Really, Really, Really

PinkerCoverImageWith all the unrest around the world, with all the wars, the crime, and the violence in the news everyday, when someone claims we are living in the most peaceful period of human existence, ever, the general reaction is, “Really? What the hell is that guy smokin’?”

Steven Pinker is not a crackhead, nor a crank, nor a crackpot optimist. But really, gimme a break. He claims the world is more peaceful and safer today than 50 years ago, and orders of magnitude more angelic than 500 years ago.

The statistics collected are extensive and undeniable. He plows us with the cold hard numbers along side clean intelligible graphs for half of his book to delineate the revolutionary changes having occurred mostly since the Renaissance. Changes which have accelerated through the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Age, and more recently, braking all speed records in the later half of the 20th century with the dawn of the Information Age. Our minds want to resist the overwhelming facts he’s uncovered. Nonetheless, he shows us a precipitous decline in per capita rates of all kinds of violence, from war, to civil unrest, to genocide, to homicide, to rape, to hate crimes, to animal cruelty. We resist because our tolerance and expectations have changed along side the rates. As violence decreases, we become accustomed to the new more peaceful conditions. As we expect more amicable conflict resolution, it makes whatever crime remaining appear all the more objectionable. We also have systems of communications, nonexistent only a few generations ago, that report to us in high-def, high-saturation, and often in near realtime, gruesome images of local and global violence. It’s always out in front demanding our attention. The stark contrast to regular, boring daily life makes the bombings and shootings and military conflicts jump out at us. The incessant cudgel of bad news seems as if violence were getting worse, not better.

To hammer his point, he describes with stony detachment the horrific tactics our ancestors used for punishment. How witches and infidels were mercilessly tortured, in full public view, with hard to imagine any sane person could have thought of techniques. How children and slaves were made offerings to the gods. How men and animals were pitted against one another for right in front of your very eyes snuff entertainment. After a while it becomes torturous to read. And he drills it into us, bringing up the same gory stories, again and again, almost as if he enjoys writing about it.

In the preface he states, “The discussions that try to do justice to these questions add up to a big book.” It comes in at 700 pages. I challenge that it needs to be that big “to do justice.” A good hardcore editor could have easily chopped two to three hundred pages from the book—and made it stronger in the process. There is copious repetition, recapping, and reminders of previous points, and the torture. Later in the book, the chapter “Better Angels” goes into excruciating detail describing the many psychological experiments that have been done to understand how our brains work. To a degree they’re needed for explanation as to why humans are violent, and why in recent times our behavior has pacified. Study after study of contrived, out of context, over simplified, and in his own words “ham-fisted” laboratory tests are retold. These tests attempt to uncover how our nature responds to stimuli under specific conditions. But human behavior is a complex subject with hundreds of subtle variables. The studies are designed to reduce the variables in order to isolate the behavior in question, but simultaneously the laboratory takes test subjects out of the context of the real world skewing the results into an interesting-to-know-but-you-can’t-apply-this-to-real-people-in-real-life-conditions-without-copious-qualifications category. Many of the studies cited have also been told many times before in other books and articles. For these reasons, that chapter could have left out the tedious details of the studies and just reported the findings. Although the complexity of human behavior justifies his going into great depth to avoid making the erroneous assumptions of superficial investigation. Along the way he brings up all the assumptions he can muster, then pulls out the fingernails of each, one agonizing yank at a time. This overall thoroughness clears up much of the received opinion passed down to us that, from as far back as ancient Babylonia, or as recently as the latest news report, is misleading or as often wrong. To cover all the contextual changes from hunter-gatherer societies, in which we are genetically adapted, to modern technological civilization, in which we are intellectually continuing to adapt, is a massive task. This book does require hundreds of pages, just not seven hundreds of them. And the last chapter is no more than a summation recapping his recaps. But I must caution you. Don’t think you can read the last chapter and understand the issues. You’ll get the premise. That’s not good enough. If you don’t read to whole book, you won’t get the facts and the research that supports his thesis. You won’t get the qualifications, exceptions, and nuances. You won’t get the most powerful parts.

The bigger question for Pinker is not the reduction, but the how and why it happened. This is where the power lies, and the book gets really interesting. Digging up reasons is the focal point—and many reasons there are. Some of the reasons tell us why we haven’t noticed the reduction in violence. One is that it’s been sneaking up on us so slowly it’s been barely perceptible. We may not notice a few stray drops of water falling into an empty bucket, but if we go away, and come back a few hours later—wow, it’s full. Well, the violence bucket isn’t full of peace yet, but there’s enough water in there to start a half empty/half full argument. Another reason we haven’t noticed is that there isn’t any single cause that tripped the switch. With so many contributing factors underlying the gradual evolution of peace, it’s impossible to point to any one and say, “that’s it.” Perhaps the biggest reason we haven’t noticed is because of all the causes, no matter how profound, not one was intentional. None of the causes has been deliberately guided to affect the sociocultural transformations. With no one event at the helm, there’s no captain to credit, no genius to thank, no historic figure to venerate. These changes have occurred imperceptibly and undirected.

Our attitudes towards violence have changed dramatically, with one qualification. The “our” in that sentence is not you and me individually, rather, it’s the aggregate of society—our consolidated group mindset.

