Review: Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”

Title: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Author: Steven Pinker
Publisher: Viking
Genre: Science/Philosophy
Year: 2011
Pages: 832
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780670022953
Price: $40

Steven Pinker strongly disagrees with the Beatles. Love, he argues, is certainly not “all you need.” At least, not if you’re interested in decreasing human violence (592). But judging by Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he’s also not a cynical pessimist. He’d more likely sing along with another Beatles classic:

It’s getting better all the time…
Better, Better, Better.
It’s getting better all the time…
Better Better Better.
Getting so much better all the time!

Better Angels is physically and intellectually thick, but it’s actually tackling a few very basic things like anger, love, empathy, and reason. Are humans inherently good or evil? Rather than presenting a history of human thought on that question, Pinker makes his own case that human violence has decreased alongside an increase in human intelligence.

Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, includes this important caveat: there seems to be some danger in focusing on a silver lining if we overlook the very real and very serious ongoing suffering and violence in the world. Especially in the “developing world,” Pinker notes, many have employed shocking numbers while “raising money and attention” for noble causes. “But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just to maintain credibility,” he argues. “The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are” (320).

The twentieth century has been referred to as the bloodiest in human history. Pinker’s method combines statistics with narratives to analyze this claim. He is calling for, and trying to exemplify, a more “scientific” approach to historical analysis (190). Pinker believes the statistics don’t justify the feeling that we’re living in excessively violent times, although he recognizes the numbers will be hard to prove. The biggest obstacle is gathering accurate numbers for world population estimates and death tolls: “The truth is that we will never really know which was the worst century, because it’s hard enough to pin down death tolls in the twentieth century, let alone earlier ones” (193). Despite sketchy records, Pinker tries to rank large-scale human atrocities while adjusting for differences in population. (See the chart, here.) Still, Pinker draws on the best records he could find to trace the history of human violence from primitive times to the present.  He detects a change in the taken-for-granted presence of violence in medieval times (including ghastly descriptions of human torture) and more recent reticence to engage in hand-to-hand combat. If his stats can be trusted, rates of homicide, rape, human trafficking, war, genocide, and other forms of violence have declined significantly over the past few centuries. Rather than the world spinning out of control with greater and greater levels of violence, there appears to be a certain entropy of aggression which corresponds with what he sees as an increase in intellectual acumen. We get smarter, we fight less.

For a book that exalts empirical science, then, Pinker is actually making more of a philosophical claim. He combines the Humanities (history, philosophy) with Science (evolutionary theory, neurobiology). Rhetorically, he tends to exalt the latter, but his overall argument testifies to the necessary use of the former. In fact, he falls short in distinguishing between these various methods, to the detriment of his overall argument. That is, he often risks confusing method with ontology (see David Bentley Hart, “Lupinity, Felinity, and the Limits of Method,” First Things, Sept. 30, 2011).

In fact, the first half of the book best exemplifies Pinker’s shortcomings when combining stats and stories. Through seven chapters he traces human history from its primitive origins, through Greece, the Bible, early Christendom and Rome, the Medieval times, early modern Europe, the United States, and on through the twentieth century. He advances the now-familiar myth that religion is essentially responsible for most of the bad past while Enlightenment thinking rescued humanity for a brighter future without faith. Pinker styles himself an “Jewish atheist” (374), and he’s not nearly as acerbic or irrational as most of the so-called New Atheists in regards to religion. He’s more in line with A.C. Grayling’s approach. He clearly doesn’t have a grasp on the history of various religions, although he doesn’t simplistically equate them all as “poison” a la Christopher Hitchens (678). He quite rightfully points out instances of horrid religiously-fueled violence, but that is the only role he tends to see for various religious movements.

