And yet the desire to stimulate leads him often into polemic and hyperbole. In his zeal to engage an intramural feud with academic postmodernists, Pinker winds up demonstrating at exhaustive length what few really doubt—that it’s better to live in the developed West than in the ancient past—and overstates what this means. He credits us for feeling guilty about violating our prohibition against torture more than he faults us for doing it, and he fails to look deeply enough at how we succumbed to the temptation as soon as it became expedient. He goes on at length about how the murder rate doubled in the sixties because of a “decivilizing process” unleashed by the music of the Rolling Stones and the Who. This was the period when the American state waged a war in which roughly 850,000 Vietnamese citizens were killed.
And looking back at that list of obsolete nightmares, Pinker’s last entry remains highly incongruous. Life for the lucky inhabitants of the developed world is remarkably safe and gentle, it’s true. But nuclear weapons are still with us. They remain the poisoned fruit of our most advanced science. They were introduced at the end of the most destructive war in human history—55 million dead—and produced the instantaneous incineration of tens of thousands of civilians. Those numbers imply a different conclusion from Pinker’s: wariness rather than triumphalism.