Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Stephen Pinker


I’ve been working on this review for several days now. It keeps getting longer, then shorter, then longer again. I will just go ahead and publish it and hope it is of some use to my gentle readers.

This book has been out for a while now, since 2011, but I have just now gotten around to reading it. I’m sorry now that I spent the last five years talking about many of these issues without the benefit of Dr. Pinker’s ideas. This is a book that everybody should read, especially in this time where important parts of both major political parties in my country, and plenty of political leaders in Europe and elsewhere, are peddling a message of decline and disaster. I haven’t written a review in some time, and this book had a powerful impact on me, so this is a big, long review, maybe too much information for some readers. In that case, here’s the short version:

Pinker’s message is that things are getting better, have been for quite a while, and bode fair to go on getting better because of a number of characteristics of human brains and our social interaction. At least, things are getting better in one crucial regard, we are increasingly less likely to die by violence at the hands of our fellow human beings. This is a process that has been going on since prehistory, but it has accelerated considerably in the last century and particularly since 1945.

But wait, you say, isn’t this the era of terrorism? Aren’t we waiting for the “smoking gun to become a mushroom cloud?” Aren’t our cities overrun with “super-predators” who rape and murder at will in order to get the drugs that make their lives worthwhile? Wasn’t the just past century the bloodiest in human history with history’s two most destructive wars and several genocides including the archetype, the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews during World War Two? Don’t we have the scourge of abortion that kills something like a quarter of all babies before they can even draw their first breath? How can you say that violence is declining, Dr. Pinker? And besides, weren’t people peaceful and kind to each other in ancient times? I thought it was only patriarchy and civilization and money and all that what made people evil to each other and if we could only get back to the Garden and the Age of Aquarius we would have peace, love, and dope for everyone. Or maybe it was modernism that tore us away from a harmonious society of nobility, throne and altar that existed in the Middle Ages, where everybody knew their place and was loyal and just to those above and below them on the Great Chain of Being. Whatever, anyway, our best times are behind us and we are living in the last days of the human race when evil dominates the landscape and the saints can only hide and wait for the rapture. Or something.

I am being irreverent because Pinker is irreverent at times in dismissing the range of arguments that I have parodied above. The historical arguments he deals with in six chapters detailing a series of revolutions in the structure and function of human societies, each of which, he painstakingly proves, dramatically reduced the average person’s chance of being killed by another person. The arguments about human nature, he goes on to address in two chapters, on the “inner demons” and “inner angels” that drive people towards or away from violence. Pinker is not a historian. He is, in fact, an experimental social psychologist, and his work draws on a tradition of experimental social psychology that I encountered first right out of college when I got a job at the University of Oregon Psychology Department. Several of the leading names in social psychology were working there at the time, and the idea of the prisoner’s dilemma that Pinker uses extensively in this book was being worked out in experiments that I handed out the money for (and occasionally participated in if we couldn’t recruit enough undergraduates). So I’ve been familiar with the psychological ideas for thirty years, and with the history for almost as long, but Pinker puts it all together in a very compelling and also very understandable way.

The seven historical revolutions are, in order: the pacification process, the civilizing process, the humanitarian revolution, the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolutions. Each of these has resulted in a reduction in the level of violence in society. The first step was pacification, which happened thousands of years ago when humans, living in villages of farmers and bands of wandering pastoralists and hunters, increasingly found themselves under the rule of kings and chiefs. In this process, they created the Leviathan, the term coined by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes serves as a philosophical underpinning for much of Pinker’s work, though he explicitly rejects Hobbes’ idea of the ‘war of all against all’. People in prehistoric times, or in traditional societies, still band together and cooperate with members of their small group. Their lives are not “solitary”, but they are nonetheless “nasty…brutish, and short” because the small groups are always at war or getting ready to go to war with all neighboring groups. This is the period covered by Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday, which I reviewed in September. Pinker cites the example of the Iceman, a corpse found frozen into a glacier in the Alps, of a man who died about 4500 years ago. Turns out he died of battle wounds, including a spear thrust and several arrows. The conjecture is that he was attacked, perhaps while hunting, and fled his attackers higher into the mountains where his body was preserved by the extreme cold. When we go back and look at the bodies and bones that we have from the period before the existence of governments, where we can ascertain a cause of death, we find that very high percentages of them died by violence. When we look at contemporary stateless societies like the lowland New Guineans Jared Diamond worked with or the famous Yanomamo of the Amazon rain forest, we find likewise that very high percentages of them die by violence in the absence of police from the locally sovereign government. Bands are always raiding each other, for the three reasons that Hobbes described in his masterwork Leviathan: one band wants something the other band has, either resources, women, or land, one band has something that another band might want and so the first band attacks their neighbors preemptively, or a band wants to show its neighbors that it is powerful and should be left alone so it picks a fight with a neighbor for “honor”. Within bands, people cooperate, but there are dominance struggles that can sometimes lead to the violent death of a rival for power. Over all, somewhere in the low hundreds of people per 100,000 die by violence every year, or for someone who has reached adulthood you have a 20%-40% chance of dying by violence. That’s a lot. That is in fact an order of magnitude higher than the chance of dying by violence if you were an American soldier in World War Two.

