Although I can acknowledge that the world is a better place because Steven Pinker is in it, it is harder for me to acknowledge — as Pinker argues in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature — that the world has gotten better because violence has progressively declined during the course of human history.
Pinker’s previous books, from The Language Instinct to How the Mind Works to The Blank Slate, have firmly established him as one of the most important thinkers of our time. Though some find Pinker’s message — evolution has shaped human nature and biology plays an important role in our lives — distasteful, denial isn’t an option (except for the unwashed few). Human biology and culture have long been locked together in an evolutionary love embrace.
But what about the hate, which is the subject of Pinker’s new book? Better Angels will come as something of a surprise to those who condemn Pinker as a sociobiologist in sheep’s clothing. In a superb review, Peter Singer explains:
The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century. Pinker assumes that many of his readers will be skeptical of this claim, so he spends six substantial chapters documenting it.
The surprise here is that Pinker attributes this progressive decline in violence to the advance of culture and reason. So much for his biological determinism.
But what about Pinker’s central claim and why is it hard for me to accept? Anthropologists have long known (or at least suspected) that when violence is expressed as a percentage, non-state societies are on average more violent than state societies. Pinker confirms this with an avalanche of evidence showing that the percentage of people dying a violent death in non-states societies is around 15%, whereas this percentage is much lower, around 3%, in state societies.
While the death of 5 people in a single clash may not sound like much to modern ears, if those 5 were members of a 40 person group, the percentage loss is catastrophic: close to 13%. This would be like the United States losing 37 million people in a single conflict. The fact that the percentage has gone down is good news right? I suppose it should make me happy but it doesn’t.
My unease arises from the math. Expressing violent deaths as a percentage of population is all well and good, but I think it misses something important. This something is the total number of deaths caused by violence: when considering the value of each and every human life, we lose something by not considering (or denigrating) absolute numbers.
It just doesn’t feel right to say that while 75 million people died as a result of World Wars I and II, this isn’t all bad because when expressed as a percentage of population, it’s “only” about 3%. Never has “only” felt so empty.
This may be progress but it feels horrific. It reminds me of the opening to Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, in which he fleshes out Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” by noting that if during a tribal skirmish in a forgotten time and place one person dies, that death has little weight or is “light” because it only occurs once. But if that death recurs forever, what was a single forgotten death acquires weight or becomes “heavy.”
This is how I feel when we celebrate the fact that 75 million deaths last century is somehow better than 5 deaths long ago. Heavy.