The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes

Reviewed by Deborah Gale

Steven Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and prolific researcher on language and cognitive processes, plumbs statistical and historical depths in this treatise. His argument, that we are currently living in the most peaceable era on the human continuum, is predicated on his belief that we have evolved to this point by controlling the inner demons that have led us to violence throughout the course of human history.

Modernity and the introduction of things we take for granted, including the justice system, our method of governance and even capitalism, very much in the frame currently, have all contributed to an overall reduction in violence. In his recently released, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, Pinker has given us a worthy counterargument to widely held fears. This monster of a read, offers excruciatingly vivid, historical detail and reconstructions as proof of his hypothesis. Over the course of 696 pages, he explores human psychology, motivations and behaviors against a robust, statistical, comparative analysis. In the process, he makes the past look less innocent and the present look far less sinister.

Setting the tone, he uses the Bible as a launch pad and refers to the Good Book as “one long celebration of violence”.  He argues for the less than pacifying effects of religion given the wrathful deity of the Old Testament, even when superseded by the less aggressive depictions in the New Testament. That said, he singles out organized religion as only one of the causes of organized violence. Moving from ancient through medieval and up to recent history, he challenges us to observe the alterations in the received messages of historical events. He alerts us to the sanitizing effect of history, upon reflection.

Predictably, he links today’s decline in martial culture to the mutual assured destruction  (MAD) argument presaged by the nuclear age.  He notes that post WW2 martial values have been replaced by what he refers to as “conspicuous pacifism”. Even in the board game of RISK, the rules have been gently rewritten so that players attempt to liberate rather than conquer their opponents. Looking at the rise of gang culture as a contemporary example, he asserts that the tendency for gangs to be violent is strategic, not instinctive. When survival is at risk, a complex cost–benefit analysis is rationalized and violence for competitive gain, safety and/or reputation and glory will be calculated.

Despite media saturation of the incidence of violence, Pinker states that the safest place in human history at the turn of the 21st century is Western Europe. He asserts that living in a civilized society reduces ones chances of being a victim of violence and that is predicated on the degree of government control.  This “Civilizing Process”, originally put forth by a relative unknown, Norbert Elias, also increased the valuation on human life and on happiness which in turn contributed to reported declines in European violence.  The development of self–control is meticulously examined to demonstrate that it has gotten better over time. Pinker likened it to a muscle that had to be exercised in order to become strong and therefore effective. He further maintains that this can be primarily attributed to the process of pacification where a Leviathan state and judiciary possess the monopoly on the legitimized use of force. Unfortunately, pacification also has a cost. As can be seen in the continuing evolution of the Arab spring, imposition of absolute control by a coercive government appears to have a shelf life.

With a nod in the direction of Niall Ferguson’s, Six Killer Apps of Western Powers (competition + science + democracy +medicine + consumerism + Protestant work ethic) that he argues were responsible for the prosperity of the west over the east, Pinker attributes five historical forces to the decline of violence. Starting with the role of the Leviathan, he adds commerce, the peaceful influence of feminization, the “cosmopolitinization” of modern life via mass media and the application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs to further his argument. As a consequence, these environmental transformations and how humans deal with changes in their circumstances have been the triggers to the progressive triumph of good over evil. While he does not speculate about the future, he is convincing in his documentation of the historical decline of violence.

Pinker is a visual writer and his comprehensive understanding of cognitive processing allows for the great scope of his book.  In the second half he explores our inner demons. He maintains that most of us have the capacity to act and although we may never have reason to do so are nonetheless  “wired for violence”. That said, most harmful consequences arise from the most banal of motives and he maintains that neurobiological realities are responsible for both the best and the worst aspects of human behaviour.  In this way, the human mind and the way it responds to evil events are granted a complete spectrum of moral emotions and valuations, where individual responses and the social behaviour’s exhibited are intricately connected.   Pinker regularly provides examples, in this case, the motivations of serial killers to prove his point. Likewise, ideology or the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance and how humans attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance are also explored. While evil in the world has not ended Pinker illustrates that our ability to steer ourselves away from violence is currently more fully engaged than in any other point in history.

He concludes with a review of his  “better angels of our nature”.  It was Abraham Lincoln who originally capitalized on this phrase to represent the human inclination towards peaceful, cooperative co–existence. This was his plea for men to appeal to that part of themselves during the lead up to the abolition of slavery amidst the bloody aftermath of the Civil War. Politically moderate, Lincoln abandoned this tendency with the Emancipation Proclamation, his act against the injustices of his time. One hundred and fifty years later, Pinker observes that an expanded sense of empathy or the altruistic concern for others is even more present in the zeitgeist. He argues this rise in empathy along with rational self–control; enhanced moral sense and most critically, the faculty of reason have been potently combined in modern times. This confluence is responsible for the decline of violence and should be celebrated as another tremendous accomplishment of the human race.

Lastly, Pinker can observe support of his extensive research in these recent efforts: Professor David Kennedy’s  Don’t Shoot – One Man, a Street Fellowship and the End of Violence in Inner–City America and Robert Trivers The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self Deception in Human Life. In addition, an article in the 29/10/11 edition of The Economist; “The terrible truth. Technology can now see what people are thinking. Be afraid”, cites breakthroughs in mind–reading technology which also prop up Pinkers view of the declining violence trend.

I enjoyed this exhaustive review of the endogenous and exogenous variables triggering violence over the course of human history. Expect to be entertained, occasionally appalled and reliably informed. I never knew that the word bikini was named after an atoll in the Pacific. That coral reef was vaporized by nuclear tests in 1946 and one of the designers likened the reaction to this two–piece swimwear as comparable to onlooker’s reactions to an atomic blast.





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