The Better Angels of Our Nature

Steven Pinker


Steven Pinker has famously opposed the idea of the “blank slate,” but in his latest book he argues that while the slate may not be blank, it just might come equipped with an eraser.

Pinker has just published The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in which he argues that ours is the most peaceful, most non-violent age in human history.

Not one to abandon his entire position at once, however, Pinker argues that it’s Enlightenment reason that lies behind the change.

Although I’ve read most of Pinker’s other works, I won’t be reading his new  book any time soon. And it’s not because I’m not intrigued by his idea — rather, it’s because, like Sam Harris, I feel that, despite all of the attractive charts and graphs Pinker’s book contains,  a 700-page tome on any subject would occupy too much of my time.

But I have been reading about the book: Pinker’s own short version, presented at an Edge conference; reviews, both positive and negative; and interviews and panel discussions in which Pinker has participated.

The primary sound-bite from Pinker’s book is his stark and startling contention that “The statistics suggest that this may be the most peaceable time in our species’s existence.” (Remember, I haven’t read the book, so quotations here all come from the sources listed in the previous paragraph.)

Pinker makes this claim within his rational rejection of the blank slate, arguing that while it’s true that we have a hard-wired capacity for violence, it’s also true that we are equipped with other tendencies, whose strong expression can dampen or suppress the violent part of our inherited nature:

Human nature may embrace motives that lead to aggression, but it also embraces motives like empathy, self-control, and reason, which, under the right circumstances, can outweigh the aggressive impulses.

What this means, Pinker says, is that our culturally-determined experiences and circumstances can trigger the strong expression of non-violent tendencies. If I understand him correctly, this suggests something like an epigenetic process of civilizing influences.

Pinker argues that much of our past was a time of war, genocide, slavery, and persistent suffering. For the great majority of people, life was, indeed, cheap and tenuous. He believes that his analysis shows that, despite two world wars and all of the other violent 20th century events we recall with such horror, the further past was worse, both on a per capita basis and in terms of the kinds of common brutality.

What accounts for the change? Pinker lists good government and positive sum commerce as major influences for the good. As well, he identifies “the forces of cosmopolitanism” which he says “more nebulously” influence us to reduce violence: “literacy, travel, journalism, education, the mixing of peoples—[corrode] tribalism, authoritarianism, and puritanism, with all the punitive sentiments that go with them, and make it harder to demonize foreigners and nonconformists.”

Asked in an interview with Scientific American if he thought that the trend toward reduced violence would continue, Pinker said:

In the arena of custom and institutional practices, it’s a good bet. I suspect that violence against women, the criminalization of homosexuality, the use of capital punishment, the callous treatment of animals on farms, corporal punishment of children, and other violent social practices will continue to decline, based on the fact that worldwide moralistic shaming movements in the past (such as those against slavery, whaling, piracy, and punitive torture) have been effective over long stretches of time.

As a result of his research, Pinker says that “The present looks less sinister, the past less innocent.”

It’s all very interesting, and probably the best way to get many of the key arguments and much of the salient evidence is to read Pinker’s Edge conference paper.

– • –

As you might expect, not everyone is jumping onto Pinker’s peace bandwagon.

One prominent negative response is John Gray’s article Delusions of Peace,” published by Prospect. Gray’s article attacks both Pinker’s scholarship and his biases, and while Gray’s tone is rather combative, he makes some points that deserve, if not complete agreement, then at least thoughtful consideration.

One fundamental criticism Gray levels at Pinker is that Pinker’s stance is thoroughly Eurocentric. Gray strongly disagrees when Pinker dismisses most local, non-Western violence as simply an effect of insufficient civilizing by the West and its values. In fact, Gray writes, the very pacification in the West which Pinker celebrates is one of the causes of the emerging local violence elsewhere:

A sceptical reader might wonder whether the outbreak of peace in developed countries and endemic conflict in less fortunate lands might not be somehow connected. Was the immense violence that ravaged southeast Asia after 1945 a result of immemorial backwardness in the region? Or was a subtle and refined civilisation wrecked by world war and the aftermath of decades of neo-colonial conflict?

While the industrialized West has not been the target of large-scale warfare for more than 60 years, “In much the same way that rich societies exported their pollution to developing countries, the societies of the highly-developed world exported their conflicts”:

They were at war with one another the entire time—not only in Indo-China but in other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. The Korean war, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, decades of civil war in the Congo and Guatemala, the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan war—these are only some of the armed conflicts through which the great powers pursued their rivalries while avoiding direct war with each other.

Turning to Pinker’s assertion that the growth of peace has been a result of “cosmopolitanism,” a rational application of Enlightenment values, Gray asserts that Pinker’s humanism requires him to play up the role of rationalism in human history, while downplaying any influence Enlightenment values have had on the use of violence as “an instrument of social transformation.”

Gray also notices with some relish the apparent softening of Pinker’s insistence on hard-wired human nature. First taking a general passing shot at evolutionary psychology, whose conclusions are “not much more than speculation — or worse,” Gray contrasts Pinker’s ideas in The Blank Slate to his position in his current work:

The decline of violence posited in The Better Angels of Our Nature is a progressive transformation of precisely the kind his earlier book seemed to preclude. But the contradiction in which Pinker is stuck is not his alone. It afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress.

As anyone who reads this blog even infrequently knows, I’m not much of a fan of the more extreme forms of anti-Enlightenment thinking associated with strong relativism and with the strident, take-no-prisoners version of  postcolonialism that issues from it.

Indeed, Gray seems entirely to ignore Pinker’s iteration of some of the ongoing improvements in the human condition, advances which Pinker attributes with some justification to Enlightenment sources, to the influence of ideas of equality and justice which have flowed from them.

However, in this case I do have some sympathy for Gray’s criticism, especially with regard to the often narrowly Western lens through which Pinker looks for evidence of the trend to peacefulness.

Pinker makes an intriguing claim, but he makes it with his typical tunnel vision, so that what I’ve read — everything but the book itself — doesn’t indicate with any certainty that he’s made his point.

It’s a shame, but if I want to be more certain, it looks as if I’m going to have to read the whole book, after all!


One thought on “The Better Angels of Our Nature

  1. I’ve been waiting to read this as well, for the same reason. I would be interested to see what Noam Chomsky makes of the main arguments in this book. I have heard Chomsky is one of Pinker’s influences (I think not only on language but on politics), however Chomsky’s views on politics at least seem to me very different from this book.

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