Quick Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature

I hadn’t looked at much from psychologist Stephen Pinker for a while but I was intrigued by his latest book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Here are a few comments about this thought-provoking work:

1. Here is Pinker’s argument: we must just be living in the safest era in human history as violent crime is down and wars affect fewer people. If you adjust for the population on earth at the time, World War II barely makes the top 10 (while typically lists put it at #1). Since World War II, fewer people are affected by violence and most people don’t know this.

2. Best argument of this book: this remarkable peacefulness is almost completely under-the-radar and people need to recognize how much safer the world has become. (I’ve noted before the incorrect perceptions regarding crime.)

2a. Pinker marshals a lot of evidence to show the declining trends in violence. In fact, Pinker talks about this for dozens upon dozens of pages. In fact, if you went by the percentage of the book devoted to each topic, you might think Pinker is more of a social scientist who studies violence and who is most interested in how societies and cultures have changed in such a way as to deincentivize violence. Overall, the number of wars have decreased, the number of wars involving great powers has decreased, the number of soldier and civilian deaths has decreased, and the length of wars have decreased. Pinker is, of course, building upon the work of many others but there are a lot of charts and figures here that I find quite convincing.

2b. Several periods were key to this change: the Enlightenment which didn’t necessarily limit violence but brought about ideas and values that eventually contributed and the post-World War II era when the world responded to the horror by promoting international peace and human rights.

3. The catch: Pinker is committed to going beyond a social explanation in the decrease in violence and wants to argue that this has trickled down to individuals. On one hand, you could imagine a number of sociologists making this argument: changes in society and culture influence the choices available to and made by individuals. On the other hand, Pinker wants to go further and even suggest that humans have evolved away from violence. Making this connection between social and individual change is tougher to do and Pinker relies a lot on social psychology experiments such as Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game. The social and cultural change arguments are convincing but taking this next step to the individual level is more problematic. Part of the problem here might be that Pinker is so committed to his own perspective that he is determined to push his points about rationality further than they can go.

4. An interesting issue: Pinker argues that one way in which violence can get out of hand is that it requires a powerful ideology. One type of ideology that Pinker makes clear he does not like is religion which he argues is false and generally contributes to violence. In his historical overviews, Pinker makes clear that religion only contributes to and legitimizes violence and may not do any good. Additionally, the revolutions in values happened solely in the secular sphere and humans today are much more able to be rational (and religion is not that).

Overall, this is an interesting, long book that presents several intriguing arguments. Pinker provides a service in helping to fight the narrative that violence is spiraling out of control and yet has more difficulty in showing how humans have evolved into more rational beings.