Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker

“The world is just getting worse and worse. More violent, more evil. Things are just going to heck!”

This truism is pretty generally accepted. Particularly in Christian circles, but also as a general rule.

But is the world really getting worse?

In order to answer that question, one must first decide what standard of measurement one is going to use.

So, let’s pick “violence” and use that as a measuring stick.

Everyone seems to agree that the world is more violent and dangerous than it used to be. But is that true? In some ways, this seems a lot like the consensus that Iraq housed vast stores of Weapons of Mass Destruction (add as many scare quotes as you want). And, like that consensus, it turns out that there really isn’t evidence of increasing violence at all.

In fact, as Steven Pinker shows, using a wide range of types of violence and an avalanche of thoroughly researched evidence, the opposite is true:

Violence has decreased by many orders of magnitude both over the course of recorded history, and in the last few centuries, and even in the 20th Century itself.

The age that we live in any reasonable doubt, the safest in the history of mankind, by any measure you choose to use.

What types of violence does Pinker examine in this book? Pretty much the whole gamut of human violence. After all, if human history shows anything, it is that humans are a brutal and bloody race, given to a sickening amount of sadism and cruelty.

So, as examples of violence, Pinker examines the big one: warfare, but also some others we tend to forget that also have high body counts: the violence of government against citizens (Stalin’s purges were nothing new. They have always been a characteristic of despotism), murders, rapes, domestic violence, infanticide, and cruelty to animals. All, without exception, have undergone substantial declines in both the long and short term.

Let’s take warfare as a quick example. For both ancient and modern hunter-gatherer societies, between 15 and 20 percent of all deaths are from warfare. If you take the worst periods in the last 500 years, you would find far lower rates. The 17th Century’s endless religious wars still killed only 2%. The first half of the 20th killed only 3%, despite the devastating weaponry available. If you add the whole century together, the 20th was far below that, as deaths have been well below 1% for the second half. And that’s worldwide, not just in the Western world.

Even with large cataclysms like World War II and the purges by Stalin, Mao, and others; the death toll from past wars are even higher, once you adjust for world population. Simply put, a single murder in a town of 100 is a far higher rate than 100 murders in a town of 100,000. As in, 10 times as high.

World War II had the highest raw death numbers of any conflict in history. (About 55 million, counting disease and starvation.) Mao’s famine was next. Guess which one was next? The Mongol Conquests of the 13th Century. (40 million deaths.)

And that’s in raw numbers. If you adjust for worldwide population, any guess which conflict was worst?

The An Lushan Revolt in China. 8th Century. Ever heard of it? Me neither. It killed 36 million people. (Fourth in terms of raw numbers.) If you adjust for the population of the world (the whole world, not just China) to the 1940s, the toll would work out to 429 million deaths. Holy cannoli!

The An Lushan Revolt:
 "We killed 36 million people, and yet nobody has heard of us, so you had to use a picture of the Taiping Rebellion ("only" 20 million deaths)."

There are some other gems in there too. After adjustment, number two is the Mongol conquests.

Number three is the Middle East slave trade, which predated the African slave trade (number 8 on the adjusted list with 18 million deaths - adjusted to 83 million).

The genocide of Native Americans (North, Central, and South America) is generally believed to have eliminated at least 20 million. (Some estimates are as high as 100 million.) Even using the lower number, this would put it at an adjusted number of 92 million, good for number seven on both the raw number and the adjusted list. Even more ghastly, at least 80 percent of the Native American population died as a result of contact with the Europeans - mostly due to disease, some of which was intentionally inflicted on them. That’s an astounding casualty rate which few other large-scale conflicts have come close to equaling.

On an adjusted basis, the 30 Years War in Europe would have killed 32 million in 1940. That’s more than twice that of World War I.

These are just the big wars. Smaller conflicts also killed millions, and they were more common and constant in the past, raising death tolls higher.

The statistics hold true for the other kinds of violence as well. Some have held up the Middle Ages as the paragon of knightly virtue and the last golden age. Well, the truth is a bit less pleasant, as the knights were little better (if at all) than modern street gangs, and the murder rate was 30 times as high as now. No matter where you look, violence was much, much higher, and has declined. And it continues to decline.

