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

Posted By Ed Voves On October 13, 2011 @ 10:00 am In Books,History,Non-Fiction Reviews,Sociology | No Comments

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
by Steven Pinker
Viking, 832 pp.
CLR Rating:


‘Peace for Our Time’

As civil war loomed in March 1861, Abraham Lincoln closed his First Inaugural Address with an appeal to “the better angels of our nature” of the American people, north and south, to help save the nation from drifting into armed conflict.

A century and a half later, Steven Pinker has borrowed Lincoln’s words for the title of a remarkable book about war and peace. In this profound and spirited work, Pinker champions the civilizing process that, according to his detailed research, has enhanced the cause of peace, decreased the scale of violence and enabled peoples of widely separated nations and ethnic groups to realize their common humanity. Using a mass of scientific data and an intensive reading of history and current events, Pinker makes the case that Planet Earth is becoming a more Peaceable Kingdom.

Pinker certainly uses all of the best, current resources available from the social sciences and humanities, the cognitive sciences (his particular field of expertise) and statistical presentation to prove that we are living in an age of increasing harmony. It is a conclusion that all sane, responsible persons should earnestly hope is true.

At the risk of being a naysayer, however, it is useful to recall that the RMS Titanic was built with the most up-to-date technology of its era and still sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. Reading The Better Angels of Our Nature, impressive and inspiring though it is, left this reviewer with the unpleasant feeling that Pinker’s thesis is not as watertight as he believes.

Pinker, it must be acknowledged, is mightily convincing all the same.

Pinker’s contention that human society in the contemporary world is less violent than in the past is based on comparative analysis of a staggering range of trends and situations. He provides insight into the homicide rate of tribal societies like the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa. These are compared with homicide rates of the ten largest cities in the United States in 1990 and in the U.S. and Europe as a whole during the twentieth century. In other sections of the book, he focuses on the transformation of Western Europe from an agrarian socio-economic polity to the industrial, politically centralized nation states of recent times. Domestic violence, on the level of internal strife in cities and in family households, also comes within the parameters of Pinker’s fact-gathering and statistical elucidation.

There is, in fact, little that escapes Pinker. Positive developments like opposition to animal suffering, favorable shifts in attitudes toward women and homosexuals, the decline in corporal punishment of children and the abolition of torture and capital punishment for convicted prisoners are all discussed.

Overwhelmingly, the x-axis of the graphs representing trends in warfare, violence and cruelty slope downward, beginning with the 18th century. These trends attest to the correctness of Pinker’s belief that we humans are reaching for guns, daggers and instruments of torture with decreasing regularity. Happily, the x-axis for graphs illustrating positive trends starts to climb upwards from the 1700′s to the present, as dueling, lynching, wife beatings and killing animals for “kicks” became socially unacceptable.

The first two chapters of Pinker’s book analyze the roots of human violence. These opening pages do not make for pleasant reading. The cruelty of ancient times through the early modern era is recounted in graphic detail and the supporting statistics are both shocking and surprising. The scale of savagery in the pre-industrial world, according to Pinker, was often vast, despite the lack of advanced weaponry. Combatants might only be armed with swords and spears, but they could – and did – make a thorough job of it. Furthermore, when the casualty rates of these wars, pogroms, witch hunts and domestic homicides are viewed in proportion to the population size of the societies under study, the numbers in the lost column for ancient and medieval conflicts far outdistance those of modern-day blood baths.

This thesis seems to fly in the face of current belief. Humanity, with its staggering array of killing machines, appears to be more violent indeed, if not inclination, than in earlier epochs.

Look at the numbers, Pinker counters. In his comparative analysis, illustrated by one of the book’s many graphs, the numbers of human skeletons showing signs of violent deaths, recovered from archeological sites, reach 15 percent. For hunter-gatherer groups, living in more recent times, like the Ayoreo people of Bolivia and the Modocs of Northern California, violent deaths amounted to 14 percent. Combat-related deaths in Europe’s war-torn 17th century were 2 percent, while the number for Total War Europe, 1900 to 1945, was 3 percent. Despite a bewildering choice of deadly weapons, the rates of killing in modern times were substantially lower.

