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I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Can one say worthwhile things about a book that one has only begun to read? I think, often: yes. One thing one can definitely report is whether one is reading this or that book with enthusiasm, eager to learn what will follow, or only because of a self-imposed, well-I’ve-started-so-I-might-as-well-finish sense of mere duty.

So far, I have only read somewhat over a hundred and fifty pages of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, but it definitely passes the above test. It is a huge book. Just before finishing this posting I happened to drop my (paperback!) copy of it on my foot, and it really hurt. The text alone runs to over eight hundred pages, and the notes take it over a thousand, yet I already know that I am going to go on reading this book until I finish it, and that when I do finally finish it (I am a very slow reader) I will almost certainly be somewhat regretful, as if coming to the end of a wonderful holiday trip or a particularly satisfying job assignment.

There are so many things I could say about this book, so many thoughts in it and provoked by it that would be blog-worthy, but let me focus on just one, which is that it is such a very, very worthy subject for an academic to be writing about. Pinker has chosen a subject that, he says, needs a long book. Well, a decent but short book could have been written about the relentless decline of violence in human affairs, but I am very happy that this one is indeed extremely long. It is not so much, for me, that this subject needs a long book, as that it so very much deserves one.

The story Pinker tells is of the relentless rise of what he is not afraid to call civilisation. Simply, we humans have become ever less nasty and sadistic towards one another as the decades and centuries and millennia have rolled by, both qualitatively and quantitatively. To make this point, he has already (as I am reading) piled on plenty of agony, about such things as medieval torture devices, and I am sure there will be plenty more such horrors to come.

Says Pinker of this process of moral improvement (on page 160 of the Penguin paperback edition), in a deeply felt parenthetical interjection …

- and if this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is -

Well said. As I say, there is much that I could already say about only what I have read so far, but the main thing I want to say to Pinker is simply this: Well done Sir. You have written a huge book about a huge and hugely important and significant subject, a subject that is entirely worthy of all the work you have put into it.

As Pinker himself surely well knows by now, from all the abuse he gets and from the many directions from which he gets it, he is one of those something-to-offend-everyone intellectuals. He is not a team player, other than in the very broadest sense, of being a member of the let’s-be-civilised team.

Many, for example, just refuse to believe that the progress that Pinker describes has even happened, it being to convince such doubters that Pinker made his book so long. Many intellectual teams have a view of the world and its history which simply forbids them from even seeing this or any other kind of progress, let alone trying to account for it. Related teams might be all set to trash Pinker, only to find that he provides better arguments than they may ever have done for some at least of their most sacred tenets.

Christians, for instance, might welcome the moral achievements achieved by Christians that Pinker itemises, yet not take kindly to his deeply irreverent sprint through all the slaughter and mayhem that is recounted in the Bible, much of it inflicted by God himself or by persons of whom God strongly approved.

Other teams might be inclined to claim Pinker as one of their own, only to find that he trashes one or several of their most sacred tenets. So it would probably be for any regular writer or reader here who reads this book.

We here would surely rejoice that Pinker is not afraid to speak of progress, of the advance of civilisation. Civilisation, says Pinker, should advance, it has advanced, and there is very reason to hope that it will carry on advancing. Most of us here would raise a glass to all of that. Certainly me.

But to explain these advances, Pinker bestows praise upon a very mixed cast of figures, ancient and modern, many of them of the sort that we here might grumble about, such as law-and-order zero-tolerance politicians splashing out on ever more policemen to pound our pavements, and to such people as animal rights activists. A crucial role in pushing down the murder rate, says Pinker, was played by the development of government, of sovereign power over wide swathes of territory. I recall reading something a while back about the “Not So Wild Wild West” (this), but Pinker will have none of that. The USA’s Western frontier was every bit as anarchic, in a bad way, as Hollywood showed it to have been, in fact more so. His views on gun control would not align with the orthodoxy here at all.

But, I really do not care. Such challenges to my preferred ways of thinking are, for me, and coming from a man like Pinker, not bugs but features.

