Unabashed Naïveté

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature

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Steven Pinker makes me very happy. I will go out on a limb and say that he is my favorite author. (Given my established international preeminence in literary circles, that is really saying something.) I think I cried a couple of times reading The Language Instinct, just from being so excited. Then again, I cried watching The Princess and the Frog.

Cover of The Better Angels of Our Nature So I just finished Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He first demonstrates that whether we look at the past few millenia, the past few centuries, or the past few decades, the overall trend in violence globally has been decline, the world wars notwithstanding. The common perception that violence especially afflicts today’s people is attributed to our “historical myopia” (the examples of violence we know of are mostly recent, no magic there) and the modern-day media, which makes us more aware of violence around the world than people in centuries past could ever have been. A whole litany of graphs is adduced, and though they aren’t all spectacular (some of the plots look like they have only two or three data points, which the author has helpfully connected with a line), the point is clear. Near the beginning there are also detailed descriptions of medieval torture methods, which is just fantastic. But by the fiftieth graph on homicide or battle deaths or crime showing a mostly-negatively-sloped zig-zag, I was only skimming the first sentences of paragraphs in the text’s accompanying explanations, which were often to the effect of “as you can see, it first goes up a bit and then down a lot, and then up a bit more, and then a lot more down, and then it’s bumpy for a bit, and then it goes down to zero, after which it’s flat”. The writing in Better Angels is definitely not as dense or witty as in Pinker’s books on language or the mind (perhaps that is a consequence of the subject matter).

The nearly-500-page history of the decline of violence, encompassing everything from the near-disappearance of torture to bans against dodgeball in schools, is intermixed with discussion about the causes of each trend Pinker tracks. In the second part of the book, he considers both the psychological underpinnings of violence (“inner demons”: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, ideology) and the psychological forces resulting in restraint therefrom (“better angels”: empathy, self-control, morality and taboo, reason). Finally Pinker ties it all together by looking at what he sees to be the broad shifts that underlie the historical decline of violence: the rise of Hobbesian Leviathans, which penalize aggression (by individuals in their states) and serve to counterbalance whatever benefits violence accords its perpetrators; the proliferation of gentle commerce, which for suitable parties provides an attractive, mutually beneficial alternative to zero-sum (or negative-sum) fighting; the empowerment of women; the expanding circle of empathy towards one’s kin, tribe, nation, race, species, and beyond; and the “escalator of reason”, which, according to Pinker, we owe in large part to the Enlightenment.

The prevalence of suffering due to violence makes you feel terrible; the decline makes you feel lucky and hopeful. I shed a tear at the end. (No, really.) Anyhow it definitely seems like an important thesis.

There were some pieces of evidence in the book that seemed pretty shaky, like the part about U.S. presidents with lower IQs causing more battle deaths. Everything has endnotes, though, and I am too lazy to look them up. But I suppose what I really ought to be ashamed of is that as I read the book, I did not really perceive the book to be one that would attract so much criticism and controversy. Only afterwards when I went to read the reviews did I realize how contentious some of these claims were. The book was criticized or mocked for the following reasons:

  • Pinker uses relative counts (e.g., X homicides per hundred thousand people) rather than absolute counts to measure violence across history. Without this measure, Pinker’s numbers would certainly be far less convincing. One of his arguments is that the measure of violence we are concerned about is the probability that we will be the victim of such-and-such violent act. Hence we should measure relative violence. I find this reasonable.
  • Pinker ignores the psychological violence of the modern lifestyle: videogames, work stress, the collapse of the family. Of course, this is just ridiculous.
  • Hitler, Mao, Stalin. World War II? How could Pinker’s thesis be true, given these modern tragedies? This complaint seemed to come mostly from the Amazon reviewers who didn’t open the book. Obviously these issues have occurred to Pinker. On the grand scale of human history, the statistics appear to bear out his conclusion: the nonstate societies of the past and their brutal tribal warfare can be expected, based on various observations, to have had war deaths that, in proportion to population, dwarf the numbers from even 20th-century Europe or the 20th-century world. In the age of civilizations, one chart (contested by critics) shows that the An Lushan Revolt, the Mongol conquests, the Mideast slave trade, the fall of the Ming dynasty, the fall of Rome, the exploits of Tamerlane, the annihilation of Native Americans, and the Atlantic slave trade were all (proportionally) deadlier than the Second World War. But the story in Europe in the past six centuries is has one of the rare graphs that don’t obviously show a decline: three big spikes are recorded in the “rate of death in conflicts” per capita, and the first half of the 20th century has the biggest spike by far. Still, Pinker argues that this was in spite of a general trend in the decline of violence. Slavery, torture, and homicide were all already on the track to disappearance in those centuries. Wars between “great powers” on the whole got less frequent, less prolonged, and less deadly.
  • Great powers? That is not a representative sample of the world. The prosperity of the West came at the expense of the third world, especially former colonies. Plus, many wars that were between smaller countries were actually conflicts between greater powers manifesting through their systems of alliances. It is true that Better Angels spends far more pages on the decline of violence in Europe and the United States. Still, the plain and simple fact is that Pinker appears to have the numbers on his side in every case. I haven’t seen anyone seriously challenge the research Pinker cites.
  • Finally, though the historical trend of decline in violence is hard to deny, it seems like people have a problem with Pinker’s explanation for the causes of this decline. They don’t like his philosophy or politics. John Gray writes

