Are humans less violent than they used to be?

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Are humans less violent than they used to be?

Post  eddie on Thu Oct 20, 2011 8:41 pm

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker - review

We are less violent than we used to be, argues Steven Pinker's new book

David Runciman
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 22 September 2011 10.00 BST


A peaceable response to violence: memorial for the victims of the shooting on Utoya island in July 2011. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

When you heard that a gunman had slaughtered scores of Norwegian teenagers on a holiday island earlier this summer, did you think that here was another symptom of our sick and violent world? So did I, until I read Steven Pinker's brilliant, mind-altering book about the decline of violence. Pinker does not deny that individual human beings are capable of the most appalling acts of savagery. But the test of our propensity for violence is how the rest of us respond. Once it would have been basic human instinct to react to violence on this scale with more violence. But where were the reprisals, the mob rampages, the demands for the torture and killing of the perpetrator? Instead, the Norwegian people responded with remarkable compassion and restraint: love-bombing instead of real bombing. What happened in Norway this summer showed just how peace-loving we have become.


The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes
by Steven Pinker

Pinker thinks that most of what we believe about violence is wrong. To convince us he sets himself two tasks. First, to demonstrate that the past was a far nastier place than we might have imagined. Second, that the present is far nicer than we might have noticed. So to start with we get a litany of horrors from ancient and not-so-ancient history: a catalogue of the unspeakable things that human beings have traditionally been willing to do to each other. This is slightly overdone, since anyone who thinks that, say, medieval Europe was a friendly, peaceable place can't have thought about it very much. Still, it is hard not to be occasionally struck dumb by just how horrible people used to be. The image I can't get out of my head is of a hollow brass cow used for roasting people alive. Its mouth was left open so that their screams would sound like the cow was mooing, adding to the amusement of onlookers.

The real fascination of this book is how we got from being a species that enjoyed the spectacle of roasting each other alive to one that believes child-killers have the same rights as everyone else. As Pinker shows, it is both a long story and a relatively recent one. The first thing that had to happen was the move from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence (where your chances of meeting a violent end could be as high as 50:50) to settled communities. The trouble was that early governments showed themselves at least as capable of cruelty as anyone else: most of the truly horrific instruments of torture Pinker describes were designed and employed by servants of the state. As the 17th-century philosopher John Locke remarked of the escape from the state of nature to so-called civilisation: why run away from polecats only to be devoured by lions?

So the next thing that had to happen was the state had to be properly civilised. This took place over the course of what we have come to call the enlightenment, thanks in part to philosophers such as Locke. In both private and public life – covering everything from table manners to bills of rights – the means were found to restrain our worst instincts. Slowly, painfully, but ultimately successfully torture was outlawed, slavery was abolished, democracy became established and people discovered that they could rely on the state to protect them.

Yet the enlightenment has acquired something of a bad name. Why? The answer is simply put: the 20th century, surely the most appallingly violent of them all, scarred by total war, genocide and other mass killings on an almost unimaginable scale. All those table manners and bills of rights didn't prevent the Holocaust, did they? At the heart of this book is Pinker's careful, compelling account of why the 20th century does not invalidate his thesis that violence is in a long decline. He makes his case in three ways. First, with a multitude of tables and charts he shows that our view of the century is coloured by presentism: we think it's the worst simply because it's the most recent and we know more about it. If we had equivalent coverage of the whole of human history (how many books have been published about the second world war compared to, say, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century?) we would see that all of it has been scarred by mass slaughters, some of them proportionately even worse than the horrors of the past hundred years.

Second, Pinker argues that the violence of the 20th century is best understood as a series of random spasms rather than part of a trend. The two world wars were essentially freak events, driven by contingency and in some cases lunacy: a bit like the killings on Utøya magnified a millionfold. They do not reflect the default condition of mankind. The evidence for this is the third part of Pinker's case: look at what has happened since 1945, as the world has become immeasurably more peaceful on almost every count. Of course, there have been horrors (Mao, Pol Pot) but no one can doubt that the arrow has been pointing away from the violence of the first half of the 20th century, not back towards more of it.

Pinker calls the post-1945 period "the long peace". But the real surprise is what he calls "the short peace", which corresponds to the 20 years since the end of the cold war. I am one of those who like to believe that the idea of 1989 as some fundamental turning point in human history is absurd: the world is just as dangerous as it has always been. But Pinker shows that for most people in most ways it has become much less dangerous. There have not just been fewer wars, but in the wars there have been many fewer people have died. Terrorism is down, not up. All sorts of disadvantaged groups – women, children, ethnic minorities, even animals – are much less likely to be victims of violence across many parts of the world, and the trend is spreading. Part of the reason we fail to notice this picture is that it is so pervasive: we are more aware of violence simply because we have become so unused to it.

