By Chet Yarbrough
By Steven Pinker
Narrated by Arthur Morey
Like driving from New York to San Francisco, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” makes one think “Are we there yet?”
Steven Pinker is an excellent researcher, reporter, and opinion maker; maybe 800 plus pages of narrative are needed to make his thesis credible but it takes perseverance to get to the end of his argument. Pinker’s message is that violence in the world has been proportionately declining since the beginning of recorded history with blips of increased violence but an undeniable trend toward world peace. Pinker’s thesis is counter intuitive; i.e. in the midst of Iraq and Afghanistan, the slaughters in Bosnia/Herzegovina and Darfur, the consequence of WWII, Stalinist pogroms, Korea, and Vietnam, how can one see world violence reduction?
Is Pinker a lunatic or prescient seer? Pinker draws on a multitude of resources, beginning with the bible and ending with today’s newspaper headlines. One is reminded of an “A” student debater when listening to the many resources Pinker draws on to make his case. His quotes from early historical accounts of torture, rape, murder, and mayhem are dramatic examples of world violence.
There are many interesting observations in Pinker’s book. He points to religion as more war monger than peace maker in history. He suggests that the growth of human rights for women is an important part of reduction in world violence. Women’s rights re-balance male/female ratios in nation states; i.e. fewer women are being discarded at birth and more women are participating in government power structures. Women are gaining more control over their reproductive rights with a consequent reduction in birth rates. Pinker suggests that the nature of women is inherently less violent and more nurturing than the male of the human species.
The surprise of Pinker’s observations is in the statistical arguments that show fewer deaths in the 20th century than the 15th. The reasons for violence reduction vary from the suggestion that nation states have “Leviathan” foundations in law to the democratization of governments. ”Rule of Law” (through the Leviathan) mitigates violence by compelling third party adjudication of dispute; exercise of voting privilege gives sense of participation in the “Rule of Law”. ”Rule of Law” and the “Right to Vote” create a community of interest, as opposed to each against another.
One is equally surprised by Pinker’s suggestion that the nuclear bomb with its use in WWII and potential for world destruction is a harbinger of less rather than more violence in the world. Holocaust is a presumed consequence of the use of nuclear weapons. Pinker argues that such an event will not occur because previous acts of aggression with weapons of mass destruction did not proliferate; i.e. he argues that use of chemical agents in WWI, WWII, and by Iraq’s Hussein was not widely used for the same reason nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future will not be used. He recounts the international abhorrence and condemnation that prohibited the extension of chemical warfare. He reports of the Kissinger/Schultz/Nunn proposal for a nuclear prohibition agreement that was voted for by all nuclear nations (except the USSR which abstained). Pinker argues that proliferation has not occurred as forecast after WWII because of universal condemnation of nuclear weapons and fear of consequent destruction.
Pinker suggests more reasons for decline in world violence. A preeminent argument is the increasing intelligence of the world population (measured as average IQ improvements) and what Pinker calls classic liberalism, a proximate consequence of improved intelligence. (To get a better understanding of his argument of IQ growth it is helpful to read “The Blank Slate”, an earlier Pinker’ book that argues genetics are a dominant determinate of what man becomes.) He suggests that government democratization and nation state’s leaders begin to recognize win/win free trade is better than negative/sum war. Pinker manages to insult several “conservative” American Presidents while acknowledging the value of free trade ideology promoted by both “conservatives” and “liberals”.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature” gives little comfort for the many deaths that are occurring today but Pinker writes and argues a brilliant case for future world peace. This brief synopsis fails to give enough weight or scope to Pinker’s fascinating argument. Though Pinker’s analysis may offend some, it will give hope to many that read papers and listen to news that report human atrocities that continue to occur in the 21st century. [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]