While Pinker doesn’t recognize his selective history problem, he is more aware of the classic chicken/egg problem. This is crucial to accounting for observations like: Married men tend to commit less violence. Does marriage decrease the likelihood that men will commit violent crimes, or are men who wouldn’t commit violent crimes more likely to seek marriage (106)? Can we link the obvious rise in the crime rate through the 1960s to the personal violence expressed in popular music by groups like the Rolling Stones (113)?  What do mortgage rates have to do with homicide (610)?What should we make of the tongue-n-cheek “Golden Arches theory” of war, whereby no two countries with a McDonald’s have gone to war (285)?

Despite his failures as a historian, Pinker’s overall statistics certainly deserve further examination and debate. He’s done a fine job of presenting them alongside his narrative using plenty of charts and graphs. Do these charts lead him to predict the contents of the as-yet-filled brackets? The two world wars are recent enough to make Pinker loath to predict the future, though he sees these two examples of violence as exceptions to his general picture of decreasing violence (look at the past fifty years, he says.) His book is not an attempt to disclaim the potential of violence in the future, he says, but to argue that “substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them. Declines in violence are caused by political, economic, and ideological conditions that take hold in particular cultures at particular times” (361). He does venture a few predictions regarding Islamic terrorism, nuclear weaponry, Iran, and climate change crises, though.

In the second half of the book Pinker shifts from integrating statistics with historical narratives to analyzing the “moral universe” using neurobiology, or brain science (481). Pinker seems to feel more naturally at home here. In his chapter on “Inner Demons,” Pinker presents a five-part taxonomy of violence: predatory, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. When Pinker refers to our inner demons, he’s referring largely to features in the evolved human brain, and environmental factors which interact with these features. He argues that the brain hasn’t undergone a simple trajectory from primitive evil to enlightened good, either.

In one fascinating section he outlines brain processes which occur when a person is deliberating over a particular moral dilemma. Imagine you are the member of a family hiding from Nazis in a cellar with a noisy baby. Should the baby be smothered in order to save everyone else? The brain’s amygdala and cerebral cortex—a more primitive section of the brain—triggers a visceral reaction, a horror at the thought of killing a baby. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which evolved later, begins the intellectual abstract calculations. One baby versus an entire group. A third part of the brain, the anterior cingulated cortex, deals with these conflicting impulses. Thus, the higher evolved parts of the brain are not inner demons or better angels, but are “cognitive tools that can both foster violence and inhibit it” (507-508). Readers will enjoy bits about rabid sports fans (522) and racist babies (523), and most interesting is Pinker’s discussion of the question: would the world be less violent if more women were in charge (526). He also insightfully draws on game theory on questions about tit-for-tat exchanges and cycles of violence.

Through all of this, and for the remainder of the volume, he somehow manages to avoid even raising the question of free will, which is a fundamental aspect of deliberations about fundamental questions from the praiseworthiness of good deeds, to practical questions about criminal justice (for a glimpse at similar questions, see Gary Gutting, “What Makes Free Will Free?”, New York Times, October 19, 2011).

After slogging through eight chapters on human depravity, with sometimes intensely graphic descriptions, Pinker finally turns to focus on our better angels for the concluding chapter. These angels are divided into four overall categories: empathy, self-control, morality, and reason. Here Pinker is not averse to presenting his own beatitude: “The moral rationale [of the New Testament] seems to be: Love your neighbors and enemies; that way you won’t kill them. But frankly, I don’t love my neighbors, to say nothing of my enemies. Better, then, is the following ideal: Don’t kill your neighbors or enemies, even if you don’t love them” (591). This shallow New Testament exegesis is exemplary of Pinker’s failure to seriously engage any theological reflection not expressed by various Enlightenment thinkers and progressives. He finds much to praise in Hobbes and Kant, little to cheer for in Jesus or Aquinas. His philosophical reasoning on rationality being the chief proponent of non-violence also leaves something to be desired (see Gary Gutting, “Pinker on Reason and Morality,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2011).