When people become part of a state, they exchange a war of all against all for a situation where there is only one predator, the state. Contemporary libertarians would say that this is still the case, but even so this represents progress. When we look at the bodies from early state societies, and consult the fragmentary records they kept, we find that many fewer people died by violence. The rates of death by violence in early state societies shade down into the tens per 100,000 per year, or a reduction of about 70-90%. This is a spectacular advance in human well-being, probably comparable to advances in medicine and nutrition in the last two centuries that have approximately doubled adult life expectancy. The cause of this reduction is that the state is at least a neutral third party in disputes between its members, and in fact normally has a positive interest in a peaceful resolution of disputes between them because citizens pay taxes and serve in the state’s army and thus any destruction that takes place between them weakens the state. So therefore, when the state takes over the dispute resolution process, it seeks positive-sum outcomes, in game theory terms. In addition, it can look dispassionately at a dispute, while the participants are likely to have personal biases in which they exaggerate the degree of harm they have suffered and minimize the degree of harm they have inflicted (the rapist who claims his victims enjoyed the experience, the robber who claims his theft was motivated by need and that he didn’t take anything the victim really needed, and so on).

Nonetheless, early states had what we would consider an unacceptably high level of inter-personal violence. For one thing, they were entirely unconstrained in their relations with one another and with people in non-state societies; the Hobbesian dynamic of predation-preemption-reputation still governed international relations. At the same time, the authority of the state was not absolute; early states were not true “Leviathans”. People still violently attacked each other in their private lives and there were political entities below the state that could engage in private war – warlords, knights and barons, religious communities, ethnic groups, and so on. Repressing this violence was the goal of the next revolution that Pinker discusses, the Civilizing Process. This was a process that started in the late Middle Ages in Europe with what’s called the Commercial Revolution of the High Middle Ages and spread quickly around the world thanks to the Pax Mongolica in Central Asia (which followed, it should be said, the deadliest genocide in human history in proportional terms, the expansion of the Mongol state across Central Asia) and then the Age of Exploration in Europe. It brought much of the world into commercial contact, allowing states to have a stronger inducement to peaceful relations and a motivation to understand each other’s perspectives in order to trade more successfully. In game theory terms, it increased the payoff for cooperation and at the same time allowed people to have higher confidence in their partner’s intention to cooperate. Within societies as well, expansion of trade gave citizens similar motivations with regard to each other. Increasing trade meant more powerful states since trade can be taxed. With more powerful states, political power increasingly came from influence at the king’s court instead of a retinue of warriors and an impenetrable castle wall. Influence at court meant behaving in a civilized way: no urinating in corridors, no knife-fights at the table, in fact, to prevent knife-fights at the table, don’t eat peas with your knife, and so forth. Good manners also meant a reduction in inter-personal violence. At the same time, a more powerful state was able to act as a more efficient Leviathan, crushing or coopting independent political entities such as nobles, religious communities, and ethnic minorities and prosecuting private violence more efficiently (remember, it is in the state’s interest to reduce private violence since dead people pay fewer taxes). Pinker uses the sorts of records I am familiar with from my own research – notarial and vital statistics records, criminal court dockets, wills and marriage contracts – to detail a further exponential decline in violence as the Civilizing Process took effect in different places at different times.

