Contrary to the book’s title, Pinker doesn’t really explain why violence has declined, except perhaps to assert that the better angels of our nature have mysteriously begun to hold sway over our actions. And for its circularity, that is not a satisfactory explanation. Why did the better angels of our nature take charge of our behavior? Pinker hems and haws and gorges on rampant speculations, but in the end, never tells, perhaps because there is no satisfactory answer. In fact, the book is almost wholly and completely unsatisfactory. I find it remarkable that it was penned by the same person, or allegedly the same person, as penned The Blank Slate, whose author did a magnificent job of debunking the myths of the Noble Savage and of the supposed preeminence of Nurture over Nature (i.e., that one’s attributes and behavior are completely and wholly environmentally determined, a shibboleth of the Progressive movement, which has no raison d’etre without which everything internal can be changed by externalities, which was always bunk but needed someone with some authority to say so).
Better Angels has the feel of a mea culpa, written by a man seeking absolution for all the naked objectivism of his past, a naked objectivism which surely couldn’t have helped his social standing among his uber liberal peers (in the political, not intellectual, sense) in academia, which probably made him a pariah, and doubtlessly limited his social options. But naked objectivism is what has made Pinker so great up until now. It takes a courageous soul to see things as they are, and not as we wish them to be. Pinker was that courageous soul up until now. With Better Angels he seems more a man who is saying farewell to arms, a man who is giving up on fighting the battles in academia with objectivism instead of tribalism. It’s a sad thing to witness.
Overall violence has undeniably declined since the demarcation line that Pinker uses, basically the end of World War Two. But he goes further, and claims that our ancient hunter/gatherer ancestors were, based on the discovery of a few corpses who died violent deaths, even more violent than humans were during the world wars, well after the world had supposedly been Enlightened. In other words, he makes the claim that violence has been declining since before the advent of sedentary agriculture. Bunk. We can’t know how violent life was pre-history. That’s why we call it pre-history. Nothing was written down. It may very well be that the few corpses we have discovered as having met violent ends were quite the exception, and that most hunter/gatherers died of natural causes at the ripe old age of say forty-five (there were still impossible to treat or cure bacterial diseases with which to contend).
One of the best ways to figure out the tenor of a book is to read the introductions or the endings. In the case of Better Angels, the ending revealed it all, if a bit too late:
In writing this book I have adopted a voice that is analytic, and at times irreverent, because I believe the topic has inspired too much piety and not enough understanding…
All of which is nonsense. Pinker abandoned his analytic voice before he put pen to paper. But then he lays this whopper on us in with his final sentence:
For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.
How could we savor an accomplishment in which no collective “we” was involved? True, violence has probably gone down (definitely so since the end of World War Two) but not because of some grand movement against violence. It may, however, be that this peaceful interlude of going on sixty years, all of which have carried the specter of the complete and total annihilation of civilization with nuclear weapons, is just that, an interlude, and our darker angels are even now plotting their resurgence. For all the apparent progress made towards a peaceful world, Vladimir Putin is still rattling sabers in Eastern Europe and still has charge of a nuclear arsenal powerful enough to end civilization several times over.
An alternative to Pinker’s progressive (I hesitate, wanting almost to capitalize ‘progressive’ because of how closely his views mimic those of the political movement) view of human history is thus: Humans have always deployed violence as a means when it would suit their ends, which in the context of necessary biology always involve survival and propagation. In the early days of humanity, during its hunter/gatherer past, there was probably no more violence than would be witnessed today of an average chimpanzee troop. Which is a lot, but hardly as much as sedentary agriculture and the Industrial Revolution would later make possible. Humans are tribal creatures, like chimpanzees and wolves; they intuitively and instinctively understand the importance of the clan or troop or pack to their continued survival and propagation. Humans, just like chimps and wolves, will kill when necessary to ensure their own or their survival group’s continuation in space and time. It is no accident that humans and wolves developed the bond that is today expressed as people walking behind their dogs scooping up poop. (What is somewhat inexplicable is why humans and chimps didn’t develop the same bonds. Perhaps it has to do with DNA that is too closely matching.)
