October 28, 2011

Review: Steven Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”

Title: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Author: Steven Pinker
Publisher: Viking
Genre: Science/Philosophy
Year: 2011
Pages: 832
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780670022953
Price: $40

Steven Pinker strongly disagrees with the Beatles. Love, he argues, is certainly not “all you need.” At least, not if you’re interested in decreasing human violence (592). But judging by Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he’s also not a cynical pessimist. He’d more likely sing along with another Beatles classic:
It’s getting better all the time…
Better, Better, Better.
It’s getting better all the time…
Better Better Better.
Getting so much better all the time!
Better Angels is physically and intellectually thick, but it’s actually tackling a few very basic things like anger, love, empathy, and reason. Are humans inherently good or evil? Rather than presenting a history of human thought on that question, Pinker makes his own case that human violence has decreased alongside an increase in human intelligence.
Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, includes this important caveat: there seems to be some danger in focusing on a silver lining if we overlook the very real and very serious ongoing suffering and violence in the world. Especially in the “developing world,” Pinker notes, many have employed shocking numbers while “raising money and attention” for noble causes. “But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just to maintain credibility,” he argues. “The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how altruistic we are” (320).
The twentieth century has been referred to as the bloodiest in human history. Pinker’s method combines statistics with narratives to analyze this claim. He is calling for, and trying to exemplify, a more “scientific” approach to historical analysis (190). Pinker believes the statistics don’t justify the feeling that we’re living in excessively violent times, although he recognizes the numbers will be hard to prove. The biggest obstacle is gathering accurate numbers for world population estimates and death tolls: “The truth is that we will never really know which was the worst century, because it’s hard enough to pin down death tolls in the twentieth century, let alone earlier ones” (193). Despite sketchy records, Pinker tries to rank large-scale human atrocities while adjusting for differences in population. (See the chart, here.) Still, Pinker draws on the best records he could find to trace the history of human violence from primitive times to the present.  He detects a change in the taken-for-granted presence of violence in medieval times (including ghastly descriptions of human torture) and more recent reticence to engage in hand-to-hand combat. If his stats can be trusted, rates of homicide, rape, human trafficking, war, genocide, and other forms of violence have declined significantly over the past few centuries. Rather than the world spinning out of control with greater and greater levels of violence, there appears to be a certain entropy of aggression which corresponds with what he sees as an increase in intellectual acumen. We get smarter, we fight less.
For a book that exalts empirical science, then, Pinker is actually making more of a philosophical claim. He combines the Humanities (history, philosophy) with Science (evolutionary theory, neurobiology). Rhetorically, he tends to exalt the latter, but his overall argument testifies to the necessary use of the former. In fact, he falls short in distinguishing between these various methods, to the detriment of his overall argument. That is, he often risks confusing method with ontology (see David Bentley Hart, “Lupinity, Felinity, and the Limits of Method,” First Things, Sept. 30, 2011).
In fact, the first half of the book best exemplifies Pinker’s shortcomings when combining stats and stories. Through seven chapters he traces human history from its primitive origins, through Greece, the Bible, early Christendom and Rome, the Medieval times, early modern Europe, the United States, and on through the twentieth century. He advances the now-familiar myth that religion is essentially responsible for most of the bad past while Enlightenment thinking rescued humanity for a brighter future without faith. Pinker styles himself an “Jewish atheist” (374), and he’s not nearly as acerbic or irrational as most of the so-called New Atheists in regards to religion. He’s more in line with A.C. Grayling’s approach. He clearly doesn’t have a grasp on the history of various religions, although he doesn’t simplistically equate them all as “poison” a laChristopher Hitchens (678). He quite rightfully points out instances of horrid religiously-fueled violence, but that is the only role he tends to see for various religious movements.
While Pinker doesn’t recognize his selective history problem, he is more aware of the classic chicken/egg problem. This is crucial to accounting for observations like: Married men tend to commit less violence. Does marriage decrease the likelihood that men will commit violent crimes, or are men who wouldn’t commit violent crimes more likely to seek marriage (106)? Can we link the obvious rise in the crime rate through the 1960s to the personal violence expressed in popular music by groups like the Rolling Stones (113)?  What do mortgage rates have to do with homicide (610)?What should we make of the tongue-n-cheek “Golden Arches theory” of war, whereby no two countries with a McDonald’s have gone to war (285)?
Despite his failures as a historian, Pinker’s overall statistics certainly deserve further examination and debate. He’s done a fine job of presenting them alongside his narrative using plenty of charts and graphs. Do these charts lead him to predict the contents of the as-yet-filled brackets? The two world wars are recent enough to make Pinker loath to predict the future, though he sees these two examples of violence as exceptions to his general picture of decreasing violence (look at the past fifty years, he says.) His book is not an attempt to disclaim the potential of violence in the future, he says, but to argue that “substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them. Declines in violence are caused by political, economic, and ideological conditions that take hold in particular cultures at particular times” (361). He does venture a few predictions regarding Islamic terrorism, nuclear weaponry, Iran, and climate change crises, though.
