Monday, January 30, 2012

Pinker's "Better Angels": A Review

Steven Pinker's Better Angels of our Nature (2011) is one of the most reassuring books I have ever laid hands on.  I am recalibrated, pondering an important set of changes which have driven humanity into a state of peace – relative peace, at least.  He’s convinced me that despite how it might seem violence has declined dramatically throughout the world, at most every geographic scale, in every sort of time period, for just about every type of violence, based on evidence I don’t doubt and for reasons I can understand.

That is really quite a claim, as popular wisdom says the past was a time of peace, tranquility, and safety; and that we live today in a heightened threat of violence.  It is so nice to learn, based on a great deal of evidence and analysis, that he opposite appears to be true: we live in peaceful times.

In the first seven long chapters -- half of the book -- he delivers the data and the historical record: dozens and dozens of line graphs drifting or shuddering downward – many quite sharply.  These are for homicide rates, judicial torture, execution, frequency and duration of wars, military servitude, length of conscription, average number of deaths in wars, legality of slavery, capital punishment for non-murder crimes, genocides, death rates from terrorism, rape, domestic violence and homicides by intimate partners, abortions, approval of spanking, wife abuse, child abuse, school fights, bullying, intimidation of homosexuals, animal cruelty, hunting, and more.

The trends have blips and periods of relapse but the message is clear – abundantly clear.  In the long sweep of history, and especially since WWII, we don’t only live in good times, they have gotten better and better.

It’s not just that it’s less dangerous now as we tend to believe, but it was much, much, worse in the past:  Through the middle ages people tortured animals for fun, but when it came to humans they were simply merciless.  Maybe 19 million people were executed for trivial offenses, like criticizing the royal garden, cutting down a tree or stealing a rabbit.  Between  60-100,000 “witches” were tortured and killed in France and Germany alone.  What’s more, sadism appears to have been an art form and a public spectacle judging from the ingenious instruments and number of times they were used -- 1.2 million tortured and killed by the Aztecs alone in less than 100 years. It made my skin crawl to read how many were killed, for what insignificant reasons, how casually, and with what devious methods, and before such callous and amused crowds. 

Homicides have fallen too, though these still outnumber war deaths.  hen it comes to war, the record is less clear, with more spikes and what at time seems a statistical jiggering to find trends.  But then, how do you measure war death -- should it include famine caused by war, should it me measured in numbers or a portion of the population -- or the combatants -- killed.  Or the number or duration of wars, for that matter.  Given Pinker's analysis, there is reason for optimism, it seems.

Given everything from animal cruelty to nuclear disarmament, I was convinced of the overall trend toward non-violence.  And as always I have to admire Pinker’s thoroughness with the evidence and explanation.

But the best part o the book is the second half, where he examines the changing psychology of violence in earnest.  I’ll mention just a few insights that struck me.  

One major change appears to have occurred when feudalism/tribalism gave over to what he calls the Leviathan – the state (initially, often a monarchy -- though democracies are much more peaceful and, by the way on the rise).  Where there had been fear, mistrust, preemptive attacks, retribution, vengeance, and raids against neighbors, a state-run judicial system and police force were in place.  Crimes which had been committed against a neighbor (and his survivors) became a crime against the state.  There was justice. And violence fell.  

There is a psychological shift at this time as well.  Without a state system, one's personal reputation -- one's "honor" -- had to be defended, often fiercely.  But in a state system, appealing to officials became more profitable than fighting with neighbors.  "Warriors became courtiers," as the feudal territories became centralized kingdoms.  This is what Pinker calls the Civilizing Process.  And violence declines.

Another major force for change was the rise of commerce and specialization --the positive sum game of trade.  The well-being of others was suddenly recognized as being in one’s own interest.  A third force was what the growth of science and reason, the “Humanitarian Revolution,” with its impact on empathy, and the expansion of consciousness which routed slavery, opposed animal cruelty, and increased protection and rights of women, children, homosexuals, foreigners, and so on. This is all great stuff.

Pinker’s last chapters tweak the Prisoner's Dilemma (see my blog Morality #3); he calls it the Pacifist’s Dilemma and shows how governments can coax players to the positive-sum top left cell.  I’ve scanned one of his graphs (government influence) to show how this works.  By imposing penalties on various outcomes (e.g., international sanctions to an aggressor state, represented by the -15 in diagonal boxes), governments can arrange things so cooperation (top lefe, the best choice overall) is also the best choice for individual states.  This is true at the community level as well, of course.  The penalties for armed robbery, when added to whatever is stolen, makes jumping passersby too costly.  One armed robber holding up another (bottom right) ends badly for both, that's why it's rarely done I guess.  Pinker shows how social stigma, commerce,  and even empathy all usher players to the top left square.

Pinker’s prose is clear, rich, and intellectually entertaining but if you look closely, it’s also very methodical.  What are the 6 causes of violent behavior?  How do the 3 moral frameworks affect one’s behavior toward others?  How are sacred values treated within each framework?  What are the 6 ways in which self control is modulated?  So many lists, I found myself writing “SEVEN LINKS BETWEEN REASONING AND PEACE,”: “FOUR MOTIVES FOR SADISM,” and so on, in the margins.

I don’t mind that; I like the structure.  And I do love my 4 “better angels:” empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason.  Believe me, each gets full treatment.  I'll add that the book makes an excellent case that things have gotten better, it doesn't claim to predict the future and there are new dangers, surely. But even in the psychology of nuclear threats and interstate animosity, he finds some positive signs.

In the end of it I do have several regrets.  One is that I only scratch the surface with this review.  Second, Pinker only describes the past and present -- he doesn't predict the future.  He also does suggest that many trends in culture, economy, and politics may make for a better world.  But when he mentions Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the section "Where Angels Fear to Tread," I felt a chill.  My third concern is that the book is so long – 700 pages, plus notes, references, and index – that it may be discouraging to the casual reader, who would stand to gain so much.  But please believe me: pound for pound, dollar for dollar, minute for minute -- if you care about people -- you can hardly do better than by reading this book.  

So here's my advice: buy it, tear it in thirds if you must, but be prepared to have your world view overhauled and reassembled. If you’re like me, it’ll be a nice relief. 

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