Genghis Khan's DNA

By Ingrid NortonDecember 6, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

"THE PAST," STEVEN PINKER DECLARES, "is a place where a person had a high chance of coming to bodily harm." In 13th century Eurasia, the slaughter of men and rape of women by invaders was so thorough that today 8 percent of men in the former Mongol Empire possess DNA from Genghis Khan's lineage. Timur Lenk, who took up Khan's mantle, marked successful conquests with minarets built from victim's skulls, leaving a body count of 17 million in his wake. Earlier burial grounds and charnel houses also brim with evidence of assault, butchery, murder, and war. Prehistoric mass graves from Egypt to Germany to the American Great Plains tell the same story: skulls severed from spines during ritual sacrifice and skeletons embedded with arrowheads and stone slugs. Traces of human blood tarnish ancient cooking pots and this grisly legacy is inscribed on our genomes, which contain defenses against the diseases that often accompany cannibalism.

Though history is a chronicle of atrocities, Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined centers not on brutality itself, but on the forces that curtail it. The book ranges across human prehistory, examines the effects of growing cities and consolidating states, lauds the Enlightenment, attempts to explain the 20th century's World Wars ("extremely bad luck"), and zooms in on the conflicts and resolutions of recent decades, including the expansion of human and even animal rights. Pinker's central contention is that violence has declined to an unprecedented extent in the modern era. Conflicts and cruelty remain. But the common condemnation of bloodshed and will to avoid it are relatively recent developments. "Today," he writes, "people might be dumbfounded when asked whether we should burn heretics, keep slaves, whip children, or break criminals on the wheel, yet those very debates took place several centuries ago." Pinker argues for examining cooperation and peace alongside exploitation and war: instances of the former may prove to be among the most extraordinary achievements of our species.

Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd “Non Violence” 1985 MalmöPhotograph by ?†Σ © Some rights reserved

Pinker is a cognitive scientist best known for books like The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct, all of which examine how human cognitive capabilities have been shaped by the exigencies of human evolution. The "Hobbesian salt" of evolutionary psychology flavors The Better Angels of Our Nature too: human brutality is a given; emotions and social behavior are the legacy of hunter-gatherer forbearers; individuals shift between strategies of altruism, betrayal, deception, and vengeance based on benefits to themselves, kin, and tribe. While detractors of this line of thinking often cast it as reactionary, arguing that to emphasize the indelible in human nature militates against change and individuality, Pinker is generally known for advocating a nuanced, humanistic view. He emphasizes that though people are born with significant faculties and predispositions, individual differences are huge. Environment and social institutions, he argues, tremendously influence how traits and behaviors manifest themselves. These contingencies lie at the heart of The Better Angels, as Pinker sets out to examine the seams between civilization, modernity, and human nature.

How the expression of "a fixed human nature" that evolved over millennia can change in mere centuries and, indeed, decades is a profound and urgent question. To answer it, Pinker wades into the historical record and examines everything from political institutions to the ways that ideas, be they of ethnic supremacy or Enlightenment humanism, gain sway over human actions. Pinker is a curious, lucid guide across eons of evidence. He is equally articulate about the social arrangements of primates and the pacifist theories of Immanuel Kant. With eclectic verve, he surveys taxonomies of different kinds of warfare, explores the way satire can puncture social norms, and interrogates how the increased presence of women in the public sphere has changed men's perception of rape and sexual harassment. The scope of the undertaking is staggering; the results, unfailingly thought provoking.

But The Better Angels can also be an unwieldy book, by turns digressive and selective. Part of the problem is the infinite regress inherent to any deep examination of human existence, where myriad cultures and millions of years must be telescoped into a few hundred pages. Drawing on the empirical studies of evolutionary psychology and the evidence of anthropologists, archeologists, and primatologists, Pinker asserts that bloody conflict pervaded the thousands of generations before written history. As homo sapiens transitioned from small bands of foragers to larger agricultural and urbanized groups, rulers and fiefdoms emerged, which in turn led to empires and states. The concentration of power lessened homicide and feuding but brought forth organized armies and new forms of oppression. Narrative at this scale necessitates summary: solving the problems of tyranny and coercive government, Pinker explains at one point, "would have to wait another few millennia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day." Pinker's vast scholarship, cogent intellect, and engaging style sweep the reader along, but also tend to mask some questionable — and significant — oversights.

