Steve Pinker’s “Better Angels”: Dodging Our Own Bullet?


Steven Pinker has written a game-changer on the little matter of how quickly humanity is headed for hell or redemption. The short form of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is that we’re on the verge of Liebniz‘s (and Candide‘s) “best of all possible worlds.” Much more than that, Better Angels is a tour de force in 700 pages of dense, witty prose, distilling and explaining the ever-steeper downward trends in battle-deaths, state executions, murder, rape, wife-beating and child-spanking, among others things. “Interesting if true” was my instinctive newspaper-guy response. After a month’s immersion, and this conversation, I’m staggered and stunned, avid for the new Enlightenment.

In William James Hall, high above Harvard Yard, Steve Pinker is setting his own conclusions in the context of intellectual forbears and peers in this field of violence and human progress.

Among them:

” …the survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring… Man is once for all a fighting animal; centuries of peaceful history could not breed the battle-instinct out of us.”

William James: Oration at the unveiling of the Robert Gould Shaw memorial in Boston to the all-black 54th Regiment of the Union Army. May 31, 1897.

“History is a bath of blood. The Iliad is one long recital of how Diomedes and Ajax, Sarpedon and Hector killed… Greek history is a panorama of jingoism and imperialism — war for war’s sake, all the citizen’s being warriors. It is horrible reading — because of the irrationality of it all — save for the purpose of making “history” — and the history is that of the utter ruin of a civilization in intellectual respects perhaps the highest the earth has ever seen…

Having said thus much in preparation, I will now confess my own utopia. I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium. The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticisms, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity…

William James: The Moral Equivalent of War. 1906

I like to think that William James would appreciate the argument of the book, which is, despite the fact that there is such a thing as human nature, despite the fact that we have plenty of ugly, violent impulses inside us, it is perfectly possible to set up a world in which those impulses don’t actually emerge as violent behavior. This is because human nature is a complex system, it has many parts, and among them are a faculty of empathy, a faculty of reason, a faculty of self-control.

I call William James the first evolutionary psychologist. He was indebted to Darwin and he made no bones about the fact that we come from ancestors who had to prevail in constant contests of bloodshed, and so we have violent urges. Nonetheless, James was certainly an optimist in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” arguing that it is certainly possible to set up institutions that would minimize war. And I like to think that a hundred years after his death he is being vindicated. Now of course, if he had lived ten years longer, if he had lived 35 years longer, he would have found this hard to believe, because the two world wars are a rude interruption in humanity’s movement towards non-violence. But if he had held on just a little bit longer, he would see that we are living through an era now in which it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that war is going out of style.

Steven Pinker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 2, 2011

“… the ultimate symbols of the [20th] Century are not space probes and computers but gas chambers and Hiroshima. The slaughter in the two world wars, the pogroms, the various holocausts starting with the Armenian and Jewish ones and ending with the Cambodian and the Rwandan, the Stalinist terror, the carpet bombings and the fire bombings in various wars — they all constitute a rather impressive performance. Twentieth-century science may have produced many wonderful discoveries and miracles, but the gas chambers and the mushroom clouds remain its most resilient symbols.”

“… change is now infecting the cultures of societies eager to mimic the societies they consider more wealthy, powerful and successful, possessing the ‘normal’ pathologies that go with success, including high levels of everyday violence. The rise in violence in a number of Indian cities has in recent years been spectacular. The South Asian euphoria over the nuclear tests, however short-lived and however limited in geographical spread, can also be read as an example of the same story of brutalisation and necrophilia. It reflects not merely deep feelings of inferiority, masculinity-striving and parity-seeking, but also a certain nihilism and vague, almost free-floating genocidal rage.”

Ashis Nandy, “Violence and Creativity in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Time Warps, 2002.

Among my questions here: How are we to categorize the violence of poverty in a half-hungry world? How do we calculate the risk of a single nuclear attack that could smash the conceit of better living through science? In American popular culture, what does Steve Pinker make of the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and the decline of boxing? In George Carlin’s sainted name, what about the rise of TV football and the decline of daylight baseball — where the object of the game is to “be safe, at home!”?

