In The Better Angels of Our Nature psychologist Steven Pinker attempts to convince us that violence in all forms has declined remarkably throughout human history and that our modern world is more peaceful and stable than at any other time period. Pinker claims that “the decline of violence [is] the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.” Although I personally believe that the most significant and least appreciated fact of human history is the improvement of our species standard of living throughout history, I definitely agree with the author that most people today fail to comprehend just how violent a world our ancestors lived in and how much progress our species has made. To support this, Pinker provides the reader with an overwhelming amount of well-researched demographic data revealing the unquestionable trends in declining homicide (in all forms), war, genocide, torture, slavery, lynching, and intolerance and abuse (in all forms and against all categories of people). Pinker also gives detailed and well thought out explanations as to why this has occurred, while at the same time acknowledging what limitations this study has and what correlations are difficult to substantiate.
A foreign country
An important analogy employed throughout The Better Angels of Our Nature is the idea that the past is like a foreign country. This is a useful analogy because several lines of evidence regarding our pre-historic and ancient past suggests that all societies were not only extremely violent, but also morally reprehensible by contemporary standards. These conclusions are convincingly supported using archaeological records, ancient writings (usually philosophical, religious or political), and comparisons to modern state and non-state societies. The ancients frequently practiced and actively endorsed practices that we find barbaric today. Rape, genocide, wars of conquest and slavery were a very common and inextricable part of every ancient society. Pinker also points out that homicide rates were astronomically high. The most convincing line of evidence that illustrates this fact is a comparison made between homicide and war death rates in modern non-state and state societies. Almost without exception, state societies have rates of homicide and war deaths orders of magnitude lower than non-state societies (Fig.1).
The civilizing process, the humanitarian revolution and the rights revolution
If proving The Better Angels of Our Nature’s main thesis has a flaw it is in the fact that reliable data before the 20th century is not only hard to come by in many cases, but simply does not exist in most situations and largely only comes from the western world. Therefore, Pinker’s focus and narrative throughout much of the book remains in Europe and North America. In my opinion this is not a detriment because the epicenter of ‘the civilizing process’, ‘the humanitarian revolution’ and the ‘rights revolution’ all occurred in the western world during the past 1000 years and spread via colonization, globalization and international development during the modern era.
These three social phenomena occurred at different times, transformed society at different paces and revolutionized the modern world in different ways. The civilizing process explains the decrease in homicide throughout western Europe in between 1200-2000 C.E. In the year 1200 countries like England, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands all experienced homicide at an approximate rate of 75-100 per year for every 100,000 individuals. Throughout the next 800 years all of these countries experienced a steady and rapid decline in homicide and today all western European countries experience a homicide rate of 1 per year for every 100,000 individuals. This is a remarkable trend, which becomes even more astounding when you consider the estimated average homicide rate in ancient and modern non-state societies (1,000 per year for every 100,000 individuals).
Pinker also does a convincing job of explaining two key revolutions that are responsible for producing the relatively peaceful modern world: the humanitarian revolution and the rights revolution. The humanitarian revolution occurred during the Enlightenment and led to a significant reduction in practices that seem alien and barbaric to contemporary society. Throughout this period there was the removal of a ‘culture of cruelty’, which accepted the most mind-bogglingly bloodthirsty and callous torture (e.g., Cat’s paw, impalement) that make water boarding seem mild and humane. During this period there was also the systematic removal of slavery, a steep decline in superstitious and religious killings, and the near eradication of capital punishment.
The rights revolution was an event that Pinker argues can be seen as an extension of the humanitarian revolution. Post World War II revulsion of things that killed millions and thousands of people at a time (war and genocide), were extended to revulsion of things that killed hundreds, tens and single digits of people at a time (rioting, lynching, hate crimes, as well as rape, assault, battering and intimidation). Previously disenfranchised individuals like racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals were granted ‘rights’ in a meaningful way for the first time in human history. Pinker shows that these acquired rights over the past half-century have led to the near elimination of hate crimes, the acceptance of affirmative action policies, increased and unprecedented racial and religious tolerance, improved attitudes towards women’s liberation, decline in the incidence of rape, spousal abuse, infanticide, physical and sexual abuse of children, increased tolerance of gays and decreased acceptance of animal cruelty. This revolution, although real and significant, is by no means complete, but rather distributed on a gradient in the following order from most progressive to least progressive: Western Europe, blue American states, red American states, democracies of Latin America and Asia and finally the authoritarian states of Africa and the Islamic world. My only major disagreement with Pinker’s analysis of the rights revolution is the idea that there has been decreased animal cruelty. From my perspective animal rights activists have successfully pushed animal cruelty out of the public sphere in the west, however practices in factory farms remain as cruel and higher than ever in scale. Although I definitely give credence to his idea that our 22nd century descendants may be as horrified with us that we ate meat as we are with our 19th century ancestors that they kept slaves.
What about violence in the 20th century?
What about World War I and II? What about the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution and the Soviet Gulags? Pinker is aware that many people frequently use these iconic events to argue that our species is only becoming more violent with increasing technological ability to destroy. However he takes an entire chapter to dismiss this idea. He does a great job of explaining the fact that although the 20th century was the most violent in terms of absolute death, when you control for population size the 20th century was characterized by rapidly declining violence globally and record lows of violent activity (Fig. 2). This gives way to one of the most stunning and overlooked succession of statistics I have ever read, which Pinker claims represent ‘the long peace’ (Fig. 3). Since 1945 there have been zero nuclear weapons used, zero great powers directly at war, zero interstate conflicts in Europe, zero interstate conflicts between developed countries, zero territorial expansions by developed countries via conquest and zero recognized states that have ceased to exist due to conquest. At no other time in human history has our species enjoyed such peace on a global scale.
Pinker doesn’t just document declining violence throughout history but also attempts to explain what factors can explain this decline. For the civilizing process and the humanitarian revolution Pinker credits the transition to statehood, increasing prevalence and acceptance of democratic institutions, economic improvement and increased reliance on secular thinking created by a new marketplace of ideas during the Renaissance and Enlightenment spawned by more books, more reading and more highly educated individuals. The rights revolution on the other hand is more difficult to correlate with any set of causes but may also be tied to the intellectual revolution of the late 20th century which has been characterized by an even more powerful and pervasive spread of ideas and people.
The Better Angels of Our Nature