This, I think, is how Public Intellectuals should to live and should work. Long may Pinker continue in his labours on behalf of everything that is true and good.

So, back to reading it. I expect, although I promise nothing, to be posting further thoughts about this book, as I continue to make my way through it.

31 comments to I have yet to read most of it but I already greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

  • Snorri Godhi

    As a matter of fact, I am reading a book right now that impresses me that way: The Machiavellians, by James Burnham. (In my entire life, the non-fiction book that inspired the strongest and enduring love at 1st sight was The Logic of Scientific Discovery.)

    WRT the relentless rise of civilization: I have become skeptical on this, after perusing Angus Maddison’s estimates of historical GDP/person. I tend to think that quality of life only really improved in the last few centuries, the last millennium at most; but considering the world as a whole, only the last 2 centuries.
    Quality of life might even have got worse in the transition from hunting+gathering to agriculture. (Though herders probably fared better.)

    Perhaps Brian might comment or write a later post on whether my narrative on human history is supported or falsified by Pinker’s book.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    It’s a nice story, but I’m afraid I don’t buy the bouncingly positive humanist interpretation of the moral improvement of mankind.

    Out of the top 28 bloodiest wars in history, 11 of them have occurred in the last 100 years.

    Perhaps man has taken to engaging in less casual violence, but that is only because he has graduated from the amateur to the professional class of killer. When humans set about killing one another, they are now far better at it than at any stage in human history.

    If WW3 ever does come, the death toll will be beyond imagining for exactly this reason.

  • Alisa

    If one thinks of human violence in terms of laws of physics – such as the conservation of energy – then one may get the impression that the amount of violence (per person) inflicted/received has remained the same, but it has become decreasingly dispersed. IOW, we observe and experience much less violence on a day-to-day basis in some areas of the world, but much more in others. Moreover, violence becomes more concentrated not only spatially, but temporally – IOW, we live in relative peace for increasingly long stretches of time, but when we do get a war every so many decades, it is usually significantly more brutal than the last one. FWIW.

  • Alisa

    I think that JV beat me to it…

  • Alisa

    he has graduated from the amateur to the professional class of killer. When humans set about killing one another, they are now far better at it

    I think of it (human violence) as having become more organized, as a result of having been gradually co-opted (no prizes for guessing by whom).

  • Rich Rostrom

    Jaded Voluntaryist: Out of the top 28 bloodiest wars in history, 11 of them have occurred in the last 100 years.

    Gee. Pinker must be pretty stupid not to have noticed that. Or maybe he did, and has addressed the point.

    The absolute scale of modern wars is greater, because modern societies are far more populous.

    The gruesome qualities of almost any ancient, medieval, or early modern war equal the worst modern occurrences.

  • chuck

    My explanation is the rise of larger polities. Because violence mostly takes place on borders, the total length of borders would correlate with the amount of violence. The old tribal societies were like grains of sand, the ratio of boundary to area was very high. With the larger polities we have today, the boundaries are a much smaller fraction of the area. Except for places like Europe, and we can see what happened there.

    But, hey, I’m all in favor of Scotch and Welsh independence, no doubt the English could use a bit more genetic selection ;)

  • Yes, it’s a nice question whether numerically greater casualties (because there are now so many more people around to kill) is better or worse than a smaller number of people, each with a far greater chance of dying a violent death.

    I wondered about this while I read it.

    One thing you can say for sure. There are now a great many more people alive and living reasonably contented and comfortable lives than was the case in the past.

    I promise nothing, but I do hope to write further about this book in general, and this point in particular. It would hugely surprise me if Pinker doesn’t go into all this, later in the book. But let me read it first. Be warned that, as stated in the posting, I am a very slow reader, and this is a very big book.

  • Richard Thomas

    I don’t know if it’s directly down to becoming more civilized as becoming more efficient. Torture chambers, though no doubt appealing to a certain mindset, are doubtless not an efficient way of achieving any goal that is worth attaining. Whilst I don’t believe that “violence never solved anything”, certainly, if misapplied, violence can lead to violence. It suits the rulers far better to keep the proletariat sedate. Contented livestock produce the best meat.