Has Steve Pinker been watching the Republican presidential debates — the whooping and hollering for the death penalty, Texas-style, and the Get Your War On rhetoric pointed at Iran, the Arab world, even Hugo Chavez and Venezuela? Of course he’s been watching — “I share the revulsion” — because he watches everything. “The crazies have all crashed and burned and probably the survivor, Mitt Romney, hell, he was our governor in Massachusetts. A lot of the sound and the fury coming out of the right, I think, is in part a reaction to the fact that they keep losing. Go back to the sixties; what the liberals were in favor of then, the conservatives take for granted now: racial integration, women in the workforce, women in the military, no spanking of children, toleration of gay people.”

Does robot warfare by predator drones fit a pattern of progress? “It’s a great advance. I can’t say I’m a fan exactly, but compared to carpet bombing, it’s a fraction of the deaths, a great advance.”

How, on this steep downward slope of human violence, do we explain that the United States — in one of those imperial fits of absent-mindedness — slipped into an immeasurably destructive $5-trillion war in Iraq, then Afghanistan and — who knows? — maybe tomorrow Pakistan?

By a lot of these measures, the United States is not at the vanguard of enlightenment. The United States is a bit of a laggard, and of course the Iraq war was famously opposed by France and Germany, some of our closest allies, and there was some considerable opposition in this country. It’s a little misleading to concentrate on the United States, because the United States is a bit in the rearguard of this.

Even then, the actual Iraq war itself, was by historical standards a far less destructive war than earlier wars — like Vietnam, Korea, Iran/Iraq, Russians in Afghanistan — in terms of the number of people that it killed. Interestingly, it’s now been eight-and-a-half years, and it might be the last of the old-fashioned wars, where two national armies fight each other on the battlefield. There’s a sense in which it didn’t lead to permanent war; this may have been the last gasp.

Steven Pinker, in conversation with Chris Lydon, December 2, 2011

It’s a main premise of Steve Pinker’s science that, as he says, “You have to have a quantitative mindset to understand history.” My last question: what if not all our critical measures are quantitative?

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  • Voice of Ferney

    I believe that this book is Pinker’s Magnum Opus. It would be difficult to see him, or anyone else for that matter, match it for scope and depth. His conclusions are carefully drawn-out from the evidence and leave us with both optimism for the future and a realisation that the past is, indeed, a “foreign land”. There is sufficient material (and references) in this book to develop a “citizenship” course for 16-18 year old to help contextualise the past and plan for the future. This is a book that should be read by all world leaders (and those with ambitions to be) and the followers of Rush Limbagh, Sarah Palin and their ilk.

  • dave bernard

    I’m not sure how the broad criteria of the thesis were determined. FBI figures on violent crime do indicate it’s declined, but the vestige of that category indicates crimes have become more unthinkably perverse. Women have routinely become an element in perps’ hideous crimes. Anarchy and generally adversarial behaviour by this generation in advanced populations is in the steets at a greater rate than anything I recall in my lifetime.

    Human Rights: The ERA was rejected, and gay ‘rights’ would likely get the same disposition if it were permitted to go through the same democratic process of national ratification.

  • not so optimistic

    War between nations on the battlefield has declined because we wage different wars. Banks and corporations wage war on an economic level, resulting in a severely unstable economic system and much inequality. Our capitalist system as a whole wages war on the environment. When these wars have played out we might well get real tribal type wars back in our lives.

  • karim

    The rate increase in violence has not kept pace with the rate of increase in population. Is it really correct to say violence has declined? According to what I’m hearing, in a relative sense it is, and in an absolute sense it is not.

    I’m not completely sure what one should draw from this, but I do like to think we can take steps to reduce violence and other problems facing our societies.

  • Sean McElroy

    It’s a fascinating claim that evolutionary trends are leading to more peaceful resolution of conflicts. From a temporal and quantitative perspective the thesis does seem to play out rather well. I wonder if there’s an underlying granularity based on generational experience that is also correlated (or not.) I’m thinking of WWI, the war to end all wars. Was it nearly within 1 generation, WWII reared its ugly head? Contrast that with more recent wars, Vietnam, Iraq, Afganistan (forgiving the obvious US-centric POV.) which consumed nearly a generation in their conquest – leaving an generational gap to peacefully reflect and wonder what the heck just happened – only to jump back into the fray. I wonder if there is an upper bound of war-time, a sort of Titus Andronicus war-weariness, that lays entire generations by the war-time sidelines and conversely prepares another generation for the prosecution of the next one.