So much for the world getting worse. If you measure it by violence, the opposite appears to be true.

So why do we tend to believe the opposite? Well, for one thing, we tend to forget the evils of the past, remembering only the legend. (In other words, Mark Antony’s speech was exactly backwards…) As Frank Kermode pointed out in The Sense of an Ending, the belief in a golden age of the past, and a coming apocalypse followed by a utopia, seems to be a universal human belief, and it colors our perception of the present.

There is a bit more to it, in my opinion, when it comes to the specific beliefs about this in American Christianity, but that is beyond the scope of this post. Cross my fingers that I have time to do a follow up on just that issue. I’ll just say for now that “evil” isn’t spelled V-I-O-L-E-N-C-E, but with a little three letter word instead.

After spending a good bit of time going through the statistics, Pinker spends some considerable pages exploring why violence has declined.

This part is quite interesting, because Pinker makes some excellent points about the external factors leading to a decline. (For the most part, Pinker seeks externals, because otherwise the logic gets circular: “humans got less violent because they decided to get less violent.”)

The first major external, in Pinker’s view, was the rise of government. It turns out, in an interesting development, that Thomas Hobbes was right. (The process was described in Leviathan.) Before government, law enforcement was by revenge. We tend to think of the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye,” as a bit barbaric. As Ghandi noted, it only makes the whole world blind. But, before that principle of proportionality, justice was more along the lines of Lamech, who boasted, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.” Violence escalates, and before you know it, you have an honor feud on your hands.

As Hobbes explained, the way to stop the cycle is to have a neutral third party administer justice. The state gets a monopoly on violence, and uses it to mete out proportional punishment to wrongdoers, rather than letting the parties or their families exact revenge. As a lawyer, this is something we understand. Neither party is typically fully satisfied after a case, but neither has a right to exact further punishment after the law has spoken. Thus, individual and tribal violence can be reduced by this means.

But what about warfare between governments?

The next civilizing force was explained by Kant, who proposed a mechanism which would prove quite prophetic. In Kant’s view, there were three elements which would eventually lead to peace between nations. First is democracy. It should perhaps, by now, be accepted without questioning that dictatorship leads to war. There is nothing worse than an egoist who gets to aggrandize himself by sacrificing his people to his glory. In a democracy (or more accurately, representative government), there are too many stakeholders to engage in war - particularly total war - without some reflection. Now, in practice, democracy alone isn’t enough, at least when only one party to a conflict is democratic. It takes two to play, shall we say. That said, it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that modern democratic nations do not tend to attack each other.

Kant identified two additional factors, however, that solidify the peace. The next factor is trade. Unlike war for plunder, land, or resources, which is at best a zero-sum game, trade can be a positive-sum game. Each party can end up better off than they were before. Plus, each side then has more to lose from loss of trade than they have to gain by a war. Perhaps the best modern example of this is Japan, which has gained much from the change in approach from warfare to trade. At this point, anyone who worries about the United States and Japan renewing hostilities is probably under the influence of controlled substances. Each side would be utterly insane to throw away the mutual benefits.

The final piece, for Kant, was international organizations. The United Nations is probably not the best example of this, but it is one piece. Essentially, since a world government is neither likely nor entirely advisable - too much concentrated power - these organizations operate not so much by force, as by social pressure. “Peacekeeping” forces in most cases aren’t there so much to shoot people as to provide observers - and evidence if someone does something bad. International organizations are not effective against rogue states such as, say, North Korea. But they can be a formidable force against a nation who wishes to have the respect of the international community.

The next modern force was that of the human rights movements, which changed the way that we think about violence. You had better have a strong stomach to read certain sections of this book. We tend to forget that crucifixion wasn’t some unique punishment that Christ suffered. It was widespread and mundane. These sorts of things didn’t end with the fall of the Roman Empire either. Who really remembers what “breaking him on the wheel” actually means?  Or “drawn and quartered”?  These things are in our vocabulary as hyperbole, but they used to be commonplace. And not just commonplace - but celebrated forms of public entertainment.

