Review of ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature,’ by Steven Pinker

Let me begin by saying that for any quibbles I might have (and there are a few) this is one of the most interesting and uplifting books I have read for many years. The title is a quote from Lincoln. It is long (841 pp in paperback) but much of that can be laid at the door of Pinker’s thorough and scholarly approach. Almost all of his assertions, with a few notable exceptions, are supported by detailed research from a wide range of fields: psychology (Pinker’s area of expertise); anthropology; history; philosophy; politics; neuroscience; evolutionary biology; and economics among others. I should also say that, despite its didactic approach, it is never an effort to read, which is largely thanks to the author’s easy demotic style and liberal use of illuminating examples.

The basic thesis of the book is that human-caused violence has diminished, is diminishing and, all things being equal, will continue to diminish. Whether one measures the amount of violence in society as incidents proportional to the population or by the likelihood of individuals becoming victims of violence the story is the same. Pre-state violence was endemic, whereas today the line bumps along the bottom of the graph, hardly registering when placed in a historical context. Some modes of violence are easier to measure than others but nonetheless his reach is wide and includes: wars of all kinds; murder; rape; personal attacks; gratuitous cruelty; human sacrifice; infanticide; gynecide; genocide; torture; animal cruelty; cruel and violent entertainments; slavery; domestic violence; violence carried out by the state; ideological violence; cruel punishments; and so on. Some of these, obviously, involve larger numbers than others (the category contributing the highest numbers of deaths is ideology – either religious or political) but all are meticulously researched.

Intuitively one thinks of the 20th century as a counter to Pinker’s argument of decline but even here, he argues, that proportionately the trend is still downwards, albeit with a few bumps along the way. This despite Mao (40m deaths), Stalin (20m), WW2 (55m), WW1 (15m, including the deaths from Spanish ‘flu), Pol Pot, the Spanish Civil War and any number of loony dictators and repressive regimes. The two world wars were, in his view, outliers and not sufficient to refute the conclusion of declining violence. He ranks causes against death tolls using 20th century equivalent populations. Without listing the entire table, these are the first five in order: An Lushan revolt (8th century); Mongol conquests (15th); Mid-east slave trade (7th-19th); the fall of the Ming Dynasty (17th); and the fall of Rome (3rd-5th). He also addresses the reasons why people intuitively believe the opposite is occurring – nobody sold newspapers by saying things are getting better – ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’

Much of the first part of the book is taken up with the history of violence and its causes. Man, he avers, is an intelligent ape who will do whatever is in his best interests. He employs game theory and a myriad of psychological experiments to prove his point. One of the most well-known is the Milgram experiment where participants were instructed to deliver electric shocks to their fellow participants in the next room if they failed to answer a question correctly. The shocks were not, of course, real, and the people answering the questions were, unbeknown to those delivering the shocks, complicit in the experiment. Those carrying out the experiment were surprised when 65% of participants continued to ratchet up the voltage at the behest of the man with the clipboard until the screams from next door turned to silence and the dial had reached the ‘Certain death,’ zone. Authority, it turns out, is a key cause of violence. But, paradoxically, it also turns out to be an inhibitor in that it prevents private wars because it has a monopoly of arms and, through the rule of law, it helps prevent blood feuds from spinning out of control. This is a constant theme throughout the book – the very things that cause violence also assist its decline. This applies to our mental make-up, evolutionary and social pressures, economic and political developments, technology, advances in communications, and so on.

Game theorists have used the Prisoner’s Dilemma for many years to explain human motivation in this area. If two prisoners are placed in separate rooms and questioned about a particular crime they are alleged to have committed between them and given the following choices: a) Say ‘He did it,’ b) Stay silent. If prisoner number 1 chooses a) and Prisoner 2 chooses a) they both get five years. If prisoner 1 chooses a) and prisoner 2 opts for b), 1 goes free and 2 gets 10 years, if they both choose b) they both go free. What is the optimum strategy in a one-off scenario like this? Always choose a) or ‘Defect’ in the jargon and this is, in fact, what happens. However, something changes if the exercise is not a one-off but a series. In that case the best strategy is called ‘Tit-for-tat,’ in other words, one only defects after the other person has defected. In the main, people will choose the  most advantageous strategy for their needs. Moral justification comes after the event.

