Better Angels of Our Nature

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.

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8 thoughts on “Better Angels of Our Nature

  1. Sabio Lantz

    That the sheer number bothers you, speaks only of your emotions, not the facts. Sure, more is worse but if violence had stayed the same, that number would be much, much higher.

    Your argument seems like it is saying: “I know the numbers support it, but I still don’t like people dying so I am going to ignore the conclusion.”

    He is not saying it is all OK now, he is just showing an arrow — right or wrong.
    (3 weeks and I hope to see a “Follow Comments button” ! yeah)

  2. Cris Post author

    Since when do “facts” such as these exist independent of any emotional valence? If adding a whole bunch of zeroes to “deaths” doesn’t disturb you, then I suppose nothing will and I admire your steeliness or detachment.

    Otherwise, I find 5 deaths disturbing and 75 million deaths far more disturbing, regardless of “facts” like percentages of population, which is simply a way of manipulating numbers to make them look less disturbing than they absolutely are.

    I am reminded of Nietzsche’s observation: “There are no facts; only interpretations of facts.” My interpretation of Pinker’s fact is that while it is good and I should be comforted, I’m not all that comforted by it. Try out this thought exercise: imagine seeing five (violently dead) bodies in a single location. Now imagine 75 million (violently dead) bodies in a single location.

    This might help you understand my unease with the “facts.”

  3. Sabio Lantz

    I am a callous bastard, I guess. Decades of working in trauma medicine and reading newspapers can burn out the best of mirror neurons.

    When I hear of hundreds dying from suicide bombers, tsunami wiping out thousands and such, the emotional valence is far less than when I hear my brother is having surgery, my son is vomiting or my company is in economic distress. Shame on me. But I am being honest.

    But these observations are not judgements. I let percentages influence all sorts of my decisions. Though there are horrendous air crashes where hundreds die all at once and I can visualize the horror, I realize that a far smaller percent of people die in air crashes than in car crashes. So I fight the tendency to avoid planes. I counter the valences as I use the fact to guide my choices.

    Likewise, it is this use of percentages that it seems Pinker is pointing too. He is, of course, sensitive to people dying. But percentages do matter.

    Hope this helps you understand my “ease” with the facts.

  4. Cris Post author

    I do understand your ease with the facts, which is why I wrote this post as I did. While Pinker’s message is positive, we shouldn’t just pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way as if there is not a great deal of work to do. It never hurts to disrupt or trouble the facts and remind ourselves there are two or more sides to every fact.

  5. J. A. Le Fevre

    Keep in mind, the way to achieve zero deaths of humans from violence is extinction.

    While I have some reservation about most of Pinker’s writing, of this, not. The challenge remains to extend the trend.

  6. Harold

    “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?”

    This seems to me just simple economics of scale. We have always built tools (spears, bows, guns, bombs, drones) to speed up the killing process. That has in recent centuries lead to an inequality in which the side that deals the most deaths has the lowest casualty numbers on their own side.
    I’m not sure that less deaths overall (even when expressed as a percentage) are testament to our civility, maybe we’ve just become too good at killing.

  7. Sabio Lantz

    Ah yes, I remember reading this. I think myself and other commentors are saying something like: “Look, if we could turn the USA into the state-less wonderful animist hunter-gatherers of old, the magnitude of the numbers of death would even cause you great emotional valence to help you see the importance of percentages.”

    Don’t get me wrong, I think it would be fascinating to live in a hunter-gatherer society (as long as I had an airplane ticket home.)

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