    Still, I agree that being able to relive pretty much any war in the past 150 years through realistic accounts if not actual film footage does have a moderating impact on the impetus to conflict. Could exposure to ultimate violence actually have a moderating influence over time? Sounds paradoxical.

    Great show. The book is on my reading list. Thanks Chris.

  • Michael Beaton

    I listened to this interview with interest and ultimately irritation. Finally Chris got around to challenging what seemed to be the premise of the argument, as stated in here : It’s a main premise of Steve Pinker’s science that, as he says, “You have to have a quantitative mindset to understand history.”

    I kept wanting to inject the question: How do you count/measure the state of dread and fear from the drones and the unrelenting low level agitation never knowing when they are coming for you.

    Or, closer to home : When the only metric you appeal to for your thesis is body count, we repeatedly get the retort/assertion “… yes, but so many more people were killed …” as if simple death were the most meaningful thing. How shall we quantify the terror of the financial crisis which transferred trillions of dollars of wealth with the “collateral damage” of millions of Americans being affected thru loss of pensions, homes, the unbearable stress on families?

    It is similar to the fatuous argument that we “only” lost 4300 soldiers in Iraq, while completely missing the more destructive fact of the 10’s of thousands of injured, many to the brink of unbearable living. (And, I recall, we don’t count contractors in that toll. Nor soldier suicides.) And the number of Iraqi dead is not simply 100’s of thousands but many more times that number. Studies point to over a million. Just as side note.

    Here is the point: What can be counted is useful, but it is perhaps the least important factor about history. I am dismayed at such linear thinking when such systemic/complex thinking is called for. Chris finally made the point, but not forcefully saying: “My last question: what if not all our critical measures are quantitative?”

    It is a simple matter to make the case that the violence is decreasing if your measurement by which you make such assertions is so shallow, and unidimensional. While shifting from the form of “wars” as clashing of armies (perhaps…the story is yet to be fully writ) the violence to humanity (not to mention the “other-than-human” environment and other life forms) is even more insidious. It is now attacking deep levels of the meaning of being human, much less citizen. To cite the litany of putrid injustices would be redundant. They are well known. But I will simply note that the entire endeavor has a sort of public television IBM commercial quality to it. Where everything is just amazing, and beautiful and the future is just going to be fine, full of progress and delights of every kind. As long as we can keep the soft music flowing…and ignore the sounds of real suffering long enough to forget that the beneficiaries of such loveliness are few, and limited.

    I began the change from interest to irritation around the point of democracies that do not fight each other. Again, as if military war is the only form of fighting. When you limit your purview to death and wars it is pretty easy to make a case for your thesis. And maybe the book is more compelling. This interview was not.

  • Michael Beaton

    Another angle on the same theme: Debating the notion that we are becoming less violent.

    And how can you assert war is becoming passe’ when the amount of resources that are spilled into the war making apparatus world wide is so immense. So much so that even a fraction of the amounts so allocated would solve flat out many of the most pressing problems we face today. From financing education to extending health care, rebuilding infrastructure, retraining workers, and the rest.

    I remember thinking how many IRAQ WAR days it would take to pay for the various problems that were, and are, being daily reported. Usually it would be one, or a few, sometimes a weeks worth of futile military spending to solve real needs. Of course now with all that money reallocated and the added transfer that was the financial crisis there is no more money for such things.

    Check this out. Global military expenditure stands at over $1.6 trillion in annual expenditure at current prices for 2010 (or $1.56 trillion dollars at constant 2009 prices), and has been rising in recent years.

    The violence persists. I say it is more pervasive than ever. Just because we cant take a picture of it, like Bush’s body bags being shushed out of site, doesn’t mean death is not occurring by other means.

  • Just put this session up on Mr. Pinkers Facebook Page, great interview!

    Visit for more info on Pinker

  • Emerson and Dewey wanted to find ways to stop horseplay in children while at the same time giving them the freedom to be themselves: individuals, creative, kind, solitary and good.

  • The most interesting observation, demonstrated by many of the comments here, is how irrationally, tenaciously and, dare I say it, religiously, most folks cling to their beliefs, even when presented with overwhelming empirical evidence that refutes those beliefs.

    I strongly suggest that those who were most incensed by Pinker’s thesis read the book —and, at the same time, I am painfully aware that they are the least likely to read it.