Significantly, Pinker is not arguing that the process of organic evolution can explain the recent decline in human violence. Human nature, which he defines as “the cognitive and emotional inventory of our species, has been constant over the ten-thousand year window in which declines of violence are visible, and that all differences in behavior among societies have strictly environmental causes” (612. Further details on his approach to human nature can be found in his previous book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature). I wonder how he would integrate studies which claim that London cab drivers appear to “grow” their brains in a certain way on the job. (See “Taxi drivers’ brains ‘grow’ on the job,” BBC News, 14 March 2000.) Either way, he sees external environmental causes as leading to our increased uses of pacifying brain bits. Such causes, for Pinker, include “the Leviathan,” when the state uses a monopoly on force to decrease overall violence, “Gentle Commerce,” whereby exchanging goods is cheaper than attacking neighbors, “Feminization,” deflating cultures of manly honor, “the Expanding Circle,” an increasingly cosmopolitan society spreading through literature, trade, and government, and “the Escalator of Reason,” whereby human abstract reasoning skills have seemed to increase over the past century according to the famous “Flynn effect” (690). Despite Pinker’s earlier condemnation of “ideology” in general, he presents his own humanist ideology as the path to less violence for the future.

Although Pinker certainly has nothing specifically good to say about religion, not least of all the LDS Church (which only serves as ‘exhibit A’ for the claim that religions are entirely historically contingent, and thus not divine, p. 678), he does advance several hypotheses which Mormons will find interesting. First, the idea that humans are neither inherently evil nor inherently good (482); Second, that debates over “nature versus nurture” present a false dichotomy, that humans are in some sense both actors and acted upon (483), and that morality itself is in a large sense “relational” (628).

In other words, Pinker’s book has a ton of food for thought. Although I have pretty significant objections to some of his claims and methodology, I still strongly recommend the book.  Better Angels is an odd, irreverent mixture of horror and tragedy, hope and progress. It is a good example of the fact that scientific studies may be brought to bear on moral questions while seeking further light and knowledge.


Comments

  1. Great review! I really want to read this.

  2. Thanks, mmiles. This book could have produced about 43 reviews, honestly. I just had to buckle down and get something written. If people have questions about what he did or didn’t discuss I’m happy to talk about the book in the comments. If not, then not.

  3. Wow! I was not expecting a Pinker review during my visit here today. I’m with you on just about everything, BHodges. I’ve been a fan of Pinker and went into this book thinking it would be like his others, insightful and authoritative. I was a little thrown by some of his methods and conclusions, though. The further I read, the more I felt like he was in over his head. Now I understand how a lot of people felt about Sam Harris’s latest book, The Moral Landscape.

    I do think, however, that people aught to get used to having their morals and philosophies critiqued by people in neurology. Philosophers and spiritualists have been making unchecked claims about the ‘soul’ and morality for thousands of years. They can benefit from the scientific method. Also, it’s good to see scientists *try* to apply their findings to real-world situations. I think it is impossible to maintain two non-overlapping magisteria in this area, which makes BCC all the more awesomer by covering it!

  4. There was a great discussion of the book over at Gene Expression a couple of weeks ago some might find interesting. I’ve not picked up this one yet although I hope to soon. His previous work, The Blank Slate, was an interesting if flawed book. One of those I agree with in the big picture but the more one got into the details the more problems with Pinker I found.

  5. Thanks for the link, Clark. I’ll check it out for sure. Wes, thanks for piping up. I recently listened to a Radiolab podcast which tuned me in to the idea that neurological studies might be fruitfully brought to bear on moral questions: http://www.radiolab.org/2007/aug/13/. For folks not interested in reading all of Pinker’s book, this episode gives some insight into what you might expect, and it covers some of the studies Pinker includes.

  6. Clark, I especially appreciate this bit from your link:

    but even his false steps can serve as an opening to raise public awareness of your opposite perspective. Pinker’s stature, and the questions he shines the light upon, are opportunities to have a public discussion on the Big Ideas.

    That’s the spirit in which I strongly recommend this book. (And Pinker’s a talented enough writer to keep it going for 800 pages even when his historical narratives were driving me crazy.)

