The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker, is definitely the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year. Then again, it’s still January, so we’ll see.


First, the question of why violence has declined presupposes that it has declined, a shocking idea to many. From the preface:

“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence…. It is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

There are numerous reviews of this book already in existence, both professional and nonprofessional. So, I’ll focus on what I found to be the most interesting part.

The Violence Delusion

When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent. (61)

The first chapters of the book show that violence has actually declined. But it might also be worth pointing out why many people (including myself) would have thought the opposite. Pinker does discuss these reasons, but the discussion is sporadic, accompanying each individual section, rather than being presented at once with a big-picture view. I present a summary of these scattered points here:

  • Memory pacification: “A woman donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving prince” (1). Pinker also notes that when witches are mentioned, the thoughts that come to mind are of fairy tales and fantasy, not of drowning trials, hanging, or burning at the stake. We react to the Colosseum with awe at the architecture and the glory of the to-the-death fights, not with horror at the endorsed murders that took place (imagine if Auschwitz were toured in the same manner as the Colosseum). Overall, this makes it more difficult to remember how cruel the past was.
  • Publicization of relatively small events: We have a full-day press that competes to put out news stories and keep your attention. Thus, every time a homicide or multiple homicide occurs, we are reminded of the dangerous violence in our current society. Newtown was tragic, yes. Was it a very significant event relative to other things that go on in the 21st century United States? Yes. But that is the point—we live in an age where 28 deaths is considered a national tragedy. An isolated event involving 28 deaths, common in medieval times given the feuding states, would hardly affect a medieval peasant’s perception of how violent their country was.
  • Change in mentality: Pinker notes that, as horrendous as we would view it today, torture was not seen as wrong in the Middle Ages. “[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death” (130). Pinker then goes on to point out that while we today would condemn an act of torture because torture is inhumane, medieval criticisms of torture focused on the wrongful targets of torture—the act of torture itself was fine, it just mattered whom it was being used against. It’s difficult to perceive your time as violent when atrocious actions like these are not viewed as violent.
  • Rise in awareness: “Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.
  • More available data towards the present time. “Remember Tuchman’s ‘private wars’ of the 14th century, the ones that knights fought with furious gusto and a single strategy, namely killing as many of another knight’s peasants as possible? Many of these massacres were never dubbed The War of Such-and-Such and immortalized in the history books. An undercounting of conflicts below the military horizon could, in theory, throw off the body count for the period as a whole” (199). Basically, an availability bias.
  • Population and proportionality. Using a chart compiled by Matthew White, Pinker lists the 21 events in human history with the highest human-caused death tolls. Indeed, World War II tops the list with 55 million, the 16th century French Wars of Religion are at the bottom with 3 million, and the other 19 events are in between those. Some of the things I had never heard of, such as the An Lushan Revolt, which apparently happened in the 8th century and caused a death toll of 36 million (from White’s data). Surprisingly to many, 14 out of 21 of the worst human-caused events in history happened prior to the 20th century, and this is based on absolute numbers. When the death tolls for these events are adjusted by population size, only one 20th century event makes the top 10 (which was World War II in 9th position).
  • Political sentiments: The 21st century started with 9/11 and Iraq. But these are almost trivial compared to the violence and wars of the past. In the section “The Long Peace,” Pinker notes, “Zero is the number of developed countries that have expanded their territory since the late 1940s by conquering another country. No more Poland getting wiped off the map, or Britain adding India to its empire or Austria helping itself to the odd Balkan nation…. [T]wo entire categories of war—the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to keep them—no longer exist” (251).

With all this in mind, the fog can be cast aside. This brief summary is not from the book itself, but from the website: “Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition.  Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.”

Overall Comments

I thought the discussions of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment were interesting. Pinker shows the Enlightenment as one of the principal motivators in the humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an age people began seriously questioning things whether torture, witch-burning, slavery, sexism, racism, or homophobia were actually justified, and rules started to be edited or written anew (the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal was one giant leap at the time). On the other hand, Counter-Enlightenment values generally countered (for lack of a better word) the Enlightenment ones. Perhaps something that will cause/is causing/has caused much uproar is Pinker’s link between the Counter-Enlightenment and some of the deadly experiences of the 20th century like the World Wars, Nazism, and Communism. I feel like these are generally associated by the public with Enlightenment values, but that’s another topic. As for the modern day:

“Reason appears to have fallen on hard times. Popular culture is plumbing new depths of dumbth, and American political discourse has become a race to the bottom. We are living in an era of scientific creationism, New Age flimflam, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines, and resurgent religious fundamentalism.” (642)

Pinker makes sure to address the issue of violence from multiple angles. It’s commonly believed, for instance, that a nation’s economy has a significant impact on its violence rates. However, this often seems to be correlation rather than causation. Poor countries in unstable regions are politically… unstable, and politically unstable regions tend to have higher rates of violence. On the other hand, if economy (say by GDP or per capita GDP) were a strong measure of rates of violence, we should expect US violence rates to cycle up and down in response to expansions and recessions, which they do not. Nor, for instance, was Britain’s rise in personal wealth resulting from the Industrial Revolution the reason for a decrease in violence—the decline of violence in Britain had already begun centuries before, but up until the Industrial Revolution, average real wage was flat.

In all, The Better Angels of Our Nature was an extraordinary read. Even though we face tough issues in our time, there are many ancient atrocities that we no longer have to worry about on an institutional scale: “…abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor…” (30). Those wanting to do away with the decadent present and instead live in the idyllic, peaceful past might be surprised, for if their dreams were to become reality, they would face unspeakable rates of violence and death.

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