Magazine | December 19, 2011, Issue

Be Nice!

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker (Viking, 832 pp., $40)

In this, his most ambitious book to date, Steven Pinker describes, and attempts to explain, a curious historical phenomenon: the decline in all kinds of violence among human beings, from pre-civilized times to the present.

The first thing one wants to ask is: Has there actually been such a decline? Given the tremendous wars and political massacres of the 20th century, can it really be the case that man is less of a wolf to man in our own times than in Charlemagne’s, or Agamemnon’s?

Beginning with homicide, Pinker takes a broad statistical view, with humanity at large as the divisor in his calculations. What, he asks, were a person’s chances of dying at the hands of another person, rather than from natural causes, in any given era, over any given broad geographical area? This approach, though it would offer little comfort to survivors of Verdun or Auschwitz, is the only way to take the measure of homicidal violence in the generality.

The first thing it shows is a huge drop in one’s probability of being killed by someone else as humanity passed from pre-state — that is, hunter-gatherer or early agricultural — societies to those organized in cities and nations. Archeological sites and studies of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples tell the tale. In a pre-state tribe, your chance of a violent death averaged 15 percent. By contrast, even in pre-Columbian Mexico, a rather crude state structure, your chance was a mere 5 percent. Some similar figure applied to the first Eurasian civilizations.

What Thomas Hobbes called Leviathan — organized state power — was therefore the first agent to damp down the violent-death rate, even as it allowed great increases in population. If you go from the early civilizations to recent centuries, the numbers drop further. Even under modernity at its worst, in the 17th century and the first half of the 20th, the overall rate of death during Europe’s wars was no more than 2 or 3 percent. Homicide rates in the largest American cities today match those in the least violent pre-state societies.

It was civil-homicide rates that first caught Pinker’s attention. The seed that grew into this book, he tells us, was a graph produced by political scientist Ted Robert Gurr in 1981. Gurr had combed English records going back to the early 13th century in order to plot the change in homicide rates over time. The results were striking. By the 20th century, homicide in England had fallen by 95 percent from the earlier figure. Similar data sets have since been compiled for other European countries. They show the same decline, from high double digits per 100,000 people per year around a.d. 1300 to low single digits today. (The averages for pre-state societies are in high-ish triple digits.) Following the pioneering German political scientist Norbert Elias (1897–1990), Pinker claims this decline as part of the “Civilizing Process” that came with the consolidation of modern states — Leviathan 2.0, as it were — and the spread of literacy and “gentle commerce.”

Overlaid on the later stages of the Civilizing Process was, Pinker tells us, a “Humanitarian Revolution” in which cruelty, slavery, and the more horrid kinds of judicial punishment came to be seen as unacceptable. He tracks this Humanitarian Revolution back to the abolition of human sacrifice in Eurasia during the last centuries b.c., but argues that it got truly airborne only in the 17th-century Age of Reason and the following Enlightenment. “By 1776 the American revolutionaries had defined ‘despotism’ down to the level of taxing tea and quartering soldiers.”

An acceleration principle then kicked in, with downward steps in interstate violence during the “long peace” (since 1945) and the “new peace” (from 1989). Civil violence declined in parallel during these same periods, in a multitude of phenomena from capital punishment to spanking, from racial persecution to boxing. I was amused to learn that early episodes of Sesame Street are now deemed unsuitable for children, as they show such dangerous activities as the riding of tricycles without helmets.

Pinker, whose statistical sense is very keen, points out that some of these movements have long since passed the point of diminishing returns. When a child is hit by a moving automobile nowadays, the driver is usually a parent chauffeuring her own kids to school for fear they might be kidnapped.

#page#After seven chapters of working over history and prehistory, Pinker offers two on the science of human nature. Here he is on his home ground and writes most fluently and knowledgeably. Psychology, neuroscience, and genetics have added tremendously to our understanding of ourselves this past 50 years. As robot space probes have transformed the planets from fuzzy blobs to landscapes with oceans and volcanoes, researchers in the human sciences have made comparable advances in our knowledge of thought, behavior, and personality.

Among the best known of these researchers was Stanley Milgram, who showed 40 years ago that in obedience to an authority figure, there was almost no limit to the pain his research subjects would inflict on fellow participants shrieking in (bogus) agony. Milgram’s experiments have since been repeated hundreds of times with dozens of variations, always revealing human nature as containing more darkness than we would have cared to know. More capacity for justifying and moralizing away our misdeeds, too: One of the recurrent themes in the modern science of human nature is that our brains are tireless spin doctors.

Drawing on the latest research in brain functions, Pinker works up a typology of our inclination to violence. That inclination has, he says, five distinct origins: cold predation (“the shortest path to something you want”), dominance within groups, revenge, sadism, and ideology. These are the inner demons of our nature, and discussion of them forms the first of the two human-science chapters. In the second he examines the other side, those “better angels” of his book’s title: self-control, empathy, reason, respect.

It is necessary to his thesis to show that the better angels have been gaining ground over the inner demons across the centuries. Why this should be so is beyond the present scope of scientific inquiry, so Pinker puts the relevant speculations into a separate, concluding chapter.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a rich and argumentative book containing a wealth of empirical analysis seasoned with Pinker’s usual complement of anecdotes, wit, and felicitous turns of phrase. (I had never before heard the term “percussive maintenance” — the most abrupt way of dealing with a malfunctioning electronic device.) It seemed to me, though, that Pinker is, in this book, noticeably less successful than formerly in keeping his own biases under control, and less skillful at negotiating his way through the minefield of political correctness.

His prejudice against nationalism, for example, leads him into a logical lapse. Of Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of national self-determination, Pinker notes that “one of [its] dangers is that there is really no such thing as a ‘nation’ in the sense of an ethnocultural group that coincides with a patch of real estate.” That would be news to, for instance, the Japanese or the Hungarians. Then, 20 pages later, we read that “some of Europe’s peaceful borders demarcate countries that were conveniently homogenized by the massive ethnic cleansing of World War II.” That echoes Jerry Z. Muller’s 2008 essay “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism,” in which Muller argues that a peaceful system of neighboring nations is usually the result of violent ethnic separation. Muller does not appear in Pinker’s list of references.

Probably it is Pinker’s distaste for religion that will most vex National Review readers. On Europeans’ valuing human life more highly after the Wars of Religion: “Part of this newfound appreciation . . . was an intellectual and moral change: a shift from valuing souls to valuing lives. The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul . . . is highly malignant.” There are of course forceful arguments on the other side. Indeed, later in the book Pinker backs off somewhat from that stern Hitchensism to allow, in the tradition of earlier Whiggish historians, that “in zones of anarchy, religious institutions have sometimes served as a civilizing force.” (Macaulay did this much better: “A society sunk in ignorance, and ruled by mere physical force, has great reason to rejoice when a class, of which the influence is intellectual and moral, rises to ascendancy.”)

These are, however, editorial asides in a densely argued work of empirical inquiry. Pinker has things to say, backed by sound numerical evidence, that should be of interest to any educated person. The facts and numbers are skillfully woven into a story that belongs ultimately to the mystery genre. In Pinker’s closing words: “What do we make of the impression that human history contains an arrow? Where is this arrow, we are entitled to wonder, and who posted it?” As with all the best mystery narratives, we are left pondering at last, each of us according to his own inclination and understanding.

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