The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker is a grand and all encompassing study in human violence as well as the trends that the author believes are driving it down. Pinker has succeeded in producing an extremely comprehensive work that provides the reader with a thought provoking and enlightening view of the big picture of this extremely important subject.
The book begins with one vital proposition that the entire work rests upon: over the course of human history, violence in all of its major forms has been declining. Pinker himself acknowledges that for many modern readers this may be a hard sell.
“In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.”
He subsequently devotes scores of pages to presenting volumes of statistics, analysis of statistics, as well as additional archeological, sociological and historical evidence in proving that the further back one delves into human history, the more violence one sees.
The author explores all major kinds of violence, including wars between states, civil wars, mass killings and genocides, crimes including murder and rape, corporal punishment, capital punishment, bullying, and more. He concludes that over the millennia, every single one of these practices has been on the downswing.
“It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence”
My assessment of this bedrock hypothesis is that Pinker is mostly, perhaps even close to entirely, correct. As noted, the book presents both comprehensive statistics as well as analysis of historical evidence to support his assertion. As someone who has pursued a lifelong interest in history, Pinker’s contention indeed fits with what seems to me to be an accurate view of historical patterns. In fact, I mostly agreed with the assertion that violence has been declining before reading this book. My problem beforehand was how to reconcile this theory into what many presume to be the most violent period in world history, that of the first half of the twentieth century. If violence is on a steady decline, how do we explain this era?
Pinker makes a relatively convincing case that the wars and mass murders that blackened the early part of the last century, while being among the worst incidents of this type, in terms of percentage of the world’s population killed, were not the absolute worst. He labels these horrendous events involving the intentional deaths of an enormous number of human beings as hemoclysms. The author argues that hemoclysms such as the Mongol conquests, as well as multiple very obscure events such as the Yuan Dynasty Wars, at the time, actually killed a larger percentage of the Earth’s population. Pinker sees the twentieth century calamities as the last in a series of terrible events that have occurred throughout world history, their frequency steadily diminishing.
Likewise, the violent crime waves that most Western societies began experiencing in the 1960’s, as well as the rash of civil wars and political and ethnic violence that have plagued Africa and other regions since World War Two, are shown be part of a long pattern of temporary, relatively small upward bumps that have always been part of the pattern. Furthermore, Pinker argues that both of these trends are past their peaks and are on the downswing. Deaths caused by terrorism, which has occupied so much of our attention over the past few years, are so relatively low, that they do not even appear as a blip in the statistics. Nevertheless, Pinker argues that the rates of terrorism are also on the decline.
If we put into perspective these temporary and less frequent upswings in violence, the picture of the downward slope in violence over time does become clearer. Pinker details what many perceptive students of history know; as bad as things seem today, the past, in virtually every society, was a place where wars, rape, torture, slavery, child abuse, animal cruelty, as well as countless other human evils were much more commonplace.
Next, Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, turns his attention on neuroscience and tries to explain not only the neurological and evolutionary reasons for violence, but also the reasons for our “Our Better Angels” such as altruism, sympathy, cooperation, etc. He then attempts to connect these neurological phenomena to explain the trends and patterns related to the history of violence.
A good chunk of the book consists of Pinker attempting to explain why violence has been subsiding, as well as why there are often temporary but real setbacks in the trends. The book digs into the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of humanity to find answers.
Pinker identifies five major trends over the course of history to explain this waning of violence. First, what he calls the “Leviathan effect”. That is the decline in violence that resulted as nation states became more and more organized (he comprehensively explores the countertrends that occur when such states wage wars as well as when they murder their own citizens). Second, “Gentle Commerce”, which is the gradual growth of commerce, trade and capitalism. Third, “Feminization” is the process where women become more and more empowered. Fourth, “Expanded Circles of Sympathy” by which sympathetic and empathetic feelings which humans originally reserved for family and tribe eventually expanded into larger and larger groups. Fifth, the “Escalator of Reason”, which is the ascent of reason over the centuries in opposition to irrational thought processes. According to the author, these forces have not just led to the reduction in violence, but to the betterment of humankind in innumerable ways.
At over 800 pages this is a massive work. Pinker journeys deeply into his contentions and does not give short shift to counterarguments. He tries to explore every angle of the subject. Readers of this blog will likely find some disagreements with these assertions. The arguments that I have laid out here are explored in such intricate detail in the book itself that I am not really doing them justice in this outline. There are so many avenues that the author ventures into that my synopsis overlooks really big parts of this work.
An example of just one of dozens of important points that Pinker makes here that I think is of particular consequence: the author talks about a number of immense significance to every human being alive. It is a number that I have been cognizant and thought about over the years long before I had even heard of this book. That is the number zero. Zero is the number of direct major power violent conflicts that have occurred on Earth since 1952. It is a historically unprecedented span of time without such a war. It would have left informed citizens of past ages incredulous. Those who predicted such a period in times past were labeled as naive and foolish utopians. If it continues, it bodes well for the future.
Pinker is ultimately championing knowledge, rationality, and modernity. According to the author, behind all of the five major forces lay an increase in the dissemination of knowledge and/or the continued development of rational thinking. Contrary to the stereotype of cold and soulless logic, the text lays out a convincing premise that rational viewpoints and analytical thinking encourage such virtues as empathy, altruism, cooperation, nonviolence, etc. The author even contends that such rational and critical cognitive processes encourage the propagation of non-violent and humane religious- based morality over exclusory, discriminatory and violent theologies.
Pinker’s line of reasoning is more or less in line with my views. I am a big advocate of rationalism as a driver of much that is good in the world. There are such an enormous number of contentions and theories presented in this book that any thinking reader will find at least a fair amount to disagree with. However, in my opinion the author gets it mostly right.
I believe that this is a vitally important work. It is what I like to call a “big picture” book that is a key to understanding where humanity has been and where it is going as a species. As Pinker puts it,
“The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”
In a world of nuclear and other potential doomsday weapons, if Pinker is wrong then we are certainly doomed. If he is right, and if we can overcome an environmental calamity, we will likely make it as a civilization. This is my conclusion, not Pinker’s.
Pinker is no utopian. He acknowledges that to some degree violence will always be a human problem. He faces up to what are clearly the downsides of modernity. He also concedes that predicting future trends is difficult. However, if his conclusions are correct, what he describes as the “arrow of history” is headed in a direction that promises somewhat better days ahead.