Better Angels of Our Nature review

In his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker proposes that violence has declined significantly over the past few millennia and that there are reasons for this decline linked to innate human traits.

Pinker tells his story with a cumbersome organization of "six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces." The story is really less complex than the organization, and to the extent there is a central argument, it is more succinct than is implied. The book is divided essentially into two parts. The first is a mostly quantitative analysis showing that violence has declined in various ways since the dawn of history combined with suggestions of historical factors associated with those declines. The second is an exploration of psychological researches in the brain and behavior that demonstrate that humans are wired in such a way that the decline of violence could plausibly be connected with the historical factors.

As to a central argument simply stated, Pinker never gives one. In part, this is due to the subject matter: Pinker is too good a scientist to squeeze all of history and psychology into a single sentence. But one could say that Pinker is making the case that, because violence is almost never in one's long-term interest, the increasing use of abstraction as a basis for social organization has resulted in a decrease in violence over time. Abstraction and social organization here have to be broadly understood, from rationalization of penal systems to the spread of modern education in the developing world to the loss of identification with nationalisms among political bodies.

The book is on the whole successful because Pinker stays descriptive and is fairly honest. The available critical reviews seem to have been written by journalistic types who have perused the book rather than giving it a close reading or by math-science types who have become fixated on questions of statistical interpretation or brain science without seeing the big picture.

For example, writing in Prospect Magazine, John Gray asks why Marx is not included in Pinker's list of Enlightenment philosophers, although Pinker gives clear criteria for inclusion and says why Marx, specifically, should not be included. Gray suggests that American incarceration rates are uncivilized and undermine Pinker's contention that the removal of sources of impulsiveness and violent retribution from ghettos is "re-civilizing." However, Gray has confounded a political and emotive definition of "civilize" with Pinker's description of a "Civilizing Process," a phrase that becomes jargon in the context of Pinker's story and does justify the use of the term "re-civilizing" vis-a-vis the communities from which criminals are removed.

As for the math and science presented in the book, I defer to Pinker, a distinguished scientist, and its years-long vetting through Pinker’s presentation at conferences and in short essays. In a case like The Unsilenced Science’s criticism of Pinker’s MAOA interpretation, to my untrained eye, it appears Pinker has made an error. But it also doesn’t seem to be an error that undermines the central themes of the book. Difference in the genetic predisposition to violence across populations doesn’t show that genetic change toward non-violence is correlated with a specific timeline.

Pinker’s historical analysis might be paraphrased as the study of interpersonal, state-sponsored (I’ll say “state”), and interstate violence. Of these, the statistical analysis of and predictions for interstate violence seem to be the points that have stuck in the most craws. They are also the least interesting part of the book. As Pinker readily admits, he cannot predict the future, and his theory of innate brain tendencies allows for regression. Also, a failure to show that interstate violence had actually declined wouldn’t change the analysis of interpersonal and state violence, which are interesting in their own right.

Because of my lack of interest in the recent and current history of interstate violence, which takes up about 200 pages of the first third of this 700-page story, I’m going to ignore it. Anyhow, I think those trends, along with the other historical trends Pinker mentions, can all be collapsed more or less into the trend of the increasing dominance of the state and its increasing dominance by an increasingly intellectually homogeneous elite.

The actual linchpin of the book, or at least its most salient trend, is the Civilizing Process. I say linchpin because the Civilizing Process is the trend that most clearly and dependently is tied to the research Pinker presents on affective psychology. European rates of homicide clearly declined from the Middle Ages to the present day, by a whopping 95% according to Pinker's data. Why? Pinker prefers the theory of Norbert Elias, who proposed in a two-volume sociological work published in the mid-20th century that the increasing interdependence of social life had led to more self-restrained behavior.

Elias believed in the increasing centralization of the state apparatus, starting with the hinterlands’ focus on kingly courts, where male leisure time combined with the presence of ladies to shift focus from military skills to artistic and romantic pursuits. He also believed in changed cognitive requirements by increasing complexity of economic affairs, which Pinker calls “gentle commerce.” These two forces combined with trends like the rise of the bourgeoisie to create and spread a new psychological profile dedicated to the consideration of others and the disguise of one’s inner impulses, known in recent history as gentlemanly behavior.

Pinker calls Elias’ psychology thoroughly modern, but in actuality, I don’t think Elias and Pinker are saying quite the same thing. Elias seems to believe that violence is a form of emotional outburst that was tamed by a stiff upper lip mentality, like turning off the water to a hose. He calls the tamed impulses pleasures and says that sociologists have to get used to the idea of dealing with a changing man in their analyses. For Pinker, the brain bases of violence continue, violence is at least partly rational, and the social milieu’s effect on violent behavior is mediated through brain structures that can be damaged or fail to develop well. Is the difference important?

