OK, I’ve finished reading Steven Pinker’s new book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. Pluses and minuses. On the minus side, clearly Pinker is wading into an area that is outside his main area of expertise. Although there is some discussion of psychology, basically this comes down to a treatise on sociopolitical history. So there’s that. And the thing is bloody long and more than a little dull. I imagine that Pinker realized his weakness in this area and decided to overcompensate by overdoing the data gathering and detailed discussion. The book is organized extremely tightly, as one long, dense argument for a pair of theses:
(1) That violence has declined markedly throughout history, particularly in the last few hundred years, and even in the last centuries and decades.
(2) That this decline in violence is due to humanity’s willingness to give power up to a centralized state rather than taking violence into their own hands, increasing cosmopolitanism, and finally the humanistic ideology of the Enlightenment.
I’ve read a few reviews of this book, which have appeared not actually to have read it. (I suspect the reviewers may have been ‘getting back’ at Pinker for his previous books—especially The Blank Slate—for their apparently conservative backing of the notion that differences of personality were due to genetic factors rather than parental or cultural influences).
At any rate, Pinker has a seemingly endless amount of data for his thesis #1, outlined in numbing detail. There are two objections I’ve seen raised to it, nevertheless. The first objection is that Pinker’s data for pre-historical, hunter-gatherer societies is scarce. There is a fringe opinion that human hunter gatherer societies lived in a kind of pre-lapsarian Eden, and that all human violence therefore is due to the baleful influence of modern culture. Pinker has evidence to suggest this view is incorrect. In particular, there is evidence from modern hunter-gatherer societies, which have been typically extremely violent, and there is evidence of excavated remains of prehistoric hunter gatherers, which again show that violent death was common. Neither of these lines of evidence is absolutely conclusive, of course. It could be that modern hunter-gatherer societies have been somehow tainted by modern culture, and it could be that for some reason prehistoric people tended to preserve better those who died violently. Or some such thing.
The second response is that Pinker determines the decline in violence statistically, rather than using absolute numbers. So although millions of people died violently during the 20th century, that is a much lower number statistically than the (e.g.) thousands who died in a given century during prehistoric times. This response strikes me as completely wrong-headed. It would have it that a small, hunter gatherer society where a majority of people die violently was somehow less violent than a major country like Japan, simply because Japan is so much bigger. Generally speaking when it comes to these kinds of issues I think John Rawls’s notion is correct: the question is, if you were placed randomly into any of these cultures, which would you rather be in? A small group where a majority die violently, or a large group where a very small percentage do? The question answers itself.
So I think in general these kind of responses are not terribly convincing. It’s pretty clear that violence has declined throughout recorded history and beyond. (If anyone has hard evidence otherwise, I haven’t seen it).
His thesis #2 is somewhat more problematic, simply because it’s so much more difficult to come up with anything like causal data on a worldwide, ongoing phenomenon. But given that the decline of violence appears to be worldwide (on a historical timescale) and accelerating in recent centuries and decades, it’s not clear what else could be at issue other than something worldwide and quickly diffusable like culture. (Of course, it is probably a number of different variables, only some of which Pinker is noting here).
He views the state’s monopoly on violence as overall a good deal for citizens to have made, since it takes violence outside of the realm of personal vendetta (except, perhaps, the vendettas of the leadership). With the rise of cosmopolitanism the state became less personalized and more legalized, also reducing the likelihood of tit-for-tat violence.
Finally, the enlightenment virtues of human rights, abolition of slavery, women’s rights, secularism, etc., have only served to accelerate the advances seen before. Pinker cites Peter Singer’s notion of an expanding circle of empathy among humans: thrown together in closer, more diverse groups, over time people become better able to see others as individuals with whom they can empathize. I think we see this even now in the gay rights movement, where all of a sudden—in under a generation—gay marriage has gone from an anathema to something widely embraced in western society.
The question that a number of critics have dwelled upon is whether or not this decline in violence will continue. Are we seeing the dawn of a new age of peace? Or is this just a temporary lull before the storm? Pinker does not give a consistent answer to this question. At times he suggests that the data supports the notion that violence has declined and therefore will likely remain so, at others he suggests that he has no crystal ball for the future.
I would say that if he’s right then the future looks relatively bright. Though as always there are major caveats such as ongoing population pressure (whether or not population tops out soon, it is nevertheless at a very high level and will remain so for a very long time) and pressing environmental issues like global warming. Any of these, or just age-old problems between countries like Iran and Israel, could plunge the world into nightmare at any time. So I don’t think we can say with any certainty that the future looks rosy, and insofar as Pinker suggests otherwise (which he does, at times), he’s overstating the case.
So anyhow overall it’s a good book, densely argued and pretty convincing, though not at all an easy read. And apart from Pinker’s earlier run-ins with other academics, I can’t see why his theses would be all that controversial. Certainly none of the reviews yet have led me to believe that they found a fatal flaw in his approach or reasoning.