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.

Review: Craig Harline, “Conversions: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America”

Title: Conversions: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America
Author: Craig Harline
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: History/Narrative
Year: 2011
Pages: xi, 320
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN13: 9780300167016
Price: $27.50
“The human intellect demands accuracy
while the soul craves meaning.
History ministers to both with stories.”1
Conversions, a new book by Craig Harline, presents exactly what the subtitle suggests: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America. In one story, Jacob Rolandus cuts himself off from his Reformed family by converting to Catholicism in 1654. In the other, the pseudonymous Michael Sunbloom converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the late 1970s, devastating his Evangelical Christian parents.
By juxtaposing these two narratives, Harline foregrounds a perennial question about the importance of historical scholarship: “So what?” This is the “relevance” question. Congratulations, Mr. Harline; while you’ve been digging around in dusty old archives or kicking back in your ivory tower, we’ve been out here creating jobs and doing other Important Things.
This is an attitude many historians are familiar with, as Harline himself candidly acknowledges:
The problem is, it’s not always easy to see what some old story, especially a really old story, can possibly have to do with you, right now. If a story is about, say, your ancestor, your religion, or your country, then its relevance may seem obvious enough. But a story about an obscure Dutch family that lived 350 years ago and 3,500 miles away and isn’t related to you and doesn’t speak your language or share your religion can seem as foreign as the moon (19).
It isn’t unusual for a historian to make such remarks in general. But it is unusual for a historian like Harline to make such remarks in the fourth chapter of a history book, and to do it using contractions like “it’s” and “doesn’t.”2
The quote isn’t part of an introduction to a historical essay, or an aside in a academic conference paper, or part of a plea for more funding in a letter written to donors or departments. It’s part of chapter four in Conversions.
Harline doesn’t stop there, either—he’s not simply lamenting the problems of a generally disinterested or distracted public. He’s expressing some of his own very personal reluctances, making explicit a few of the nagging questions a scholar deals with privately, sharing his vulnerability too:
Even when you sense the immediate relevance of such remote stories, as historians often do, you might be reluctant to explore it, because the task of showing how the past connects to the present is just so difficult. The past is strange, and other, and foreign. Sometimes it’s even completely impenetrable, despite your best efforts to understand it. Other times you think you have it right, then it slips between your fingers and fools you…If you can’t ever be sure that you’re right about the shadowy past, then how can you ever hope to compare it to the flesh-and-blood present? It’s a lot safer, and simpler, to stick to the past alone, especially the small corner of the past you’ve chosen to study, rather than to discuss how that past might also be about you today (19).
While a few contemporary scholars still cling to an outmoded understanding of “objectivity,” most historians today bear the scars of postmodern critiques; scars which remind them they don’t sit atop Mount Olympus declaring the absolute way things were. They don’t simply dig up facts from the past and set them in a row on the table for all of us to see. Three respected historians explain it this way: “Lived experience alters the questions historians ask, foreclosing some research agendas while inspiring new ones.”3  Harline himself could have written their description: “all histories start with the curiosity of a particular individual and take shape under the guidance of her or his personal and cultural attributes.”4  But those historians make those declarations in a book about history. Harline makes his declarations—then enacts them—in the middle of a history book.
Of course, Harline’s move is unconventional. Conversions is part of Yale University Press’s series, “New Directions in Narrative History.” It is a daring move toward explicit relevance by presenting “creative nonfiction.” It offers “significant scholarly contributions while also embracing stylistic innovation [through the] classic techniques of storytelling” (ii).
Such storytelling techniques are used to draw the reader in, as well as to bridge the past and present by inverting the time gap. Jacob Rolandus’s daring night escape from home in 1654 is narrated in the present tense: “And now the field at last! But here more disappointment: the horse still hasn’t arrived, and the friend waiting with the bag says that he can’t make the journey either, because he has a bad foot” (5). In contrast, Michael Sunbloom’s family reacted to his conversion in the past tense: “When the cousin started asking about Mormonism, and what in the world had moved Michael to convert, Michael hesitated, stepped as far into the hallway as he could [to avoid letting his parents overhear], and took the risk of answering. Big mistake” (76-77). These two stories are told alternately, one chapter relating Jacob’s tale, the next, Michael’s. This back-and-forth, “too be continued” construction naturally pulls readers to the next episode.