I think Pinker would like very much if gentle commerce, with its emphasis on mental abstraction, interpersonal exchange, and considerations of valuation rather than dominance, were the major factor in the Civilizing Process, but I think state centralization has a better claim. When Pinker examines Civilizing in the modern world, he tells us about the Enga, a tribe that went from a developed but high-violence indigenous culture, to a low-violence Australian colony, to a poorly developed and high violence post-colonialism. Tribal elders reined in violence with a civilizing offensive that included “brutal public executions.”

In the second half of the book, Pinker notes that a majority of people have murder fantasies, indicating that people make cost-benefit decisions about killing, not just that they stay their hand when upset. Also, he describes research that shows revenge--one of the prime motivations for violence--can turn on the SEEKING circuits in the brain, turning it from an impulse into a pleasurable pastime. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” If violence is partly rational and the revenge centers in the brain are never turned off permanently, it’s hard not to believe that a person’s proximity to the state (i.e., habitual consideration) is the controlling factor for violent expression.

Obviously the phenomenon of state centralization (and here its legitimacy and competence are considered in the process) progressed forward in time. It also predated the Middle Ages. Some of Pinker’s Rousseauist critics are upset at his characterization of hunter-gatherers and great apes as violent. One reviewer complained that chimpanzee raiding parties are a result of habitat destruction. But all violence is related in one way or another to scarcity, and scarcity existed before man-made deforestation. If chimpanzees evolved to “naturally” react to scarcity in non-violent ways, why don’t they revert to those ways now?

A second historical trend Pinker examines is the Humanitarian Revolution, which accounts for the reduction in state violence in the form of witch hunts, slavery, torturous penal practices, etc. As Pinker notes, while centralizing states in the Middle Ages helped reduce interpersonal violence, they also replaced their provincial laws with Roman codes that introduced torture as part of the legal system. The state didn’t turn away from torture until the 18th century, when writers such as Voltaire took up the cause. For Pinker, it is important that Voltaire was a writer as he credits the invention of the printing press and a reading public with responsibility for humanitarian reforms. Reading opened people to “a phantasmagoria of people, place, cultures, and ideas.”

But Pinker also makes a point to tell us that the circulating libraries of the 18th century were devoted mostly to novels. This of course implies that most readers were interested in reading novels, not philosophical works on government and ethics. Indeed, although Pinker suggests that novel-induced empathy may have been important, he downplays the importance of empathy in his treatment of psychological underpinnings of non-violence. If it wasn’t a reading public per se that helped overturn harsh penalties, perhaps it was that portion of the public reading Voltaire. That is, perhaps it was the rise of a class of thinkers who interacted with each other and commingled to some extent with state actors.

Although he doesn’t say so specifically, much of Pinker’s book suggests that “we” have all gotten better, that humanity as a whole is fundamentally different from the humanity of ages past. But in fact what we see often in society is the coming and going of fads and fashions, as well as political opinion that is controlled by a relatively small number of actors at either end of an ideological spectrum. Large numbers of people can get “caught up” in movements, but for the most part, there is a mass of humanity that is swayed in its lifestyle and opinions by a minority.

Following in this line of thinking, we have to ask whether “everyone” in the Middle Ages liked torture. Although Pinker makes a point of promoting quantitative historical data, he doesn’t give us any numbers when he says that whole towns turned out to watch executions. Are we really to believe that whole towns turned out, or this a little hyperbole? Maybe a lot of people turned out. Of those, did every single one cheer the executioner? If some didn’t, might they have been horrified? Were there those who intuitively believed torture was wrong but didn’t have the intellectual tools or public support to make the case?

No, it seems unlikely that the Humanitarian Revolution and the reading revolution weren’t more about the development of a class of elites devoted to abstraction. It is the rise of these elites that has really had an impact on the direction of state violence since.

(Revised 12/9: What I mean to be saying here is that it seems to me likely there is a bell curve of attitudes to violence with Voltaire and Pinker on one end and psychopaths on the other. Voltaires probably existed in the Middle Ages, but they weren't able to form an influential block until they discovered each other and could influence opinion through the growth of reading and the attention to publications by state officials.)