    Confirmation bias is a dangerous thing, and it is easier than ever in these days of the Balkanized Internet to spend one’s entire intellectual life reading, listening to and watching only that which reinforces one’s worldview, never truly engaging in anything that challenge it.

    Add to that an American culture in which changing one’s opinion is the penultimate sin (less heinous only than saying, “I don’t know”, just slightly better than admitting error), and the prospects of Americans lagging further behind the rest of the world in facing reality equipped by reality loom ever larger.

    (Ironically, as Lawrence Krauss frequently points out, the three things that most delight and satisfy the scientific mindset are
    1) being wrong – because that means there is so much more to learn;
    2) changing one’s opinion – because that means one has gained and assimilated new understanding; and, above all,
    3) approaching knowledge with the humility born out of a recognition that what we already know pales beyond recognition beyond that which we don’t yet know.)

    It is not suicide bombs that threaten us most today, not in the US and not even elsewhere; it is ignorance, anti-intellectualism and lack of education in critical thinking. The less we understand HOW to think, the most we look to others to tell us WHAT to think.

    Most politically engaged Americans, whatever their persuasion—whether they are driven by nostalgia for a whitewashed Norman Rockwell past that never was, or by a utopian vision of an anarchic future that denies the reality of human behavior—have so much invested in a worldview based on opposition to the way they believe things are, that empirical evidence that things are not that way at all is rejected with the same eagerness with which a creationist rejects empirical evidence of evolution.

    Read Pinker’s book before rejecting his thesis. I know I approached it thinking it couldn’t possibly true—I’ve spent a good portion of my professional life passionately committed to the proposition that everything is going to hell in a handbasket, and that this is an accelerating trend. My professional & political activism has been driven by a belief that, ultimately, peace-lovers are spitting in the headwinds of a history marked by inherent, accelerating violence.

    However, I approached Pinker’s book with as open mind as I could, and was persuaded of the validity of his claim by the overwhelming—and overwhelmingly well-documented—factual evidence he has heroically and exhaustively collected and presented.

    The Better Angels of Our Nature may be the most important book of the 21st century, thus far.

    If only the most skeptical among us would do as I did, explore the argument, no matter how absurd it may seem, the book might just turn out to be as influential on the way we understand the world as Darwin’s Origin of Species was in his time.

    It certainly seems to be stirring up the same, outraged reaction, most vehemently by those who have not read it.

    • Michael Beaton

      I appreciate your point, and point of view. I have not read the book. And not from any anti-intellectual reasons, nor any fear of being contradicted, nor especially for being incensed – which, I was not.
      And actually, as I read the comments, I cannot tell who your comments are directed at. Your introduction references “comments here” and then cites irrationality and religious clinging. I read again all the comments and find no evidence of any of this, and indeed no substantial disagreement. In fact all the comments, except mine, are pretty much praise, agreement, and appreciation. And my comments simple ask a question which I think is not only valid, but necessary.

      So…I wonder if you’d be more explicit in citing the source of your outrage. Because while I agree with your assessment about the state of our intellectual state in general society I find nothing here to warrant your comments. And that only diminishes your point.

      And if it happens that your ire was raised by my comments I would especially ask that you be specific. And if not, I’d still appreciate some responses to mine, as I think (perhaps in error) that I raise a valid counter to the thesis as presented on the show.

      Either way then. Be specific. And if your response is simply to “read the book”, perhaps I will. But in the meantime what we have before us is this show. So what about that?

    • David, I am reading the book, but as I’m sure you know, the sins of omission and statistical manipulation can bring one to any conclusion. I suggest you read the article below, as it is food for thought. It is not about the book, but an earlier aritcle of Pinkers that asserted much the same thesis. Among other things, there is GREAT controversy as to how violent most indigenous peoples were, or how fatal their confrontations were, compared to the great states of the past and present. Another is an example of a completely daft statistic, to wit:

      Pinker uses the Human Security Brief 2006 to tell us that

      “the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.”
      Pinker also says that “according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent… After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts”.

      In the book How to Stage a Military Coup, 24 coup de etas are listed in the first half of the 20th century,194 coups in the second half! So Pinker has got it completely wrong there. During the Cuban missile crisis, the world was saved from nuclear Holocaust by miracle, and the Iraq war, just like the Vietnam war, is killing thousands of people every month, so the “2000 per year” number is also wrong.”

