The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker intends this book as a positive remedy to a time and country in which most citizens grossly overestimate the amount and impact of violence and crime. And for the most part it does what he intends.
Pinker is a scientist (psychology) and he’s much happier working in the realm of statistics than in history or political science. He’s also Canadian, which may distort his view of the U.S. to some extent.
To extol the comparative humanity of our current world Pinker digs up a wealth of examples of just how horrible our ancestors were. He aso paints a picture of the gradual progress toward the current age. So for a considerable part of the early chapters we learn a great deal about ancient torture techniques, the high incidence of infanticide, the prevalence of lost noses from tavern knife fights, child abuse, and tales of village sport such as getting together to beat a pig to death before having it for a town meal. We also learn about medieval battles in which the main goal was to expand one’s personal fiefdom by invading a neighbor and killing as many peasants as possible. And don’t forget execution techniques, which included hanging children for theft. Or slavery.
Our ancestors were pretty horrible, and Pinker makes that point in case after case in nearly every part of the world. People killing other people was very common and far more common than what we see today.
This includes the waging of war. Despite the massive death tolls from war in the 20th century, Pinker points out that as a percentage of population wars have been far less deadly than in past centuries. He also lists body counts for dozens of conflicts, most of which most people have never heard of, for which historians can estimate fairly reliable body counts. He even digs into the Bible to point out the various genocides and events like David, before becoming king, happily collecting foreskins of Israel’s adversaries.
He tries to puzzle through what changed, and at times one gets the feeling that he’s not sure it has been a completely positive change. How did we get from a time of casual slaughter to a time in which it’s considered rude to make fun of another person’s race, gender, or national background? The terms PC and political correctness are used a lot by Pinker, usually in a pejorative way. He seems to fall along the conservative stance that political correctness is thought control, instead of being a way in which people can make a firm point about maintaining civility in a diverse culture, and that calling people “snowflakes” or humorless for having a reaction is a less-than-subtle method of saying “I’ll be as rude as I want and your disapproval takes away my free speech.”
Pinker also tries to probe the dramatic drop in homicides and violent crimes from the 1960s to today. He digs through dozens of ideas, some more convincingly than others. He points to changes in police work, such as New York City’s “broken windows” policy of up-close-and-personal neighborhood policing. Here he misses the point that this also led to “stop and frisk” and regular civil rights abuses, including the high proportion of black arrests for comparable crimes among other races. He makes false equivalencies from the 1960s between the “violent left” (Black Panthers and SDS) and those on the opposite extreme responsible for decades of lynchings, bombings, and “disappearances” of those with opposing ideas or different races.
Internationally Pinker seems to be of the opinion that many countries could do with a good dose of western civilization to make them less violent, because that’s worked so well since the 1500s.
These distractions aside, Pinker hits a positive stride in the last chapters of the book when he gets to work with statistics and failures by humans to make rational appraisals of the dangers around them. In a world in which the media focuses on incidents of violence, despite their decreasing numbers, it can be natural to make the assumption that the world is a violent place, more so than when we were younger. I don’t know that some media have changed that much in the past century. We do live with 24-hour news coverage, and violence is easier to report on than political subtlety. But the type of coverage just came in different wrappers in the past. Check out old copies of Police Gazette if you have the chance. Salacious and violent stories have always drawn our attention.
Pinker points out that our survival instincts lead us to overestimate dangers. So even though you’re more likely to be killed from a bee sting than by an “Islamic terrorist” we focus on the most unique danger as opposed to one that is more common and mundane.
On the whole, the book is filled with a ton of interesting and unique factoids, along with as clichê-strewn a prose style as I’ve read for some time. Whether he’s on-point or not regarding causes he does make a reasonable point that, for whatever reason, we are less violent and less tolerant of violence than even recent ancestors were. We, as a nation, could relieve a great deal of day-to-day anxiety simply by being more aware that we live in a world far more peaceful than other humans have had the opportunity to enjoy.