Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) is somewhat mistitled since Professor Pinker is not really arguing that our “natures” are now less violent than they used to be but that the civilizations we have built have made violence less necessary and acceptable.
That does not mean that Professor Pinker’s book is not worth reading. It is most definitely worth reading, if not alone for its challenge to the myth that five hundred years ago we were safer in society than we are today. The statistical evidence is overwhelming. We are thirty to fifty times less likely to be the victim of a violent crime in our society than we would have been on the streets of sixteenth century London. We are also safer today than we were just thirty years ago.
There are a variety of reasons for this and Professor Pinker makes a compelling case for each one being a contributor modern peace. Simply put, our civilization is the product of a long process of urbanized pacification that has been enhanced by the humanitarian and rights movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Intellectual openness, trade, and the general idea of universal brotherhood have all worked together to make the society we have today. However, even these ideas did not spring out of nowhere.
Reason is the chief reason we have become a more peaceful species–though still subject to outbreaks of violence. Reason allows us to use an unconscious, or sometimes conscious, Bayesian decision-making process. We place side-by-side the value of aggression versus the value of peace all the time. Out history as a species has mostly valued aggression over peace because there were only a few ways for us to guarantee that we would not be the suckers who ended up on the losing side of a unilateral peace.
Modern civilization has changed that since we now have many institutions to which we can appeal for redress of grievances, and we have a fairer and more universal sense of play today than we did five hundred years ago. This is no idle speculation. Professor Pinker has the numbers to prove it.
This is not light reading, although Professor Pinker does have an easy writing style. However, it is well worth all seven hundred pages, if you want to challenge your nostalgic notions of a golden age of peace, sometime in the “long ago.” That myth has been shattered in Professor Pinker’s book, along with some other common myths about morality and progress.
These truly are “the best of times.” We can look forward to even better times if we continue to work together around the common notion that the well-being of mankind and the planet should be our chief aim as a species.
If you don’t have time for the book the click here for a TED video that summarizes much of it in about twenty minutes.