The same principle applies to war. Elias quotes a knight of the 15th century to demonstrate the period’s attitude to war:
War is a joyous thing. We love each other so much in war. If we see that our cause is just and our kinsmen fight boldly, tears come into our eyes. A sweet joy rises in our hearts, in the feeling of our honest loyalty to each other; and seeing our friend so bravely exposing his body to danger in order to keep and fulfill the commandment of our Creator, we resolve to go forward and die or live with him and never leave him on account of love. This brings such delight that anyone who has not felt it cannot say how wonderful it is. Do you think that someone who feels this is afraid of death? Not in the least! He is so strengthened, so delighted, that he does not know where he is. Truly he fears nothing in the world! (Elias, p.196)
In Pinker’s book, World War I is the last war that people seem to have looked forward to. The story of disenchantment with war is pretty much the accepted story of WWI’s aftermath. But to some extent, the promotion of All Quiet on the Western Front was a function of the outlook of the dominant class in the post-war period. There were other perspectives. People like Ernst Junger experienced the war differently. Even Robert Graves fairly agrees with the 15th century knight when he praises, in Goodbye to All That, the bravery of Catholic chaplains who risked their lives to give last rites. The fact that Remarque rather than Junger is the quintessential descriptor of the War for us has something to do with the beliefs of elites on both sides of the conflict about everything from ethics to the qualities of the good life.

If the Civilizing Process was the story of the rise of the modern state and the Humanitarian Revolution the story of the rise of a new elite of thinkers, Pinker’s last historical trend, the Rights Revolutions, is the story of the dominance of those elites and the spread of their ethical reasoning not only in the state but in those institutions entwined with the state such as public education. Young people today have not only stopped lynching people of other races, they have internalized the logic of rights in all its forms. This is the basis for Pinker’s optimism about the future.

As other reviewers have noted, Pinker takes some pot shots at PC taboos and seems to roll his eyes at the campaign against dodgeball. But he also notes correctly that dodgeball is another example of the decline of violence, based in utilitarian logic, and does not distance himself even from Peter Singer and animal liberation, which most Americans have probably never heard of, such a baby of the university set it is.

The Rights Revolutions correspond in time more or less with the Flynn Effect, which receives a good showing in the second half of the book, as Pinker explains how people today can be smarter than they were in 1900 without having significantly better skills in math or language. According to Pinker, over the last century, the increasing fluency of the general public with principles of abstract reasoning has led to higher IQs and ethical norms that are smarter than the ones held at the turn of last century. For Pinker, anyone opposed to the Rights Revolutions in any form, to the extension of utilitarianism as the organizing principle of ethics, is literally mentally retarded in the present day.

People will make of this what they like. Pinker sees it as the triumph of Kantian ethics. For my own part, I don’t see the spectre of Kant in society today so much as the spectre of Rawls. When Pinker says that the attitude of his students today is “whatever, dude,” I don’t hear them channelling the categorical imperative so much as expressing a preference for other people’s attitudes towards their own behavior. The veil of ignorance.

Better Angels was released in the midst of our economic downturn and at about the same time as Peter Thiel’s critique of our structures of innovation. While no one wants to turn back the clock on the Humanitarian Revolution or see lynching become a common practice again, it isn’t clear to me that we can assume a monism of goods, that a confluence of total inclusion and all other optimal social goods is possible. The homicide rate, which Pinker uses throughout the book to estimate rates of violent crime, declined until the beginning of the 20th century, but has more or less leveled off. Somehow the “mentally retarded” people of 1900 managed a relatively safe society in which innovation could thrive.

What does the future hold? For Pinker, we have been in an upward trajectory from animality toward abstraction for a long, long time. As he correctly points out, the conservatives of today are simply the rear guard of the Enlightenment thinkers he praises rather than a real force of anti-modernity. It’s difficult not to believe that the trend of violence reduction will continue into the future, the errant bomber or dictator not withstanding. The real question is what life will look like with utilitarians like Pinker increasingly in charge. In the preface, he says that peaceful coexistence is the benefit we have from choosing “the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science.”

At one point, Pinker makes a snide remark about “beefcake statues of well-hung Greek warriors.” Since Greek statuary was neither beefcake nor well-hung (nor exclusively dedicated to conflict), we can assume that in fact Pinker is viscerally opposed to the presentation of the human body per se. Just as for him the fact that people have evolved to eat, enjoy, and crave meat has no bearing on the morality of meat eating, the fact that people have evolved to find beauty in bodies has no bearing on the morality of physicality. Although Pinker might find purpose, or at least drive, for his life by existing in a world of abstraction and science, it isn’t clear to me how many people can find satisfaction in the advance of science without the added advantages of dividing life between Harvard, MIT, and a house on Cape Cod. That’s not a class attack, it’s a real question about SEEKING and PLAY and the psychological limits and benefits of pacification.