November 21st 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gender variety has no basis in science

CANBERRA OBSERVED PM's political capital may be tax-reform casualty

EDITORIAL IPCC and the media: Last Tango in Paris

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Poland's election sends shock waves through EU

THE ELECTRONICS REVOLUTION Create infrastructure to bridge coming robo gap

LIFE ISSUES Keeping a straight face with Andrew Denton on euthanasia

LIFE ISSUES With Nitschke out of death industry, Exit must go next

EUROPEAN AFFAIRS Euro banks were lending like there's no tomorrow

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Polls show conservative resurgence at grassroots

RELIGION IN RUSSIA State control, Slavophiles prepare way for apostasy

CULTURE Mankind needs to work; and mankind needs work

PUBLIC POLICY Drug substitutes used as treatment are lethal

CINEMA The man who stands back up: Bridge of Spies

BOOK REVIEW We're getting better all the time


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We're getting better all the time

News Weekly, November 21, 2015


THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: A History of Violence and Humanity

by Steven Pinker

(Penguin UK, London)
Paperback: 832 pages
ISBN: 9780141034645
Price: AUD$29.99


Reviewed by Peter Madison


Harvard linguist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has added to his growing bibliography of popular science books an account of “violence and humanity”. The Better Angels of Our Nature aims to show that violence of all kinds is in a historic decline, and to discover the reasons why this is so.

Pinker describes this decline as “the most important thing that has ever happened in history” and the end result is that, however uncertain the future, we are certainly now living in “the most peaceable era in our species’ existence”.

What has led us to this relatively tranquil epoch? It largely comes down to what Pinker describes as the better angels of human nature – “motives that can orient us away from violence and towards cooperation and altruism”. These are empathy, self-control, moral sense and reason.

Pinker not only credits our current peace to these internal “angels”, but also enumerates the external forces that have emerged in history to nudge us further in the right direction. These include the Leviathan, which is the modern state with its “monopoly on the legitimate use of force”, Commerce, Cosmopolitanism and finally Reason.

The Better Angels of Our Nature takes its place among a now substantial number of books, articles and essays alleging a historical decline in violence. Perhaps what distinguishes this book from others is its sheer scope. Pinker is not content to present a study of dropping battle fatalities or large-scale European wars. He focuses his microscope on a huge number of subspecies of violence. Alongside wars and genocides, large portions are devoted to, for example, the decline of lynching in the United States, the antiquated tradition of dueling for honour, and the fictitious violence of Homer’s Iliad.

Terrorism merits a discussion – though not as long as you might expect – while witch-burning and human sacrifice are studied as a more colourful yet remote threat. Some forms of violence are not discussed. Suicide and self-harm, interestingly, seem to have been overlooked as forms of violence against oneself. Nevertheless, this book attempts to be, and to a large extent succeeds in being, comprehensive.

Pinker’s case rests largely, as you would expect, on statistical evidence. He sees his challenge as the need to prove a decline of violence in face of the far more vivid and emotionally impressive examples of violence we see.

He writes: “The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.”

Graphs of violence

Hence the need for a huge arsenal of statistical evidence to restore that impression of proportion, forcefully as it were, with graph titles such as “Deaths in wars involving the great powers (1500–2000)”, “Conflicts per year in greater Europe (1400–2000)”, “Homicide rates in the northeastern United States (1636–1900)”, “Non-lethal hate crimes against African Americans (1996–2008)”, and “Num­ber of motion pictures per year in which animals were harmed (1972–2010)”.

Pinker provides over 100 quanti­tative graphs of this kind. To his credit, he is not selective in the data he presents, and includes numbers that might seem to undermine his conclusion, offering explanations as to why they don’t. He also takes a sensible approach in only arguing for a decline in the percentage of violent deaths over time, not in absolute numbers.

It might be counted as a negative, however, that Pinker’s statistical authorities disagree with him. This book largely draws on the statistical work of Matthew White in The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, and of the late Rudolph Rummel, professor of political science. While being the source of much of Pinker’s data, both of these men maintain that the 20th century was a uniquely violent era.