However, there was still plenty of violence even in the “civilized” societies of the 17th century. This was a time of extremely violent conflict between religious groups, both in Europe as a result of the Reformation and in the Muslim world’s conflict between Shi’a and Sunni. Europeans were violently conquering non-European peoples in the Americas and aiming at other groups in Asia and Africa as the balance of technological power shifted in their favor. Violence against subordinate groups in society – women, children, religious dissenters, and other excluded groups – was still rampant. This violence was largely addressed by the Humanitarian Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. One important milestone was the publication of the Italian humanist Cesare Beccaria’s protest against torture and capital punishment in 1764. Cruel torture of suspected criminals in order to force confessions was a staple of medieval and early modern law enforcement around the world, in Europe and beyond. Then, torture of convicted criminals, usually in public, was considered a normal and expected part of their punishment. Clean and quick executions, like that of Henry VIII’s wife Anne Boleyn, killed by decapitation with a single sword stroke, were considered merciful. Mostly, people convicted of crimes would die by some sort of torture: broken on the wheel (tied up to a wagon wheel and beaten with iron bars until all their limbs were broken, and then swung up into the air to die slowly), sawn in half (the merciful way was to start with the head), drawn and quartered (limbs tied to four horses, who would then be whipped to force them to run away, tearing the person into four pieces), burned at the stake, and so on. A lot of these gruesome killings were superstition killings, that is, people were killed not for any actual provable act but either because they professed heterodox religious notions or because they were suspected of secretly having those ideas – heretics, witches, “new Christians”, etcetera. Again, it should be pointed out, these were not exclusively European habits, similar stories exist in all states at this time. Witchcraft prosecutions took place in African kingdoms in the pre-colonial period (and witchcraft accusations still sometimes provoke popular violence in weak states today), the Chinese judicial system routinely tortured criminal suspects (though if the accused managed to refrain from confessing, the judge would suffer the same tortures he had inflicted), and in the Americas the great empires of Mesoamerica routinely tortured and sacrificed slaves from other cities to placate their gods and show their power. Similarly, excluded groups, when not cruelly slaughtered, were routinely used as slaves, as in the slavery of Africans in the Americas and South Asia. Cruel treatment of outsiders was taken as normal even if they were to be allowed their lives.

One excluded group that often escapes our attention is children. During this period and all prior ones, all societies saw high levels of infanticide. In some cases, infanticide was blatant, as in the case described in China Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. In other cases, it was covert and euphemistically described as “baby farming”, as in the case of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who fathered at least five children, consigning each of them to a hired (cheap) wet nurse who let all of them die of neglect. Of course, earlier civilizations exposed unwanted infants all the time: the hero-founders of Rome, Athens, and Persia were all supposedly exposed at birth and saved by the gods for their heroic destiny. In China, traditional midwives commonly had a bucket of water handy at the bedside to drown unwanted infants, typically girls. In Judaism in antiquity, a baby was not considered human until its eighth day of life when, if a boy, it should be circumcised and its father had the right to make a formal proclamation in the synagogue. Some religious groups established foundling hospitals to take care of abandoned babies, and sometimes children were lucky enough to survive such institutions though the recorded death tolls are staggering. Statistics in general are hard to come by since birth records for these societies are actually baptismal or naming records, and most children who are going to be victims of infanticide are not baptized first since religious authorities often look down on infanticide. Indirect demographic evidence suggests that something like a third of all births in early modern Europe were followed rapidly by the death of the child, and subsequent child mortality before age 5 brought the rate up over 50%. Some at least of those deaths must have been accidental, the result of death in childbirth, stillbirth, childhood diseases and so on. But it should be noted that in the contemporary developing world in populations that are not protected by childhood immunizations and suffer from occasional famines (but are protected by laws against infanticide) that rates of childhood mortality run in the 25% range, and there are actually very few deaths of newborns – newborns are protected by the immunological defenses of their mothers for some time after birth and death in childbirth is rare even without modern obstetrical methods. Unless the midwife tosses the baby into the handy bucket. In today’s world, about 25% of pregnancies end in abortion, which at least some of my readers will consider a violent killing of a living human being. We have very little evidence about abortion rates before the 20th century, though they certainly occurred. Traditional medicine all over the world includes special teas or physical procedures to “bring on a woman’s courses” if she has skipped a period. Moreover, even the most ardent opponent of abortion rights will concede that abortion is less morally reprehensible than infanticide, and today’s abortion rates are significantly lower than infanticide rates in early modern Europe. And, like other forms of violence, abortion rates have been declining worldwide over the last 30 years or so.