To serve his ambitious enterprise, Pinker creates a grand straw man: the modern Western reader who thinks we live in the most violent epoch of all time. Some of his rebuttals are welcome: as the book's title suggests, the incidence of genocides and wars worldwide have gradually but inexorably diminished over the last half-century. If we assume otherwise, it is because we are inundated by news of atrocities, and our minds extrapolate from examples at hand rather than statistical reality. "When we are judging the density of killings," Pinker explains, "anyone who doesn't consult the numbers is apt to overweight the conflicts that are most recent, most studied, or most sermonized." The same bias makes people worry about becoming victims of crime and terrorism but underestimate mundane, unpublicized threats like car accidents. Pinker also rebukes the tendency to view violence as inevitable, with ceasefires and restrained impulses bottling up and ultimately erupting. The declines in violence are too marked, the changes in norms too dramatic, he argues, for this to be the case: "Left to their own devices, humans will not fall into a state of peaceful cooperation, but nor do they have a thirst for blood that must regularly be slaked." Pinker's affable, evenhanded tone is admirable, but it also enables him to make any objection seem ungrateful and steadfastly gloomy ("You would think that the disappearance of the gravest threat in the history of humanity would bring a sigh of relief among commentators on world affairs ... But no — the pundits are glummer than ever!"). In many ways, the device of refuting imaginary interlocutors distorts the book. Pinker takes swaying the skeptical reader by documenting a decline in violence as his most important task. Often this comes at the expense of delving deeper into what changes are responsible for our era's relative peace.

Though Pinker's treatment of prehistory and contemporary conflict is concerned with the international, the scope of his argument frequently narrows. He devotes much space to the late Middle Ages in Western Europe, when kingdoms consolidated and norms of trade accompanied a decline in homicide — a first step, Pinker tells us, to curbing human violence — but he doesn't explore the growth of government and trade in other parts of the world. While he claims that the historical record is Eurocentric, this seems an excuse for a tenuous grasp on non-Western history. Western European society in the Middle Ages was notoriously diffuse and unruly compared to the vast Abbasid, Byzantine, Chinese, and Mongol states to the east. Pinker's emphasis makes it seem as though Europe discovered civility, trade, and centralized governance when it was in fact laggard on that score. The ascendency of Europe as a global force in politics and ideas is a more recent phenomenon, and one that was bulwarked by the organization of large-scale armies and rapacious imperial expansion.

The early modern ebb of homicide in Europe coincided with a rise in the efficacy and scope of war, a fact Pinker sweeps aside, applauding the democratic, humanitarian, and secular values of the Enlightenment. While he quickly admits that the former doesn't line up with the latter — "As states became more powerful, they also got crueler" — too often Pinker mentions bloodlust only in relation to its decline. He gives the 16th century Wars of Religion their gory due, but uses the example to point out that those war's death rates surpassed World Wars I and II. The rise of trained, large-scale armies in medieval Europe doesn't come up until a discussion of the weakening of martial culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pinker praises commerce for increasing social reciprocity and igniting the Enlightenment, but neglects to mention that this prosperity was bankrolled by the most atrocious forms of enterprise. The coffee and sugar that philosophes imbibed in European cafés were harvested by slaves on New World plantations. More than a millennium of African enslavement by Islamic and European empires comes up only in connection to abolition. Pinker discusses the political instability that accompanied decolonization in the 20th century, but barely analyzes the structured ruthlessness that preceded it.

Pinker succumbs to the temptation to reverse-engineer a peaceful ascent in which the state lessens human barbarity and then humans work to improve the state. That humankind shifted from hodgepodge raiding and retribution to centralized states is factually correct — but positing this as a lessening of violence presents problems. A state monopoly on force, he tells us, "may be the most consistent violence-reducer" — as though "violence" simply means "violent death." While he admits there's more to governance than hoarding power — success depends on the "nebulous process" by which people come to trust the law and its agents — he posits that, in an ideal democracy, "the government carefully eyedrops just enough force" into society to incentivize good behavior. The reality, though, is that for most of civilization the state has applied force with a bludgeon — not an eyedropper — and in many quarters still does. Would you rather live in a village where invasion, rape, and vengeful quarrels were constant possibilities, or in a city where authorities torture citizens to death and the government conscripts men into armies to fight distant wars? Neither option is appealing.

Pinker doesn't adequately acknowledge that for much of written history, rulers have combined the two realities to strengthen their power and position.??Pinker documents the growth of legal rights for children, minorities, and women that mushroomed during the second half of the 20th century (here, the story focuses on the United States) but barely touches on how these groups' oppression had been codified and made worse by various governments' legal systems. Though Pinker praises the peaceful qualities of democracies, he puts more emphasis on commerce and a state control over law and order than on accountability and representation. He blames "inept government" and a lack of policing for conflict in the developing world: "when law enforcement retreats, such as in instant decolonization ... violence can come roaring back." But focusing on a lack of laws and police as the main symptom of inept governance is problematic. Contemporary Colombia, Jamaica, Russia, South Africa, and Venezuela have some of the highest homicide rates in the world — and are all among the states with the highest proportion of police personnel to the general population. The assertion also ignores authoritarian countries where street crime is low because of an effective system of coercion, partiality, and vicious force.

