The Better Angels of our Nature

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The Better Angels of our Nature
Stephen Pinker • Viking, 2011. 802 pp.
The Better Angels of our Nature, Stephen Pinker

This is a long book with an audacious claim — that human violence has precipitously declined over the centuries. After the cataclysms of the 20th century, neuroscientist Steven Pinker recognizes a need to “soften us up,” which he does with a cold-blooded review of ancient animosity, starting with the signs of foul play found in ancient stiffs retrieved from ice and bog.

Homer, author of the Iliad and Odyssey, essentially the first works of Western literature, had Agamemnon explain that during the Trojan war, “…we are not going to leave a single one of them alive, down to the babies in their mothers’ wombs.”

Total war is nothing new, Pinker insists, recounting massacres and genocide in the Old Testament, barbarity in the Roman coliseum, the depredations of the Mongol hordes, and the 10 most deadly events in history — most of them scarcely known.

“The Past is a place where a person had a high chance of coming to bodily harm,” Pinker dead-pans.
Consider us softened…

Most of the evidence for the growing domination of “the better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln’s phrase) is statistical, in deaths per 100,000 people, often compiled by “atrocitologists” who dig into horrific history.

What have we lost since the “good old days”? Whipping. The rack. Breaking on the wheel (whose details are not for the squeamish). Stoning. Slavery. Public torture of all sorts. Duels. Throwing salt — or corpses — in wells.

Eyebrows get raised at this kind of argument, and improper 20th century nouns like Holocaust, Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia do spark skepticism. In a review in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolhbert pointed at a major weakness: Even as Europe was becoming what Pinker calls the “safest place” in history, he was “virtually silent” about one European export: violent colonialism. Indeed, it’s 324 pages before Pinker brings up the Belgian brutality in today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But perhaps that vicious colonial exploitation, which began ebbing about a century ago, promotes Pinker’s point. Violence continues, but at a lower level. Although wars in and around Congo have been the worst violence in the past 20 years, surprisingly, the death rate from virtually all sorts of violence — even terrorism — has indeed dropped.

Pinker attributes the progress to historical processes that started when people settled down and started living in larger groups. In what some historians call the “long peace” that began in 1945, a “rights revolution” continues, Pinker says. “Millions of people are alive today because of the civil wars and genocides that did not take place but that would have taken place if the world had remained as it was in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The conditions that favored this happy outcome — democracy, prosperity, decent government, peacekeeping, open economies, and the decline of antihuman ideologies, are not of course guaranteed to last forever. But nor are they likely to vanish overnight.”

The headlines about atrocities, crimes, wars and injustice still scream for action, as they ought. But even if Pinker’s only part right, his argument, supported by 32 fine-print pages of references, could be the most enlightening tome of the year.

It’s hard to dislike a book that mocks the new clampdown on dodgeball in school as an excess of political correctness, and a simultaneous sign of progress. No longer facing the rack, stoning, slavery, or war between the great powers, we are free to worry about the sting and humiliation of being hit by a rubber ball.

– David J. Tenenbaum