    The idea that a new world can be constructed through the rational application of force is peculiarly modern, animating ideas of revolutionary war and pedagogic terror that feature in an influential tradition of radical Enlightenment thinking. Downplaying this tradition is extremely important for Pinker. Along with liberal humanists everywhere, he regards the core of the Enlightenment as a commitment to rationality. The fact that prominent Enlightenment figures have favoured violence as an instrument of social transformation is—to put it mildly—inconvenient.

    There is a deeper difficulty. Like so many contemporary evangelists for humanism, Pinker takes for granted that science endorses an Enlightenment account of human reason. Since science is a human creation, how could humans not be rational? Surely science and humanism are one and the same. Actually it’s extremely curious—though entirely typical of current thinking—that science should be linked with humanism in this way. A method of inquiry rather than a settled view of the world, there can be no guarantee that science will vindicate Enlightenment ideals of human rationality. Science could just as well end up showing them to be unrealisable.

    Well, I have no idea what this is all about, so I can’t comment. But anyway the Enlightenment has always seemed pretty cool to me.

Pinker is also surprisingly brave in Better Angels. I wonder if this is because he already has an established name and is getting older anyways. He does not shy away from the overt presumption of atheism, and is not afraid to blame various atrocities on religion. (Though I haven’t read The Stuff of Thought, his previous books, if I recall, only have the occasional “That may be why God was invented” or similar buried in a dense paragraph.) He calls various people “morally retarded”, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill, to substantiate the claim that people are getting smarter (recall that rationality is one of Pinker’s big causes for peace). Furthermore, liberals are apparently smarter than conservatives! (All this is backed up with stats on IQ scores and copious footnotes, of course. After that section, perhaps in an attempt to be neutral, he presents “a correlation that will annoy the left as much as the correlation with liberalism annoyed the right”, namely that, smarter people “think more like economists” and are “less sympathetic to protectionism, make-work policies, and government intervention in business”.) In the terrorism section, he is hilarious:

After the September 11, 2001, attacks, terrorism became an obsession. Pundits and politicians turned up the rhetoric to eleven, and the word existential (generally modifying threat or crisis) had not seen as much use since the heyday of Sartre and Camus. Experts proclaimed that terrorism made the United States “vulnerable” and “fragile,” and that it threatened to do away with the “ascendancy of the modern state,” “our way of life,” or “civilization itself.” In a 2005 essay in The Atlantic, for example, a former White House counterterrorism official confidently prophesied that by the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks the American economy would be shut down by chronic bombings of casinos, subways, and shopping malls, the regular downing of commercial airliners by shoulder-launched missiles, and acts of cataclysmic sabotage at chemical plants. The massive bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security was created overnight to reassure the nation with such security theater as color-coded terrorist alerts, advisories to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape, obsessive checking of identification cards (despite fakes being so plentiful that George W. Bush’s own daughter was arrested for using one to order a margarita), the confiscation of nail clippers at airports, the girding of rural post offices with concrete barriers, and the designation of eighty thousand locations as “potential terrorist targets,” including Weeki Wachee Springs, a Florida tourist trap in which comely women dressed as mermaids swim around in large glass tanks.

… and provocative: he proceeds to say that the American victims of 9/11 comprised a “trifling number”.

The favorable review of the book in the New York Times turns out to be by Peter Singer, a philosopher who is at least as controversial as Pinker. And who happens to be cited rather charitably in Better Angels itself. In fact much of Better Angels appears to build off Singer’s expanding circle idea.

In the end though, I must say I trust Pinker. I admit that I have made very little attempt to be unbiased. I have read almost all of his popular books, and zero books from his detractors. For one thing, I can hardly bring myself to starting on some reading without the guarantee that it will have those occasional delightful pieces of ridiculously awesome prose. But I like to think that I don’t find his claims convincing just because he is funny, drops Latin phrases that make me feel smart when I understand them, and constantly quotes from my favorite singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer to illustrate deep points about human nature. He seems to be quite scientific, and I find the reasoning solid. He’s not afraid to explicitly write out the contrapositives and syllogisms in sentence form. And often after presenting an argument he brings up some fallacy or uncontrolled variable that I didn’t notice. (Perhaps I just need to have my critical thinking skills on more often.) Also, he makes fun of people for not knowing what an eigenvalue is, and it certainly sounds like he knows what he’s talking about when he describes power law distributions in Better Angels. That he can do math is really, really seductive.

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Written by leonxlin

July 16, 2012 at 5:32 am

Posted in books, steven pinker

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