The Better Angels of Our Nature: A Review

“The Escalator of Reason”: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

 Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, may strike some readers who are familiar with his earlier work, especially The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate, as something of a departure from his customary nature over nurture biases, inasmuch as it appears to elevate human reason over instinct.  But as I will show below, this may be a misimpression.  Despite its voluminous detailing of human progress over time, Pinker’s penultimate chapters revert to his usual invoking of brain science to support his thesis.  The book is thus a bit of a hybrid.  It is also very long, at 696 pages of text plus extensive endnotes, bibliography, and index.  Written in his jaunty and verbose style, it would have suffered no damage from some judicious pruning.

Pinker’s thesis is that, contrary to some nostalgic-romantic notions, human violence has declined over the course of history, and has especially done so since the Age of the Enlightenment, when Reason finally and definitively triumphed over our “inner demons.”  He marshals extensive evidence, both narrative and numerical, to support his contention, and while one may express a few caveats about that evidence, such as that statistics on homicides and death from organized warfare are difficult to gather for periods in the deep past when record keeping was minimal or whose records have been lost, the weight of the evidence he marshals is sufficiently convincing.  There can be little doubt that once upon a time, human beings were far more prone to settle differences and scores and to acquire power and wealth by means of the sword than by, among other innovations, the rule of law, commerce, and cosmopolitanism (by which he means an abandonment of the parochial mindset and adoption of empathy).  There is also no doubt that sadistic punishments, such as were common practice in Medieval times, and institutionalized slavery have gone the way of the dodo bird in most parts of the world.  Counter intuitive as it may be, Pinker argues that despite two world wars plus numerous large-scale genocides, the twentieth-century was not the bloodiest on record—when one states the deaths as a percentage of the total population, rather than only in raw numbers.  Again, despite the possibility of some caveats, Pinker’s argument here is convincing.  So I will leave it to others, statisticians and demographers, to quibble the details.

I will also leave it to others to point out his naïve views about religion and the rather potted quality of his historical narratives.  Where I would like to focus some criticism is on his later chapters.  In his chapter on “The Long Peace,” Pinker discusses at length the rather astonishing period of peace from 1945 to the present, a period during which no major wars occurred, the Cold War ended peaceably, and the formerly belligerent European states joined together under the European Union and the Euro.  Regionally-limited wars like the Vietnam War, miraculously, did not incite the use of nuclear weapons.  Nations generally preferred diplomacy over war, democracy over tyranny, and trade over isolationism.  Globalization, too, has lessened the threat of violence as people around the world become better informed, more cosmopolitan and more interlinked through trade, education, and culture.  It is noteworthy that those countries which continue to be the most belligerent are also those which have chosen to remain most isolated from the rest of the world community and most inured in traditional tribal mindsets.  This, Pinker believes, is all good news, and one wants wholeheartedly to agree with him.  Alas, however, the “long peace” is not, in historical time scale, long at all, not even so long as an average (modern) lifespan.  There have been other intervals of relative peace in history; some historians maintain that there was a similar long peace in the nineteenth century, after the end of Napoleon, and that most of the wars, at least in Europe, were comparatively minor and regional.  Then came World War I, followed quickly by World War II.  It is an odd glitch in Pinker’s thinking that, after an extensive inventory of violence over the last 10,000 years, he should make the mistake of believing that a mere 65 years heralds a new era of peace.

It is also puzzling that, after seven chapters and 482 pages of evidence drawn from the work of historians and sociologists, chapters in which he has firmly established his thesis that the human uphill trudge turned into an escalator of reason with the advent of the Enlightenment, Pinker should turn, in two chapters called “Inner Demons” and “Inner Angels,” complete with illustrations of the brain and with synopses of studies showing which areas of the brain are active during which thinking processes, to a discussion of brain science—including the rather fatigued example of Phineas Gage.  So it is the brain that does our thinking an d learning.  Fancy that!  These chapters add nothing substantive to Pinker’s argument, and in fact in some readers’ minds may actually undermine it, in that they may conclude that Pinker is claiming some sort of innate or instinctive ground for our moral progress, particularly if they are familiar with his prior work.  Given that he had already provided sufficient argument for the escalator of reason as the basis for our progress, he might have done better to excise these chapters from his draft.

The last quibble I have with the book is its Eurocentric slant—all too typical of Anglophone, and particularly of American, writers.  While Pinker occasionally includes material from non-European regions of the world, his mental bias towards the European is evident throughout the book.  Just one quote will illustrate what I’m pointing to:  “Our ancestors .  .  . were infested with lice and lived above cellars heaped with their own feces.  Food was bland, monotonous, and intermittent.  Health care consisted of the doctor’s saw and the dentist’s pliers.  Both sexes labored from sunrise to sundown, whereupon they were plunged into darkness.  Winter meant months of hunger, boredom, and gnawing loneliness in snowbound farmhouses” (p.693).  One might argue that, however hyperbolic this description might be, it is essentially accurate—but it is true of Europe, not, for example, of Japan, and certainly not true of societies in areas nearer the equator, who would not have been snowbound at any time of the year.  The description is also a bit of a hybrid, inasmuch as the isolated snowbound farmhouse was a phenomenon of the American homestead.  In Medieval Europe, for example, farming families lived in hamlets and villages, in houses close to their neighbors and extended families; they walked to their fields, which generally they held in common, returning together in the evenings.  Winter was not nearly so miserable as Pinker suggests; the Tres Riche Heures, a late-Medieval illuminated manuscript, depicts a February scene in which people are fairly active during the daylight hours, for example.  Pinker is too often guilty not only of Eurocentrism, but of Presentism, in at least the sense that he may exaggerate the miseries of the past in order to underscore what he sees as the blessings of the present.

After reading the book, one wonders what exactly Pinker has accomplished, and particularly, whom he wishes to correct.  He occasionally mentions romantic nostalgists and a “mafia” of anthropologists and others who have, apparently, systematically suppressed the truths of human nature and the past.  Perhaps this book is in fact a continuation of the grudges he dealt with in The Blank Slate, where he named names.  If these are indeed his targets, the new book is probably a miss.



  • […] Click here to read the full review. Advertisement Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Fast fashion's ethical makeover? Share this:EmailMorePrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. By William L. Scurrah, on October 12, 2011 at 4:03 PM, under My Topics. Tags: angels, enlightenment, globalization, homicide, long peace, steven pinker, violence, war. No Comments Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « So Many Things, So Little Prosperity […]

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