Human hunter/gatherer groups—families and clans—were necessarily small. They moved incessantly to find food. They had to be big enough to fend off threats, but small enough to feed off the land. It can be imagined that they operated something like a self-sustaining army of medieval Europe, but on a smaller scale, hunting and foraging (and stealing, if an army) the food they needed to stay alive. The bigger the group, the better the protection against threats, but also the greater was the challenge to finding food. The size of the hunter/gatherer group always had an upper bound determined by the ability of the land to support it. Anthropologists reckon the ideal clan size, one which would provide enough men to defend from threats and enough genomic variability to prevent birth defects and impaired immunity, but one that was still small enough to feed, was about a hundred people, depending on the quality of the flora and fauna in the area.
These hundred people, staying on the move most all the time, owned nothing except their clothes and other personal accouterments. The idea that a particular person or people could own real property in a manner that excluded others would have been foreign to them. Their clashes with other clans would have been about territorial and sexual spoils, but not in the way that we imagine such things today. They would be very similar to the conflicts seen between rival chimpanzee troops and wolf packs. Clans would try to drive other clans from the furthest reaches of their hunting territories or go on raids to steal women and children if they felt they needed to quickly add members. The clan rivalries were occasionally violent, but nothing that approached the scale of violence made possible by the agricultural and industrial revolutions, and scale is the critical difference between pre-agriculture violence and today—mankind’s wits have made him capable of supporting almost fifty people for every farmer working the land. Similarly, mankind’s wits have made it possible that with the push of a button he can vaporize hundreds of thousands. The power to create always has a corollary power to destroy. To imagine that power which is available won’t be eventually deployed is to quite naively and optimistically believe that mankind’s nature has somehow changed in the sixty or so years since he unlocked the atom.
As agriculture gained widespread adoption as the most economical means of securing the necessaries of life, the size of human groups began expanding, in part to take advantage of the relatively more robust fecundity of land under cultivation, but also because of the need for increased protective measures. Sedentary agriculture required the ability to exclude outsiders from the land being cultivated and to control the actions of society members upon it. And there is a certain economy of scale with protection; increasing the scope of protective cooperation decreases potential threats while freeing up resources for further expansion or other enhancements to collective or individual welfare. Thus clans, following the path of economy found in scale, merged to become tribes; tribes became nations; nations became states, and states grew in some cases to encompass vast tracts of the Earth to become empires.
By about 330 bce, the Greek Empire was lapping on the shores of what is now Pakistan in the East, and had already gained control of Egypt and Mesopotamia—and all this only about five or so thousand years since the first agricultural civilizations arose and flourished in the Nile and Tigris and Euphrates River valleys. Five thousand years is a hiccup in the deep geologic time driving evolution, never mind the sixty years since the world got the bomb. The human genome is, by and large, still a hunter/gatherer genome, which is expressed even today in the capitalist form of economic organization that has come to characterize the developed world (after all, what is a capitalist except a civilized hunter/gatherer?).
Pinker attributes a good deal of the decline in violence to the rise of government, or to what he considered the proliferation of Hobbesian Leviathans, and their ability to monopolize the use of force. A strong state must have the capacity to impose its will through the imposition of violence. It must be able to force its citizens to behave and/or do its bidding when necessary, else the state is not a state but is in what Hobbes called the ‘state of nature’. Hobbes understood that a state of nature, particularly for sedentary agriculturalists, would be an anarchic hell, a post-apocalyptic sort of place where there was only the rule of the jungle. And he recognized that the antidote was to vest the government of the state with vast powers—enough to impose a peace upon the polity, whether it wished one or not. And so, once the state became the Leviathan, internal violence declined. But the process of becoming a Leviathan could be brutal and bloody. On the way to consolidating his power (and thereby the power of the Soviet state) Stalin killed as many of his own as died during World War Two from enemy action. Violence within a Leviathan-governed state does decline, but often only after a bloody, brutal period of power consolidation. And Hobbes never answered the question of what is to keep Leviathan governments from killing each other’s citizens. Hitler and Stalin, among others, answered quite horrifically, ‘nothing’.