  7. John Mansfield says:

    Thanks for the review, and the last one, too. Do the historical narratives include Asia?

  8. John, the book is quite Eurocentric, but he does spend a limited time referring to Asiatic warfare, more in terms of numbers only as opposed to cultural context. No matter, his numbers are stronger than the historical narratives he weaves anyway.

  9. I have wondered about what the book’s thesis means for apocalyptic thinking. It seems religious folks, not the least LDS, thrive on statements like “The world is getting so bad these days…the end must be soon.” In fact, there is almost a certain delight in bad news because it supports the ideas we are in the last days and the end is near.

    What would a steadily improving world do to LDS and other religions eschatology? Can we hope for a peaceful transition into the millennium or do our scriptures require us to expect the doom and gloom?

  10. John, I think there are pretty compelling reasons to think the world isn’t getting worse. That’s probably the least controversial aspect of Pinker’s book. The pretty valid complaints against Pinker are concerns that technology makes it such that it could get very bad, very quickly.

    I don’t think the world’s pretty significant improvement, especially the rather radical improvement in the relatively rich west, means our eschatology is dead. For a wide variety of reasons. Even Bruce R. McConkie’s apocalyptic thinking has there being an extremely peaceful and rich time of something like a few decades. (His interpretation of the half hour of silence in Revelation – I’m not advocating his position mind you) And of course one could read the Book of Mormon typologically for a Mormon eschatology. You have the Alma through Helaman chapters being the history of the west through the end of the cold war and then we get to live in a period of 4th Nephi followed by the higgly-piggly chaos of Mormon.

    Of course many (most?) Mormons want to believe in a quick wrap up with a fairly linear progression of evil. I’m not sure our own texts support such a view though.

  11. BTW – if you don’t want to read the book there’s a good Bloggingheads TV discussion between Pinker and John Hogan on the book that covers most of the big picture items along with most of the major criticisms. It’s worth listening to.

  12. John L., I think it bears directly on the question of how we interpret the sings of the times, most specifically “wars and rumors of wars.” But I can think of a variety of ways to interpret that sort of sign.

  13. John & Clark, I mentioned this book and its basic premise in a recent Elders Q meeting where the topic was the last days. Blank stares and uncomfortable silence was the response, followed by some dismissive comments and a general vibe that science, research and the ideas of men can’t be trusted.

    So much for trying to bring up another angle to discuss. More fun to stick with all the mystery and unsubstantiated armchair observations I guess?

  14. Chris, since I wasn’t there I couldn’t really say for sure, but depending on how the subject is brought up, different reactions are expected, not least of all the one you describe. But I can imagine ways to suggest that we are much less violent people today in general than many were in times past just by pointing out the advances in medical treatment, for instance, and asking if they’d like to undergo the type of surgery young Joseph Smith endured. This sort of violence, not intended in an “evil” way, can be a bridge to other types of decreased violence, and a discussion of how the reduction in violence can partially be attributed to Christianity (as well as ways Christianity has fueled violence).

  15. Chris, it probably depends upon ones ward. I’ve taught similar things in EQ in the past with great success – albeit in Provo.

  16. BHodges, this is a great review! Thank you for doing this. I’m going to have to read this book, and maybe pull some readings from it for my bioethics class. I always chafe when I hear claims that the world is worse than it was back in some ‘good ol’ days’ that never really existed. My reading of history leaves with a sense that in many parts of the world, namely the West, we live in a magical time. That said, I work in places where the safety we enjoy is not in place yet because the reasons that Pinker outlines as conducive to a reduction in violence don’t obtain yet–I’m thinking of many places in Africa. Anyway great review. Adding to my list.

  17. SteveP, I’d be especially interested to hear your reactions to the book, as they’d be much better informed than my own in regards to the science. I felt like I could handle his history fine, and I could only hope that his second half was more rigorous than his first. I operated on the assumption that it was, since that is more to his area of expertise.

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