Within a century, from the 1750s to the 1850s, all these cruelties were banished from European society. Then Europeans went around the world in the late 19th century expanding their colonial rule in part with the justification that they were bringing “civilization” to “barbarous peoples” who were still doing what Europeans had stopped doing sometimes only a generation before (“take up the white man’s burden, send forth the best ye breed…your new-caught, sullen people, half-devil and half-child…”). Thus, Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1844, and in the 1890s kicked off a “scramble for Africa” in part in response to the detailed exposition of the horrors of the Indian Ocean slave trade by explorer David Livingstone. A good conscience is often the product of a short memory. Laws against infanticide were strictly enforced, and early 19th-century police records begin to note finding babies’ bodies floating in the Thames or lying in parks; they had become matters for the police instead of the trash collector. Again, Pinker uses statistical data, now even more reliable as the European governments got better at record-keeping, to detail a decline in private violence within European societies and uses anthropological data to explore similar declines in violence in territories brought under European colonial rule.

Pinker does point out that there were several notorious examples of gross violations of human rights by Europeans during their colonial expansion: the behavior of King Leopold’s “Congo Free State” and the German slaughter of the Hereros in today’s Namibia spring to mind. Important in this regard is that the Humanitarian Revolution also restrained the behavior of colonialists. King Leopold ultimately had to give up his personal rule over the Congo to the government of Belgium, which was not great but represented an improvement over the enormous level of violence inflicted by the Free State’s Force Publique, basically a sanctioned bandit gang. Germany’s attempted colonial expansion in Morocco was hindered by its poor reputation of mistreatment of colonial subjects. British colonial rulers in India found it impossible to use force effectively against the nationalist movement of Mohandas Gandhi because of humanitarian opposition from fellow Europeans. And in many places, imposition of colonial rule brought the Civilizing Process and the Humanitarian Revolution (and in some cases, even the Pacifying Process) to societies that had not yet fully experienced them, leading to dramatic declines in violence.

The late 19th century was a time of great optimism about the future of civilization, reductions in inter-state violence, and so on. The Industrial Revolution reinforced the peace-making effect of international trade. The great powers were all mutually inter-dependent economically. A common European culture, which increasingly included non-European industrialized countries such as Japan, the United States, and even middle class people in the colonial world such as Gandhi (who worked as a lawyer in Britain in his youth) meant that people could better understand each other’s motivations and perhaps thus avoid violent conflict. International movements for human rights like the resistance to Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo or the condemnation of anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia showed an increasing globalization of the idea of human rights. In other words, all the earlier revolutions were still having their effect; indeed, it seemed, those effects were magnified by the advance of modernity.

Then, everything seemingly fell apart. Europeans went to war in 1914 for purely Hobbesian reasons: countries either wanted something that other countries had – colonies, resources, land – they feared that other countries would take those things from them and so they needed to pre-empt any possible attack, or they wanted to preserve their reputations as great powers in order to deter attackers (this was especially true of Russia, which had just suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Far East against rising Japan). The fact that Germany’s and Britain’s economies were as tightly linked as those of any pair of countries on the planet did not deter Germany from invading Belgium, which it knew Britain was bound to defend, and did not deter Britain from declaring war in response (though the Brits did dither for a couple of days). All major European powers then fought a terrible war of attrition, expending enormously more than the value of any conceivable gain that they could obtain from even the most overwhelming victory. Victory for the Allies came in 1918, thanks to the intervention of the Americans (who advanced humanitarian motives for their decision to join the war). However, victory was as hollow as the rewards were small. European society was damaged, and in Germany and Russia more than anywhere else. In those two places, anti-modern ideologies took over – at least in Pinker’s re-telling of the story. Fascism appealed to pre-modern ideas of the people as ethnic community and called for enormous territorial expansion and the purification of the nation by excluding – ultimately killing – non-members of the ethnic group found in the newly-conquered territories. Communism foresaw a glorious global millennium of equality and justice and was prepared to sacrifice the lives even of loyal servants if they could advance the goal. Fascism fought history’s most destructive war against liberal capitalism, the ideology that embodied the fruits of the civilizing and humanitarian revolutions, and their reluctant allies the communists. Then, communists and liberal capitalists competed, but did not fight a great-power conflict. At the same time, the totalitarian ideologies engaged in a number of mass killings of civilians that beggar the imagination; most notably but not uniquely the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews.

