Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature

The Better Angels of our Nature

Although I’ve styled this section of my blog “Book Reviews,” I’ve thus far eschewed any kind of rating system, and, with few exceptions, have generally tended to offer unqualified praise to the books I’ve been reading. This is, I hope, less a reflection of my critical faculties than a testament to the quality of the books I’ve been reading. Still, perhaps if I were writing for a larger audience than family and bored friends, I might endeavor to be more critical and search for faults where they are not immediately apparent. I had thought, initially, that this book would provide such an opportunity and give me a chance to impugn someone far smarter than I am in my own little corner of the Internet — a true initiation to the blogosphere. Alas, it was not to be. I took delight in every page, filling up the margins with annotations and passages worth revisiting, and now I stand in awe of his achievement, struggling to find something beyond gushing praise to fill up this review.

Steven Pinker is a psychologist, linguist and neuroscientist by formal training, but at this point I think it would be simpler to call him a philosopher, particularly as this book goes well beyond the scope of those disciplines, drawing on economics, game theory, biology (especially behavioral biology and evolutionary biology), literature, history and sociology, to name just a few. The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a study in the history of violence and begins by making what, to some, will come as a startling revelation: that we are living in the most peaceful period in history. Amidst talk of school shootings, terrorist plots and internecine conflict in the Middle East, it’s difficult to conceive of our world as peaceful or peaceable, but a quick look at the history of violence reveals the inescapable fact: violence is on the decline, and in a way that is totally without precedent in human history.

Part of Pinker’s project in writing this book is to address those who have made a living as prophets of gloom, misrepresenting war deaths, murder rates and rape statistics in some misguided notion that issues are taken seriously in proportion to how much hyperbole can be used in describing them. Thus we are treated to a barrage of comparative statistics focusing on domestic crimes from child abuse (including spanking and the corporal punishment of children) and infanticide to physical assault, rape and murder, as well as global statistics that tally deaths from armed conflicts as disparate as political agitation or full-scale conflict between nations. In every quantifiable area, the decline is not only evident but staggeringly so. I was particularly awed by the chapters on torture and public executions, which stoked the fires of human sadism with ever more imaginative means of inflicting pain and humiliation, and those covering the treatment of children – both of which are sure to dismay anyone harboring romantic notions about our pre-civilized ancestors.

The larger project, however, is not merely the assertion that violence has declined but the corresponding attempt to explain the decline, and it is here that Pinker’s broad knowledge base is on full display. Not content with the circular reasoning that humans are less violent because they have become more moral, Pinker seeks exogenous causes that not only help to explain the decline but might hopefully serve to prolong and improve upon it. If you grant the proposition that human beings are less violent today than their ancestors of five thousand years ago, what causes might you identify to explain the decline? I imagine your list would be similar to mine: common languages, the growth of societies, democracy and commerce. Pinker discusses all of these at length, and adds causes that perhaps might not occur to you: the feminization of society; increased literacy; immigration and urbanization; our increasing ability, charted in IQ scores over decades, for abstract reasoning, to name just a few. Each then receives a thorough overview, from abstract hypotheses about how they might interact with our violent tendencies to concrete examples of their effectiveness.

I take a special joy in Pinker’s works. They are always beautifully written, humorous and principled, and didactic in the best possible sense. The book itself is also a 700-page defense of the Enlightenment, of the same commitment to reasoned debate and human individuality that sparked so many of the advancements in our collective morality, and as such it is utterly indispensable.