At the outset Pinker calls the story he has to tell "maybe the most important thing that has ever happened in human history". That depends. If you told a medieval peasant that all the horsemen of the apocalypse that blighted his (and even more so her) life would be vanquished by the 21st century – famine and disease as well as war and violence – it might be the first two that seemed the real miracles (as well as being responsible for saving many more lives). Some peasants (though here perhaps more the hims than the hers) might also feel a little ambivalent about the decline of violence. Human aggression, unlike famine and disease, is not just some capricious act of God. It is part of who we are. Giving it up might leave even a victimised peasant feeling a little diminished.

Pinker accepts we have not abolished violence in the way that we have abolished smallpox. In the final section of the book he moves from history to evolutionary psychology to show that human beings are always torn between their inner demons and their better angels. What decides us between them is not virtue or vice but strategic calculation. We resort to violence when violence seems the better bet. We resist it when it seems riskier than the alternative. That's why violence can be self-reinforcing – as in the tit-for-tat world of the hunter-gatherers – but it's also why peace can be self-reinforcing – as in the love-bomb world we inhabit now. Pinker is adamant that we should not be complacent about the decline of violence: the inner demons are still there. But neither should we be fatalistic: as things stand, our better angels are a truer reflection of who we are.

What might change that? As I was reading this book I was repeatedly reminded of two novels. One is Lord of the Flies, an earlier generation's definitive allegory of the violence lurking in us all. Pinker's book makes Golding's vision look dated: there is no state of nature bubbling away beneath the surface of civilised man, notwithstanding all the hysterical nonsense that has been uttered about the recent riots (which were, for riots, remarkably unviolent). The other novel is Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this generation's definitive allegory of how it could all go wrong. McCarthy pictures a world in which some random future spasm (perhaps an environmental catastrophe) leaves us all unhinged and lets the inner demons loose. Does our gradual move away from violence towards civility leave us better or worse equipped to deal with the next great calamity when it comes? No one can know, and Pinker does not pretend to provide an answer. But in the meantime, everyone should read this astonishing book.

David Runciman's Political Hypocrisy is published by Princeton.
What did you think?

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


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Re: Are humans less violent than they used to be?

Post  eddie on Thu Nov 03, 2011 1:23 pm

Steven Pinker's revolution has yet to begin

In order to raise compassion and reduce violence in our own century we must increase the numbers of the literary as well as the literate

Liz Disley
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 1 November 2011 18.27 GMT


Even authors like Alice Walker, who keep away from the white, educated middle class, are part of the highly educated literary elite

One of the key arguments of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, as illustrated by the Guardian extract, is that the growth of literacy and the recognition of the primacy of reason were the practical catalysts for a huge leap in empathetic feeling. This "humanitarian revolution" underlies the decline of violence since the 18th century, the Enlightenment values developing there directly precipitating a practical commitment to our shared humanity. Fiction makes us see from perspectives that would not otherwise have been available to us, thereby increasing our propensity for compassionate feeling. The more directly the perspective of the protagonist is shared with the reader, the greater the empathy-enabling and compassion-inducing effect: the paradigm is the epistolary novel. Elegant philosophical reasoning can help us to organise our conflicting interests, living autonomous and rational lives in the perpetual peace of Kant's kingdom of ends rather than nasty, brutish and short ones in a Hobbesian state of nature.


The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes
by Steven Pinker

This much, as Pinker himself points out, will seem "banal and obvious" to us children of the Enlightenment. What is perhaps less apparent at first glance is the sweepingly elitist nature of Pinker's argument, which has compassion and reason flowing from the educated pinnacle of literary and philosophical achievement towards the masses, or at least that part of them which has time to wade their way through Rousseau's Julie or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

It is difficult to argue with the contention that wide literary reading enhances the ability to view human experience from a variety of different perspective (which, as Pinker correctly points out, is not actually the same as the ability to feel compassion). But how varied, in socio-economic terms, are the perspectives offered by 18th or, for that matter, 21st century literature? Realist texts of the 19th century, from Madame Bovary to Anna Karenina, might have provided a new perspective to their male readers, but it was one firmly emanating from the social elite. The great history of the epistolary novel, from Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther to Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, remains largely within the confines of the white, educated middle-classes of Europe and North America. Even where the protagonists and indeed the authors stray from this model, such as in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, the authors themselves are, almost by definition, part of the highly educated literary elite.

Pinker's argument is surely, given his views in The Blank Slate, that we need literature to awaken a latent propensity for empathy and compassion rather than to develop one where none exists. It is no controversial statement to say that, in order to be educated, we should look to the educated. But even if what is involved here is the lighting of a fire and not the filling of a pail, the narrow provenance of the encouragement of what is supposed to be a universal human trait will necessarily limit its efficacy.

The same limited social perspective is at work in Pinker's analysis of reason's role in the "humanitarian revolution". Whilst Kant eked out a living as a private tutor for years before success was forthcoming, his perspective is also solidly situated within the steady parade of academic and social luminaries who came to see him in Königsberg. Mutual unselfishness, so Pinker argues, is a rational mode of being because both parties are then better off with regard to the protection of their interests. The realization of the universality of reason pulls us away from the dog-eat-dog world where everyone simply pursues their own advantage. By this rationale, the more interests I have to protect, the greater my motivation to behave unselfishly and the greater, by extension, the basis of my humanitarian attitudes. This is no more a hopeful basis for a universal morality than the contention that your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Even Kant, for whom the intrinsic value of human beings is at the centre of his philosophy, sees duty as the best motivator of moral action, and desire or inherent motivation as a poor one. The universality of reason as a humanizing force is not much use to those with few tangible and definable interests to protect.

