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Book Review

Can we all get along?

By Michael Washburn
October 9, 2011

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THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined By Steven Pinker

Viking, 802 pp., illustrated, $40

Early in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being’’ novelist Milan Kundera invokes Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. “Putting it negatively,’’ Kundera writes, “the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all . . . means nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.’’ This isn’t a good thing, of course. But Kundera’s passage repeatedly sprang to mind when reading “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,’’ Steven Pinker’s always provocative, often frustrating new book.

Pinker, celebrated Harvard psychology professor, argues that we currently enjoy the least violent age in human history. We don’t perceive this because we overemphasize the scale of recent events. Agincourt seems less representative of its time than 9/11 does of ours because we’re so much closer to the latter. We also respond to dramatic stimuli - our blood-soaked news cycle forces us to continuously witness violence. It’s bad out there, we proclaim, and getting worse. Quite the contrary, Pinker argues, “[i]t’s a good time in history to be a potential victim.’’

Pinker marshals a battery of research to support this assertion, arguing that the last few centuries have seen a precipitous decline in violence, including rape, slavery, and war. Pinker digs into each category of cruelty, revealing how a series of overlapping elements of modernity is responsible for the decline.

The proliferation of centralized states with law enforcement systems radically reduces chaos and bloodshed; democracy provides the least violent government, but almost any formalized authority trumps anarchy. Trade across borders supplants violence with mutual benefit and dependency. The growing power of women has helped subdue the world’s violent masculine tendencies (like many of his arguments, Pinker supports this with a commanding exposition on neurobiology). Pinker also stresses the growth of literacy as a pacifying force. Beneath each of these trends, he sees the expansion of reason, the ultimate antidote to violence.

If reason is humanity’s saving grace, our persistent downfall isn’t madness so much as morality, or what passed as morality for our “morally retarded’’ ancestors. People often feel that violence results from amorality. “On the contrary,’’ Pinker argues, “violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators.’’

Progress against aggression occurs when societies “retract’’ morality from privileged, foundational positions. This retraction is “precisely the agenda of classical liberalism: a freedom of individuals from tribal and authoritarian force, and a tolerance of personal choices as long as they do not infringe on the autonomy and well-being of others.’’

This should be fine by everyone: The values of classical liberalism are better than those of theocratic irrationalism or predatory autocracy, two alternatives. Pinker gums up the works a bit, however, when he exhibits some of the chauvinism that often attends the celebration of liberal superiority.

“A world in which war continues in some of the poorer countries,’’ he writes, “is still better than a world in which it takes place in both the rich and the poor countries.’’ Well, yes, but this is a disturbing argument coming from someone who stresses the importance of a normative ethics and who often mentions Kant.

Pinker is a lucid writer, but “Better Angels’’ is riven by such rhetorical tone deafness. Pinker claims to adopt this “irreverent’’ tone because discussions of violence inspire “too much piety and not enough understanding.’’ Irreverence may dilute piety, but that doesn’t imply an advancement of understanding. At one point, Pinker compares genocide with “truly monstrous’’ genocide. As a category, genocide was created in part to avoid such quantitative accounting; the issue is the extermination of a specific group, regardless of its size. A few pages later Pinker claims that 9/11 killed a “trifling’’ number of Americans. He then writes that as long as suicide bombers obtain such “bang for the buck’’ they will continue to blow themselves up. I could go on.

This cavalier attitude creeps into Pinker’s marquee argument: that the number of war deaths has consistently decreased. World War II is the most lethal single event in human history, killing 55 million people over six years. Rather than flatly admit that this poses an obstacle to his theory, Pinker engages in creative accounting. He argues that when adjusted for a kind of macabre inflation the war was only the ninth most deadly. What killed more people? Well, the Mongol Conquests says Pinker. Over more than a century, the Mongols only killed 40 million (which isn’t truly monstrous), but Pinker adjusts these numbers to equal the same percentage of the population as were living in the mid-20th century, claiming that the Mongols would have claimed 278 million lives. The 20th century poses a problem for Pinker as it contains “horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution.’’ Indeed.

Pinker appears to relish controversy - he slays several sacred cows in this book; ponder the phrase “campus rape bureaucracy’’ - so none of these criticisms likely will come as a surprise to him. In fact, they’re questions of taste and methodology rather than blanket refutations of this challenging, ambitious book. In the end, ”The Better Nature of Our Angels’’ should be greeted as an opportunity for further evaluation of our distressed but perfectible humanity.

Michael Washburn is a fellow at the CUNY Writers Institute. He may be reached at michael.a. washburn@gmail.com.

THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined By Steven Pinker

Viking, 802 pp., illustrated, $40