2011, Books, Non-Fiction

The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) by Steven Pinker

If you watch the news today, you will be told the world is awful. Even if, like me, you do not have cable, you can still get enough news of the awfulness of the world from your antenna or the internet. The news is an endless barrage of controversy and tragedy; controversy over the supposedly awful things that people do to each other, and the tragedy of yet another series of deaths, caused by human beings or natural disasters. Even if you’re a bit of an optimist, as I am, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that the world is not a great place, both in general and particularly now.

I am an existentialist. When I tell people that, I get understanding, pretend understanding or outright confusion. But it simply means that I believe that existence precedes essence; that before human beings could determine what the essence of humanity is (or what the essence of an idea is), we had to exist; that human beings predate any perceived or actual essences we might believe we have discovered. This has a bunch of serious consequences, one of which is the conclusion that the vast majority of western philosophy is based on fundamentally flawed premises – particularly, that essence precedes existence, as it does in the philosophy of Plato, and numerous other philosophers. Existentialism brings with it a realism that has been attacked as nihilistic but which really just grounds one in the realities of the world. And one of the central ideas of existentialism, as I see it, is that progress is not a thing.

Of course, I don’t mean that technological progress isn’t possible. That would be such a stupid thing to believe. Technological progress is perhaps the most dominant feature of our lives. When I say existentialists do not believe in progress, I mean moral progress, or spiritual progress if you prefer. I believe in the idea that human beings do not change much, only our circumstances do. We know from social psychology that circumstances have a huge influence on our behaviour. Human beings don’t get better or worse, the circumstances around human beings affect human behaviour so that, in our eyes, it becomes better or worse – but usually both better and worse, in different areas, which something we fail to recognize, or don’t care to. There is no change in the fundamental, existential nature of human beings, just in our circumstances. This belief causes me to question lots of utopian or otherwise overly optimistic ideas popular with every new generation – the latest being that technology will save us from mortality – as well as the eternal idea – popular, perhaps, with the parents of the utopians – that this generation is The Worst Generation, and it was better in my day. People aren’t better or worse than they’ve ever been, it’s just the circumstances that have changed.

But I find this fundamental belief of mine completely, challenged by The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book that assembles a ton of historical statistics to compellingly argue that violence, of nearly every kind we can conceive of, has declined precipitously over the entire world. Even the parts of the world that are very violent right now are less violent than they once were. It’s the idea that this is the safest time to be alive, for nearly all of us. It’s an idea that intuitively makes sense on the one hand – I am aware of the Long Peace for example – but which also flies in the face of my belief that moral progress is impossible because, according to this book, it’s happened, even if it’s happened partially by accident.

It’s not that Pinker is challenging the idea of existence preceding essence; he certainly is not. But he is challenging the idea that there can be no such thing as moral progress. And this moral progress, if we can call a massive decline in human-on-human violence “progress,” is something that human beings have apparently brought about themselves, though this is, at least in part, somewhat accidental.

Through an absolute onslaught of statistics that I cam not capable of refuting, Pinker shows that interstate wars, civil wars, conflicts not big enough to be counted as wars, homicides and other violent crimes, and even seemingly insignificant violence like spousal and child abuse, have gone down everywhere they have been tracked. Everywhere. They haven’t all gone down to the same degree, and they haven’t all decreased constantly – there are blips here and there – but the amount of violence in the world per capita is the teeniest portion of what existed when we were tribal. He attributes this to a few things:

  • states tolerate less violence than tribes (which, if true, is a real problem for anarchists)
  • states get increasingly civilized over time
  • the Enlightenment forever altered the world from a place where all sorts of violence were tolerable, acceptable or even good to a place where violence was a last resort or an evil
  • modern military alliances and technology, far from making the world more dangerous, appear to have made the world more safe
  • the “global village” (for lack of a better word) has made us all more aware of the violence in other societies which has helped decrease it
  • various “rights revolutions” have forced recognition of victims of past violence, helping to decrease violence.

Some of these are more debatable than others – particularly the last one, which feels vary American-centric – but Pinker assembles a lot of information to show that, regardless of the why  -which I guess we could debate, if we wanted to – this is indeed happening. Even if Pinker is wrong about the why, and I don’t know that he is when it comes to his claims regarding “civilization,” the world is still the safest its ever been.

Added to the statistical evidence is a summary of the psychological and biological reasons why human beings might have slowly become less violent. These chapters draw from both evolutionary biology and neuro-psychology, resulting in a pretty compelling argument that human beings could indeed be “evolving” into less violent creatures because of the circumstances they themselves created (both purposely and by accident). So the argument isn’t just that violence has decreased, but that there are likely actual scientific reasons to believe that, provided our circumstances do not make us more violent later, this change could be long-lasting or even permanent (though Pinker himself doesn’t get that optimistic).

This flies in the face of nearly everything our culture tells us. This is how I like to think of it:

Say the world is a giant forest, with bits and pieces of isolated smaller forests, and the odd place with no forest at all. There’s been a few lightning strikes lately, and few solitary trees and some of the smaller forests are on fire, but most of the world is fine. But there are people on TV just screaming at all of us that the entire world is on fire. And many of their viewers take up the call, “The world is on fire!” And we listen to them. We say, “Yes, I think you’re right, the world is on fire” even though when we look out our window, we can’t see any fire, and if we could get a satellite view of all the forests of the earth, we would see only a very few fires. And we feel this way because the people on TV, many of our politicians and most of our peers are screaming that the world is on fire. We cannot see the forest for the trees.

There are so many consequences of the massive decrease in violence that I’d like to discuss, but I’ll just mention one because I am running out of time this morning. If violence isn’t the problem we think it is, we should be able to spend more times solving actual problems, right? Say, for example, the warming of the earth. Unfortunately, at the moment, most people think violence (whether it be war, crime, or something else) is far more of a problem than climate change.

I do have a prescription, I think.

First, read this book.

Second, stop watching the news. Seriously. Don’t watch the news until it stops being sensationalist (which will never happen, but I can hope…)

Third, don’t let your friends talk about how awful the world is. Refute them every time.

Maybe, one day, we’ll finally see what is actually happening and we’ll realize that we can now devote the energy we devote to fear of violence to other things. That’s rather utopian of me, I know. But when you see evidence of something like this, it’s hard not to get a little optimistic.

10/10 Absolutely mandatory reading.

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