Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, starts with a modest claim: “This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.”
“Believe it or not,” he continues, “violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
Got your attention?
If you’ve glanced at a newspaper, cracked a history book, or spent just two minutes in front of the evening news lately, Pinker’s thesis probably seems a bit, well, nuts. He himself recognizes that it “invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger.”
Yet he has spent the past several years trying to prove it, drawing on historical data, cognitive science (his area of expertise), and research from social and evolutionary psychology.
The result is his 800-page tome, chock full of exhaustive citations and more than 100 graphs and other figures—all adding up to a largely persuasive, and often entertaining, argument challenging naysayers and doomsdayers everywhere.
Pinker, an eminent professor of psychology at Harvard, is no Pollyanna. The evidence he has assembled should convince even hardened skeptics that, despite much anecdotal evidence suggesting the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, we are actually in the midst of an extraordinary decline in aggression and brutality, a decline that is centuries in the making.
Among the glut of trends and statistics Pinker cites to make this case: The homicide rate across Western Europe has dropped dramatically over the last millennium, now standing at less than five percent of what it was in the Middle Ages. Rape, torture, and other brutal crimes are far less common—and, not coincidentally, far less socially accepted—around the world than they were a century ago. And while the last century has seen two incredibly bloody and tragic world wars, along with horrific genocides and terrorist attacks, people living in early hunter-gatherer societies had a far greater chance of dying in tribal warfare (around 15 percent) than people in the 20th century had of dying in wars or genocides (no more than three percent).
What all this adds up to, according to Pinker, is that humans today are far safer, with a much lower risk of being struck down by violence, than at just about any other moment in our history.
So why are so many of us are convinced that the exact opposite is true? For starters, Pinker identifies a few forces that have exaggerated the threat of violence. The media, in particular, leads us astray—not necessarily because blood boosts ratings (though that’s part of the problem) but because of the way powerful images interact with human cognition. Pinker explains:
The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute terms there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.
Perhaps even more significantly, he points to changes in attitudes toward violence. “The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead,” writes Pinker. A hate crime or the lethal injection of a murderer in Texas, he argues, is “pretty mild stuff” compared with the vast and indiscriminate violence that has plagued humans through much of our history. “But from a contemporary vantage point,” he writes, “we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.”
What accounts for these changes—in the prevalence of violence and in our attitudes toward violence alike?
Pinker devotes the heart of his book to answering these questions, and he breaks down his analysis into “six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces.”
If you can feel your eyes glazing over, take heart: It’s not all as complicated as it may seem. Those items are divided neatly across the book’s chapters. The six trends cover the considerable evidence—some of which I mentioned above—that human societies have become significantly less violent and more peaceful over the centuries. Some of this evidence demonstrates precipitous drops in violence (e.g., the number of lynchings per year in the United States), while some of it shows drastic changes in our attitudes toward violence (e.g., the steep decline in the number of movies per year in which animals are harmed).
The book’s chapters on our “inner demons” and “better angels” play to Pinker’s strengths in evolutionary psychology, exploring the human propensities for violence on the one hand and altruism on the other. Along the way, Pinker confronts questions that lie at the heart of his book (and of Greater Good as well): Are humans naturally peaceful or warlike? If violence has declined, is that a product of human biology or culture?
Pinker’s analysis exposes the faulty assumptions and false dichotomies behind these questions. He makes clear that our biology does not make us innately good or evil. The vast majority of us have the potential to act in either direction. How we behave often depends on external forces, ranging from the culture in which we’re born to the details of a particular circumstance.
Pinker argues that (for the most part) the radical changes in human behavior that he documents probably have not been caused by radical changes in human biology or cognition. Instead, the decline in violence has been fomented by bigger cultural and historical forces.
This does not mean culture (nurture) simply trumps biology (nature). Rather, it means our social environments have increasingly elicited the cooperate aspects of our nature rather than the belligerent ones.
The last chapter of the book traces the five historical forces that Pinker deems most responsible for pushing the world “in a peaceful direction”—the forces that have, over time, caused our inner demons (predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology) to be overpowered by our “better angels” (self-control, empathy, morality, and reason).
The rise of interconnection and interdependence among nations through commerce, for instance, gave them more to gain through peaceful cooperation than through war and competition. And the rise of literacy, urbanization, mobility, and access to mass media in the 19th and 20th centuries heightened people’s awareness of others different from themselves, attuning them to others’ suffering and fostering empathy.
Then there’s the rise of what philosopher Thomas Hobbs dubbed the “Leviathan,” which Pinker defines as a government that embodies the will of its people and has a “monopoly on force,” inflicting just punishments on individuals or groups that try to take the law into their own hands through revenge or intimidation. By Pinker’s account, the rise of stable nation-states has dramatically reduced the threat of persistent and senseless violence, as the penalties for harming others have come to outweigh the benefits.
“Inept governance,” he writes, “turns out to be among the biggest risk factors for civil war, and is perhaps the principal asset that distinguishes the violence-torn developing world from the more peaceful developed world.”
Similarly, Pinker shows throughout the book how the spread of democracy is linked to the decline of warfare. While he’s somewhat skeptical about the often-made claim that no two democracies have ever gone to war with one another, he does show how a country with a democratic government is far less likely to get into military disputes with others.
Of course, all of this raises many more questions about how, exactly, these historical forces came to be. While Pinker does address some of these questions over the course of his book, each of these forces easily merits its own book-length analysis. While Pinker’s argument for the origins and importance of each force is compelling, it feels like the start of a broader cultural conversation, not the final word.
What’s more, understanding “why violence has declined” in a global sense does not necessarily provide concrete strategies for bringing peace to the areas of the world where levels of violence are still disturbingly high, nor does it guarantee that rates of violence won’t flare up again. As Pinker explains, while the frequency of wars has declined, the number of people killed in each war has risen sharply Clearly, centuries of progress can be undone in an instant with the release of a single nuclear or biological weapon.
In some cases, some of the statistics Pinker presents—and his interpretations of them—are questionable. For instance, when he compares casualties from 20th century wars and genocides with those from tribal warfare thousands of years ago, the last century seems far less violence that we’d expect. But for this comparison to have complete integrity, it seems like Pinker should include all modern-day equivalents of early “tribal warfare,” from gang murders to killings linked to the international drug trade. The hunter-gatherers would still likely have more blood on their hands, but the difference might not seem quite so extreme.
Pinker is careful to note that his argument does not make it any easier to accept the hundreds of millions of lives that have already been lost through cruel and senseless violence. His book is best read as a source of optimism but not a cause for complacency.
Ultimately, though, in its scope and nuance, The Better Angles of Our Nature is a provocative gift to anyone interested in the study of human nature or concerned about making the world a (more) peaceful place—which means that it’s essential reading for any reader of Greater Good.