The Better Angels of Our Nature Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker (Viking, 2011)
You could say this book has defeated me or I have flunked The Better Angels of Our Nature 101. I vowed previously I would never read it, a vow I have kept, although now not because of want of effort. Since I first mentioned this book I have started on a manuscript having to do with the violence of Colonialism so I felt obliged to read it. I acquired a copy through interlibrary loan and it is now due. I have not been able to read it, past the first few pages.
In the mid 1800’s, when people (strangely enough) actually first began to have a serious interest in other cultures, having destroyed so many of them, and the discipline of anthropology began, an evolutionary theory was advanced that ranked all people and cultures on a scale from savagery to barbarism to civilization. Naturally European civilization and White people were at the very top of this scale, being “civilized,” while others were still in more “primitive” states of being. It is my impression that Professor Pinker believes in this scale and in this book sets out to demonstrate it is true through “scientific” methods and, as he says himself, a “big book.” It certainly is a big book, weighing almost three pounds and running to 802 pages. I am tempted to describe its origins as “At Play in the Halls of Harvard,” but that would be not only unkind but also not entirely true. It is an extremely ambitious work, covering so many different fields of study and so much material that it is truly quite impressive.
I confess that as an anthropologist, at least a former anthropologist, I am exceedingly skeptical of his main thesis, not that I necessarily believe violence in general has not declined, but, rather, that I don’t think he makes a very convincing case for it. He immediately puts me off in the preface when he speaks of “…the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history…” (xxiv). He continues this (to me) strange claim a few pages later when he reports, “Archaeologists tell us that humans lived in a state of anarchy until the emergence of civilization some five thousand years ago, when sedentary farmers first coalesced into cities and states and developed the first governments.” I do not believe any human groups ever lived in a “state of anarchy,” and if there ever were such groups the archaeological record could not meaningfully make such a claim.
It appears to me that Professor Pinker is so enamored of this theory that he tends to select data that bears out what he wants to show and reinterprets or neglects data that does not. When proposing that the human species has an innate propensity for violence he cites the case of chimpanzees that are now known to be violent, kill each other at times, and so on. The Bonobos, closely related to chimps, are not violent in the same way, he explains this by saying basically they are “different.” He believes in what he calls a “civilizing process” which has resulted in less violence now than in the past. When it is revealed that the Southern states tend to be more violent that Northern states he attributes this to the fact that the civilizing process did not reach there at the same time or in the same way. When he finds a relative absence of violence in some societies, as in the Middle East, he attributes this to the fact they have dictatorial regimes that suppress violence. In the case of China, where the level of violence is low, he claims this is because China had a long civilizing process of its own. There are other examples of this not hard to find. Thus it does not come as a surprise to learn that, “…Western and Central Europe make up the least violent region in the world today. Among the other states with credible low rates of homicide are those carved out o of the British Empire, such as Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, the Maldives, and Bermuda.” The U.S. does not fit comfortably into the pattern because, of course, the civilizing process came later here.
I am not accusing Pinker of deliberately distorting things to prove his theory. I suspect he genuinely believes what he says. And he does not make up the data himself, he cites various authorities in various fields. But I am unwilling to accept all of their conclusions. For example, I do not believe that claiming levels of violence from the archaeological record can possibly be meaningful enough to rely on to prove anything. Similarly, when he claims the level of violence among more “primitive” societies is nine times as great as in our civilizations today, I don’t believe it. First of all, even now we only have fairly detailed information on approximately 350 societies. There were hundreds of thousands of small-scale societies at one time, you cannot meaningfully generalize anything from the few that have been studied, especially when many of them are known to have been exceptionally violent. Indeed, one might well argue that societies that disappeared were those that were quite likely the least violent.
Pinker bases most of his claims on homicide rates for different societies. Homicide rates for non-western societies, generated from questionable ethnographic records are probably not much better than those generated from the archaeological record. Besides, homicide rates are only one indication of violence, there could be exceedingly high levels of violence in a society with a relatively low homicide rate. Furthermore, if you want to speak of “outer demons” and “the better nature of the angels of human nature,” it seems to me you may well have to distinguish between the motives for violence and homicide. Is killing someone in self-defense the same thing as killing someone in order to rob them? And how does one measure acts of violence or homicide? If someone drops a bomb that kills 250,000 people at once does that count as a single act of violence or as 250,000? I suspect the remarkable human propensity for violence may not have changed at all, but the avenues for expressing it, and the opportunities to express it may have changed. We have, it seems to me, become a nation of “violence junkies,” if one were to go by our movies, television, and literature, thus living out our violence prone natures vicariously.
My frustration with this book has much to do with the fact that I believe violence, at least certain forms of violence, probably have decreased over time, but I’m skeptical this has to do with our “better angels.” In fairness to Professor Pinker I must say this is a remarkably ambitious work that may be trying to demonstrate something that is not truly possible to demonstrate. I fear that I am no longer ambitious enough, or motivated enough, or have enough time to pursue the many questions and problems posed by this rather monumental attempt. I am very skeptical of any “civilizing process” that leads us to “civilization,” but that, in turn, leads to the question of what is civilized? It is true we no longer engage in as much person to person violence as we no longer are forced to use clubs and swords, but is the use of radioactive ammunition, drone warfare, cluster bombs, land mines, and “shock and awe” somehow more civilized? And as torture and mass murder still exists, even though perhaps not as common as previously, can we really claim the better angels of our nature? There are enough questions raised by Pinker to keep battalions of scholars busy for a very long time, but I fear it may be much like arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
I am not at all certain I will ever complete this book. It is due back shortly. Perhaps I will obtain a copy to keep long enough to actually finish it. I wish others better luck, perhaps with less initial doubt about the argument. There is much more to this work than I have indicated, Pinker does discuss rape, child abuse, wars, and virtually every other problem you can imagine. So good luck.