The liberal capitalists won the 20th century struggle. The result of this victory was anything but hollow. The victory over fascism was followed by what Pinker calls the Long Peace. No two great powers have fought each other since 1945 unless you count China as a great power in 1950-53, the Korean War. Even if you do, that’s 63 years of great-power peace, an unprecedentedly long stretch. Never before in the modern state system has there been anything like it. In fact, you have to go back to the Pax Romana of the 1st-3rd centuries CE to find a similar epoch of world peace, and even then you would have to make some definitional arguments about Persian and Indian kingdoms. There were smaller international conflicts involving a single great power against a lesser power during the period 1953-2016, but Pinker points out with good statistical arguments that the violence level of those conflicts was decreasing throughout the period. The Korean War killed a proportion of the Korean population comparable to the proportion of Soviet citizens killed during World War Two (excluding the Stalinist genocides of the period). The Vietnam War had a similar effect, but was not so striking on a global scale since the damage was largely confined to the southern half of the country (though North Vietnamese citizens did die in bombing raids and many of their sons became battle casualties). The key to the reduction in violent death from warfare during the Long Peace was effective international organization. The Pacifying Process has at least begun at the international level, though it is far from complete and Hobbesian motives still govern international relations to some degree. The United Nations is a very flawed entity, but it serves to mobilize global public opinion against outbreaks of violence, reducing the potential reputational gain for an aggressor. The peacekeeping system again is flawed but the presence of even small numbers of poorly-armed peacekeepers permits combatants who are looking for an excuse to back down to do so without seeming weak or cowardly. The twin alliances of the Cold War, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, could have sparked a devastating global conflict, but actually appear to have limited conflict – no members of the two alliances ever came to blows against the other. Other international organizations helped magnify the effect of peaceful commerce, further increasing the payoff for cooperating. And the international organizations permitted hostile nations to encounter each other on neutral ground, increasing the ability to see the other’s perspective and thus strengthening each sides’ confidence in the others’ willingness to cooperate. From the dekamegadeath (tens of millions of deaths) of the First and Second World Wars, we descend an exponential set of stair steps, to the megadeath of Korea and Vietnam, the hundreds of thousands of dead in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion, to the tens of thousands in the Global War on Terror. That’s still tens of thousands too many, but war seems to be rapidly decreasing in destructiveness.

The New Peace is a term coined by Pinker to describe the end of the Cold War and the world that we have lived in since 1991. It might come as a surprise to Americans that, living as we do in the fifteenth year of America’s longest war, this has been an epoch of unsurpassed peacefulness, but Pinker makes the point. First, he makes the point that the Cold War did indeed end without (much) violence. When I was a kid, nobody anticipated this. I grew up filing into the hallway of my elementary school when the air raid alarm went off, kneeling and bending over facing the wall, and, as the old joke had it “kissing my ass goodbye.” All of us little kids had the impression that someday soon, the attack would be for real. I lived less than ten miles from the Pentagon and about three from CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia, so if there had been a nuclear attack my troubles would have been over. But nobody ever used a nuclear weapon after the American attacks on Japan in August, 1945. Some hotheads – Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay foremost among them – suggested at various times during the Cold War that we ought to uncork a nuke or two on the Koreans, the North Vietnamese, or whoever. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, unbeknownst to the US, the USSR’s ground troops on the island had tactical nuclear weapons and authorization to use them in case of an American invasion. In each case, cooler heads prevailed. In a classical Hobbesian reputational trap during the Cuban Missile Crisis – neither side could afford to be seen to show weakness by backing down – Kennedy and Khrushchev treated the situation as a challenge to escape from instead of a situation where they had to prove their masculinity. A couple of later crises, less well-known, had the same outcome: American and Russian leaders exercised good judgement and deescalated crises that might have led to nuclear war.

After the end of the Cold War, the lid came off a lot of smaller conflicts that had been frozen by the existence of the Cold War alliances. The Yugoslav Civil War and a number of conflicts in Africa were the result. These conflicts were, as previously described, circumscribed and palliated by international organizations. Ultimately, the civil wars died down and Africa and Asia are more peaceful today than they have ever been. Civil wars peaked during the 1990s and have declined by about half since then, and the casualty rate for civil wars and ethnic conflicts has also declined sharply since the end of World War 2. Inter-state conflicts have almost completely disappeared since 2001, with the only current examples being the frozen conflicts on the periphery of Russia and international interventions in civil wars in the Middle East.