      Read it, please:

  • Potter

    Excellent conversation- good questions good answers and a lot to think about. The book maybe is required reading. The comments here are also excellent, one (as I read it) despairing that we despair.

    I have been convinced prior to this that we are moving in a liberal, compassionate, direction overall. Yes I do also remember one interview here where the point was made that drones kill less people….. this is progress I suppose, but very scary in other ways. We have to stand back and look at history to see this progress. But we can stand back so far with ours backs to the edge of this cliff that we seem on that we fall off nevertheless.

    “What if not all our measures are quantitive?” Chris asks. Human nature is not changing but maybe we can and do bring forth “better angels”. It seems we are in a meta-battle to raise these angels. Pinker gives good responses, makes a good case but this meta-battle has been slow and painful, at times very slow and very painful. One can walk away from this discussion, convinced, maybe more calmed, but one has to still be concerned. It’s always been this battle (actual and metaphorical) between good and evil and it still is.

    The world seems so broke- and we here in the US seem so broke. We seem to be moving away from our guiding spirit, our founding principles, trying to hold the line on what we have gained collectively against against totally different selfish and greedy sensibilities. Newt is gaining on Romney in this land where a “military industrial complex” holds over the needs of the common man. Nuclear power plants are threats ( Japan). They are are still starving in Africa but at least the rioting is popping up everywhere. We are playing a game of chicken on climate change, moving, maybe more quickly than we just thought, to make the world less habitable. The UN exists( good), does good work around the globe, but is not effective regarding stopping war or promoting peace. World population continues to grow. This is not the fault of the news.

    I will listen again – and I think I need the book…

    Thank you.

    • Michael Beaton

      Potter. In your last paragraph you make explicit what I simply asserted in my own comments: all the various other ways that we are “dying” besides simple corporal death. And to my understanding these deaths — murders? — of the constitution, environment, notions of citizen, and on and on the list you made, and a much longer one that you did not — these deaths, this violence is even more insidious and destructive in the long term than even the deaths of carpet bombing, for example. And we know how horrible that was…

      And I would love that Mr Pinker would have allowed this discussion to do a deeper dive into this conversation, not with hyperbole as counter point, as he did repeatedly as CL attempted to bring in a larger dimension (…”well, if you are going to look at the worst places in the worst possible times of course you will find violence…” — retorts like this is what I mean)

      I wonder if you agree, even if in part, that the violences that SP says are on the wane do not account for even a fraction of the real violence’s being perpetrated. Certainly not enough to validate a claim of ” …we’re on the verge of Liebniz‘s (and Candide‘s) “best of all possible worlds.”

      I also will listen to this again. And perhaps I’ll read the book. But if the book had more to say on this nuance, why do you suppose SP batted back each of CL’s attempts to introduce it into the conversation?

  • Potter

    Hi Michael-

    There is something in me that refuses, save on maybe a personal level, this saying “every day in every way we are getting better and better.” I prefer to be positive, and, as Eric Idle says, “always look at the bright side of life.” In little ways I do, thankful for this, for instance. But just as our bodies get used up in each life, I see the world as a whole getting used up by us inhabitants, by what we call progress where consumption is so important and the measure.

    Human nature does not change so quickly. We progress, think we make life better for more people ( so to speak- this implies a vision) and maybe we do ( maybe we don’t) but we also seem to recede into our lower natures too easily. Our need to cooperate and coordinate does not happen so easily; it’s a struggle. Look at what is going on in Europe. Look at the political struggle, the deep divisions, seemingly unresolvable, happening here. Look at Pakistan. Look at what happened at the Durban conference on climate change. How difficult it is to save ourselves! We are not on the same page and there does not seem to be time left for this arguing- even with social media. Yes, but we are talking…..

    Gauguin, at the end of the 19th century, had the questions – Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?. He was not a great intellectual, just an artist who needed to save himself, to find peace, and so went, to live in the South Pacific, fleeing from civilization. I wonder, if he came back, how he would react.

    I was looking for reactions to Pinker’s book, circling around for reviews and I come upon this very interesting discussion on Amazon on the page of this book. “The most helpful critical review” has several comments to it, a discussion (see DAW).
    I read the Nicolas Kristof column in the NYT. He needed a shot of Pinker.

    Still I think I will get the book.