The structure of the book also invites readers into the world of a practicing historian. Harline includes pictures of the Da Vinci-esque code he had to crack in order to interpret Jacob Rolandus’s secret journal, a journal he excitedly discovered bundled up in an old archive (9-12). Harline describes how he found the journal, then how the journal’s story began feeling importantly, but vaguely, relevant to him. The journal ended up being connected through lineage to Harline’s own grandparents, which added emotional connection, but he reports: “Something else, someone else, had been working away inside me first, and it didn’t take long to recognize that it was Michael Sunbloom” (44).
I was mistaken above when I described Harline’s book as tracing only two conversion stories. The third, less-explicitly identified conversion story in Harline’s book is his own. By alternately centering Jacob, Michael, and himself as the main protagonists, Harline’s book inhabits a borderland between academic excellence and dangerous self-disclosure/didacticism. The idea of “conversion” itself is the conceptual bridge between radically different times, circumstances, motivations, characters, and outcomes. The heartrending interpersonal conflicts involved in each story tie each narrative to the others, and—more importantly, Harline might hope—ties these narratives to the heart of the reader.
By comparing Michael Sunbloom’s turmoil to Jacob Rolandus’s, Harline is simply doing the sort of implicit work a lot of readers already do when they read history—not least of all Mormons, who often employ history for exemplary moral ends in talks and Sunday School lessons. This moral use of history is certain to make readers squirm, not least of all any historians who believe it only blurs the lines between history and propaganda. While Harline pays close attention to the historical circumstances which made Rolandus’s decision so heartbreaking, he pays no less attention to Sunbloom’s personal context, because he is a living part of it. In fact, it is this same element which will likely make some Mormons increasingly uncomfortable as Harline’s narrative follows up on Sunbloom’s conversion by relating the way Sunbloom eventually drifted from the Church due to his emerging homosexual identity. As a Mormon himself, Harline’s discomfort over Sunbloom’s conversion experiences made Rolandus’s old papers seem all the more relevant to him, despite their deep differences. So his book candidly explores the tragic circumstances bridging three different-but-the-same conversion pathways.
Certainly this is what Yale University Press’s “New Directions” series is aiming for by presenting books which are “intended for the broadest general readership,” which explains the lack of footnotes and index, although he snuck in a very detailed bibliographical essay at the end (273-298). In addition to popular accessibility, the series aims to “speak to deeply human concerns about the past, present, and future of our world and its people” (ii). It will be fascinating to see what sort of reactions his efforts elicit. It’s possible that he could be criticized from a variety of perspectives. In the postscript, Harline describes worrying about what his fellow historians might think of his so explicitly tying the past to the present, his decision to stress “the psychological sameness of the past rather than its otherness” (267). He worries that “fellow Mormons…might dislike my sympathetic treatment of homosexuality,” (after all, he’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University), “while critics of Mormonism might dislike my sympathetic treatment of Mormonism,” (after all, he’s a professor of history at Brigham Young University). Not to mention what his parents, friends, Protestants, Catholics, and others might think (268). Whatever the obstacles, he reports, “I wanted to try anyway” (272).
This is history-as-catharsis:
Suddenly the burden of dealing with contemporary crises was lessened by the awareness that whatever people might do, they are not the first, nor probably the last, who will be forced to wrestle with this human problem.5
This is history-as-covenant:
…as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…(Mosiah 18:8—9).
1. Joyce Appleby, Lynne Hunt, Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 262.
2. Richard L. Bushman is another model of such academic self-disclosure, though his confessions are found in books like Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007) and On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), not in the middle of his magisterial Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005).
3. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 271.
4. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 254.
5. Appleby, Hunt, Jacob, Ibid., 290.