And then, there’s the great global scourge of terrorism. As I have had occasion to point out in this blog on several occasions, terrorism is a relatively minor threat to any individual’s safety. I live in one of the cities targeted by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the dueling Islamist terrorist groups in West Africa along with Boko Haram, a subsidiary of the Islamic State. The AQIM terrorists killed 29 people in downtown Ouagadougou in January. About that many people died on the roads in Ouaga that month. Boko Haram has been considerably more bloodthirsty, with several atrocities taking dozens of lives this year in northern Nigeria and neighboring countries. A dramatic episode of mass murder attracts attention, but in terms of someone’s actual risk of death by violence, terrorists rank way down on the list compared to the threats in earlier periods. About 8,000 Americans have died in the War on Terror, counting those persons killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. This represents almost an order of magnitude less than the 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War, which in turn is almost an order of magnitude less than the 450,000 Americans who died in the Second World War. Globally, the toll is proportionately low: discounting deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which ought better to be classified as victims of civil wars, terrorism killed less than 0.1 people per 100,000 per year in the last decade, down from a peak of 0.23 per 100,000 in the mid-1980s. Deaths from terrorism constitute a tiny fraction of all deaths by violence even in our relatively violence-free modern world.

Genocide has also declined dramatically in scale: from tens of millions if you put Stalin and Hitler together, to hundreds of thousands up to the low millions for Pol Pot in the 70s and the Rwandans in the 90s, to tens of thousands for Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor, and the Islamic State. By the way, the term “genocide” was coined in the twentieth century specifically to describe the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis; the fact that the term was created then should not suggest that the thing did not exist before the twentieth century. Like the increasing police reports of dead babies in the 19th century, the fact that we’re talking about something instead of taking it for granted is a sign of progress, not decline.

Similarly, during this period, private killings fell, with a brief uptick between 1965 and 1980. Again, the pattern is global, seen in developing as well as developed countries, rich and poor countries alike. People are getting less violent towards each other. This will come as a great surprise to those who speak of “super-predators” in our cities – Hillary Clinton, for example – and to people who criticize parents’ decisions to let their children walk three blocks to school in American suburban neighborhoods. But the 1960s were much more dangerous for children in America than the 2000s, and the 1930s were more dangerous than the 1960s, especially for non-white children and the children of immigrants in urban slums.

The final historical epoch Pinker considers is what he calls the Rights Revolutions. Starting back about the end of the Humanitarian Revolution in the West, and arguably a continuation of its general principles, people began to agitate for equal rights for a variety of groups that had been considered naturally subordinate or excluded from the rights discourse of the 18th century. Women, non-white people, children, homosexuals, and even animals have had their rights movements. Some early successes can be noted: the abolition of slavery was one of the last great triumphs of the Humanitarian Revolution, women gained the right to vote in western countries in the early 20th century, but for the most part progress on these issues stalled from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. Then, after World War Two, there was a breakthrough on all these issues. Each movement fed on the others: civil rights for racial minorities, women’s rights, animal rights, gay rights. Attitudes towards these excluded groups have moved very sharply to the more liberal side. Today’s conservatives are where liberals were in 1945. Conservatives of 1945 were fine with all sorts of violence against these groups that would be considered completely unacceptable today even by the strictest member of the religious right. Almost nobody in the US today would argue that a husband cannot, by definition, rape his wife, while that was the law in most states two generations ago. Rape in general is a lot more commonly reported today, not because there is more rape but because police and courts are prepared to take women’s accusations seriously. Two generations ago, if the rapist didn’t beat his victim into submission, and if he wasn’t a complete stranger to her (and was the same race as she was), a conviction was essentially impossible and the legal system generally didn’t even try. Very few people in the western world today would argue that an employer should be allowed to fire a homosexual person just because of their orientation; when I joined the US Foreign Service in 1984, we were told that our agency, the US Information Agency, was denying security clearances (a condition of employment) to gay people and if any of us wanted to transfer to the State Department, which was more enlightened in those days of Reagan, they could go. I was interested to note that the gayest guy in our group elected to stay in the agency and in fact nobody made any trouble about his clearance. Pinker relates a story about an animal experiment he conducted, on orders from a professor, while a grad student in the 1980s, that resulted in the death of a lab rat after a night of electric shocks. His horror at this outcome was not shared by his professor, a noted behaviorist, who was somewhat unclear on the reality of human consciousness and was certainly not about to ascribe consciousness to mere rats.

