Nasty, Brutish, and Long

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In his enormous new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, psycholinguist turned best-selling popular-science writer Steven Pinker calls the drastic decline in violence in the modern era “the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.” But we’ve remained so fixated on daily reports of murder, repression, and insurrection, he tells us, that we’ve failed to note the larger trend behind them and forgotten the many millennia in which we condoned or celebrated brutal practices long since abandoned. “Readers of this book,” Pinker writes, in one of many catalogues of infamy that punctuate his triumphal survey, “no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery; divinely commanded genocide; lethal circuses and tournaments; punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs; decapitation for not bearing a son; disembowelment for having dated a royal; pistol duels to defend their honor; beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends; or the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself.”

Better Angels is Pinker’s way of sticking his thumb into the eye of historians and social scientists too fainthearted to call savages savage and barbarians barbaric or to ask “whether our recent ancestors can really be considered morally retarded.” Pinker asks this question and also answers it: “Yes.”

He is also not too fainthearted to call his own culture civilized. Educated people used to believe that the spread of science and reason would vanquish ignorance, parochialism, and superstition; that free trade would subdue the warlike impulses of nations; and that civilization would bring light to the barbaric peoples of the Earth. Then came the mechanized slaughter of the first half of the twentieth century, and humanists lost the nerve to make sweeping statements about the direction of history. It wasn’t so clear who were the barbarians and who the civilized when it was the nations of the West that built gas chambers and razed cities.

The Whiggish Victorian faith in progress, modernity, and reason seemed gone forever. But here comes Pinker, arriving on the other side of a century of genocide, in an age of jihad and disaster porn, armed with the work of a few dozen academic researchers. The problems of big-picture history can actually be solved, he insists, through quantitative reasoning that will render the ultimate verdict on modernity, the Enlightenment, science, reason, civilization, and progress. He has taken the old and long-ago-abandoned wine of Whig history and poured it into the new bottle of a satisfyingly hard, numerate science—a deliciously Victorian conceit.

Pinker makes his quantitative case with expository flair, deploying data on a dizzying series of philosophical questions and focusing not on absolute numbers but the chance of violent death at a given time. Who was right—Hobbes, who theorized the need for a Leviathan state to police human nature, or Rousseau, who saw mankind as intrinsically innocent and good and the state as a corrupting force? Well, the average annual rate of death in warfare for nonstate societies was 524 per 100,000, he estimates, and the annual rate of death in warfare in the twentieth century for Germany, with its much more pronounced state apparatus, came to 144—so much for the noble savage. Which is safer, a small-town life centered on church, tradition, and fear of God or the world of the big city under capitalism? The murder rate in fourteenth-century Oxford was 110 per 100,000 people per year; in mid-twentieth-century London, the rate was less than one homicide per 100,000. “When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire,” Pinker notes, “people guessed that twentieth-­century England was about 14 percent more violent than fourteenth-century England. In fact, it was 95 percent less violent.”

Pinker does more than try to prove that our own time is the safest in the history of the world. He also reframes the story of mankind as the triumph of empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason (the title’s “better angels of our nature”) over predation, revenge, dominance, sadism, and ideology (our “inner demons”). It’s a fashionably speculative story, built from scraps of insight into long-view human history, once the domain of political philosophy but now presided over by evolutionary psychologists and cognitive scientists. The angels and demons are components of our neural circuitry, Pinker writes; but certain social arrangements tip the balance from encouraging our demons to awakening our angels.

A government with a monopoly on force abolishes feuds and tribal skirmishes. Free trade replaces territorial rivalry with non-zero-sum cooperation, and our neighbor “becomes more valuable to us alive than dead.” The spread of literacy cultivates sympathy, even for those who would otherwise remain outside the expanding circle of moral regard. In a remarkably short span, Europeans abolish the slave trade and outlaw torture and public executions. We eschew popular entertainments like cat-burning and bearbaiting. Our IQ goes up, and our capacity for empathy, morality, and reason goes up with it. We enfranchise women, and their bolstered influence further undermines the code of masculine honor behind so many violent quarrels. Our abhorrence for violence is so intense we ban dodgeball. We stop spanking our children. We develop a regard for the moral worth of more categories of people and extend this regard even to animals. It is quite a story, and Pinker tells it ably. There are stimulating thoughts on nearly every page.

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.

The Better Angels of Our Nature
By Steven Pinker.
Viking, $40.

Nasty, Brutish, and Long