Every bit as telling was the casual torture of animals for sport. Familiar with “cat burning”? Put a cat in a cage, and very slowly lower it over the fire while savoring its screams. Yup. The past was just so glorious, wasn’t it?

Pinker says what I have been saying for years, which is that the Enlightenment was, on balance, one of the greatest things ever to happen in the history of the world, and changed the way we think about violence more than any other factor.

Let me list the ideas that we now take for granted: 1. Skepticism. We should question institutions, dogma, superstition, and authority. We have been wrong before. A lot. And we may be wrong now. Find reasons for things, not just “this is the way we have always done it.” Modern science depends upon this axiom. 2. Reason. It is a good thing that we generally try to reason through things. And not just that. We assume that other people can reason too, and thus try to resolve disagreements through reasoning, not slaughter of others. Even if you think lawyers are a plague on mankind, we are much better than trial by battle or revenge killings. 3. Morality based on mutuality, rather than taboo. Or, as one might put it, a change from honor culture and witch burnings to “Do unto others.” (Hey, that sounds familiar…) 4. Violence is to be used only to the extent necessary to prevent greater violence, not for its own sake. The concept of a “just war” is very modern, let us not forget. 5. A legitimate goal of government and society is to allow humans to flourish. Not to provide a king with glory and wealth. Not to further an ideology. We may disagree with the specifics, but much of the world now agrees with this concept of government - of the people, by the people, for the people. This was once a revolutionary concept.

One more that could be mentioned, is a shift from a view that violence is a contest to be won to the idea that violence is a problem to be solved. And, in many cases, the problem looks like one of Game Theory, where changing the incentives and encouraging cooperation tends to change the results.

There is too little space in one review to go through all the facts that are presented, but they are overwhelming. Pinker thoroughly documents his claims (while I didn’t check all of the several thousand references, I did check some of the ones that seemed the least intuitive), and they give the lie to any pretence that mankind was better in the past. If anything, the fact that the atrocities of the recent past bother us at all is proof that we have changed in our thinking about violence.

As the author puts it:

“The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human rights almost incoherent. Genocide and war crimes were absent from the [official] historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.”

The discussion of the past is only the first part of the book, which runs nearly 700 pages. Pinker’s weakness is in his tendency to try to flesh out every related issue as he goes, so there are a number of rabbit trails. (I sympathize with him, as I tend to do the same thing on my blog, if on a smaller scale.) This weakness is also a strength, however, in the sense that he doesn’t leave much of his argument to other sources, but brings in enough so that the reader can understand the background.

Pinker spends a good bit of time on the causes of the decline in violence. I’ve hit on some highlights, but there is a lot more, and he makes a convincing case on most of his points. (The weakest one, in my opinion, is when he tried to tie the small bump in crime in the 1970s and 1980s to the 1960s, which seemed to violate his rule about looking for external causes, not internal ones.) As with most things, it is harder to see the big picture as one looks at the more recent past. Thus, the argument is most convincing for changes which occurred at least 50 years ago.

He also discusses the inner demons that drive violence. Some of these are easy to understand: predation (greed), dominance (pride), revenge. Others are a better argument for the existence of evil as an abstract “thing.” Sadism - the enjoyment of causing pain in others with no benefit to one’s self - is so pointless as to defy easy explanation. Why would one want to torture a cat to death, for example? But that demon dwells in the human race in one degree or another. Even in me, when I am honest, even though I don’t act on it.

The counterparts to the demons are the angels. Some of these should look very familiar to us. We can find them (among other places) in the teachings of Christ. Empathy. Self Control. Reason rather than superstition. (One might say, a sound mind rather than fear…) These have indeed served to reduce violence, and are tools that can serve us in the fight to rid the world of evil.

There are so many good lines in this book. I am probably going to put it on my purchase list just so I can have it handy for information and refuting arguments against modernity. I took a couple pages of notes, but I will try to limit myself to a reasonable number.