    Though that may be his point, of course.

  • But, hey, I’m all in favor of Scotch and Welsh independence, no doubt the English could use a bit more genetic selection ;)

    I see it more as English independence really.

  • Alisa

    ‘Because violence mostly takes place on borders’. Much of the most gruesome violence of the previous century occurred well within borders with very little, if any, involvement from outside powers. This phenomenon of course was not new, only its scale was. It also continues to this day and as we speak, with the phrase ‘murdering his own people’ (presumably as opposed to murdering some people he does not yet own) having become a news-speak cliche.

  • Allan Ripley

    I imagine that Pinker is correct in attributing this relative peace to the rise of civilization but I hesitate in believing that this represents any particular improvement in the morals of individuals. It is more the result of the increased size of self-identifying groups and developments in the division of labor that will account for the fact that you and I may not ever have a need to ward off a killer.

    I think violence is one of the tools that nature provided us so as to help us survive in her environment. Over time we have had less need to use this tool individually and so it has sunk to the bottom of the toolbag, so to speak. It is still there, though- waiting, if the need arises.

    In some human individuals, and some societies, I understand, torture was employed for the fun of it. The reasons for this are simple- individual pathology- or complex- societal culture (for any number of possible reasons); it has not been the norm, generally speaking- enemies were either killed or enslaved (excepting, of course, where governments had a hand in it).

    No, pure violence in the survival mode is still with us. It has, for the most part, been made quiescent by our civilized societies, but the distance from the bottom of the bag to the top is short. We may very well have the dismal opportunity to witness this in our lifetimes. It will be better to understand and acknowledge this now than at some point to be fatally surprised.

  • JohnB

    As we get more adept at manipulating our environment (technologically advanced) our potential for constructive and destructive action increases.

    We are stepping ever further away from the influence that restrains human evil.

    I’m afraid I do not share Pinker’s optimism.

    Eugenics, for example, was simply the application of logic to perceived reality while leaving God out of the equation.

  • chuck

    Hi Alisa,

    I’d argue that the internal violence took place in fractured societies. One indication of that is the change in ruling groups and form of government. Fractures add a lot of length to borders. Even apart from that, the transition between ‘civilized’ periods, Chinese dynasties for instance, has been historically marked by internal conflict.

  • A general point worth making, based on what I have read of and about this book so far, is that Pinker seems to have no illusions about recent horrors, and about the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century in particular. His point is more that people now forget how horrible the past was.

    Also, he constantly goes out of his way to say that there might indeed be a nuclear war some time soon, and that it there were such a war, it might change everything. He realises that.

    I suspect that defending this book against criticisms will (would) mostly consist of quoting Pinker’s own answers to just about all such criticisms. Not sure I’ll be very good at that, because that will require a very good memory for everything he says, and where he says it.

  • Tedd

    I haven’t read this latest book, but I’ve read many of Pinker’s writings on the same subject that preceded it. Brian may not have yet reached the parts of the book with the most compelling evidence.

    For me, some of the strongest evidence of reduced violence is the reduction in the odds of dying a violent death. This number has dropped, and dropped enormously, over time. Worldwide, you were less likely to die a violent death in the 20th century than in the 19th, less in the 19th than the 18th, and so on back to a time when violent death may have been more likely than any other form of death (for a man). Relative to population, the twentieth century was the least violent century in history, and the second half of the twentieth century was non-violent on a scale far beyond anything seen before.

    It’s an open question what this says about the nature of individuals. Maybe individual morality is improving, or maybe individuals are just following the herd, as always, and something else is causing the herd to change direction. But the change in direction is happening, without a doubt.

  • Russ in Texas

    Medievalist here.

    Even counting the utter CARNAGE of the 20th century, we as a species are systemically less violent, and this can be demonstrated by what we consider to be “acceptable violence.”

    1. In case of war, we accept uniformed combatants fighting according to a set of rules designed to minimize civilian casualties and take care of enemies who are hors du combat. We regard collateral damage with regret, and often with horror.

