Monday, November 21, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE – The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes”  Steven Pinker (Penguin-Allen Lane, $40)

Canadian-born American-resident Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, is one of the world’s best known academics. His books are best-sellers that explain the nature of mind, brain and language to a mass audience. They are good “vulgarisations” in the sense I used on this blog some weeks back – not devoid of specialist language, not condescending, but not written for an academic in-group either.

Given this, I’ve been surprised that so few New Zealand publications have yet bothered to review Pinker’s latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature, subtitled The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. All I’ve spotted so far is one reprint of the English Guardian’s review.

Or maybe it’s not so puzzling after all.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a whopping 700 large and densely-printed pages of text, followed by a further 100 pages of notes and references. In short, the type of book that most newspaper reviewers are reluctant to take on as an assignment.

I have read this doorstopper over many weeks, stopping to reflect on it and reading and reviewing other books in the intervals. Despite its length, its central argument is a very simple one. Pinker believes that human beings are becoming progressively less violent. He is fully aware that this is counter-intuitive. Our news media constantly tell us about civil war, terrorists, random shootings and feral adolescents. “If it bleeds, it leads”, goes the TV news adage. It’s easy to gain the impression that the present is a uniquely violent time. Besides, it is a demonstrable fact that in absolute numbers – thanks to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others – more human beings died by violence in the 20th century than in any other century of known history. And we certainly have more efficient means of killing people en masse than ever existed in past ages.

But, says Pinker, this is to think in  absolute numbers. What about proportional numbers? When the Earth’s population was smaller, a far greater proportion of human beings either perpetrated violence or died of it than has been the case for the last 65 years.

To prove his point, Pinker spends the first half of his book chronicling how violent a place the past was, and how much of an everyday experience death by violence was, from the very first hunter-gatherers to the nineteenth century. For example, while the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion killed fewer people than the Second World War, they killed a much greater proportion of Europe’s population. And besides the fact of war, there were the enduring facts of violence in slavery, predation, looting, persecution, everyday murder and judicial torture, all of which Pinker details. In Europe, you were more likely to be killed by violence in all centuries prior to the 20th century than in the 20th century itself, even taking two world wars and totalitarian regimes into account. The same was true of the rest of the world.

In painting this portrait of the past, Pinker makes many sound points. One is his convincing demolition of the whole “Noble Savage” myth, which has transmuted into the idea of a peaceable natural state before corrupting civilization set in. All the evidence suggests that pre-historic, nomadic and primitive societies were proportionately more violent than later and more settled societies. On this point, Pinker is very anti-Rousseau and comes close to being pro-Hobbes. He rejects Hobbes’ firm and absolutist prescription for government, but accepts Hobbes’ idea that government is absolutely necessary for peaceable human life. Settled states and the development of civil society simply make for less violence. Pinker is happy to use Hobbes’ term – Leviathan – for the necessary supervising government and the system of laws it brings. He calls this the Civilizing Process.

How did our present, relatively peaceful, condition in the West come about? For Pinker it is the result first of what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution, and then of what he calls the Rights Revolution, both deriving from Enlightenment thought two and three centuries ago. As Pinker argues it, shared information means more empathy between races and peoples. This became possible only with mass literacy after the invention of printing, then with mass communications. The franchise widened, Western states became more democratic, people gradually developed the habit of respecting the autonomy of others, various forms of oppression slowly disappeared (racism and slavery; subjection of women; homophobia; mistreatment of children) and we end up with open, pluralistic, democratic societies where rights are respected, violence minimised and people less willing to go to war with other states at a rulers’ whim.

As Pinker calculates it – and largely proves it – liberal, pluralistic, open societies are the least likely to be warmongers.

Pinker does not assume that this revolution in mores is universal. Violence is still endemic in closed, non-democratic, non-pluralistic societies. A capacity for violence is still built into the human brain. In two chapters entitled “Inner Demons” and “Better Angels”, Pinker goes to his speciality – cognition and the brain – and discusses what parts of the brain dispose us to violence, what behaviours and conditions reinforce this, and what parts tend to peaceability. In very Enlightenment fashion he designates empathy, self-control and reason as our chief saviours, riding on the back of good education.

Before I say anything negative, I have to note that Pinker marshals a formidable amount of evidence to make his case. The book bulges with graphs and diagrams showing how, in many areas of life and over the long term, violence is tending down in the West and becoming more and more unacceptable.

On some issues, I admire Pinker’s intellectual honesty. Pinker is an atheist (three of four times he describes himself as “a Jewish atheist”) and has considerable contempt for organized religion, which he identifies with unreasoning dogma and a superstitious past. Religious fanaticism he sees as a contributing factor to much violence. Often, when he hails reforming heroes who helped put an end to forms of violence, he fails to mention that at least some of them were devoutly religious. (On one page, Page 164, I finding him quoting in turn and with approval from Sam Johnson, Jonathan Swift and Blaise Pascal without mentioning their shared Christianity.) Most egregiously, he lauds the abolition of slavery without mentioning the contribution of Evangelicals like William Wilberforce. Yet, given this bias, Pinker nevertheless is logical enough to reject Christopher Hitchens’ slogan that “religion poisons everything”. In his final discussion on the causes of war, he sees religion as, over the long run, a “neutral” factor because religions have been as much involved in promoting peace and rights as they have been in defining enmities.