Each mode of violence is examined in forensic detail for its causes and all are perfectly logical given the context of the time. He looks at wars: tribal; inter-tribal; civil wars; inter-state wars and so on. There are three main causes: greed (I want that land or those resources); fear (I shall attack that tribe/country before it attacks me); honour (that nation, race, religion etc has insulted me and I must be avenged). Some violence was officially sanctioned, such as the torturing and killing of heretics, others permitted at various times in our history (rape; the murder of adulteresses; female genital mutilation; duelling; the beating of wives, children and slaves; slavery itself; persecution of homosexuals; the execution of criminals etc) and some positively encouraged as heroic – these include ideological wars and genocides (crusades; jihads; pogroms; the religious wars in Europe; the forcible spread of communism and Nazism etc) and most inter-state conflicts.

What, then has changed if violence has so dramatically diminished? He examines and rejects any biological changes to humanity over such a short timescale, although he later claims that IQ scores have improved considerably over the 100 years or so since its inception. It is simply that the rules of the game have changed across most of the world, meaning that violence is no longer the optimum option in most cases. The book traces these changes through what he describes as six trends: the Pacification Process, when man became a settled farmer and stock-rearer, rather than a hunter-gatherer; the Civilizing Process, which created the nation states and strong central governments; the Humanitarian Revolution that grew out of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries; the Long Peace following WW2; the New Peace since the end of the Cold War; and the Rights Revolution that has taken place since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Each of these, he concludes, has been responsible for the decline in violence and he demonstrates this by pointing out that wherever in the world these trends are absent violence is the most prevalent, namely: some post-colonial countries, mainly in Africa; totalitarian states (North Korea and Burma until recently); theocracies (many Muslim states) and those with weak or corrupt governments (Yemen, Somalia).

The underlying factors driving of these trends include: technology and the exchange of ideas; strong central government (Hobbes’ Leviathan); trade and communication; free markets; social and economic liberalism; democracy; feminisation; and respected institutions. In other words, the largest contributor to the fall in violence is the ‘Open Society,’ and these liberal, capitalist democracies are exactly where one finds the lowest levels of violence in the world today. He also addresses times when violence rose in these societies, such as during the 1960s and 1970s in the USA and Europe. Of course, not all countries can be lumped together. Why, for example, does the USA endure a consistently higher rate of violence than say, Sweden or Japan? Again, the book addresses these subtleties with convincing aplomb.

The book is at its weakest when it strays from the evidence or where evidence is less easy to unearth, and he descends into opinion. For example, under the sub-heading ‘Reason’ he suggests that we have become more intelligent over time (as measured by IQ scores) and therefore more rational. Rationality, he claims, is one of the drivers of diminishing violence, although he doesn’t prove this in my view. Further, he states that the more intelligent presidents of the USA have been the least violent, citing Kennedy and Carter on the one hand and Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush on the other. This seems to me to be driven by anti-Republican Party prejudice. Kennedy, of course, took the USA into Vietnam and it was Nixon who ended its involvement. The worst violence took place under Johnson, whom he fails even to mention. Reagan it was who, with Gorbachev, as he says earlier in the book, almost single-handedly extricated the world from the Cold War, thus creating the New Peace. Nor does he satisfactorily prove that the presidents he approves of had higher IQs than the others. Finally, IQ is a poor indicator of general intelligence anyway, according to much recent research.

One thing surprised me is that for all his assertions that religion, as ideology, has been one of the major sources of violence in human history (he is himself a Jewish atheist) he defends much religious thinking as also helping to promote peace. He seems to distinguish between purblind and arrogant fundamentalism and more mainstream religious thought and practice. I once attended a lecture by Melvyn Bragg (who might be described as Anglican agnostic) on the King James Bible and he vehemently asserted that Dawkins was wrong to condemn all religion. Christianity, he said, had been responsible for formulating some primitive rules of war during the Dark Ages, where previously there had been none, and that the Enlightenment had grown out of the Reformation. Pinker seems to endorse this view of history.

He has clearly demonstrated, in my view, conclusive proof that violence has fallen dramatically over the course of human history, and most steeply most recently. He admits, however, that this conjunction of propitious causes might easily be reversed given a change in circumstances but he somehow doubts it. After all, we love certainty, which fuels ideologies, and we are still highly tribal, which could easily lead us back to inter-state wars and civil conflicts but his view is that however bumpy the road we are unlikely to return to a state of nature where, ‘The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’

Steven Pinker is a Harvard Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University

2 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature,’ by Steven Pinker

  1. Interesting review. I’d tend to think that Pinker’s view is biased by his own life in a comfortable area and that he fails to foresee the economic crisis to come-nor does he seem to think about the growing dysgenic phenomenom currently occurring in Western countries (see for example Richard Lynn about this). However, Pinker’s books are in general interesting enough to be read and he always subtly tackles what we already think, a rare quality that makes his books even more interesting.

    “Finally, IQ is a poor indicator of general intelligence anyway, according to much recent research.”

    Reference please?

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