    2. In the middle ages, it is accepted that nobles of any level are entitled to fight each other, and to pursue those fights primarily by damaging each others’ lands and those people who depend upon those lands. Peasants and commoners are simply property who one tries to avoid damaging (they’re valuable), but there is not the slightest compunction against harming the OTHER guy’s non-combatants, no matter their age or sex.

    Charlemagne would have used nukes and not even thought twice about it, as would have Emperor Sigismund, let alone Subedei. Speaking of which, the Mongols look like moral nightmares in the middle ages, but their behavior would have been completely unremarkable, save for its geographic scope, anywhere in the world of the Bronze Age.

  • Mose Jefferson

    If your primary measure of progress is merely the reduction of violence, you might suffer a number of violations of your personal autonomy, writing it all off as the progress of man.

    I would not call that progress. Leave me free to act independently in a sometimes dangerous world, though? Now that’s what I call progress.

  • Alisa

    Chuck: I see your point now – thanks.

  • Alisa

    I don’t think that any of the comments here should be taken as a rebut to Pinker’s book (unless someone actually read all of it), but rather as musings on the idea that Brian has thrown on the table (even though it was prompted by the book).

    Tedd: does Pinker or anyone else have actual numbers? Take the number of all violent deaths (including forced starvation through collectivization) in the 20th century in Western and Eastern Europe and Asia as a percentage of the total world population throughout that century, and put that against similar calculations in the preceding centuries?

  • Richard Thomas

    Careful though. Does less violent deaths imply less violence or reduced deaths post-violence due to improved medical procedures? (A mixture of both, surely)

  • Alisa

    Good point, Richard.

  • veryretired

    I saw this post the other day, and have been mulling over the topic, wondering if I wanted to try to join the discussion. Now that I have, whether it will be for well or ill is up to the fine judgements of those who frequent this site.

    Oddly enough, what prompted this comment is my having run across the final installment of the Harry Potter movies on one of the cable channels. The final battle is just beginning.

    Here, encapsulated, whether by conscious design or not, lie most of the common bases for violence down through human history—

    The lust for power, the racial contempt for the other, the aristocratic claim of privilege, the zero-sum equation, the ruthlessness of the anointed one toward any dissent, non-believer, or apostate, the absence of any concept of the individual as an inviolable entity, and, in a form concentrated far above the norm, belief in a magical, supernatural universe, in which special powers can circumvent the laws of nature.

    In the novels “Centennial” and “Hawaii” by James Michener, he opens with an historical overview of the locale, each time describing the cultural environment of the native people, in the former, the Apache, and in the latter the native polynesians.

    In some very un-pc description, the cruelty of the Apache toward any “other” captured by the tribe, and the terrifying idolatry of the natives of Hawaii, involving regular human sacrifice to their bloodthirsty gods, is chillingly portrayed.

    In so many ways, the murderous irrationality of gods who demand that humans be thrown into a volcano is a metaphor for much of what has comprised human belief systems down through the millennia.

    And the “non-personhood” of any non-Apache very neatly describes the attitudes of both ancient and modern men, from the extinction of the Neandrathal to the murder of the Ice Man Otzi to the death camps and purges of the modern era.

    For ages uncounted, men and women have been taught that the irrational is the true nature of the universe, that violence is the answer to any question, and that it is not necessary to produce if one can sieze.

    As I have said many times before, the claim of individual rights is the only truly revolutionary claim in history. It is based on the nature of man as he lives on this earth, in a reality knowable by her rational faculties, and discoverable by the empirical, scientific method.

    This concept of humanity is a direct refutation of the irrational, the supernatural, the violent, and the right of some to consume the lives of others due to nobility, or ideology, or religious orthodoxy.

    The human race struggled for millennia on the edge of disease, starvation, slavery, and death with little or no change from one generation to the next, from one century to the next, from one ruler to the next.

    Suddenly, in the space of a few centuries, many of these burdens were lifted by the unleashing of the rational mind, and the subjegation of the irrational’s claim to violent power over all things and all people.

