Steven Pinker and The Decline of Violence

Steven Pinker is a great thinker and writer. He is also (I can personally attest) a great human being. And he has produced a magisterial tour-de-force.

The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a big book on what might seem a narrow topic. But in Pinker’s hands it turns out to be broad indeed. It’s about how humans relate to each other – from individuals to nations – and how those relations have evolved. It’s about moral progress.

Pinker argues that such progress has been immense, concentrated in recent centuries, manifested in a “Humanitarian Revolution” and declines in violence of all kinds, including war. He recognizes this is a tough sell, with so much contrary conventional wisdom: “Man’s inhumanity to Man,” and so forth. (One radio interviewer I heard was like, “Pinker, are you out of your mind?”) That’s partly why it’s a big book. Pinker has to clobber the cynics (non-violently, of course) with an avalanche of facts.

And he’s not satisfied merely showing what has happened. He aims to explain why it happened (as the title promises). However, human life being so complex, such explanations are hard to tease out, and Pinker has to dig deeply in the effort. Following along with this, for the reader, is full of reward.

I’ll be candid that I agree with virtually everything Pinker says — deliciously feeding my confirmation bias. A remarkable number of his points are also found in my own shorter book, The Case for Rational Optimism. (Pinker mentions it; he told me it’s a “wonderful book.”) It’s an excellent alternative if you want just the capsule version.

Pinker starts off with a plot summary of the Bible. This is a hoot. (His writing is sometimes literally laugh-out-loud funny.*) In contrast, the “Good Book” is pretty appalling (though the real good news, Pinker notes, is that little of it is true); but his purpose is not Bible-bashing. Rather, it’s to show how drastically attitudes toward violence have changed – biblical “civilization” was utterly barbaric by today’s standards.

One of Pinker’s key points is that indictments of modernity rest on romanticizing the past and forgetting its horrors. And he unsparingly reminds us. The chapter on torture not only shows how ubiquitous it was, but provides clinical details. It’s extremely unpleasant reading which tender souls may prefer to skip. The pillory might seem a mild, even comical form of punishment. It wasn’t. Victims were helplessly assaulted by onlookers; agony, maiming, and death were common. Other tortures were often far worse.

And what was the bloodiest conflict in history? If you say WWII you’d be right in absolute numbers killed. But its death toll ranks only ninth as a percentage of population. On that measure, history’s killingest episode was one you never heard of: China’s 8th Century An Lushan rebellion. I am both a history buff and Chinese coin specialist, and even I was ignorant of this. It shows how deep historical amnesia runs.

The World Wars were admittedly non-trivial. But all the peaceniks who prattle about our supposedly inveterate war lust are, as is often said of generals, “fighting the last war.” We’re now at 67 years with zero wars among major powers.

To explain this, Pinker invokes Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay, “Perpetual Peace,” foreseeing a warless club of free-trading democracies. Kant, he says, got three out of three right: trade, democracy, and association among nations practicing those things, all combine to produce peace. Indeed, Pinker sees an even deeper Kantian cause, with all the foregoing reflecting operation of Kant’s “categorical imperative” – guide your actions by principles that can be made universal. In other words, an instinctual human bedrock utilitarian morality. Thus major wars, Pinker says, seem to be going the way of such practices as slavery, heretic-burning, breaking on the wheel, flogging, etc., “that passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable to not-thought-about.”

Of course violent conflict still happens; as in Syria. But the cause is almost always bad, undemocratic governments; and more of those are falling than arising. Germany and Japan were the prime examples; Serbia was another. One country at a time, the world grows up, and its juvenile delinquents turn into responsible adults.

As noted, the book presents a mountain of factual material, and the scientifically proper way to assess such data is through statistical analysis. This Pinker does – or perhaps overdoes. The problem is that statistical analyses of such complex phenomena as war and violence entail a plethora of knotty methodological issues, which Pinker conscientiously adumbrates – filling many pages that are apt to leave a lay reader more confused than edified. While of course such analyses are integral to the book’s argument, Pinker might have been bolder in cutting to the chase, recapping the big picture in the text and relegating the nitty-gritty to appendices. Similarly, he seems impelled to pursue every possible nuance of every point, sometimes leading afield of the main line of argument. (Any book review must include at least one knock. There’s mine.)

Pinker is no monomaniacal pedant. Notably, after cataloguing great reductions in varied forms of child abuse, he goes on to argue that we’ve over-corrected, falling into an overblown hysteria that actually harms children. Parents driving kids to school, in fear of abduction, subject them to a far greater risk from car accidents. Keeping them from playing outside contributes to obesity. Et cetera. Pinker seems particularly miffed that misguided overprotectionism has put paid to the game of dodgeball. A DVD of early Sesame Street episodes was labeled “not suitable for children.” And one school banned Halloween costumes in a host of categories – including those that are “scary”!

Speaking of scary, terrorism has preoccupied America for a decade, feeding perceptions of a dangerous, violent world. Pinker is admirably cogent on why that’s so cockeyed. In the big scheme of things, terrorism is simply trivial (vis-à-vis, for example, the 30,000+ yearly U.S. highway deaths, which I keep mentioning, and which we accept without a murmur). Indeed, as Pinker explains, more Americans may have died due to our panic over terrorism than from terrorism itself. He does acknowledge the special danger of nuclear terrorism; but after carefully dissecting all the logistical hurdles, deems it highly improbable. Meantime, terrorism is not on the upswing in recent times, and is actually burning itself out mainly for the simple reason that it rarely works. (With every terrorist atrocity, I ask myself, what is the f—ing point? What do these people expect to accomplish?) That means our strategy toward terrorism is exactly wrong. Getting our knickers in a twist over it makes it seem like it is working. Far better to shrug it off, sending the message: do your worst, it won’t affect us.

So – why has violence declined, virtually across the board? Pinker provides a whole synergistic web of reasons, a virtuous circle in which diverse trends feed each other. At its heart is that people are actually becoming smarter and thinking better. This heresy against conventional wisdom is (like everything in the book) backed up with plenty of evidence and analysis. Pinker also addresses just how and why cognitive advancement leads to greater peaceableness. One aspect is technological progress (accelerated by the growing brainpower) which has made ideas and people increasingly mobile, producing the global village and what Pinker calls the “Republic of Letters.” Civilization is civilizing us. And smarter people are more likely to be liberal – meaning not so much left-liberalism as classical liberalism (my kind), whose chief value is maximizing the autonomy of individuals to pursue their own flourishing, with its corollaries of limited government and free trade. That such a worldview would promote peaceableness over violence seems obvious.

So Pinker does not join with those intellectuals and scientists among whom it is lately fashionable to deride the whole idea of human reason. He thinks we have brains, and use them — increasingly.

This book will make its readers even smarter still; and thus its author isn’t merely heralding a better world, he’s helping it along.

* Discussing vegetarianism, he queries whether a moose-eating bear oughtn’t, morally speaking, be “tempted away with all-soy meatless moose patties.”

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6 Responses to “Steven Pinker and The Decline of Violence”

  1. Steven Pinker Says:

    Dear Frank,

    I’m incredibly grateful — not just for the kind words, but because the review captured exactly the points and themes that I most hoped that readers would notice (which cannot be said for all reviews).

    Thanks for the care that you put into it, and for sending me the link.

  2. Winton Bates Says:

    A good review of a great book. I’m glad Steven Pinker appreciates your efforts.

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