06 October 2011

Steven Pinker’s new book

Human beings are becoming less and less violent. This is the premise of renowned psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Pinker is considered to be one of the finest science writers of our time, with a gift for making complex ideas accessible to the layperson in his typically lucid yet highly informative writing style. His book on human language, The Language Instinct (1994), is a science classic. Reading The Blank Slate (2002) was a milestone in my intellectual journey. Pinker’s arguments against the tabula rasa theories of the social sciences left an indelible impression on me, and he convincingly demolished the ‘noble savage’ and ‘ghost in the machine’ ideas so widely held. I’m looking forward to reading his latest work for a similarly illuminating experience.

John Horgan has written a mostly positive review of Better Angels. Sam Harris interviewed Pinker and posted the result on his blog. I especially liked Pinker’s response when Harris raised the issue of so-called ‘atheist’ atrocities (obviously a dig at a common, and incorrect, anti-atheism argument):

[Harris] Need I remind you that the “atheist regimes” of the 20th century killed tens of millions of people?

[Pinker] This is a popular argument among theoconservatives and critics of the new atheism, but for many reasons it is historically inaccurate.

First, the premise that Nazism and Communism were “atheist” ideologies makes sense only within a religiocentric worldview that divides political systems into those that are based on Judaeo-Christian ideology and those that are not. In fact, 20th-century totalitarian movements were no more defined by a rejection of Judaeo-Christianity than they were defined by a rejection of astrology, alchemy, Confucianism, Scientology, or any of hundreds of other belief systems. They were based on the ideas of Hitler and Marx, not David Hume and Bertrand Russell, and the horrors they inflicted are no more a vindication of Judeao-Christianity than they are of astrology or alchemy or Scientology.

Second, Nazism and Fascism were not atheistic in the first place. Hitler thought he was carrying out a divine plan. Nazism received extensive support from many German churches, and no opposition from the Vatican. Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia.

Third, according to the most recent compendium of history’s worst atrocities, Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (Norton, 2011), religions have been responsible for 13 of the 100 worst mass killings in history, resulting in 47 million deaths. Communism has been responsible for 6 mass killings and 67 million deaths. If defenders of religion want to crow, “We were only responsible for 47 million murders—Communism was worse!”, they are welcome to do so, but it is not an impressive argument.

Fourth, many religious massacres took place in centuries in which the world’s population was far smaller. Crusaders, for example, killed 1 million people in world of 400 million, for a genocide rate that exceeds that of the Nazi Holocaust. The death toll from the Thirty Years War was proportionally double that of World War I and in the range of World War II in Europe.

When it comes to the history of violence, the significant distinction is not one between theistic and atheistic regimes. It’s the one between regimes that were based on demonizing, utopian ideologies (including Marxism, Nazism, and militant religions) and secular liberal democracies that are based on the ideal of human rights. I present data from the political scientist Rudolph Rummel showing that democracies are vastly less murderous than alternative forms of government.

Pinker displays a reassuring optimism about humanity’s future, though it is tempered with a certain amount of realism.

Are you willing to make any predictions about violence in the future?

I think that the humanitarian movements that have gathered momentum since the Enlightenment will continue to make progress. The burning of heretics, gruesome executions, blood sports, slavery, debtors’ prisons, foot-binding, eunuchism, and wars between developed states won’t make a comeback any time soon. Most likely capital punishment, violence against women, human trafficking, the beating and bullying of children, and the persecution of homosexuals will continue to decline, albeit bumpily and unevenly, over a span of decades. I’m willing to go out on this limb because international moral shaming campaigns in the past (such as those against piracy, whaling, and slavery) have generally succeeded over the long term. I think there is also a non-negligible chance that within the next 25–50 years there will be fewer bloodthirsty despots, and that nuclear weapons could be abolished. But terrorist attacks, civil war, and wars involving non-democracies are too capricious to predict, since they depend so much on the actions of individuals. Also, crime rates have defied every expert prediction, and it would be foolish to say that they could not go back up.

While the gradual diminishment of violence is a welcome development, there is an argument that, historically, violence played a significant role in the formation of modern civilisation. Francis Fukuyama makes such an argument in his book The Origins of Political Order (2011):

Competition is crucial to the process of political development, just as it is in biological evolution. If competition did not exist, there would be no selection pressure on institutions, and therefore no incentives for institutional innovation, borrowing, or reform. One of the most important competitive pressures leading to institutional innovation has been violence and war. […] And when we looked at the historical record of state formation in China, India, the Middle East, and Europe, violence once again played a central role in incentivizing not just state formation but also the creation of the specific institutions we associate with modern states.

Violence may have given birth to the modern state and other attendant achievements, but its decline in the coming decades may facilitate even greater accomplishments, ones achieved with far less human suffering and death.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a video of Pinker giving a TED talk in 2007 on the subject of human violence and its historical decline. Better Angels fleshes out the points covered in this talk.


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