On modern monarchs:

“Today, the British royal family is excoriated for shortcomings ranging from rudeness to infidelity. You’d think people would give them credit for not having had a single relative decapitated, nor a single rival drawn and quartered.”

Quoting the reliably witty Dorothy Sayers:

“The idea that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the fireplace is of very recent origin.”

Explaining why the successful State pacifies more by persuasion than by fear - and why the Nazis and Communists caused rather than limited violence:

“[N]o state can post an informant in every pub and farmhouse to monitor breaches of the law, and those that try are totalitarian dictatorships that rule by fear, not civilized societies where people coexist through self-control and empathy.”

On why polygamist societies are more violent than monogamist ones:

“The ecosystem that selects for the ‘dad’ setting is one with an equal number of men and women and monogamous matchups between them. In those circumstances, violent competition offers the men no reproductive advantages, but it does threaten them with a big disadvantage: a man cannot support his children if he is dead.”

On why the elimination of superstition was so necessary and important in the reduction of violence:

“...the realization that some events, even those with profound personal significance, must be attributed to impersonal physical forces and raw chance rather than the designs of other conscious beings. A great principle of moral advancement, on par with ‘Love thy neighbor’ and ‘All men are created equal,’ is the one on the bumper sticker: ‘Shit happens.’”

On why certain changes in beliefs regarding violence are necessary before democracy can take hold - and why it has failed in some Islamic and African states:

“It’s hard to imagine how a stable democracy can be implemented until competing factions give up the idea that murder is a good way to allocate power.”

On the switch in the basis for morality and civil law:

“Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary rules dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.”

Those philosophies mentioned are worth reading up on, to see just how much of modern thought in fact rests upon “Do unto others.” In many ways, the current battle between the forces of fundamentalism worldwide and the enlightenment is between “God says to punish you for doing that” and “Do unto others.”

On why Nazism and Communism are ideologies (along with militant nationalism and romantic militarism) that run counter to Enlightenment ideas:

“Third was Marxist socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between classes, culminating in the subjugation of the bourgeoisie and the supremacy of the proletariat. And a fourth was National Socialism, in which history is a glorious struggle between races, culminating in the subjugation of inferior races and the supremacy of the Aryans.”

There is no doubt that war has gone from being considered the height of glory and greatness to a subject for satire. As Oscar Wilde put it:

“As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.”

On how trade and widespread prosperity can reduce violence:

“A world that is less invigorated by honor, glory, and ideology and more tempted by the pleasures of bourgeois life is a world in which fewer people are killed.”

Say what you will about the sins of pleasure. At least they are less murderous. A few more people enjoying (like me) the pleasures of books, music, nature, and a good glass of wine with dinner would mean a few less trying to kill in the name of honor, glory, or ideology. Just saying.

A few thoughts on why ideology - particularly utopian and/or apocalyptic ideologies - cause genocide:

“As Solzhenitsyn pointed out, to kill by the millions you need an ideology.

“Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would only kill one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or - projecting into the indefinite future - infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain. Not only that, but consider the people who learn about the promise of a perfect world yet nonetheless oppose it. They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. How evil are they? You do the math.”

I won’t quote it all, but another excellent point is made in the extended quote of Daniel Chirot, explaining how Communism took its narrative from Christianity. There was the perfect Eden, then the fall (private property). Eventually, Marx, the true prophet, came along. In the end, a final apocalypse will wipe out all the unbelievers, and usher in the Millennium of utopia. The same narrative dominates Nazism too - including the future with the 1000 year 3rd Reich. Spooky, huh?

If anything, genocide is a human universal, existing in every single society. And yes, that includes ours.

One quote that really stood out to me is this one by Increase Mather, the famous Puritan minister, after they exterminated the Pequot nation in 1638:

He asked his congregation to thank God “that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to Hell.”

Say what? It’s one thing to kill them, but to be glad they are damned? Um, yes, things have changed. And very much for the better. (Although Reconstructionist Gary North still enjoys the damnation of others…Check the comments section for the quote. It is from a recent publication by North, and I vetted it.) 

