The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (2011), by Stephen Pinker


Pinker, the prominent Harvard psychologist, ponderously but importantly evidences that human violence has declined promisingly in history, a decline about which obviously we should be most happy since it shows we are doing some right things but for which we yet have no grand explanation in the midst of still elusive various potential causes tracing to nature and nurture.

Specifically, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker lays out (i) six trends which most probably have some explanatory power here: the Pacification Process or the transition from the anarchy of hunter-gatherer groups; the Civilizing Process between the late Middle Ages and the twentieth century; the Humanitarian Revolution of the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment; the Long Peace following World War II; the New Peace since the end of the Cold War; and the Rights Revolutions following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; and he sets forth (ii)  five human inner demons: predatory and instrumental violence; dominance; revenge; sadism; and ideology; (iii) exalts four better angels of our nature: empathy; self-control, moral sense; and reason; and finally singles out (iv) several historical forces: commerce; the Leviathan; feminization; cosmopolitanism; and the “escalator of reason.”

He wants us to be skeptical of contrary jeremiads and to expose unabated, above all misleading, pessimistic conditioning by the sensationalistic media (“If it bleeds, it leads”; “If it weeps, it keeps”), all the while letting us know that if the customer for such titillation is always right, the customer should outgrow that primal need or else he and she are “right” by being wrong.

The Better Angels of Our Nature has made a buzz. Pinker’s first sentence is, “This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.”

Pinker primarily senses that the decline in violence comes from the sunburst of reason from the Enlightenment; the replacement of the relentlessly murderous hunter-gatherer era with “the Leviathan” (i.e., the formation of states [which for me he treats without enough distinctions]); the progressive easing of life since the hard and hardening times of the Middle Ages; and various psychological and other “endogenous” dynamics; admitting, of course, that we will surely continue imperfectly to follow the old Greek advice, Know thyself.

Pinker emphasizes the relative statistics of commonplace homicide (over war and genocide), tracing the diminishing historical rates of “ordinary” murders proportional to the prevailing human population. He confirms that those rates, the earlier ones teased out both inferentially and numerically by archaeologists and anthropologists and others and all the lowering rates all the way down to our day explored by psychologists, game theorists and assorted colleagues, have diminished greatly since Medieval times.

Specifically, Pinker stresses across the eras the comparative numbers of murders per year per 100,000 people. He shows the frequency and reliability of evidence from early times; and describes the sometimes hundredfold declines in our times. In the statistics emphasized by Pinker, violence is dramatically down in our day.

So to speak: devils hide in the details.

For example, Pinker considers the storms of horrors of the twentieth century–the millions upon millions of murdered–as nevertheless comparatively statistically small violence measured his way, both as to individual victims and to battlegrounds, incinerated cities and genocides: overall, he says, the twentieth century has not interrupted the historical decline in violence, measured against the now much larger global human population. Rather, twentieth century genocide and war deaths, to judge by Pinker’s measures, are less statistically significant than earlier such tragedies.

He stresses the “escalator of reason” which, now that we are rising on it, may well lead us to even more peaceful lives. Reason, Pinker says, not empathy, free societies, or other pacific factors, is perhaps the one unbounded and uncompromised human salvation from the violence he characterizes.

We’ve at least generally sensed these happy trends; but hardly any of us, I’m guessing, have seen them quantified as dramatically as Pinker does in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Yet perhaps most of us are curiously wary of Pinker’s indisputably good news.

In our time the discovery and concentration of fundamental power is sudden and unprecedented. What are the chances we might survive this abrupt turn in history? Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists…a Massive Peril amidst Pinker’s Good News. A nuclear war between, say, Israel and Iran–hardly impossible.  Similarly, a collapse of global capitalism, a global environmental disaster, a Siren plague of shallowness of the mind in the Digital Age.

If the incidence and rates of the kinds of violence Pinker thinks about have diminished, the scale of the violence humans can now bring is literally unimaginable.

Now a few can possess great destructive power and not be faced up to, understood, or even known about before a catastrophe. Perhaps the most nightmarish thought here: An accidental nuclear holocaust ending civilization and bringing a new Dark Ages is certainly not statistically impossible–we need only look back at some horrifying moments in the Cold War.

I would recommend as a reading imperative after The Better Angels of Our Nature, Ian McEwan’s great dark novel Solar about the primal irrationality of Homo sapiens, those creatures cursed in old words by a darkness of the intellect and a weakness of the flesh, and the ensuing prospects of our species in the world of ever more catastrophic power in the hands of humans. Do the denizens of civilization, now in the words of Henry Kissinger all-too-suddenly possessing “the fire of the gods,” dramatize a dark primatology which offers only a dubious chance that those curious creatures might prevail?

In our perilous times, are the comparative statistics of violence–the good news here–suddenly any reason to take more heart than before? The potential dire spike in the trend line owing to the modern possession of catastrophic weaponry is perhaps the new salient way to look at the dynamic of violence in human history.

Barkeep, I’ll have a Bombay Sapphire martini up with two olives. And please face that clock to the wall.