Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Stephen Pinker

Penguin/Viking, ISBN 9780670022953, October 2011

This is a fascinating book, and many people will be surprised by what Pinker has to say. We routinely tell ourselves that we live in a violent world, that for all the comforts of civilization wars are more common, more terrible, and more fatal to non-combatants. Anyone who follows the news can cite examples of terrible atrocities that are the basis of our certainty that the human race is demonstrating a destructiveness and depravity towards other human beings unknown in the simpler, gentler past when knights and armsmen fought other knights and armsmen, leaving the civilians largely undisturbed.

Stephen Pinker explains, with examples, details, and cites to original sources and current research, that we have it all wrong, and the past was a far more violent place than we typically imagine, or than we experience day to day in all but the most violent places on Earth now. And those "most violent places" aren't our modern cities in developed countries.

He examines the levels of violence and the rates of violent death in primitive human hunter-gatherer communities, mediaeval Europe, and modern hunter-gatherer societies. He mines information from physical anthropology, historical records, recorded causes of death, death rates and causes of death in modern hunter-gatherer communities, and the trend is both clear and quite different from what our reflexive biases often tell us. Hunter-gatherer cultures generally have startlingly, even shockingly, high rates of death by violence. This stems from raids and conflicts with neighboring groups, the need to have a reputation for being too strong to attack and/or likely to take revenge if attacked, and other conflicts that, in the absence of a functioning government, individuals have to prevent or resolve for themselves.

He traces the significantly lower but still high rates of violence in early agricultural settlements, as government begins to evolve but is still, itself, pretty violent, and then the evolution of things that start to resemble the modern state. We are introduced to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and how their theories both described and influenced the growth of government, Hobbes' "Leviathan," and the concomitant increase in self-control and decrease in private violence. He describes in enough detail to make the point the behavior that resulted from the expectation that mediaeval armies would feed and pay themselves by "living off the land," i.e., raiding villagers, and damage the enemy's wealth by burning the fields and killing the villagers. Torture was also used routinely, openly--and often as a form of public entertainment.

Fewer mediaeval Europeans were likely to die by violence than hunter-gatherers, but it was still a shockingly violent time by modern standards.

Pinker marshals evidence from the fields of sociology and psychology as we move closer to our own time, as well as crime statistics, war records, causes of death, etc. He does not shirk examining the effects of the two World Wars in the past century, as well as civil wars, the Rwanda genocide, and other painful modern episodes.

He also looks at less obvious declines in violence, such as hookless fly fishing and the elimination of many kinds of "entertainment" that used to be taken for granted. The banning of dodgeball by some schools and summer camps, and speech codes at universities are discussed as ridiculous extremes that are nevertheless simple overshoots of what are generally beneficial trends.

Stephen Pinker has a track record of excellent books using psychology and sociology to examine major aspects of modern life in an interesting, informative, and enlightening way. He's done it again, and in this volume lays out a powerful case that the growth of effective government, the development of political forms that placed a premium on self-control, the growth of modern literature (and, eventually, movies, tv, and the internet), democracy, open societies, and international trade have all contributed to dramatically lowering rates of violence and creating a startlingly safe and peaceful world--for now. He makes no claim that we've changed human nature, or that the trends that have produced our current peacefulness could not be reversed.

This a compelling, enlightening, and highly readable book.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.