When you read about the day’s events or tune into network news, do you feel peace is futile? Maybe the world seems overrun with terrorist attacks, mass shootings, suffering, and violence and you can’t fathom bringing a child into this world. If you’re hopeless about the state of humanity, you may find Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined reassuring, perhaps uplifting.
Better Angels is an ambitious undertaking. Pinker explores violence from prehistory to today with evidence and datasets from multiple fields of study to persuade us that violence has declined significantly and that we’re living in one of the most peaceful times in existence. Dozens of charts illustrating correlational evidence support his thesis that now is “a good time in history to be a potential victim.”
The casualties of recent wars and genocides by Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler, are horrific in their numbers, but the numbers are small compared to the masses who suffered cruel, torturous deaths during the religious wars of the 17th century. The convincing narrative argues the rise of the nation-state (Leviathan), literacy, numeracy, and commerce have paved the way for a rights revolution. Torture, once entertainment, is now taboo. The law of the land, once enforced with self-help justice, is now handled by government courts. Beating children is no longer advised. Ethnic minorities, women, and animals, once expendable property, now have more autonomy and respect than before.
Few could argue against a decline in homicide rates from our hunter-gatherer beginnings to now. The data clearly show that rates have decreased. Other data show a strong correlation of the decline of violence with an increase in education, commerce, and trade. But why is that? Is there something programmed in our biology that has influenced our progress?
Pinker believes so and spends many chapters trying to convince us that our hard-wired “better angels”–empathy, self-control, morality, and reason–are keeping our “inner demons”–predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology–in check.
I trust that his assertion is true. You can see our better angels at work all the time. Pinker shares a story of passing a mother with two young children. One child was crying while the other child was being disciplined, his mother repeating to him, “EMPATHY!” We frequently hear parents explaining to children that they must put themselves in other’s shoes and ask how they would feel if someone did this thing or that to them. Empathy, reason, and self-control are valued today and likely necessary for a peaceful society.
Pinker also discusses surprising insights about what forces DO NOT have a significant influence on the decline of violence. Those inconsistent factors are weaponry & armament, resources & power, and religion. While they’re important, and common knowledge usually labels them as obvious contributors to violence, they don’t have as much pull as previously thought.
Pinker’s discussions are good explanations for how we got from a very violent then to a less violent now. At no point does he become preachy, or suggest what we should do with the information he meticulously curated. Nor does he ever become arrogant and suggest that we can end all suffering, or that this trend will stay its course.
His work, a profusion of information from multiple academic fields, tightly organized in one place, is to be applauded. If you’re hardened and apathetic to the current rate of violence in the world, convinced we’re already taking a ride in that hand-basket, The Better Angels of Our Nature may calm your anxiety. Pinker’s view of a less violent world is a cheerier perspective to have indeed.
Update: Mr. Pinker posted this cartoon link on his Twitter account. Very appropriate in relation to his book.