Monday, March 04, 2013

Book report: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

Book report: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

This book makes the unbelievable claim that violence has declined in the world and that we are, in fact, living in the least violent time in human history. What?! Is he crazy? Come on, pal! Watch the news for an hour – with school shootings and terrorists and serial killers and abusive boyfriends – and then tell me what you think!

And that’s actually one of the issues he talks about. What we see on the news is the unusual, the uncommon, the unlikely. If you look at the statistics – and believe me, he looks at the statistics – by practically every measure of violence, there is a steady downward trend in time. A couple hundred years ago, you were 30 times as likely to be murdered – yeah, murdered – as you are today.

One of the very interesting things he does is to talk about some of the kinds of violence that used to be very common, but that we almost never see any more. Flogging. Public executions. Dueling. Slavery. Debtors’ prison. Human sacrifice. Torture. Witch burning. Infanticide. Vivisection. Corporal punishment. Bear-baiting. Cat burning. All of these kinds of violence and more that used to be everyday occurrences have just gone away.

He also talks about violence on the large scale: wars and genocides. I know what you’re thinking: World War 2 and the Holocaust. Strangely, these aren’t the worst human catastrophes that have ever happened in history, and especially not if you go by the world population at the time of occurrence. It turns out that the occurrence of wars follows what is mathematically called a power law: the worse the war, the more unlikely it is. This is good news: it means that terrible wars like WW1 and WW2 are extremely unlikely. Also, it turns out that there is no evidence that war is periodic. This is also good news. For a long time, people thought that wars every generation or so were inevitable, to blow off steam or something. That’s not true. World War 3, originally scheduled for 1964, never happened, and still hasn’t.

This is both a hard book to read, and an easy book to read. It’s hard to read because it’s very long (832 pages in paperback), and because it necessarily has a lot of discussion of violence of all kinds. I had to put it aside at various points because it got to be too much to take in. On the other hand, it’s easy to read because the bottom line is a collection of good news, plus he’s a terrific writer, very clever and witty and laugh-out-loud funny in spots. And he goes into many different aspects – psychological, religious, historical, medical, political, literary, statistical, military, philosophical, cultural, scientific – of the subject. There’s something for everybody here.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the reasons WHY all this violence has been going down. One major reason is the transition thousands of years ago from hunting societies to village/town/city societies: people have to act much better to each other in such close situations. Another reason is the rise of competent governments and police forces: if governments do their job with any kind of fairness, people also tend to treat each other better.

But perhaps the most fascinating reason, and the largest contributor to all the most recent decreases in violence, has to do with methods of communication, starting with the invention of the printing press around 1500. By making it possible for people to read about – and experience at second-hand – the lives and challenges of other people, even fictional people, such communication helps us to sympathize with others, and makes violence repugnant to us. One example is the effect that Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on slavery in the US, for example.

This process continues, and increases, with each new form of communication that comes along. With the telegraph, people could get news from distant places very quickly, and feel concern about disasters affecting people half a world away. Same with radio and movies beginning in the 20s and 30s. TV, starting in the 50s and 60s, has been an immense influence. It’s one thing to hear about racial intolerance or war in a detached way: it’s something else to see fire hoses turned on peaceful demonstrators or soldiers being shot at live on TV. The Internet has accelerated this even further. We now receive, instantaneously, news from everywhere on earth. As we do, violence in any form becomes less and less tolerable.

It’s interesting to note that, the more people are aware of violence or injustice, the more they are against it. People mostly identify with the victims of violence and injustice, rarely with the perpetrators. It seems like this is some fundamental part of the way humans are wired, part of our brains. If so, it’s certainly a hopeful fact, and may be what ultimately saves us from doing ourselves in.

I can’t help but pass along some of the interesting facts he points out. For example, terrorism against civilians has NEVER achieved its stated goals. Never. Not once. So, whatever terrorists are getting out of what they do, it’s not success.

Here’s another: Why is eating peas with your knife against etiquette? Well, hundreds of years ago, everyone carried daggers. Not surprisingly, there were lots of knife fights, stabbings, and murders by dagger. Shakespeare is full of them. Then a book of etiquette came out that suggested that hosts should provide knives at the dinner table, and guests should leave their daggers home. It became uncouth to do anything with a knife except cut food. Knifings and murders plummeted. (Turns out daggers DO kill people.)

And another: We have an innate brain mechanism for self-control. But it can become fatigued if we need to exercise it too much. Like, a day of using self-control at work can leave us grouchy at night. But we can also practice self-control in order to increase our capacity.

And this: American counties that lie along coasts or waterways are more liberal.

And this final gem: No two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war.

Astonishingly, this book helps us to answer some of the Big Questions in life. For example, is the world getting better, worse, or staying the same? Well, as far as violence goes, it’s getting better all the time.

How about: are people inherently good, evil, or neutral? If you think of the human mind as a machine, we all definitely have the circuitry to do evil to our fellow humans in the “right” circumstances. However, we also have the circuitry to appreciate the suffering of our fellow humans, as well as to forgive wrongs in order to end cycles of revenge. I think the combination of the two goods outweighs the one evil.

Finally, are we done yet? No. Clearly, there is still violence in the world, from the suffering of one person to the suffering of millions. But the good news is that the evidence shows that we really can make a difference in reducing violence. It’s not something we have to simply endure forever.

Reading this book was good for me, because it helps me to put what I see in the world in perspective. When I hear about the terrible things that people do to each other, I still feel horror and sympathy, but I don’t have to think that it’s evidence that the world is getting worse. I know it isn’t. What we see are the aberrations in long-term downward trends.

Highly recommended


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