Pinker does not believe that this balancing of body counts is a matter of merely spreading the pain among ever-growing populations. He maintains that nonstate and state societies are marked by differing codes of behavior.

Nonstate peoples live in tribes or marginalized social groups remote from the control of legally instituted governments. Hunter-gather clans like the tribes living in the shrinking Amazon rain forest share this distinction with street gangs fighting to survive in a post-industrial urban setting. Members of these “nonstate” groups are far-more likely to follow the advice of Andrew Jackson’s mother to her duel-fighting son, “Never … sue anyone for slander or assault or battery; always settle those cases yourself.”

People whose lives are governed by the “social contract” by which the individual accords a centralized authority control over much of his or her life in return for protection of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” live in a state society. Constrained by the laws of the land, peoples of state societies “settle those cases” in court battles rather than with Hatfield vs. McCoy-style Kentucky Rifle litigation.

Pinker ascribes the decline in violence, savagery and war to the growing power of centralized governments and humanitarian activism that has spread in widening ripples of empathy throughout the world. Both began in earnest with the end of Europe’s religious wars in the mid-17th century. Of the two, the expansion of humane standards of conduct is perhaps the most influential. Rising rates of literacy and social awareness, Pinker believes, were part of a quiet revolution in conscience and conduct during the 1700′s and 1800′s.

This rise in empathy and regard for human life eventually extended to include children and infants. Pinker writes with special perceptiveness and sensitivity of the plight of young children, treated with casual brutality in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” past. “The police seemed to think no more of finding a dead child,” a British coroner wrote in 1862, “than they did of finding a dead cat or a dead dog.”

Pinker’s research into the equally painful subject of infanticide is compelling as well. World-wide and in all eras until the recent past, new-born babies were put to death by their own families with “impunity.” This was especially the case for infant girls, held to be a burden on societies with low-crop yields and the need for hunters and warriors. But in a typical display of scholarly insight, Pinker demonstrates the folly of female infanticide. “A basic principle of evolutionary biology is that a fifty-fifty sex ratio at sexual maturity is a stable equilibrium in a population,” Pinker notes. Since healthy males can sire many children while their female counterparts are limited to giving birth on a nine-month cycle, one would have expected that human societies would have taken better care of their daughters.

The record of the warring, violent past shows a different story. Female infanticide led patriarchs into a “vicious circle in which they kill their newborn girls so their wives can hurry up and bear more warrior sons.” Pinker quotes an early anthropologist, Edward Tylor, who wrote, “Infanticide arises from hardness of life rather than hardness of heart.” Yet, it also led to a brutalization of human emotions. Female infanticide was one of the ultimate roots of violence and of war, traditionally the province of young men. Too many of them spells trouble.

Pinker is clearly a man of human compassion, as well as possessing intellectual gifts of the highest order. Unfortunately, despite many virtues, his book is marred by a significant “sin of omission.” While this perplexing lapse does not invalidate the basic premise of The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker fails to pay sufficient scrutiny to violence-promoting policies of state societies in the contemporary world. This leaves a huge gap in his argument.

At the very heart of his thesis, Pinker repeatedly shows how state societies have legislated and coerced most of the cruel practices of the past into oblivion. State societies have also waged relentless and increasingly successful campaigns to suppress the politically-motivated violence of global terrorism. Pinker has much to say about the murderous “handiwork” of Al Qaeda, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Tamil Tigers and other “nonstate” radical groups. Yet, Pinker conspicuously fails to treat how state societies themselves practice “state terrorism.”

Warfare between nations might well be defined as “state terrorism.” But as Michael Walzer proved in his classic book, Just and Unjust Wars, there are times when taking up arms, despite the inherent cruelty of war, can be justified. State terrorism, on the other hand, is a symptom of the post-World War II era of “national emergencies,” “police actions,” proxy wars, the deployment of “special ops task forces,” the widespread hiring of military contractors, formerly known as mercenaries, and the prodigious investment in and frequent use of horrifying, and legally questionable, “conventional” weapons.

