Better Angels of Our Natures, Why Violence has Declined

Guest Review by Kathy London

better -angelsI keep running into references to Steven Pinker’s book, so, even though it came out in 2011, I think it was worth a look today.

Pinker sets out to demonstrate that violence has decreased over history and continues to decrease today. Pinker views the decline of violence as one of the most significant and least appreciated developments in history. But he knows most people will refuse to believe it.

Because of preconceptions about violence in the past and today, Pinker must present lots of data – and the evidence is extensive. So this is a long (812 pages of text) and leisurely (84 pages of notes, plus references and index) book.

The book is full of stories as well as studies and statistics. Pinker says “if narratives without statistics are blind, statistics without narratives are empty”. Using sources from Shakespeare to the Bible to Saturday Night Live to word searches across 5 million digitized Google Books, Pinker shows how integrated into everyday life violence was in the past – slavery, rape, murder, feuds, wars, and torture. Europe in the Middle Ages seems especially horrific; enough to ruin any romantic vision of medieval knights.

Pinker is writing about a trend that spans millennia, starting well before written history. Can we learn anything about our pre-human ancestors from the behavior of apes today? Maybe. Lethal raiding among chimps is shockingly brutal.

Are human beings basically good or bad? Pinker presents extensive psychological evidence. This doesn’t seem, strictly speaking, necessary to prove his point on decreasing violence. Pinker feels probability and statistics are counter-intuitive, so you need to see this evidence in detail. He tells me more about power-law distributions than I really wanted to know. There are a lot of words on crime, deterrence, and how to test for reality – and Pinker admits the data present a rat’s nest of implications.

There was no idyllic past. Evidence piles up that hunter-gather societies, once considered peaceful, murdered a substantial percentage of their populations through raids, ambushes, and terrorism (including cannibalism).

With the rise of agriculture and states, a government monopoly on force to protect citizens replaced feuds and personal vengeance. While this was a significant step in reducing overall violence, governments committed mass violence against their citizens: torture, prison, execution, starvation, and slavery.

The Age of Reason and the Enlightenment brought many violent state institutions to an end, though tyranny and war between major states continued.

The Twentieth Century has often been labeled “the most violent century”. The first half was certainly a cascade of world and civil wars: a “hemoclysm”. But the second half of the century avoided war between major powers and led to the astonishing fizzling out of the Cold War. So what does the hemoclysm tell us about long-term trends? Nothing. 

To convince you, Pinker presents data from earlier wars and atrocities that killed more people than Twentieth Century wars. Of the 21 worst things people have ever done to each other, 15 were before World War I. If you rate atrocities by the percentage of the population killed, only one Twentieth Century war even makes the list: quite a surprise. (By the way, the Tang Dynasty rebellion is rated as the worst atrocity: in eight years the rebellion resulted in the loss of two thirds of China’s population – a sixth of the total world population at the time.)

Pinker concludes that five cultural developments decrease violence over time:

1 – State monopoly on force to protect citizens replaces feuds and personal vengeance.

2 – Gentle commerce makes it better to tolerate others than kill them.

3 – “Feminization” of society, or the moving away from “manly honor”. (Think of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr for manly honor.)

4 – Expanding sympathy for others from kin to tribe and beyond.

5 – Reason, with a broad trend towards self-control and orientation to the future.

Pinker doesn’t claim today’s violence is acceptable or even that the historical trend will continue. This offers little comfort to today’s victims of violence. But it offers perspective and hope. Pinker’s book is well worth the time it takes to read.

PS: Pinker continues to find hopeful trends. For data since WWII and mostly since 1970, see his article here.

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