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The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors’ way of life, but we are barely aware of them.

Whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep

The Better Angels of Our Nature has been on my reading list basically since it came out, but I finally decided to read it in a moment of despair after the recent presidential election. My plan was actually to read it over Thanksgiving break, but I wound up doing it in spurts over about three weeks. Better Angels is an impressive book, but I came out with much of my skepticism about the premise confirmed, now with ways to articulate these thoughts.

The core argument in Better Angels is simple: we are living in the most peaceful era of human history. All the trend lines concerning xxx-cide (and Pinker includes many) slope downward, despite jagged spikes for the World Wars. We might feel like the world is more dangerous because of saturated coverage of death, but the trends are clear. According to Pinker, this is something that he is (and we should be) optimistic about.

Pinker begins Better Angels by offering an avalanche of evidence for the violence of the world of yesteryear, including rape, torture, and killing. His argument, which is not wrong per se, is that once upon a time the world was much more violent than it is today. This violence includes, according to Pinker, both violence in terms of percentages of people who die from it and the societal acceptance of and revelry in this violence. Pinker then charts what he calls the “Pacification Process,” crediting (principally) civilization, the humanitarian and rights revolutions, and a Hobbesian Leviathan for curbing the worse angels of human nature. Ironically, these revolutions saw a decrease in violence at the same time as the technological capacity to kill people more efficiently has increased. Pinker also delves into the human mind, showing with science how both violence and non-violence are natural parts of the human condition and that both of those instincts can be conditioned. From the title of the book, it is clear which side Pinker believes is winning.

I don’t disagree with the broad premise of Better Angels, even though I think the use of percentages of the population for the trends overlooks that there are so many more people alive and thus that a larger raw number of people comes across as a smaller percentage. But I have three more substantive critiques of Better Angels:

  • First, the past is a more violent place than the modern world. Full stop. However, throughout Better Angels Pinker tends to pick evidence that supports his theory and sometimes skirts studies that do not. I had a gut feeling about this in the waves of scientific studies, but I saw it clearly in his description of the past. Yes, the past was more violent, but it seemed to me that he overstated the case, particularly when it came to the battlefield, where has been suggested that death was significantly less common than is frequently assumed. Moreover, some of the same features that he credits with reducing violence in the modern world also existed in the premodern world.
  • Second, I couldn’t help but wonder about the human capacity to harm one another in ways that don’t result in death and therefore don’t necessarily show up on the charts. For instance, working poor people to death and starving third world children in slave labor factories are not things that will appear on a list of homicide, but are equally awful. Perhaps there are other charts that show optimistic trends on these fronts as well, but I wonder if the depravity has just been moved rather than curbed. Similarly, can the reduction in percentages of death in combat be attributed not to a reduction in conflict, but in advances in medical technology so battlefield wounds are not fatal?
  • Third, Better Angels was written right at the start of the Arab Spring, and Pinker is optimistic about the future of these secular uprisings in support of democracy. How does this same picture look in Syria five years later?

Pinker’s hypothesis is cultural and social rather than relying on rational actors, except in one single way. Pinker argues that the technological advances that allow for the easy killing on a wide scale were so horrible that they deterred people from actually using these weapons, particularly nuclear weapons. This aversion then led to a long peace. But the human capacity for violence is muted, not eliminated, and the aversion to violence and using nuclear weapons requires leaders to be nauseated by the consequences of using the weapons. What happens when there is a rise of militant nationalism? What happens when there is a resurgence in pseudo-scientific beliefs about a hierarchy of races? What happens when people don’t remember the spikes of violence on a mass-scale during the holocaust? What happens when leaders don’t grasp the consequences of nuclear weapons or simply don’t care? What if this long-term trend turns out to be the anomaly?

I am less optimistic than Pinker. I have some hope because I accept his core argument as valid, but there are also warning signs baked into the this trend. Some of these, such as increasingly destructive weapons leading to an aversion to their use, Pinker accepts as causal, but I am not so sure.

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Since finishing Better Angels I have since finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next.