Similarly, Pinker clearly approves of legalised abortion. He has difficulty negotiating a passage where, having praised respect for all sentient creatures, he has to admit that the child growing in the womb is sentient and capable of feeling pain, especially in the third trimester. But, given this perspective, he has the honesty to debunk the eugenicist argument that legalised abortion led to a decline in criminal violence. The argument, popularised a few years ago, was that rates of violent crime had gone down in the USA in the 1990s because, twenty years previously, abortion was legalised and women were therefore able to dispose of unwanted children who would have grown into resentful criminals. Pinker shows that the argument just doesn’t stack up. Not only was it based on shonky and selective statistics, but it ignored the fact that rates of violent crime in America were tending down well before legalised abortion had had any impact on demographics.

I should also note that, as a liberal who lauds the “rights revolution” and appreciates civility, Pinker can have his surprising moments. He frequently describes the 1960s in America as “licentious” and says that crime rates only came down when firmer policing was established. He has limited tolerance for the extremes of Political Correctness. While he applauds the increased rights of children and the massive decrease in violence against children, he deplores the way regulations now cosset and over-protect children. There’s also a very interesting passage – at the end of an appreciative survey of the women’s movement and the decrease in rape – where he debunks the feminist notion that rape is about “power” (reinforcing patriarchy) more than it is about “sex”. He says there’s something to be said for sensible parents’ advice about how young women can keep themselves modest and safe. I doubt very much if Pinker would approve of the recent “Slut Walks”.

What, then, are my objections?

One is the relatively minor matter of Pinker’s American perspective. All books have to be written from some viewpoint, but there are occasions where Pinker’s concentration on American statistics almost sounds as if he is implying that American life is the world’s norm. I also find it a little disconcerting that Pinker claims to find objective tests for intelligence which show that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives, and classical free-market liberals are more intelligent than left-wing and Greenie liberals. Hmmmmm.

More trying is the matter of Pinker’s historical perspective. Basically he lines up thinkers and leaders over the last three hundred years into two teams of goodies and baddies, respectively “Enlightenment” and “anti-Enlightenment”. Among other things, and being an atheist, this allows him to slide over the massive violence of militantly atheist states like Stalin’s by saying that Communism was more “anti-Enlightenment” than it was atheist. Nevertheless,  because he wants to explain change and progress in terms of defined “teams”, he often fails to acknowledge the complexity of the process of change in society.

Lurking behind this informative book there is, I suspect, a polemical purpose. My hunch is that this atheist academic has been goaded once too often by religious people who have pointed out the massive, and in terms of absolute numbers, unsurpassed destructiveness of recent anti-religious regimes. So out comes Pinker’s killer argument of proportionality and, as a subtext, a return to the attractive scientific myth of Progress in human affairs.

None of this is meant to condemn Pinker’s book or to belittle its importance. The core of its argument is sound and defensible. Civil, tolerant and open societies do promote more peaceful communities. The ubiquity of violence in past ages is often ignored by non-historians who have vague ideas of “the good old days” and who delude themselves that the present is somehow uniquely violent. In the present age, we have much to be grateful for. And civilization can be measured.


  1. On the 'if it bleeds it leads' principle, a media commentator pointed out that journalists no longer require a black book of contacts in the police force because there's now a direct line between the constabulary and the media to ensure that the public's perceived hunger for crime and violence is satisfied on a daily basis.
    Although I haven't read Pinker's book his thesis is a strong one, and an interesting context for the argument is whether our becoming less violent is evidence that we're becoming more evolved. Is global consciousness, with our concern for the environment and the plight of the hungry and oppressed, a now unstoppable trend which is gaining traction year by year? That the postwar generation has had over 60 years of relative peace and stability may have given us enough time to start building the idea of a world based on higher values than the use of force to settle disputes. But then there's climate change, corporate greed and dwindling resources...

  2. Pinker is certainly derided by academics for his grand theories. The main problem with many of them (and not just isolated to this book) is that it does not provide any testable hypotheses. How can you disprove the concept that that human beings are becoming progressively less violent? Past data is notoriously difficult to use for such arguments for reasons that you clearly outline in terms of different world populations at different periods in time. It is a classic case of comparing apples with oranges. The only way that his claims could be ascertained to be accurate would be to come back to the question in a century or so and see if he was right. With the increased competition for resources throughout the world, I would be amazed if he were right. I suspect that he did not write the book to counter religious arguments regarding the moral underpinnings of religious/non religious regimes. If anything, it could be interpreted as a critique of, and warning relating to, authoritarian China from a Western, comparatively liberal, point of view.

  3. Pinker I gather is principally a psychologist, currently professor of psychology at MIT. He certainly knows how to be controversial. His book "The Language Instinct" published in 1994 continues to have strong pro or anti reception from linguists because of its thesis that all langauge is instinctual rather than acquired.The acceptability of his main thesis apart he does have some interesting thoughts on language and memory and the formation of abstract concepts in language