The Rights Revolution is spreading world-wide as well, with strong changes in attitudes and laws in Europe, Asia, and South America. Africa and the Muslim world have lagged behind, but are under increasing pressure to follow suit. Africans, I can report, resent the pressure, especially with regards to gay rights, but increasingly realize that they have no choice but to conform to the global consensus if they want to go on having good relations with western countries.

In the next two chapters, Pinker tries to explain these developments. The explanation has to be exogenous; that is, you can’t fall into the circular logic of saying that people are less violent because society doesn’t tolerate violence like it used to. Pinker falls back on his training as a psychologist to explain much of these developments as the interaction of neural pathways that he describes as “inner demons” and “better angels”. I do not have the background in science to understand everything that he says, but the argument goes something like this: human brains have reactions built in that drive people to violent behavior and they also have circuits for cooperative behavior. In our contemporary world, evolutionary pressure is strengthening the “angels” and weakening the “demons”.

He starts out by deconstructing an idea I have always had trouble with, the concept of pure evil. When someone hijacks a plane full of people and crashes it into a building, or beats a child to death, or pumps poison gas into a “shower room” full of prisoners, we say to ourselves “that’s pure evil, that person has lost their humanity.” Pinker disagrees. Everybody has violent impulses. When we give into them, we justify our behavior in our minds. Even Darth Vader thought he was saving his family and bringing peace and order to the galaxy. Hitler thought he was saving the German people from an existential threat from Jewish subversion and advancing human evolution by ensuring the success of the master race. Mohammed Atta thought he was taking revenge on America for the humiliation and oppression of Muslims. This is not to say that we have to agree with their self-justification, just that we have to recognize that in so doing, they are using pathways in their brains that are common to all of us. Self-justification or self-deception is a powerful tool that we all use on occasion to permit us to use those “inner demons”.

The “demons” are three: seeking, fear/rage, and intermale dominance. The seeking circuit cues us to use violence to get things we need. Food, most obviously, in hunting, but it can also lead us to attack other humans in order to take what they have. Fear/rage, actually two linked systems, can trigger preemptive violence against a perceived threat, insensate rage at obstacles in satisfying the seeking circuit, and panicked flight. Intermale dominance is about favoring your genes for reproduction by competing with other men to demonstrate your reproductive fitness to women or to obtain sexual access to women through rape. These are the three causes of the “war of all against all” described by Hobbes. Women also respond well to the first two circuits it should be said, but although women compete with each other, as anybody who knows a teenaged girl can tell you, they use violence much less frequently than boys.

The “angels” are four: empathy or sympathetic concern for another’s well-being, self-control, morality or taboo, and reason. Pinker shows how each circuit has strengthened in the conditions of the modern world, and suggests, hesitantly, that some biological evolution might be going on predisposing people to behave more cooperatively by strengthening these pathways in the brain. He is clearest about the increase in human reasoning power: to the extent that IQ tests measure reasoning power, IQ test results have measurably increased over the last century and a half. There are quibbles – some IQ test questions were actually questions about cultural knowledge or language use, but most IQ tests use abstract reasoning tests with images instead of words, and these scores have increased dramatically. He also argues that the increase in human reasoning power has enabled humans to make better use of the “equality-matching” morality channel, which permits them to treat all people as moral entities instead of just the members of their tribe.

Pinker concludes by pointing out that violence has not disappeared and the trend in declining violence is not irreversible. The disasters of the first half of the twentieth century were certainly dramatic, out of keeping with the general trends, and just to say that something is unlikely is not to say that it is impossible. However, Pinker’s conclusion that reason has a good deal to do with declining rates of violence is reassuring.

This book is very deep and very long, kind of like this review. I am still thinking about connections to my experience here and no doubt some thoughts will come out later but I’ll leave this review as it is, especially since it is 11 pages long even after substantial chopping.


One thought on “Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Stephen Pinker

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