The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that, as a society, we are on a "retreat from violence."

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined By Steven Pinker Viking 832 pp.

Steven Pinker may be America’s most prominent science writer. That label seems too narrow for him though, as he is as well-known for his efforts on linguistics and moral philosophy as he is on his science work. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, he ventures further outside of his domain (he is a psychologist at Harvard), looking at the reasons for the gradual but undeniable decline in violence across the world in the last few centuries.

Along the way, he incorporates ideas from criminology, literature, and international relations theory as well as from his traditional areas of interest. “No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence,” he writes.

The result is a book that is exhilarating and exasperating, impressive and embarrassing. Pinker musters a lot of data to show that, contrary to impressions gleaned from the nightly news, violence both between states and within them have declined significantly. Little of this is new – Pinker relies a great deal on a 1989 book by political scientist John Mueller, for example – but it is helpful to have it all in one volume.

In particular, "The Better Angels of Our Nature" makes interesting connections between the decline of wars and the decline or other, smaller-scale forms of violence such as domestic violence and gay bashing. “[I]t is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children,” reads the book. A tremendous amount of research is amassed and stimulating links are suggested. The book is continually provocative and thoughtful, it must be said, even if it is not always persuasive. Occasionally the data is misleading – Pinker excludes from his data the sanctions on Iraq that killed more than half a million children in the 1990s, for example, because these were not due to violence as the term is traditionally understood. But for the most part the book’s numbers are solid.

Pinker is also sometimes useful in offering fascinating interpretations for his many numbers and charts pointing to the downward trend of violence. He notes, for example, that since previous centuries usually had much worse and less documentation, recording their astonishing levels of violence has generally been impossible. Similarly, the human tendency to see the present moment as uniquely horrible, though clearly false, is terribly difficult to shake.

Where Pinker goes wrong – sometimes deeply wrong – is in some of his other explanations of these phenomena. He is far too optimistic about the irreversibility of progress that has been made. In an interview with The Daily Beast about the book, he said that he thinks there is a good chance that nuclear weapons will be abolished soon, a frankly absurd belief. Discussing the possibilities of terrorists or so-called rogue states, Pinker said, “A large number of deaths from a single renegade perpetrator would be a misleading indicator of the state of the world.” But that is precisely the point, which is why World War I is still shocking 100 years later – technologies of mass destruction can make the otherwise peaceful and progressive nature of societies irrelevant.

Pinker believes above all in the power of human reason. In his view, humanity is learning from its mistakes and seeing over time that violence doesn’t pay. There is something to this, but occasionally Pinker becomes almost a parody of the Rational Man in his belief in progress. He writes that “our recent ancestors can really be considered morally retarded.” He continues: “Many of their beliefs can be considered not just monstrous but, in a very real sense, stupid.” Historians call this ‘presentism,’ the tendency to judge the past by present standards or events. Any good historian avoids it, and any decent philosopher should do the same. Heaven knows (though Pinker is an evangelical atheist) what future generations will think of contemporary morality, an obvious problem that Pinker overlooks.

There is no doubt that we are living in relatively peaceful times. But what progress has been made is both tentative and partial. Our nature contains many beings, not just angels. The demons may yet return.

Jordan Michael Smith, a frequent reviewer for the Monitor, has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post.

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