To kill one man is to be guilty of a capital crime, to kill ten men is to increase guilt ten-fold, to kill a hundred men is to increase it a hundred-fold. This the rulers of the earth all recognize, and yet when it comes to the greatest crime—waging war on another state—they praise it. . .

If a man on seeing a little black were to say it is black, but on seeing a lot of black were to say it is white, it would be clear that such a man could not distinguish black from white. . . So those who recognize a small crime as such, but do not recognize the wickedness of the greatest crime of all—waging war on another state—but actually praise it—cannot distinguish right from wrong.                                                     — Mozi, Chinese philosopher

This quote sounds modern. Mozi wrote it two and a half millennia ago. The abhorrence of brutality is not new. What is new is the nearly worldwide, cross-cultural acknowledgement of its barbarism. Human nature is both competitive and cooperative. Both are part of our social structure. Outside our social units we fight. This can be seen throughout the animal kingdom. However, within a social unit we must cooperate. Social norms coerce members into working together for the unit’s sake. This becomes a learned habit, or second nature. As our social units grow in size, and the connections between units become more frequent and more consequential, people begin to reflect on in- and out-group dynamics. The honing of these habits reveal that greater collaboration between units brings greater mutual advantage. These thought processes develop our higher cognitive functions, our third nature, which takes yet more control over the violent primal knee-jerk emotions. This hypothesis was posed by Cas Wouters, one of dozens of Pinker’s references.

In trying to explain how the hairless chimp became more peaceable, he also examines the history of cruelty. Many correlations are drawn : education, communication, trade, cultural exchange. Combined, these contribute to the pacification of humanity, and inversely, the lack of these contributors leaves open the door of aggression. The invention of the movable type printing press is recognized as a turning point in history. Still, as I read mention of this, it really struck me with greater force than ever. It may be the turning point not just for the dissemination of knowledge, but also the initial trigger for the civilizing process of humanity. Just as crossbreeding exchanges genetic material to increase diversity, the exchange of knowledge increases the diversity of ideas, which in turn spurs more thought and deeper examination of the thoughts of others. The opening of our minds to the knowledge of the other marks a revolution in thinking. Books make literacy available to a broader range of people. The commoner is no longer merely a talking workhorse, or a battlefield pawn, who knows only his own tiny local community. He becomes a full fledged, independent intellect that has overcome his brutish nature through the knowledge of a broader world of experiences beyond his own.

It’s after the printing press that the scientific method lifts off. The Age of Enlightenment grows from it. The accrual of knowledge in print combines with the scientific method to bring about the Industrial Age. Speedier travel bolsters international trade. Electronic communication connects us faster and farther. The exponential increases in knowledge, and the speed of travel and communication have converted humanity from shortsighted ‘tribalists’ into a global community of ‘civilists’ looking towards the future. Its sustainability is built on cooperation and positive-sum exchanges that only function via non-violent, trust-based relationships.

There’s one more criticism. Although it’s undeniable that we are here and now living in the most peaceful times experienced by homo sapiens, that most of the world is safer and more livable, and that physical violence continues to dwindle, Pinker misses one major point. He may not think it’s a relevant part of the book. However, considering the thoroughness of his research, his focus on physical harm while neglecting socioeconomic harm is remiss. As humans we may be overcoming our homicidal demons, but we haven’t improved much in the realm of social violence. Boardrooms continue to treat employees as adversaries in a battle that wrestles to win profits at the expense of workers’ well being. Customers are treated like Pavlovian lab-rats to be manipulated into consuming. No respect is given to support-level workers who provide the necessary every day needs of a functioning community. Underpaid, undervalued ordinary people, despite no longer being illiterate surfs, are being disparaged as social surfs and economic disposables. It’s a hidden violence—invisible since it draws no blood—that has yet to be overcome. 

PinkerBetterAngelsAs I look over the notes I took, I see that this review barely scratches the surface. He attacks the subject from as many perspectives as there are means of inflicting pain. By examining the psychology of taboos, ideologies, international trade, group and individual behavior, IQ, reason, emotion, logic, intuition, public education, the vast exposure to the other via electronic/digital media, and how all these separate influences interact and amplify each other, Pinker develops a strong theory to explain the precipitous decline in violent crime, and the concurrent rise in peaceful cross-cultural coexistence among divergent demographics. We see how social value systems are turning from a paternalistic, nationalistic, us vs them, zero-sum mindset into an open, inclusive, liberal, positive-sum thoughtfulness. This new thinking understands and applies a single basic, age-old principal : the golden rule. 

In consideration of the wide ranging complexities of human behavior, I could excuse his failure for not going into the socioeconomic side of violence. It may have diluted his argument. It may be another book on its own. But I am not excusing it. As deep into the subject as he’s gone, this point needed to be in the book to make it complete. Still, there is a bright side, really, not that I’m an optimist. If we consider the numerous forces that snuck up on us to turn our murderous nature into a cooperative conflict avoidance nature, it seems reasonable to suggest these same forces have the potential to levy improvements in our social conscience. I look forward to a book about the reduction in socioeconomic violence.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Penguin Group, Viking, 2011

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