    Is it any wonder, then, that this idea, of the free and independent individual mind as the only truly sacred element in the world, should be under such a ferocious and relentless attack by those for whom the irrational, whether directed by gods or men,is the standard?

    There is a story in the book of the sower who casts his seeds, and some fell into weeds, and some onto rocks, and so on, but some fell upon fertile ground, and produced a crop tenfold.

    This, then, is the purpose, the task, of those of us who have grown in fertile ground, who have been given the pearl of great price as our birthright.

    Violence and murder may never be erased from humanity. That urge comes from a part of our mind so deep and primitive that it will always be there under the surface.

    And, in some critical situations, it is still needed for self-defense.

    But, if each day, we can move just a bit more toward the rational mind, and away from the irrational hominid lurking in the cave, perhaps the future might be lived in the sunlit uplands a very great man once spoke to us about, and the flickering shadows on the cave wall might be left behind, forgotten in a dim past, like a scary dream in childhood.

  • Richard Thomas

    That should have been *fewer* violent deaths, of course.

  • Tedd

    Tedd: does Pinker or anyone else have actual numbers?

    Tons of numbers, all very well documented and quite compelling. This is not a point on which there’s room for doubt; it’s as close to a slam dunk as a subject like this gets. Violence has been becoming less common for a very long time, and it is orders of magnitude less common than it once was, by any reasonable measure.

  • Alisa

    Thanks Tedd.

  • lucklucky

    How can anyone have data about violent deaths worldwide in the past?
    How does he explains WW2 deaths?

  • Tedd

    How can anyone have data about violent deaths worldwide in thepast?

    Quite a variety of methods have been used. Violence is a huge area of academic research.

    For example, deaths by violence in pre-historic times have been estimated by looking at evidence of violent death in human remains. In later times, the historical record of some societies provides a wealth of information. The Romans, for example, were very diligent about recording deaths, especially where crimes were involved. Fortunately, the drop in violence is so marked that the error by these methods would have to be truly staggering to discount the results. We’re talking about orders of magnitude, not just a few percent here or there.

    How does he explains WW2 deaths?

    I’m not sure I understand the question. Do you mean, “How can the tally for the 20th century be so low when so many died in the world wars?” If so, a quick glance at a population growth chart should provide the answer.

  • Dale Amon

    In traditional societies, your chances of living to be twenty were not good, and from skeletal data it appears quite a lot of it was due to violence. The past was a very dangerous country.

  • Orson

    While I am eager to catch up with Pinker’s tome, sand think that Brian is correct to hit on these themes, I have to take exception to one “example” he cites: “I recall reading something a while back about the ‘Not So Wild Wild West’[ thesis], but Pinker will have none of that. The USA’s Western frontier was every bit as anarchic, in a bad way, as Hollywood showed it to have been, in fact more so. His views on gun control would not align with the orthodoxy here at all.”

    Now, I am something of an expert on the subject of violence in the US West (since it was going to be my PhD topic – but abandoned because of chronic illness, cf, Charles Darwin’s life).

    During the period of 1850 to 1900, in the states West of the Mississippi, the reports of two or more violent deaths have been documented and catalogued by a local Colorado historian.

    The broad patterns revealed in his study support the libertarian thesis of economic historians Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill in “The Not So Wild Wild West” (paper and later book). The West was not at all as violent as Hollywood later painted it to be – nor does the contemporary western fiction show it.

    The most interesting Hollywood pattern that this fine grained data do support is this: the Southern borderland with Mexico was much much more violent than the Northern border with Canada. Furthermore, this is consistent with Canada’s experience with violent Indian rebellion coming only once, and late, during this period.

    Thus, the real pattern of Western North American frontier violence supports that Enlightenment French Philosophe (Monestesque? memory fails me at the moment…), that temperature and human temperament, in general, correlate with latitude, inversely. That is that hot climates towards the equator are more hot tempered and violent, while cold temperatures at higher latitudes are much less.

    Based on your account, Brian, I have wonder how well Pinker uses (or abuses) this historical example?