All of these acts of state terrorism have the aim of enabling governments to evade their own and international codes of law. Increasingly, political leaders take their nations into armed conflict without bothering with formal declarations of war, passed by their elected legislatures. The use of “shock and awe” weaponry and of elite strike forces are aimed to secure policy gains before slow-moving legal censure, imposed by the World Court or the United Nations, or disapproval by their own people, as happened to the United States during the Vietnam War, can undermine these military initiatives.

One example of state terrorism will suffice to comment upon Pinker’s surprising failure to investigate this contemporary form of violence. This is the use of DU, depleted uranium munitions, by the armed forces of the United States and NATO in various military operations since the 1990s.

Originally designed as a Cold War weapon to counter the Soviet Union’s vast phalanx of tanks, depleted uranium munitions contain a type of uranium, U-238, which enables a DU shell to slice through tank armor “like a knife through butter.” U-238 is less radioactive than the U-235 that goes into nuclear warheads. “Less” of course is a relative word. After the Gulf War of 1991, thousands of U.S., British and other Allied soldiers who took part in Operation Desert Storm fell sick with various ailments, including cancer, at a staggering rate. One of the chief suspects was DU, 340 tons of these radioactive munitions having been fired from tanks, field artillery or as small cannon shells and bombs from attack aircraft. These aerial-launched forms of DU spread particles of radioactive dust upon detonation, representing a far great risk of contamination than when used in an anti-tank shell.

A British scientist who studied Gulf War Syndrome, Dr. Malcolm Hooper, labeled Operation Desert Storm as the “Most Toxic Battle in Western Military History.” This has not stopped the further deployment of DU munitions by the U.S. and NATO. An estimated 1,000 tons of DU have been used in Afghanistan and over 3,000 in Iraq. There are reports that cruise missiles containing DU have been launched by NATO forces in the recent campaign to “liberate” Libya. Newer versions of DU, it should be noted, contain the even more radioactive uranium isotope U-236, making them far more deadly than the Desert Storm variant.

In one of the bloodiest battles in the Iraq war, the U.S. Marine assault on Fallujah in 2004, DU munitions were combined with white phosphorus incendiary shells, in a lethal type of bombardment which U.S. troops ghoulishly described as “shake n’ bake” missions.

Subsequent to the battle, an alarming increase was noted in birth defects of children born in Fallujah. According to a 2010 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, these birth defects were eleven times the normal rate and included cancers, tumors, skeletal, cardiac and neural-tube defects. Another report listed similar rates of cancer among Fallujah adults, notably a 10 percent rise in breast cancer. This second report, prepared under the supervision of a British medical researcher, Dr. Mark Busby, stated that the surge in cancer in Fallujah was “similar to that in the Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionising radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout”.

As with Gulf War Syndrome, DU became the prime suspect. But its use during the attack on Fallujah and in other military operations never makes it to the pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s only comment on weapons of this type is in reference to their possible use by nonstate terrorists rather than their actual use by professional military forces. He dismisses the danger of “radiological ‘dirty’ bombs” in a remarkably cavalier fashion, totally lacking in any kind of factual substantiation. The “minor and short-lived elevations of radiation,” of these weapons, Pinker asserts, are “comparable to moving to a city at a higher altitude.”

DU is a deadly weapon that needs to be taken a bit more seriously than this. As in the case of land mines, sown like dragon’s teeth in recent African and Asian wars, DU goes on killing long after the battles and bombardments are over. And its victims never make it onto Pinker’s optimistic graphs that show fewer and fewer people being killed or wounded in modern warfare.

Pinker writes of Better Angels, “The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and the present not to augur the hypotheticals of the future.”

Pinker certainly makes a compelling case that violence is on the wane – when measured by the traditional standards he uses. But there is nothing hypothetical about state terrorism and its deployment of insidious weapons like DU. By ignoring these vital issues, Pinker puts his commendable thesis and its valuable supporting research at risk.

Hopefully, Planet Earth is becoming a more humane place, as Pinker contends. But until we treat state terrorism with the same vigilance that we aim at the Taliban and other forces of nonstate anarchy, the “better angels of our nature” will remain what it was in Lincoln’s day: an empty plea for peace in a world still haunted by violence and war.


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