On how Islam went from being a more refined and humane civilization to the intolerant and often violent one we find today:

“Why did Islam blow its lead and fail to have an Age of Reason, an Enlightenment, and a Humanitarian Revolution? Some historians point to bellicose passages in the Koran, but compared to our own genocidal scriptures, they are nothing that some clever exegesis and evolving nors couldn’t spin-doctor away. [Bernard] Lewis points instead to the historical lack of separation between mosque and state...With every potential intellectual contribution filtered through religious spectacles, opportunities for absorbing and combining new ideas were lost.”

Yet another reason why I believe the Enlightenment value of the separation of Church and State is so vital to the betterment of the world. Also, why I vehemently oppose theocracy in all its forms.

I also made a note that when I “read the kids the riot act,” I am not literally informing them that I can execute them forthwith if they do not disperse. (Thank you, 17th Century England…)

I’m going to keep the extended section on rape handy for future posts on sexuality, because it is that good, but I do have to quote a line from Andrea Dworkin:

“A man wants what a woman has - sex. He can steal it (rape), persuade her to give it away (seduction), rent it (prostitution), lease it over the long term (marriage in the United States), or own it outright (marriage in most societies).”

This concept of female sexuality and reproductive capacity as a commodity to be owned by males still dominates our discussion of sexuality, although it hides below the surface in our assumptions. A great deal of our current culture war within Christianity is over whether women are the property of men, or not. Until we come to grips with that, the discussion is never going to head in a positive direction.

Also outstanding is the section on domestic violence. It comes as a surprise to many people that domestic violence rates in the United States have actually declined by about ⅔ just in the last 20 years. (One factor is probably the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, but the fact that violence against women is perceived as, well, vulgar, has helped as well.) I mentioned in my recent post that this runs counter to the preferred narrative of Patriarchist groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which makes the ludicrous claim that domestic violence and abuse are increasing - and increasing as a result of feminist ideas about egalitarian marriage.

Pinker points out that there is actually a very different correlation when it comes to domestic violence:

“[Researcher John] Archer found that countries in which women are better represented in government and the professions, and in which they earn a larger proportion of earned income, are less likely to have women at the receiving end of spousal abuse. Also, cultures that are classified as more individualistic, where people feel they are individuals with the right to pursue their own goals, have relatively less domestic violence against women than the cultures classified as collectivist, where people feel they are part of a community whose interests take precedence over their own.”

And this is a major reason why I believe that some powerful and influential elements within American Evangelicalism are actively working to aid abusers, whether they intend it or not, by urging women to stay at home, skip a college education, be submissive to men, and consider their own rights to be subordinate to those of men and the Christian community. That’s a recipe for accepting abuse.

I’m just going to mention infanticide, because it would require a really long discussion to do the topic justice. Lost in our current culture war over abortion is the fact that abortion isn’t some modern evil, sprung up recently to enable promiscuity. Rather, it is infanticide pushed back in time. Infanticide was widespread up through and including the Victorian era, and it was actually the availability of abortion, along with other factors, that ended it. In an era in which high percentages of infants died, there were undoubtedly more “gray” infanticides that looked like natural deaths than the numerous small bodies cast into rivers, left in bushes, and so on. And, as even writers in the Victorian Era understood, the driving force behind infanticide isn’t primarily hard hearts, but hard lives. For those of us who oppose abortion, it isn’t helpful to just moralize against it. We need to make efforts to push the prevention of pregnancy even further back in time.That is, before conception. And that requires an embrace of contraception, which seems to be increasingly a target of the religious right. Gah! But that’s another subject.

Another good quote that Pinker uses to make a good point is one by the Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, on how successful reconciliations come not from perfect justice, but from an understanding that peace is possible even though perfect justice is not:

“Tragedies can be resolved in one of two ways: there is the Shakespearean resolution and there is the Checkhovian one. At the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there’s some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. And I want a Chekhovian resolution, not a Shakespearean one, for the Israeli/Palestinian tragedy.”

