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The Better Angels of Our Nature

the_better_angels_coverThe Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Better Angels is his attempt to chart (and explain) the history of human violence more or less since records began. Pinker’s book is a fairly intimidating prospect at just under 900 pages, but then again it is a monstrously ambitious undertaking, and in fact it’s surprising that he manages to deal with the subject as comprehensively as he does.

The basic proposition is that violence of all kinds amongst humans has been in decline for a very long time. Pinker acknowledges that in absolute terms that hypothesis is plainly wrong, but argues that the statistic that really matters when looking at human violence is the relative chance of a person suffering a violent death at the hands of another person over the course of his or her lifetime. In other words, the question should be: would you rather have a 50% chance of dying a violent death over the course of your life, or a 5% chance? For Pinker, it is the rate of violent death that counts, not the total number of violent deaths at any given stage in history. Looked at in this way, the statistics presented in Better Angels show a clear downward trajectory in human violence across the ages, even when the atrocities of the 20th century (‘the bloodiest in history’) are taken into account. Interestingly, Pinker notes that the absolute death tolls of historical conflicts often tend to be underestimated, or at least not scrutinised in the same way as death tolls for modern wars. Apparently the Mongol conquests in the 13th century accounted for the deaths of around 40 million people.[1] Although that figure must clearly be open to challenge in a way that more recent statistics are not, it is uncontroversial that the Mongols systematically massacred the populations of the lands they conquered. For example, somewhere between 700,000 and 1.3 million people were killed by the Mongols in the city of Merv alone. As well as haggling over statistics, however, what Pinker is interested in doing is exposing the phenomenon of historical myopia that allows people to assess different periods of history through different lenses.

Having engaged in the argument surrounding his central hypothesis, Pinker then spends most of the book explaining what he thinks might be the causes of this long-term decline. He examines the Hobbesian ‘pacification process’ whereby fiefdoms were gradually replaced by kingdoms, thus suppressing localised violence as power came to be concentrated in a sovereign of some sort. He also looks at Norbert Elias’ theory of manners, the so-called ‘civilising process’, which posits that as centralised sovereign authority grew, so too did a system of courtly manners intended to minimise violence and pay homage to the monarch. The latter was in fact considered as part of David Mitchell’s BBC4 series on manners last month, which also featured an interview with Steven Pinker discussing the civilising process and its contribution to lower rates of intra-human violence.

Of all Pinker’s factors contributing to the reduction in violence over time, however, there is one that stands out for the purpose of this blog, and that is reading. In particular, Pinker argues that the revolution in printing, and the expansion in literacy, had the effect of widening people’s perspectives to the extent that they were no longer prepared to view strangers as less human and therefore less worthy of protection:

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. […] Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own.”

Pinker then goes further, and looks at the impact of different literary movements across the ages. He notes Lynn Hunt’s observation that the “heyday of the Humanitarian Revolution, the late 18th century, was also the heyday of the epistolary novel.” This was the time of Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses doesn’t get a mention for obvious reasons). This was followed by the rise of realism in the 19th century, which was perhaps more closely linked to political movements aimed at eradicating conflict. The causative effect of these literary trends on a global phenomenon like human violence is clearly impossible to know with certainty, but Pinker argues that the “ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century.”

Whether or not you agree with Pinker (and I think it is difficult to poke many holes in his overall thesis), Better Angels is a fascinating study of history and psychology that deserves to be read by anyone interested in knowing more about what drives people to be violent. The conclusions are overwhelming optimistic, particularly the view that human beings can moderate and control violence. It is not necessarily the inescapable demon that it often appears (and is made out) to be. However, what really sets the book apart is the neutrality of its tone. Whilst Pinker may be a self-confessed liberal, Better Angels is the work of a thoroughly empirical mind, hence the obsession with statistics (which require some effort to process if you are as statistically illiterate as I am, although Pinker suggests that most of us are). Pinker acknowledges this towards the end of the book, and apologises if he seems cold-hearted in the face of reams of statistics on death and destruction. However, he is undoubtedly right that violence does not often get examined with the objective tenacity required of the subject, which is perhaps why Better Angels seems like such a revolutionary tome.

The Editors

[1] Matthew White: “Worst Things People Have Done” (The Great Big Book of Horrible Things).

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