Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ (2011)

This is a book with a heartening argument: as time passes, humans are becoming less violent. Beginning with statistics that seem to show that fewer people are being killed in warfare, Pinker goes on to examine the decline in capital punishment and slavery, and the various recent movements for civil, women’s, homosexual and animal rights.  If this were not enough to feel pleased about, in a few pages towards the end of his book he argues that people are becoming more intelligent, and as intelligent people are most likely to adopt peaceable values, this trend away from violence will continue. Even more gob smacking than the range of argument is the luminous intelligence of the author, and of some of those he cites. I defy anyone not be impressed with the discussion of the difference between random and non-random numbers, which follows an observation by Stephen Jay Gould that while the pinpricks of light in glowworm caves made the ceiling look like a planetarium, there was nothing resembling constellations to be seen, and what follows from this. There is also a fair amount of psychological discussion, which I forbear considering.

Why have people been becoming less violent? Pinker draws attention to the work of Norbert Elias, who argues that a Civilizing Process began in the middle ages, and more particularly he emphasizes the impact of the Enlightenment. There may be conversations worth having on both these points. Yes, starting in about the twelfth century aspects of Western life did become more civilized, but as it happens these developments coincided with the reintroduction of torture into legal trials, the founding of the Inquisition and the great witchcraft craze, products of the later middle ages that, in the latter two cases, developed into phenomena of the renaissance rather than the medieval period, so I’d be wary of arguments based on improving table manners. The Enlightenment plays a greater role in Pinker’s argument. It is worth remembering that many people believe not only that the Enlightenment project has collapsed (cf the work of Alasdair MacIntyre), but also that this is a good thing, and that the disasters of the twentieth century were a kind of reductio ad absurdum of its principles. Pinker holds that ‘The idea that the Holocaust was a product of the Enlightenment is ludicrous, if not obscene.’ Some would disagree.

Pinker writes as an atheist, and he clearly enjoyed putting together a grisly assemblage of data to suggest that the Hebrew Bible is ‘one long celebration of violence.’ ‘Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum’ said the poet, and Pinker agrees, but the reiteration of the point is wearisome, especially in the light of various inaccuracies; ‘The Old Testament tells us to love our neighbours, the New Testament to love our enemies.’ Sometimes the evidence seems to get in the way of his thesis, as in the case of Martin Luther King, the pivotal civil rights campaigner who was a clergyman, but ‘he rejected mainstream Christian theology’, so that’s all right then. Rene Girard, while discussing what he calls the modern concern for victims, has a very different slant: ‘where we are all bombarding each other with victims, the final result is what Christ announced in words that the modern concern for victims clarifies for the first time.’

Early in the third millennium we sometimes seem to be in the midst of deep tides of cultural pessimism. While there are certainly things to debate in Pinker’s thesis, he offers most welcome reasons for optimism.

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