In the second half of the book Pinker shifts from integrating statistics with historical narratives to analyzing the “moral universe” using neurobiology, or brain science (481). Pinker seems to feel more naturally at home here. In his chapter on “Inner Demons,” Pinker presents a five-part taxonomy of violence: predatory, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. When Pinker refers to our inner demons, he’s referring largely to features in the evolved human brain, and environmental factors which interact with these features. He argues that the brain hasn’t undergone a simple trajectory from primitive evil to enlightened good, either.
In one fascinating section he outlines brain processes which occur when a person is deliberating over a particular moral dilemma. Imagine you are the member of a family hiding from Nazis in a cellar with a noisy baby. Should the baby be smothered in order to save everyone else? The brain’s amygdala and cerebral cortex—a more primitive section of the brain—triggers a visceral reaction, a horror at the thought of killing a baby. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which evolved later, begins the intellectual abstract calculations. One baby versus an entire group. A third part of the brain, the anterior cingulated cortex, deals with these conflicting impulses. Thus, the higher evolved parts of the brain are not inner demons or better angels, but are “cognitive tools that can both foster violence and inhibit it” (507-508). Readers will enjoy bits about rabid sports fans (522) and racist babies (523), and most interesting is Pinker’s discussion of the question: would the world be less violent if more women were in charge (526). He also insightfully draws on game theory on questions about tit-for-tat exchanges and cycles of violence.
Through all of this, and for the remainder of the volume, he somehow manages to avoid even raising the question of free will, which is a fundamental aspect of deliberations about fundamental questions from the praiseworthiness of good deeds, to practical questions about criminal justice (for a glimpse at similar questions, see Gary Gutting, “What Makes Free Will Free?”, New York Times, October 19, 2011).
After slogging through eight chapters on human depravity, with sometimes intensely graphic descriptions, Pinker finally turns to focus on our better angels for the concluding chapter. These angels are divided into four overall categories: empathy, self-control, morality, and reason. Here Pinker is not averse to presenting his own beatitude: “The moral rationale [of the New Testament] seems to be: Love your neighbors and enemies; that way you won’t kill them. But frankly, I don’t love my neighbors, to say nothing of my enemies. Better, then, is the following ideal: Don’t kill your neighbors or enemies, even if you don’t love them” (591). This shallow New Testament exegesis is exemplary of Pinker’s failure to seriously engage any theological reflection not expressed by various Enlightenment thinkers and progressives. He finds much to praise in Hobbes and Kant, little to cheer for in Jesus or Aquinas. His philosophical reasoning on rationality being the chief proponent of non-violence also leaves something to be desired (see Gary Gutting, “Pinker on Reason and Morality,” New York Times, Oct. 26, 2011).
Significantly, Pinker is not arguing that the process of organic evolution can explain the recent decline in human violence. Human nature, which he defines as “the cognitive and emotional inventory of our species, has been constant over the ten-thousand year window in which declines of violence are visible, and that all differences in behavior among societies have strictly environmental causes” (612. Further details on his approach to human nature can be found in his previous book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature). I wonder how he would integrate studies which claim that London cab drivers appear to “grow” their brains in a certain way on the job. (See “Taxi drivers’ brains ‘grow’ on the job,” BBC News, 14 March 2000.) Eaither way, he sees external environmental causes as leading to our increased uses of pacifying brain bits. Such causes, for Pinker, include “the Leviathan,” when the state uses a monopoly on force to decrease overall violence, “Gentle Commerce,” whereby exchanging goods is cheaper than attacking neighbors, “Feminization,” deflating cultures of manly honor, “the Expanding Circle,” an increasingly cosmopolitan society spreading through literature, trade, and government, and “the Escalator of Reason,” whereby human abstract reasoning skills have seemed to increase over the past century according to the famous “Flynn effect” (690). Despite Pinker’s earlier condemnation of “ideology” in general, he presents his own humanist ideology as the path to less violence for the future.
Although Pinker certainly has nothing specifically good to say about religion, not least of all the LDS Church (which only serves as ‘exhibit A’ for the claim that religions are entirely historically contingent, and thus not divine, p. 678), he does advance several hypotheses which Mormons will find interesting. First, the idea that humans are neither inherently evil nor inherently good (482); Second, that debates over “nature versus nurture” present a false dichotomy, that humans are in some sense both actors and acted upon (483), and that morality itself is in a large sense “relational” (628).
In other words, Pinker’s book has a ton of food for thought. Although I have pretty significant objections to some of his claims and methodology, I still strongly recommend the book.  Better Angels is an odd, irreverent mixture of horror and tragedy, hope and progress. It is a good example of the fact that scientific studies may be brought to bear on moral questions while seeking further light and knowledge.


JB said...

Fantastic review as always, Blair. I don't know if you've ever read the blog Quodlibeta (bedejournal.blogspot.com), but lately they've been running a series of posts investigating the methods by which Pinker obtained his statistics; quite a few of his figures seem to be sufficiently problematic to call those examples of Pinker's thesis into question.

BHodges said...

Oh sweet, thanks for the link. I'll def. check it out. I had misgivings about his figures especially pre-1900s.

BHodges said...

ps, i have forgotten your identity. :(

JB said...

You're welcome! And no worries; some of the time I forget my identity too. (When I need a refresher, I usually just skim over this: http://study-and-faith.blogspot.com/2010/11/welcome-and-introduction.html)

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