Which is why the claims Pinker makes in Better Angels ring hollow. Could this book have been contemplated in, say, 1950, only 65 years ago? Of course not. The world had just witnessed the most systemically brutal violence since the dawn of civilization. The Leviathans, which might have held down intrastate violence a bit (though the truth is arguable), engaged in an orgy of interstate violence. Had Pinker tried to publish this book in 1950 he would have been laughed out of academia. So acceptance of his premise that violence has declined because of the better angels of our nature depends on the intervening 65 or so years of more or less peaceful relations among the world’s great powers. Pinker is essentially saying the same as Francis Fukuyama said in The End of History and the Last Man; that liberal democracy and its attendant civilizing process have conclusively and for all time won out, and that wars of competing ideologies are a relic of our barbarous past.
But really, ideology has little to do with it. Violence is about power, and in the case of interstate violence, from whatever ideological premise it is derived. Liberal democracy is as good a platform upon which to launch a bid for power as any. Ancient Greece and Rome, and modern Germany were all democracies or republics when they launched violent campaigns for power.
A century or so after Rome finally and ultimately vanquished Carthage, sowing salt into her soil that she might never rise again, some Pinkeresque Roman optimist might then have declared the end of history and the violence that seemed to characterize it. And he would have been correct, for almost half a millennia more, until the Empire began tottering and finally fell, as empires are wont to do, unleashing a blood bath the likes of which required a whole philosophic tome from one of Christianity’s greatest theologians to explain (St. Augustine’s City of God). Pinker makes the claim that violence is not hydraulic, erupting like a geyser at Yellowstone that periodically needs to let off steam. Fair enough, but neither is violence progressive like Pinker claims instead, steadily declining throughout the course of human history. Violence is cyclical, just as the rise and fall of history’s Leviathan empires is cyclical. At the apogee in the cycle of an empire, it can seem violence in human affairs has been banished to the ash-bins of history. At its nadir, the human heart knows no lower limits to its depravity.
The rule for violence is essentially thus—unsettled times are more violent than settled times. When there are several entities legitimately vying for power, times are unsettled and violence is apt to be high. When there are no entities capable of exerting power, there is anarchy, and violence soars. When there is one unrivaled great power, such as is the case about now with the US and the rest of the developed world, violence declines. Places untouched by the power of the reigning hegemon (Rwanda, e.g., in the 1990’s) can still see violence as depraved as any in human history. Human nature hasn’t changed. Violence is bred into our blood. It’s just that sometimes in the annals of history, the best strategy for surviving and thriving is to cooperate with one’s fellows. And at other times, the best strategy is to kill them. It just depends. But rest assured, if the best strategy for surviving and thriving in the West reverted to killing one’s fellows, as it was less than a century ago, that’s precisely what the civilized West would do. Mankind doesn’t change in any real-time measurable manner. Only the conditions of his existence change. That’s what Pinker wanted to say, but felt constrained in doing so by the politics of academia. And he actually wrote a book (The Blank Slate) that more or less proved that human beings are what they are because of who they are—that genetics determines at least half of a person’s attributes. Unfortunately for Pinker’s thesis, violence, as a survival strategy, has such a long and distinguished history in human affairs that it is undoubtedly hardwired into our genome.
Applying Occam’s razor to the quandary of decreased violence, that things aren’t so violent right now seems likely to have cyclical historical causes. It is a happy accident that Pinker lives during the age of American hegemony. He should enjoy the peace while it lasts, and spend the dividend pursuing subjects, like linguistics and neuroscience, about which he has some measure of expertise.