This is not to say that Pinker's view of Enlightenment values as the basis for a humanitarian revolution is misguided, but rather that this revolution has not genuinely begun. Pinker has humanitarian values emanating from the powerful and educated elites, but, given the rigid social stratification then and now, how could it have been otherwise? Rather than rejecting the basis of Pinker's argument, we should instead understand it as a demand for equality of opportunity in our political, educational and cultural lives. Increasing compassion and declining violence in our own century will rest not only on expanding the ranks of the literate, but of the literary; not only the ranks of those able to appreciate their own autonomy, but those taking part in the political discussion.

Liz Disley is a research associate in the Department of German at Cambridge University, specializing in the philosophy of social relations

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Re: Are humans less violent than they used to be?

Post  eddie on Thu Nov 03, 2011 2:00 pm

If it bleeds, it misleads: on violence and misery the Cassandras are wrong

The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world gives the lie to the bipartisan consensus about misery

Steven Pinker
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 November 2011


'The pessimism has been inspired by "new wars" involving guerrillas, symbolised by images of Kalashnikov-toting teenagers.' Photograph: Abdelhak Senna/AFP

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. Contrary to numerous expert predictions, there was no invasion of western Europe by Soviet tanks, no escalation of a crisis in Cuba or Berlin or the Middle East into a nuclear holocaust. The cities of the world were not vaporised; the atmosphere was not poisoned by radioactive fallout or choked with debris that blacked out the sun and sent Homo sapiens the way of the dinosaurs.


The Better Angels of Our Nature
by Steven Pinker

Not only that, but (again, contrary to expert predictions) a reunified Germany did not turn into a Fourth Reich, democracy did not go the way of monarchy, and the great powers did not fall into a third world war but rather a "long peace", which keeps getting longer. Surely the experts have been acknowledging the improvements in the world's fortunes from a few decades ago.

But no – the pundits are glummer than ever. In 1989 John Gray foresaw "a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great power rivalries … and irredentist claims and wars". A New York Times editor wrote in 2007 that this return had already taken place: "It did not take long [after 1989] for the gyre to wobble back on to its dependably blood-soaked course, pushed along by fresh gusts of ideological violence and absolutism."

The pessimism is bipartisan: in 2007 the conservative writer Norman Podhoretz published a book called World War IV (on "the long struggle against Islamofascism"), while the liberal columnist Frank Rich wrote that the world was "a more dangerous place than ever". If Rich is correct then the world was more dangerous in 2007 than it was during the two world wars, the Berlin crises of 1949 and 1961, the Cuban missile crisis, and all the wars in the Middle East. That's pretty dangerous.

Why the gloom? Partly it's the result of market forces in the punditry business, which favour the Cassandras over the Pollyannas. But mainly, I think, it comes from the innumeracy of our journalistic and intellectual culture. If we don't keep an eye on the numbers, the programming policy "If it bleeds, it leads" will feed the cognitive short cut "The more memorable, the more frequent", and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.

The pessimism has been inspired by "new wars" involving guerrillas and paramilitaries that plague the developing world, symbolised by images of Kalashnikov-toting teenagers. It has been stoked by the widely repeated (and completely bogus) meme that at the beginning of the 20th century 90% of war deaths were suffered by soldiers and less than 10% by civilians, but by the end of the century these proportions had been reversed. It has fed on the claim that the world learned nothing from the Holocaust, and that genocides are as common as ever. And of course it has been redoubled by the threat of terrorism, which has been said to pose an "existential threat" to western countries, having the capacity to "do away with our way of life" or to end "civilisation itself".

Each of these scourges continues to take a toll in human lives. But it's only recently that political scientists have tried to measure how big a toll it is, and they have reached a surprising conclusion: all these kinds of killing are in decline. Battle deaths per 100,000 of the world population have fallen from 300 during the height of the second world war to the teens in the postwar years, single digits during the cold war, and less than one in the 21st century.

The deliberate killing of civilians has shown a similar bumpy yet downward trajectory. And other than in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, deaths from terrorism in the past decade were far lower than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, with their hijackings and bombings by countless revolutionary fronts, leagues, brigades and factions. A mental model in which the world has a constant allotment of violence – so that every ceasefire is reincarnated somewhere else as a new war, and every interlude of peace is just a time-out in which martial tensions build up and seek release – is factually mistaken.

It's not easy to see the bright side in the world today, where the remnants of war continue to cause tremendous misery. The effort to quantify the misery can seem heartless, especially when it undermines claims that are serving as effective propaganda for raising money and attention. But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just because truth is better than error.

The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued newsreaders who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us towards doing things that make people better off, rather than congratulating ourselves on how morally sophisticated we are.

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