I’ve already posted this quote (and caused some controversy), but it is still one of my favorites. Pinker isn’t religious, but he isn’t exactly anti-religion. He calls out Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins for their claims that religion is solely a force for violence - and the worst the world has ever known. This is clearly an overreach, and Pinker notes that. Rather, religion can be a force for evil, but also a force for good. Religion has inspired people to end slavery, but also to burn heretics at the stake.

I believe that Pinker is right on when he identifies three factors that make religion bad. Personally, I believe that Christ himself identified these three factors as well in his teachings and in his screeds against the Pharisees. If this book proves anything, it is that the pernicious and violent religion of the past (such as the Middle Ages) has undergone significant improvement right along with the rest of society. The bloody executions to preserve doctrinal purity are no more, and one of the admirable traits of American Christianity is the giving response to natural disasters around the world. A change indeed.

So what makes religion bad?

“It is when fundamentalist forces stand athwart those currents and impose tribal, authoritarian, and puritanical constraints that religion becomes a force for violence.”

How can we prevent this? Well, the study of history is a good place to begin.

“Another subverter of community, authority, and purity is the objective study of history. The mindset of Communality, Fiske notes, conceives of the group as eternal: the group is held together by an immutable essence, and its traditions stretch back to the dawn of time. Authority Rankings too are naturally portrayed as everlasting. They were ordained by the gods, or are inherent in a great chain of being that organizes the universe. And both models boast an abiding nobility and purity as part of the essential nature.”

“In this tissue of rationalizations, a real historian is about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party.”

A couple of final thoughts. First is this:

“A loathing of modernity is one of the great constants of contemporary social criticism. Whether the nostalgia is for small-town intimacy, ecological sustainability, communitarian solidarity, family values, religious faith, primitive communism, or harmony with the rhythms of nature, everyone longs to turn back the clock...Even with all these reasons why no romantic would really step into a time machine, the nostalgic have always been able to pull out one moral card: the profusion of modern violence...And here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all.”

And last, the closing paragraphs of the book:

“A final reflection. In writing this book I have adopted a voice that is analytic, and at times irreverent, because I believe the topic has inspired too much piety and not enough understanding. But at no point have I been unaware of the reality behind the numbers. To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness. I know that behind the graphs, there is a young man who feels a stab of pain and watches the life drain slowly out of him, knowing he has been robbed of decades of existence. There is a victim of torture whose contents of consciousness have been replaced by unbearable agony, leaving room only for the desire that consciousness itself should cease. There is a woman who has learned that her husband, her father, and her brothers lie dead in a ditch, and who will soon “fall into the hand of hot and forcing violation.” It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred. But the numbers are not in the hundreds, or the thousands, or even the millions, but in the hundreds of millions - an order of magnitude that the mind staggers to comprehend, with deepening horror as it comes to realize just how much suffering has been inflicted by the naked ape upon its own kind.
“Yet, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”

I am a Theist, but like Aquinas, I believe all truth is God’s truth. Like Spinoza and Kant, I also believe that one must back away from the specific and examine ideas from the distance of eternity and from the effects when applied universally. In such an examination, the power of Enlightenment ideals becomes apparent, and can be recognized as a triumph of the Golden Rule over the tyranny of tribalism, authoritarianism, and fear of moral taint. Perhaps the decline in violence represents Christ’s vision for humanity and the Kingdom of God coming to pass. Just a thought.


Follow up posts:

  1. I flesh out the discussion of Nazism and Communism, and why blaming them on Atheism misses the crucial issues: Nazism, Communism, and Atheism Aren't The Same Thing
  2. I explore further why American Christianity is so certain that the world is more evil than it has ever been: For Evangelicals, Evil is Spelled S-E-X (Part 1)

Until then, I urge everyone to read this book. Nothing like a little historical perspective to rock one’s world.


  1. What a fascinating post! I looked up Steven Pinker and see that he gave a TED Talk on this very topic.


    I look forward to your follow-up posts.

  2. I suspect a big part of the reason that people have a common perception that the world is getting worse and worse is because we can all remember childhood, a time when we were innocent and concerned with trivialities. Also I have noticed that the older people get the less they seem to be inclined to violence, which makes the future (embodied by "kids today") seem overly aggressive.

