I am immersed in Steven Pinker’s engrossing new book The Better Angels of Our Nature that released few months ago. I am not even half-way through this 700-page epic but I can say that it is one of most interesting, thought-provoking, and intellectually satisfying books I have read in a long time. (Bill Gates would nod in approval!)
For the longest time, I have been an advocate of the fact that we live in a much better world today than our ancestors did. The world has become a safer, healthier, peaceable, and in general, better place. We may grumble about how technological advancements have made us lazy and “stupid”, how we have lost touch with the culture and tradition, how were are increasingly becoming less considerate about the climate. But a basic introductory lesson in cognitive psychology will explain how we are inclined to have what’s called “pessimistic bias”: practically every generation believes that their own generation, and especially the next generation, is not up to the standards of their parents and grand-parents. [See my earlier post Cultural Pessimism.] In reality, while there are occasional detrimental effects of modernization, we have grown by leaps and bounds when it comes to timeless intellectual values (like objectivity, truth, factual discovery), physical values (like overall health, safety, life-span), and civil values (tolerance and fairness, liberty, justice).
The Better Angels of Our Nature immensely helped me to consolidate this worldview yet again. The central argument of this book is that we may be living in the most peaceful era of our species’ existence. However,
[t]he very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword “If it bleeds, it leads.” The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age! No matter how small the percentage of violence deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will be always enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impression of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.
Pinker starts with an elaborate exploration of our evolutionary instincts that make us violent. Drawing from one of his favorite philosophers, Hobbes, he explains how there are three incentives of violence that applies to members of an intelligent species: competition, diffidence/fear, and glory. This discussion leads into some fascinating concepts, like the Hobbesian trap and Prisoner’s dilemma, that I was familiar with but never considered them from such distinct vantage point. The psychology of violence remains the main focus for a large part of this book. For me, those are the most interesting chapters. Once that foundation is established, he marches on to persuade the reader that violence has gone down over the years. By using myriad data sources, statistics, and illuminating charts he portrays a robust picture of the gradual, persistent and unmistakable retreat from violence over time. The first major shift in the trend came when we settled down into agricultural societies. The production, preservation and protection of crops eventually led to administrative mini-states that further reduced violent feuds and confrontations. There were other major factors that Pinker delves into, like commerce and women empowerment, each having a profound impact on our retreat from violence.
One of the most important points he makes is that not only violence has declined over time, but our tolerance towards violence has also waned. As a result, we are more sensitive to a level of violence that may be pretty mild stuff by historical standards. Due to this heightened sensitivity, when we see violent crimes, we focus on how low our behavior has sunken, not on how high our standards have risen.
Now, modern technologies have produced lethal weapons that can wreck mass destruction on the scales that were unimaginable to prior generations. Pinker is not claiming that everything has improved, neither does he ignore the fact that our retreat from violence may not necessarily continue into the future. But the arc of history is certainly in the positive direction – understanding that is essential if we were to truly reap the benefits of living in a (relatively) peaceful society and even more importantly, maintain the growth curve to build more peaceful societies.
The conventional view that glorifies the past, and laments the current state of the society, is seriously flawed. This book is a powerful blow to that romanticized nostalgia. However, this is also a very long book – a serious and monumental study, albeit filled with a lot of humor, wit, and interesting tidbits from the history – so I would recommend it to only those who are keenly interested in this subject. For all others, the book can get a bit too comprehensive and exhaustive. Instead, this brilliant TED talk (by the man himself) should suffice: