's own prior assumptions. (Timothy Snyder, "War No More", January-February, 2012). One of these assumptions includes Pinker's conception of enlightenment. As philosopher John Gray observes, Pinker views competing concepts of reason as if they formed a coherent body of thought, conveniently ignoring the fact that many of these thinkers were also anti liberal-capitalists and/or pro violence. (John Gray, "Delusions of Peace", 21 September, 2011).

Another problematic assumption is Pinker's relatively benign view of liberal democracies. Since democratic nations reportedly don't go to war with each other, they are said to be more peaceful than (say) military dictatorships. Pinker neglects to inform us, however, that they can form coalitions of the willing so as to export democracy through warfare, and there is negligible mention of the scale of resources absorbed by military activities in 'peace loving' democracies. The role powerful democratic nations play in supporting repressive regimes (through arms sales and foreign policy) is similarly obscured via an emphasis on "gentle commerce" (p.165 et al). According to Pinker, a "free market puts a premium on empathy" (p.77) because it encourages trading partners to see things through one another's eyes, thus curtailing their violent impulses.

Equally unenlightening is his view of our religious heritage. Pinker justifiably highlights religion's role in human carnage throughout history. Less justifiable is his attempt to demonize one of history's moral arbiters, or the way religion — like liberal democracy —has been a pretext for nations to consolidate their power through warfare. To quote Blackburn, with slight amendments in brackets. "In other words, right from the start there is a question-mark over Pinker’s historical method… A more detailed history…would uncover a whole tapestry of shifting and conflicting attitudes (towards violence). So we ought to worry about the ease with which Pinker conjures his (angels and) demons." (Simon Blackburn, "Meet the Flinstones", 25 November, 2002).

The concern, then, is whether the normative status of modern civilization (it's content and trajectory) can be explained in evolutionary terms. Few should doubt whether "moral progress is compatible with a biological approach to the human mind" (xxvii). Take away our natural capacity to think and feel, and you'd have neither human progress or morality. The question is whether a biological approach can explain the status of our moral reasoning : to what extent do 'biology' and 'morality' become in/compatible?

If natural selection is supposed to be blind (morally neutral, subject to the vagaries of chance, and primarily directed towards organisms competing for survival), then why should nature select these values (as opposed to others) in order to survive? Pinker wants us to believe that it is in our nature to be rational, but this begs the question as to why liberty (as opposed to slavery) should be thought more rational/natural.

Aristotle, for example, saw humankind as a 'rational animal', and also argued that moral progress was the result of cultivating certain traits based on the use of our natural reason. And yet one of history's greatest thinkers thought that it was part of the natural order for rational people to enslave others — a fact that most of recorded history has unfortunately born out.

Pinker's ideological filter also obscures the tension between the logic of a free market and the rationale of human freedom, throwing into question which should be thought more natural and/or rational. While the history of ideas currently vindicates the ideology of capitalism over (say) the ideologies of feudalism and communism, the unasked questions remain: to what extent is a free market economy an instrument of violence and/or tries to naturalize unequal social relations and arrangements?

The Better Angels of Our Nature , then, keeps falling victim to the halo effect, or a cognitive bias that tends to overvalue certain facts while undervaluing others. It's important to see the effect this has on his reasoning: it creates an aura around reason itself. There's no denying that Pinker's approach can be illuminating. Nonetheless, Pinker's lopsided view of reason highlights the limits of rationality, or the way it attempts to mark the boundary of (and adapt to) its own environment. Instead of highlighting the phenomenon of natural selection, Pinker constantly draws attention to the problem of selective reasoning.

Indeed, the problem of confirmation bias is nowhere more evident than in the way he selects and evaluates the history of violence. As another critic observed, Pinker's reasoning resembles a "magic wand" that he waves over history to invoke 'human nature'. (Louis Menand, "What Comes Naturally", 25 November, 2002).

Pinker's conceptual sleight of hand is worthy of any magician — except his use of misdirection appears to be part of the act. He brazenly shows his hand by weaving anecdotes, statistics, research, speculation, and narrative together in order to pull reason out of his hat. He's acutely aware that the hand waving cannot do the heavy lifting for him, per se. The reason he shifts from one mode of description to another is to transfer the burden of proof and lighten his load.

The only problem is that the overall approach tends to equivocate — evidence of relative value is allowed equal weight. So when he anticipates questions that run counter to his thesis (such as the concentration of violence at the start of the 20th century and the role of reason in the Holocaust), he'll try to dismiss them out of hand.

Such an equivocal approach can be seen in the way he measures the decline of violence throughout history and relates it to the question of moral progress. The measurements are relative to estimates of the world's population — which has obviously increased throughout time. It's important to stress that the 'scaling by population size' occurs across historically distinct populations, and moral progress is measured in terms of whether individuals were likely to die a violent death at given times.

Pinker allows himself to extrapolate from scant archaeological evidence and compares different civilizations as if they all belonged on the same moral continuum. He attempts to draw a moral equivalence between distinct historical periods and/or (estimated) occurrences of violence. He's able to do this by relativising (adjusting and ranking) the data according to estimated population sizes. Instead of measuring violence in absolute terms — such as how many people might have died violently per annum — he attempts to measure estimates of people killed relative to estimations of the world's population at given times.

The sleight of hand is evident in the way the violence is measured over time — since there are many more people alive today, there are now less people being killed (relatively speaking). Conversely, since there were less people alive back then, there were more people being killed (relatively speaking). Either way, the ratio between a violent and peaceful death becomes a measure of moral progress.

Perhaps the best way to highlight the problem of relative measurements is via the moral equivalence that eventuates. To quote lodore from the comments section of Guardian's interview with Pinker:

By defining the effects of a violent act (or series of acts) in relative terms, Pinker allows for all sorts of absurd reductios. Imagine that I'm trapped on a desert island with a companion and, in a dispute, I kill him. By Pinker's logic, I am thereby morally equivalent to a dictator who has killed 3.5 billion people in current population terms. Without a doubt, Pinker is correct to say a randomly selected individual is less likely to die a violent death now; but this merely means the population has increased, not that the rate of absolute violence has dropped off."

Historian Timothy Snyder also questions Pinker's metric of progress. (Timothy Snyder, "War No More", January-February, 2012)"

"Yet even if Pinker is right that the ratio of violent to peaceful deaths has improved over time... his metric of progress deserves a bit more attention than he gives it. His argument about decreasing violence is a relative one: not that more people were killed annually in the past than are killed in a given year of recent history but that more people were killed relative to the size of the overall human population, which is of course vastly larger today than in earlier eras. But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another. "

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