Does a book so replete with graphs and percentages run the risk of being dull? Perhaps now and then it can be difficult to share Pinker’s enthusiasm for a bar chart or a line descending diagonally left to right – but only now and then. For style and presentation this book scores high marks. Pinker largely avoids dryness thanks to his use of fresh analogies, his wonderful turns of phrase, and his economy of language (albeit in a book of over 800 pages).

Maintains interest with humour

His sense of humour also makes for a pleasurable read. Never under­estimate the laughs to be had while discussing the magnitude of violence both past and present. Pinker spreads sarcastic salt on some hard-to-digest topics, but also adds the flavour of personal anecdotes from his own experience of violence. It would be hard not to be tickled by his self-deprecating quips. Not sufficiently strong, swift or agile for baseball or basketball, nevertheless young Pinker was spared from “perpetual pariahood” among the other boys thanks to one talent: “as long as the blows were delivered fair and square and without ad-hominem humiliation, I could mix it up with the best of them.”

There is more that makes The Better Angels of Our Nature an engaging read. You can add the fact that these pages are interspersed with veritable landmines. Pinker makes some extremely provocative claims that are sure to divide readers. Whether it is his evaluation of religion, his approach to statistical analysis, or his frank and often critical summaries of non-Western cultures, Pinker invites controversy.

No wonder then, that you could have on the one hand Peter Singer call this “a supremely important book” and a “masterly achievement”, and on the other hand David Hart call it a testimony to “the human spirit’s lunatic and heroic capacity to believe a beautiful falsehood, not only in excess of the facts, but in resolute defiance of them”.

Three years after publication, and internet forums remain equally divided, with no sign of an approaching ceasefire.

What then are the faults with which critical readers can reproach Pinker? With no offence intended to Pinker supporters, there is quite a lot that could be said against this book.

The most obvious of his failures is that he presents a classic example of the Whig interpretation of history. He tells a pretty neat version of history, where humans progress from our barbaric prehistory, through our benighted Medieval superstition and cruelty, and finally emerge into the brilliance of post-Enlightenment modernity, while the better angels of our nature are all the time helped by science, and hindered by faith and tradition.

Some of the evidence for this is pretty flimsy. For example, Pinker paints an incredibly disturbing picture of the use of torture in medieval times (if we must refer to them as such), listing the many diabolical instruments available to torturers. But then take note that Pinker is drawing his information from a coffee table book, and you have to wonder if this can really be called a scholarly source.

Note also that we are not told where or how often these instruments of torture were used (while we are now becoming aware, for example, that tales of torture during the Inquisition were grossly exaggerated), and you again have to wonder. We are left with what Pinker would elsewhere call “an impression of violence disconnected from the actual proportions”.

This is only one example. Pinker by and large offers us second-hand history, reproduced from a small number of secondary sources, with little criticism or nuance.

Another shortcoming of this book is Pinker’s trashing of Christianity, a hallmark of contemporary Whiggism. Ross Douthat rightly complains: “A book that essentially portrays European civilisation as a kind of moral vanguard for humanity should at least address the possibility that this distinctive turn away from violence was influenced by the West’s distinctive religious heritage.”

But with the reckless brevity of many modern atheists, Pinker dismisses the Bible as “one long celebration of violence”.

He presents only the Old Testament stories of violence; he does not acknowledge the diverse theological interpretations for those passages; he says almost nothing at all about Jesus’ teachings of peace, compassion and love of neighbour; he dismisses early Christian pacifism, culminating in martyrdom, as a kind of demented masochism; he says nothing of the limits imposed by St Augustine for just war; and commits many more injustices of this sort – in a word, he pays Christianity no due respect.

There are many more negatives that could be hurled against The Better Angels of Our Nature. So many of its major claims could be contested. Steven Pinker’s peers have done this at length in other forums, although he has defenders also. And in spite of the grievances above, this book is still worth the read.

Depending on your point of view, you will ultimately find the greatest merit or defect of this book in its conclusion. Will you be persuaded that we live in more peaceable times? If so, what value does this fact hold for us?

Is it enough that in our part of the world at least there is peace, while the threat of great violence remains? Or do the better angels of our nature have more work to do?

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