    Maybe we who despair a lot these days should step back and look at the whole more (and have a glass of wine). But it’s hard to feel so relieved, that we happily go on improving and in the end save ourselves. (I should get back to Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and finish it already). Thanks Michael

  • matthew

    Pink uses a relative scale that is truly nonsensical and shows a huge error in the quantitative frame. He uses relative measurement … if 100 people are killed out of a village of 200 people, that is 50% and would be considered worse than if 2 million people are killed out of a country of 5 million. Is it really true that if 100 people are killed, this is worse than 2 million being killed just because the percentage is less?

  • Tom Bishop

    This interview truly creeped me out! It reminded me of the early 20th century liberals who believed that the conflict between nations had moved beyond national boundaries and the world was on the verge of great progress and lasting peace…then came World War I…then came World War II.

  • nother

    I believe Mr. Pinker’s conclusion is provocative yet dangerously shortsighted (and not just because his report of – I found out that you’re all much better off than you think you are – happens to come from a distinguished good looking financially well-off Western white guy).

    I’ve been a victim of violence without ever being hit, so I assume I won’t be a number that factors into Mr. Pinker’s excel spreadsheet. What I experienced was domestic violence; a man in my house committed physical abuse to others but controlled my every-waking-moment with fear.

    “All forms of domestic abuse have one purpose: to gain and maintain control over the victim. Abusers use many tactics to exert power over their spouse or partner: dominance, humiliation, isolation, threats, intimidation, denial and blame” -wiki “domestic violence”

    It’s well documented that the physical aspect of domestic violence is only part of it. Similar to how rape is not about sex it’s about power and control. So let’s extrapolate that out.

    In his article “Is the World too Big to Fail” Noam Chomsky talks about global dominance and the West (and the resentment it breeds) and he calls it “The Invisible Hand of Power.” What I think he’s saying is billions of people feel they are under the thumb of a minuscule few and there will cometh a ripple effect of ramifications.


    And that’s where I believe Mr. Pinker’s vision is skewed. Yes the “numbers” have changed but so has the equation. He says he has “graphs” to back him up but after the 1930’s and The Manhattan Project the old graphs must go. Their margin of error = abyss. And now global connectivity is enabling a few to coalesce power, wave their “invisible hand,” and demand passiveness from the populous.

    Mr. Pinker characterizes U.S. drones as a “great advance” compared to “carpet bombing,” but I say look up from your laptop Mr. Pinker and into the sky.

    U.S. drones are a metaphor!
    And here is the link to Chomsky article:

  • Rob Crawford

    This was a great interview. I liked how you challenged him, how you got him to admit he hadn’t thought of certain things (i.e. heavy Asia crit), and yet were able to draw out his ideas.

    Once again, even if I feel Pinker sounded a bit like an effete intellectual, you got me to want to read his latest book. I am amazed at how you can consistently generate that kind of enthusiasm, Chris.

  • Potter

    I don’t read Krauthammer usually – but consider this variation on pessimism, as we look out and forward, not only at our history:

    Are We Alone in the Universe?

    Modern satellite data, applied to the Drake Equation, suggest that the number [of advanced civilizations on planets in the universe] should be very high. So why the silence? Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the final variable: the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves.
    In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, nearly instantly so.

  • nother

    Just came across this new song by a renowned electronic group backed up by one the best MCs to come out of Boston. Notice in the video you don’t a lot of the “violence” that Mr. Pinker calculates for us even though the whole this song is about violence and violation…

  • sifta

    Very engaging interview… There certainly seems to be a bit of the sentiment of Fukuyama’s “End of History” in Pinker’s analysis. It is great that he is using the trappings of science to enhance the rationality of his arguments, and such a process sharpens his arguments. However, don’t fool yourself, it is *not* science in the sense of Karl Popper and although the statistics presented are debatable and verifiable, the thesis is not a falsifiable thesis. In some sense, this is the point that Nicholas Taleb makes in his “Black Swan” theory — which is that intellectual approaches that herald their a curve fitting approach often lead to fragile assumptions.

    The dichotomy between the viewpoints presented by Pinker and Lydon (channeling Ashish Nandy) lay in a difference in the essence of the discussion. Pinker begins with a definition of violence and makes the case that since the per capita statistics of violence have declined, “we” have become less violent. Lydon and Nandy takes cues from the modern world and observes that certain violent activities seem to have become dehumanized, and thus our moral impediments to the application of violence have eroded. Even if we are more scared of it nowadays.

