The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker

the-better-angels-of-our-natureI enjoyed this book very much indeed. It answered the question I have been asking myself for a goodish while now. The question is: “Are we as a species killing each other – proportionally to the entire human population  –  more or less than previously?”. This may seem to be a morbid question but I don’t think of it that way. It’s a genuinely interesting question. We undeniably have more sophisticated ways of killing increasingly large numbers of our fellow human beings than ever before, but do we? My gut feeling was that probably we don’t but I feared my optimism might be misplaced. It seems to me to be an important question to settle if we like to think that humanity is generally progressing in the right direction over time, meaning towards less violence rather than more. Which I do believe, overall. Despite what the media keeps throwing at us. And despite the very real horrors and tragedies that exist in many corners of the globe today. (Indeed, France, where I live, is currently getting a taste of these.)

I was discussing these thoughts with my husband who said: “Funny you should be talking about that, I read an article that says some guy has written book about precisely this question.” And my lovely husband bought me a copy of Steven Pinker’s book for Christmas. It’s a big hefty volume but a pretty easy one to read. It combines large quantities of information, academic rigour with an easy to read writing style. To be honest, I could have stopped reading at the end of chapter 7. I had my answer by then and I’ll break my usual “no spoiler” rule, on the grounds that a) this is a non-fictional book, b) the spoiler’s in this sub-title:  the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes.

better-angels-book-cover

 

Among the many facts I learnt in reading this was what lay behind the expression “to cut off your nose to spite your face”. I fondly imagined that it was an ironic comment on people doing stupid things themselves to their own detriment, with the nose cutting and face spiting bits taken in a figurative sense. In fact, people really did cut off their enemy’s nose. Coincidentally, I have just re-read Othello and in act IV, the Moor, who is a little upset with his recently hired and even more recently sacked lieutenant, says he doesn’t know which dog he’s going to throw Cassio’s nose to. (Incidentally, he doesn’t end up actually cutting anyone’s nose off, he merely smothers his wife to death.) Another titbit of interesting historical background about the decline of violence over the centuries is the reason behind the seemingly absurd rule about it not being polite to push peas around on your plate with the help of a knife. Basically, as forks were introduced, knife taboos started kicking in, including in table manners, and you are only supposed to use a knife if you need to cut something, not to push stuff around. Today, that “rule” comes under “good table mannners”. A few centuries ago, it was about protecting yourself from potentially violent dinner guests, progress indeed.

Also, I have to agree with the author that it’s rather gruesome that the main symbol of Christianity is an instrument of torture. I would personally go for the fish symbol instead, or a dove, or an empty tomb. But no, it’s a cross, and has been for two millennia, a powerful reminder of the cruelty of execution methods prevalent in Roman Judea. State-sponsored executions still happen in many parts of the world, but we must surely be encouraged by the fact that quite a few states no longer sanction them.

 

better-angels-book-cover-3The author makes his points compellingly and persuasively, combining judicious analysis with the sheer mass of facts and figures he presents, which all point towards significant improvement as regards human violence, overall and over time.

I have to admit to having been cowardly and skipped two passages in the book. One was reasonably easy to omit; on one page, there was a reproduction of gruesome mediaeval torture methods and I simply hid it with my hand. Later on, I think probably in the chapter about “Inner Demons”, the author stated his intention to mention two examples of human evil that have kept him awake at night. I decided to skip the next few paragraphs: I didn’t want that to be the only bit I remembered about the book.

I could have lived without chapters 8 (Inner Demons) and 9 (Better Angels) which were basically about attempting to explain what chapters 1 to 7 had conclusively shown. I was less interested in the reasons and explanations put forward, probably for poor reasons: I don’t have a strong interest in biology and how our brain structure might be evolving towards kinder thoughts (the gross oversimplification is all mine), the description of countless experiments aimed at measuring self-control and what erodes it or in the finer statistical points of interpreting data on violent deaths over the centuries. All this is surely interesting and worthy stuff, but for my part, I trusted the author to have done his homework and didn’t need to see his research notes.

 

Like I said, I have my answer and I am convinced of its veracity. That does not mean that I am in any way resigned to the trouble we see today or that I’ve decided to stop worrying or protesting because “it’s getting better all the time.” This book does however give some very welcome perspective on the decline of violence.

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