Interview with Steven Pinker: Are we getting better?
In "The Better Angels of our Nature," Steven Pinker makes a case for the decreasing violence of the human race.
In his latest book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that the world has never been a safer place to live in. Looking back at the history of violence from prehistoric times up the present day, Pinker says it became far more beneficial for human beings to be less violent.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite some setbacks (mainly in the first half of the 20th century), Pinker says that – with the help of factors such as the rise of commerce, mass education, and the rule of law – homicide, rape, and the number of wars being fought have all drastically fallen over several centuries.
Using a substantial amount of empirical data, scientific reasoning, and enthusiastic praise for the ideas of the Enlightenment, Pinker argues that although violence will probably never be eradicated, in the modern world we are far more in touch with the "better angels of our nature."
Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and this is his 13th book published to date. His other famous books include: "The Blank Slate" (2002), which postulates that that human behaviour is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations; "How the Mind Works" (1997), which draws heavily on the paradigm of evolutionary psychology and helps to explain some of the mind’s poorly understood functions and quirks; and "The Language Instinct" (1994), where he argues that humans are born with an innate capacity for language.
I recently had a chance to talk with Pinker about "The Better Angels of Our Nature."
What made you want to write a book exploring the subject of violence?
It was an interest in human nature. I had written two books previously on human nature, and I faced criticism that any acknowledgment of human nature is fatalistic. I always thought this objection was nonsense. For one thing, even in theory, human nature comprises many motives and even if we have some motives that incline us to violence, we also have some motives that inhibit us from violence, and so just positing human nature doesn’t force you to claim that one side or another must prevail.
You equate Marxist ideology with violence in the book. Do you think that capitalist values have contributed to the decline of violence?
I think that communism was a major force for violence for more than a 100 years, because it was built into its ideology: mainly that progress comes through class struggle, often violent, and it lead to the widespread belief that the only way to achieve justice was to hurry this dialectical process along, and allow the oppressed working classes to carry out their struggle against their bourgeois oppressors. However much we might deplore the profit motive, or consumerist values, if everyone just wants i-Pods we would probably be better off than if they wanted class revolution.
How do you view democracy in terms of how much violence it creates?
Democracy is an imperfect way of steering between the violence of anarchy and the violence of tyranny, with the least violence you can get away with. So I don’t think it’s a triumph, but it’s the best option we have found. As far as we know there doesn’t seem to be a better one on the horizon.
How much has religion contributed to violence throughout history and should we see a correlation between the two?