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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