Book review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes

Have your say

EVERYONE else has his unified field theory of stuff, so here’s mine: when experts get scared they write more, and more and more, exponentially. And they draw graphs, very odd graphs, to prove what their words can’t quite show: that they are serious.

Since this is a new-style, social science unified field theory, you won’t expect proof: anecdotes will be quite enough (they often are for Stephen Pinker). So consider my facts, from the publishers’ catalogues of the past year. AC Grayling, philosopher, must think the religious are winning because he’s stolen their tactics and written his own Bible. Ian Morris, archaeologist, has drawn a graph to prove that it was quite right that the West ruled so long because it was so Western. Niall Ferguson, financial historian, has defined almost everyone out of civilisation except people like him.

Homo Academicus, the greater tenured white Western male, is on the march. Sometimes he keeps marching for almost 800 pages, numbing us almost past the point of resistance. Almost.

Enter Stephen Pinker, psychologist of Harvard, representing civilisation (so he says) and discussing the Civilising Process. He was once a rather interesting evolutionary psychologist, famous for pointing out that human beings couldn’t possibly be blank slates at birth, that we must in some way be pre-programmed with the capacity for our particularly human skills. He raised very interesting questions about human consciousness, although he didn’t really begin to answer them.

He then tried semantics to investigate the human soul, not a good idea. His arguments started to have a roundabout quality; we have language, so we must have the capacity to have language. And now, I regret to say, the professor has jumped the shark.

It seems he was asked what grounds he had for being optimistic, and after thought, he said: “Because the world is less violent than ever.” He then set out to convince the rest of us. He doesn’t want us believing in any past golden age: instead, everything is progressing. He knows; he’s seen inter-racial couples in the park.

Now very likely this notion of diminishing violence is right. I’d rather be in Tottenham on a dark night than anywhere as an early hunter-gatherer; in general, I’d expect to be safer. The trouble is that the kind of violence Pinker discusses isn’t general. It is the particular dark night you chose to walk around Tottenham, the specific people who are going the same way: the circumstances.

Pinker comes from a discipline which thinks human nature was much the same for the past 10,000 years and now he’s trying to write history, which is all about change. He flirts with the notion that our genes may be adjusting to make us more peaceful, but he only flirts; he wants to examine what happened in the documented, visible world.

You see the problem. Psychologists claim to know things because they can run their own tests on groups they’ve checked over, make graphs of figures they worked out. Historians know numbers are never that exact: some are guesses, some are just what survived, some are official statistics which may or may not be rigged, some are so full of gaps you can’t be sure what they mean. Figures for violence may survive better in less violent times, so peacetime gets lost during wars while wartime is preserved during peace.

Take one example: the civilised decline in irrational hatred of homosexuals. Public opinion polls support his point, but crime statistics are a much trickier matter. In liberal Amsterdam, there was one gay-bashing a day in 2010, so the police say; more disconcertingly, they add that for every known incident there were probably another 25 that nobody put on the official record. And it isn’t public opinion that sends you to hospital; it’s the man behind you with a length of iron pipe.

Pinker puts them all together shamelessly, odd findings and grand statistics, changing the scale on a single graph to cram then in; all he wants is a line pointing down, and he gets it. This is worrying when a diagram says it explains the advantages of war and peace in numbers, and Pinker says later that all the numbers are “arbitrary”.

It gets worse. Violence as Pinker sees it is quite limited: getting thumped, stabbed, shot or treated cruelly, and people being unmannerly in his terms. He doesn’t seem to see that hunger is also a kind of violence against a hungry person, that insecurity can cut a life down even if it’s irrational, that the long-term kind of injustice, not just a wrongful conviction, can blight. You could argue that huge gaps in riches, circumstances and hope are violence in themselves; the victims certainly feel that way. And those gaps are often maintained by the state – think American Republicans – as effectively as crime is put down. Is that civilised?