    I base this on brain research about the way children and teenagers perceive the risks of violence and of risk generally. I also base it on the way children tend to justify violence by saying something to the effect of, "but you don't understand, they deserved it!" as well as my own memories of thinking similar thoughts.

    In fact I wonder if Pinker takes into account the fact for much of history people died very young, so we're talking about whole societies run by young adults in some cases.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      You make some great points.

      Pinker did in fact mention the change in demographics in a number of contexts. Statistically speaking, the vast majority of violence is done by young men. And when they grow up, or old, they get less violent.

      In that sense, a reduction in violence can be a positive feedback loop. Less violence means people live longer, which means they get older and less violent...

      You mention brain development, and so did Pinker. The "he deserved it" approach is a childish thing, certainly, but it was also more common in adults in the past. As Pinker points out, honor culture in general, and the literature of the Middle Ages (to use just the most modern example) is full of that sort of thinking. Also, the perception that goes along with "he deserved it," namely that our response was proportional, while what they did was excessive leads to the escalation of feuds, which is why the Chekhovian Peace is the way to go. Each side feels aggrieved, but at least they are alive...

  3. I've been meaning to read this book at some point; I've read "The Stuff of Thought" and it was a great read. I've also read a few of his journal articles, but it's been a while so I can't remember which ones. Now I think I really do need to check this off my to-read list some time soon. Thanks for writing about it!

  4. I bought this book when it was first published because of the favorable reviews and the intriguing topic. I need to take it down from the shelf soon. I read "The Language Instinct" many years ago, which was quite good, but when I hear Pinker's name I always think of an exchange between him and Stephen Jay Gould published in The New York Review of Books back in the 90s. The first line of Gould's reply is one of the most entertaining I've read in a literary exchange:

    "If we define poetic justice as defeat by one’s own favored devices—Robespierre before the guillotine or Midas in golden starvation—then we might be intrigued to find Steven Pinker, a linguist by training, upended by his own use of words."

    1. That is a great line! I am a big fan of the classic battles of wit between the great masters. I wish I had had a chance to read this one between Pinker (who is excellent with words) and Gould (likewise.)

  5. Great review! I think I'll buy this and read it. :)

  6. Fascinating. One could read the words of Jesus, the writings of Paul, and the other New Testament authors with an eye toward pacifism. Jesus repeatedly says His followers will be hated, persecuted, killed, etc. and they should just take it. The message is that any revenge or "getting even" a human can mete out on Earth is negligible compared to the righteous judgement wrongdoers will receive at the hand of God. It's really just not worth your time and effort to exact judgement when there is so much good to be doing (feeding the hungry, caring for orphans & widows, healing the sick, etc.).

    Christians do have an apocalyptic triumph to look forward to. But that is brought about by direct supernatural intervention of God Himself, not by Christians setting up their own kingdom.

    I wonder if Christianity is unique in that regard? Islam is certainly the opposite. Muslims are called to take over the government and impose Muslim law on all the world.

    1. Good points about the teachings of Christ.

      One thing I will quibble with is that Islam and Christianity are different when it comes to violence. A good reason to read this book is the eye-opening look at the horrors of Christianity - including stuff in the all too recent past. From Constantine ("By this Cross, Conquer) through the Inquisition - and even such Puritan luminaries as Cotton Mather rejoicing at Native American souls burning in hell - we have a shameful history of our own. And, if we are honest, our own scriptures CAN be interpreted in a violent manner, and aren't really "better" than the Koran when it comes to that. (Again, a good reason to read the book. Lots of interesting history.) The difference is in interpretation. To a large degree, we compartmentalize our scriptures, dividing up what we believe is for us and what isn't. And this is, as Pinker points out, a good thing.

      I'll also point out that even radical Islam in our modern times isn't that philosophically different from certain strains of Fundamentalist Christianity (of which I have personal experience). The difference is that our government is essentially secular, and the crazies don't have the firepower to oppose it.