The Better Angels of Our Nature likewise argues that violence in the United States remains high in socioeconomic "pockets of anarchy" because the poor "are deprived of consistent law enforcement." Pinker thus blames the late 20th century murder rate increase in African-American communities on permissive Baby Boomer mores, ignoring that after the riots in the late sixties, many urban police departments invested in new weaponry and adopted militaristic tactics. The proliferation of assault weapons on the streets and accompanying rise in gun fatalities was arguably fuelled by an arms race between street gangs, the police, and growing government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration. Pinker, however, signs on to the logic of the War on Drugs and attendant prison boom: "A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will net a certain number of violent people as bycatch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets." And here one must ask, is the problem really "anarchy"? According to a Pew study, by the end of 2007, more than 7 million adults — one in 31 Americans — were incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. For young African-American men, the ratio is closer to one in three. Far from deterring crime, having a criminal record typically precludes mainstream employment and ensnares people in the underworld. Elsewhere in the book, Pinker eloquently explains how "human sympathy can be turned on or off based on how another person is categorized," cautioning that demonizing or dehumanizing others allows societies to countenance injustice and violence. That he doesn't further scrutinize America's criminal justice system belies his credulity in the face of state authority.

Centralized force and law may be prerequisites for a decline in brutality, but actual peace requires more. Pinker is most perceptive in his treatment of the mental underpinnings of cruelty as well as our "better angels," the human faculties like empathy, self-control, and moral sense necessary to combat violence. Pinker illuminates the strengths of these traits — and their limitations: "The exploration of our better angels must show not only how they steer us away from violence, but why they often fail to do so; not just how they have been increasingly engaged, but why history had to wait so long to engage them fully." Compassion, he suggests, flips on and off based on affinity and allegiance. Vengeance and a sense of having been wronged lay waste to self-control. Discipline fails to incubate in stressful environments. Moral intuitions justify much of the world's bigotry. Ideology inflames people to terrifying acts. Pinker's rendering of the psychological processes that drive societies when they embrace intolerance or go to war are among the most arresting portions of the book. He compellingly argues that common human traits like contempt for strangers and submission to authority enable genocide and torture.

Pinker recognizes World Wars I and II as big problems for his thesis that modernity lessens violence. Though far from the only mass atrocities in human history, these conflicts entail some of the most densely violent years in the annals of bloodshed. Pinker asserts that despite this, the détente that occurred afterwards was more durable: The "enduring moral trend of the [20th] century was a violence-averse humanism that originated in the Enlightenment, became overshadowed by counter-Enlightenment ideologies wedded to agents of growing destructive power, and regained momentum in the wake of World War II."

But why should the avoidance of violence prove more lasting and powerful than the circumstances that lead us to slaughter and intolerance? Pinker abundantly documents humanity's disposition toward intimidation, vengeance, and violence in the pursuit of survival: Why should we believe in the odds of overcoming these tendencies in the long run? Stacked beside millennia after millennia of carnage and cruelty, our much-vaunted humanism begins to seem fragile and paltry.

Pinker dismisses this apprehension with a luminous defense of reason. Empathy is parochial; morality has sanctioned everything from enslavement to burning heretics. The spread of reason is what enabled the modern shift toward institutions that prize human flourishing and autonomy over tribalism and warmongering:

Only gradually, with the appearance of literacy, cities, and long-distance travel and communication, could our ancestors cultivate the faculty of reason and apply it to a broader range of concerns ... One would expect that as collective rationality is honed over the ages, it will progressively whittle away at the shortsighted and hot-blooded impulses toward violence, and force us to treat a greater number of rational agents as we would have them treat us.

For all its lapses, Pinker's work comes together in this light. Early states amplified the jingoistic and bloody proclivities of human nature, often on scales that are unthinkable today. But by bringing together disparate populations, they fomented the social complexity that would make cooperation more appealing than force and plunder. Likewise, the widespread literacy that followed the invention of the printing press brought forth the Enlightenment. Pinker argues that our era's increasing mobility and democratization of knowledge will further entrench humanism.

Pinker doesn't discuss reason's centrality to the decline of violence until near the end of his 700-page opus. Over the course of The Better Angels of Our Nature, he furiously documents wars but devotes less analysis to the effects of literacy and globalization. He is more comfortable with the quantifiable claims of social science than with the slippery analyses history involves. The book bristles with charts — 90 of them — that show the decline of everything from murder among English aristocrats to contemporary interstate wars and the mistreatment of animals in film. Pinker is optimistic about the decline in violence, but unwilling to make predictions. Despite best intentions and hopeful developments, episodes of massive bloodshed lurk over the book's horizon, and ours.

And yet it is impossible not to be impressed and provoked by Pinker's reminder that "for all the violence that remains in the world ... something remarkable has brought us to the present." The astounding, unprecedented changes he tallies include the enfranchisement of women and the tendency for nations (South Africa, for example) to work toward reconciliation rather than retaliation in the wake of civil conflict. When Pinker quotes Amos Oz, who looked to literature for ways in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might end, it's hard to refute him:

At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there's some justice hovering high above. A Chekhovian tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. And I want a Chekhovian resolution, not a Shakespearean one ...

The Better Angels of Our Nature suggests that humans are moving from Shakespeare's world to Chekhov's. Choosing reconciliation over bloodshed and coexistence over dominance is not easy. In fact, far from ushering in Utopia, a world with less violence may demand from us our best angels yet.

LARB Contributor

Ingrid Norton is an essayist, fiction writer, and reporter. At large, Norton was last seen in Texas.


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