Pinker knows how self-serving humans can be, putting their own actions in the best possible light; so we can’t really complain when he goes on to prove just how human he is. His civilisation is American, comfortable and liberal, so everything gets better the closer to home; except – and here he has a tiny wobble – that Americans go on killing each other at a rate far above Europeans. He’s already said technology has nothing to do with how violent we are, so the ease of owning a gun can’t be the issue. He’s left insisting that it’s not Americans from the civilised North who kill; it’s American blacks, and also Southerners who came originally from the lawless Scottish Highlands. Homo Academicus thinks this is because they believe in honour and reputation rather than law. Homo Academicus is saying they’re not as civilised as he is, which could sound unfortunate.

Pinker wants to convince us, but he’s perversely sloppy about his proofs. Like any popular professor, he squirrels away juicy quotes; and his primary sources are academic papers. Here’s the Rolling Stones at Altamont, and Hell’s Angels going berserk, but he gets his description from a Wikipedia page that’s labelled “source required”.

He conjures the lawlessness of the old American West from the works of that distinguished historian of the cattle trade, Vladimir Nabokov. What Pinker quotes, quite astonishingly, is a great chunk of one of Humbert Humbert’s less tacky motel-room soliloquies from Lolita.

So maybe what he doesn’t know is not so surprising. He glories that chattel slavery has been abolished, but it hasn’t, not in assorted African and Middle Eastern countries, or some brothels. People are still trafficked and owned, just not so much in Massachussets. He thinks domestic violence is down, although the figures there are particularly problematic; victims often wait to complain. He thinks there is more respect for women, but respect is a tricky thing to define when some women clearly get much, much more than others. He thinks the dark ages in Europe were dark, not just uninvestigated, and he thinks peaceable societies do more trading (which will puzzle anyone who’s read the newer work on the Vikings, raiders and traders).

He thinks cruel punishment no longer happens in the West because crucifixions hardly ever happen; but men still languish on death rows, and his “civilised” nation has learned to outsource torture and the creative use of razors. He thinks manners are aristocratic, even the kind of lower middle-class manners – the right way to use a knife at table – that he discusses in detail (he really frets over how to eat peas politely).

More to the point, he’s so busy looking for continuities he misses huge ruptures still just in living memory. If you want to know why civilisation went backwards in the Sixties – at least in Pinker’s terms; he has doubts about rock’n’roll – you ought to remember the violence done to family connections by the Great Depression, the Second World War and then the rush to suburbia that followed. For the first time in 15 years it was quite easy to make families, but at a price: moving away from family networks, often to towns where everyone was the same age and knew the same things.To put it in simple terms: no grannies, no aunties for the baby boomers, no carriers of the tradition of manners which had to be reinvented in each ranch-style home. No wonder the Sixties were different: they came out of the kind of revolution which did violence to the old order but doesn’t feature in Pinker’s statistics.

Now Pinker is an exuberant, entertaining writer, whose lucid prose unfortunately lets the thinness of his arguments show through; a worse writer could get away with much more. What’s so odd in this book is how little his own discipline contributes to his argument, how far outside his basic competence he is working.

He does knock down the notion of aggression as some simple inner force, and shows its very different forms and triggers; he does show the human characteristics which work like good angels, like empathy and self-control and reason. He manages not to have a “grand unified theory” but he loves the kind of analysis which gives his students slogans to note down but stops short of actual explanation; and this taste may explain why he also thinks the talk of everyone’s “rights” necessarily means life is better. It may do; we’ll see.

The old objection to Pinker’s evolutionary psychology was that if you start off explaining why things are as they are, and say it is the product of an inexorable process, then you end up hopelessly (quite literally) conservative; making things better would be unscientific and probably unnatural. Pinker has rightly objected to this, but now he’s done something even odder; he’s written a book which says, more or less, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. We got there thanks to progressive ideas, but now we can stop; so “progressive” and “conservative” come to mean much the same thing.

Professor Pinker may live in the best of all possible worlds. I have news for him: it’s not our world.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes

by Stephen Pinker

Allen Lane, 737pp, £30