    Both approaches have value and are valid in their own terms — neither of which can capture reality in all its fullness. While I would certainly acknowledge the trends that Pinker is pointing out, I tend to think that as a reading the human condition, the Lydon/Nandy approach to be more predictive in the context of an uncertain future. The real value that I think that Pinker brings to the discussion is to keep abstract thinkers like Nandy honest. In fact, it is true that, other things being equal, Predator Drones are a more humane weapon of war than Napalm. It’s also probably true that a sniper rifle is more humane than a sword. What is missed here in that the theoretical ability to order a precision weapon itself changes the game and thus other things are not equal. The dialectical mode is extremely valuable in navigating such waters.

  • I just listened to the Podcast and read the article and really like it. Will recommend it to my other friends from Germany, I’m sure we can have some great discussions on this.

  • I love your show, but I was quite disappointed in the ‘pass’ that Pinker was given. I am reading his book and find his statistics and assertions extremely suspect. I wanted to beleive him, but he really sounds like an apologist for the capitalist state, neatly minimizing or omitting the institutional violence such states routinely commit on their own populations and others. The article below is not in repsonse to his, book, but to an earlier article, but I think it hits the mark. next time, Christopher, get Noam Chomsky up there to debate Pinker, he will quite handily dispatch this specious idea that Leviathons of Western Europe and North America have lessened violence.

  • Bryon

    Where are you Chris?! This dry spell is insufferable!!

  • Mark Aisenberg

    I haven’t read the book. But this sounds a bit like “the end of history” assertion of a decade ago. That is, if you pick the right timeframe, and project it into the future, you can draw sweeping conclusions. But I don’t see how we can rule out major conflict over resources as climate change kicks in, e.g. It’s all fun until someone starts WWIII. 🙂

  • David Kimball

    I also believe we are getting better and better. And for proof, I will point to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Their success has been phenomenal – even though they are never discussed in the United States medial ( Also, as these morph into the Sustainability Development Goals for the years 2015 and beyond, ( I see even more hope as these good things will happen not only regarding poverty in the Least Developed Countries, but also for the Developing Countries and the Most Developed Countries like Europe and the US.

    It would help, of course, if the media would report on the work of the agencies of the UN (UNICEF, UNESCO, WHO, etc) and the collaborative work of the more than 25,000 Non Government Organizations (NGOs) and grassroots organization. The media should learn that the UN is more than just the governments competing and warring in areas of conflict.

  • A famous British biostatistician used to warn his students “if you torture the data, it will confess.” Professor Pinker may be falling into this snare where the wish is fathering the thought and making the data “confess.”

    A character in Vassily Grossman’s novel “Forever Flowing” makes the countercase to Pinker’s:
    “There is no progress.” What he saw in all this is very simple: the law of the conservation of violence. It is a simple as the law of the conservation of energy. Violence is eternal, no matter what is done to destroy it. It will not disappear and it will not diminish but only be transformed. It once took the form of slavery. Then of the Mongol invasion. It moves from continent to continent, and sometimes it takes a class form and then is transformed into a racial form. Sometimes it is exercised against the colored races, sometimes against writers and artists, but as an entity its total quantity is constant. Only the chaotic course of its transformation deceives the philosophers, who mistakenly interpret them as evolution, the laws of which they can search for. But chaos has no laws of development, or meaning and content, or goal and purpose…

    (Vassily Grossman, “Forever Flowing”, 1986, Harper Perennial paperback, page 240)

  • Nietzsche would have given Pinker a pass because he is a scientist – as long as the scientist is being a-historical. Pinker attempts to make that separation quantitatively. Can the two truly be separated? Nietzsche could not do it, which is partly why he never pulled his aphorisms together in a
    cohesive world view.

    The issue for me in what Pinker writes is the resounding victory of Apollonian thought over Dionysian feeling. Wars are quantitatively cleansed, so that we can feel less about war.

    Pinker might be right though. If the warriors get less excited about war, maybe there will be less warriors. There will be only needed a few warriors controlling a distant technology, while the rest
    of the population is busy shopping…lol

  • Straight Talk

    Nassim Taleb has argued very convincingly just how wrong Pinker is. My money is with Taleb.