Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Book Review
by Madeleine Kando

Everyone knows that the world is a dangerous place, full of mayhem, murder and calamity. Our instinct tells us to fear strangers, lock our doors at night and not trust anyone outside our immediate circle of friends and relatives. It is also common knowledge that we live in a very dangerous time. Terrorist and extremist groups are sprouting up like mushrooms, waiting for the slightest excuse to blow everyone to smithereens. It's a wonder we still have the guts to lead normal lives: we go to the store, we walk our kids to school and we even go to the movies.

In 'The Better Angels of our Nature', Steven Pinker blows all these pre-conceived ideas with one swell swoop right out of the water. Spanning his arguments across 700 well-documented pages, he shows us that violence in human society has gone down by leaps and bounds and that we now live in the most peaceful time in human history.

Pinker is a master at pre-chewing difficult subjects so that mere mortals can more easily digest them. As in his previous books, he uses his ample talent as a retailer of great ideas and tackles the subject of violence by cleverly dividing the material into bite-size morsels.

The subject matter demands great detail and Pinker generously provides us with tables and graphs to prove his point. He has been criticized for using relative rather than absolute numbers to show that violence has declined but to me it makes sense: After all, 10 murders per year in a village of 1,000 people is a disaster, whereas 10 murders per year in New York City would be a blessing.

It is mostly Pinker’s humor that makes this often unpalatable subject digestible, although at times I found myself skimming over the more gory passages describing medieval torture practices or human sacrifice.

Traveling to the Past
He starts off by taking us into the past as if it were a foreign country where the mores are.. well, foreign. The most 'foreign' aspect of traveling to the past is its level of violence . The average person endured and even embraced violence, accepted it as a fact of life. Archeologists have found million year old skeletons with their heads bashed in, their bodies pierced with arrows, limbs cut off, you name it. Pinker also refers us to works of literature like Homer and the Hebrew Bible to prove that killing and being killed was a large part of everyday life. In Roman times violence was used for entertainment and as a way to keep control over the masses by publicly crucifying, flogging, burning and quartering their subjects. In the Middle Ages, people's indifference towards seeing someone suffer gives the impression that the entire population was made up of psychopaths.

The Pacification Process
So where does violence originate? Is it part of the human condition? What purpose does it serve? In his book The Selfish Gene’, Richard Dawkins asks us to imagine a human being as a 'survival machine'. To a survival machine another survival machine is part of the environment, like a rock or a river. It will try to use it to further propagate its own genes. So violence in the living world is simply the default. It is how species survive and evolve.

Since we are all survival machines, there is no reason why we wouldn't all want to use each other as part of our environment. If a species evolves to become violent, so do all its members, so why don't we live in a world where everyone tears each other to pieces? Enter Mr. Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, said that without a central authority, every person would fight everyone else and there would be total anarchy. In order for peace to exist in a society there must be a neutral bystander who has the monopoly on the use of force to impose the rule of law. He called it the Leviathan. With the foundation of city states the 'Pacification Process' was underway. Violence began to decline.

The Civilizing Process
Medieval people were crude and childlike in their behavior, without any inhibitions. They belched, passed wind and had sex in public. It took quite a while for people to become 'civilized' and to develop inhibitions and self-control. Surprisingly, one of the ways they accomplished this was by learning table manners. Even though we take it for granted that we don’t blow our nose in our sleeve at the dinner table, or unsheathe a hunting knife to pick up a piece of meat, these things had to be learned over time. The idea was that self-control is like a muscle and that if you exercise it with table manners, it will get stronger across the board and stop you from killing someone who insulted you.

Two external forces also contributed to the civilizing process. One was the appearance of large kingdoms that swallowed up smaller territories and the other was the emergence of commerce. Commerce is a non-zero sum game which means that both parties benefit from a transaction. If one person steals someone’s wife, it leaves the other person without one. That's a zero-sum game because you cannot cut a wife in two. But you can cut a loaf of bread in two and sell half of it in return for something else. If you both benefit from a transaction, why kill the other person?

The civilizing process took place at different rates and different times. In America, for instance, there were two regions where the civilizing process was late in coming: in the south and in the far west. While the northern states were settled by people from countries in Europe that had already been 'civilized', like England, Scandinavia and Germany, much of the southern hinterland was settled by people from the mountainous regions of Scotland and Ireland, which had been harder to reach by the civilizing process. The lawlessness of the Wild West is made famous by Hollywood and it was not until the women arrived on the scene with their bibles and tea sets, that the West was won over to civilization.

The Humanitarian Revolution
The Age of Enlightenment or Humanitarian Revolution had a huge influence on reducing violence. Superstition and ignorance were replaced by knowledge and this allowed people to begin to sympathize with the victim. What had been considered an act of God was now understood to be caused by man. This period saw the abolition of slavery and torture, the end of human sacrifice, the burning of witches, cruelty to children and animals and other forms of violence that were previously socially sanctioned. The world had also become smaller so that people of different races and cultures began to interact, another reason to see things from the 'other guy's' perspective.

The Long Peace and the New Peace
'The 20th century was the bloodiest in history*" is an often heard cliché. Actually, it was a Jekyll and Hyde century, the first half being extremely bloody (the two World Wars) and the second half being extremely peaceful. It saw the creation of the European Union and the beginning and end of the Cold War. The post-war period is just that - it is post-war because the major powers have not fought each other since 1945. After the end of the Cold war, violence has gone down even further. Annual war deaths have fallen from about 500,000 to 30,000 per year and even though we are all afraid of terrorism, we are more likely to be killed by lightning than by a terrorist.

The Rights Revolution
This Rights Revolution is happening right now so it is easy to loose sight of the forest for the trees. Our tolerance for violence and violations of basic rights has gone way down. Homosexuals. for example, are no longer imprisoned or declared mentally ill, but they should also be allowed to get married, raise families and have decent health care. It shows us that we do live in a different world today than 500 years ago. The Rights Revolution is about child abuse, domestic violence, women's rights, etc. These might look like 'peccadilloes' on the larger violence spectrum, but it is obvious that, as history progresses, people start to view violence in a different light. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948 is a testament to how far we have come. Article 1 of the declaration reads: 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.' This is a far cry from discounting life on earth as a temporary phase, a mere rite of passage like puberty or a midlife crisis. We begin to value life , our own as well as others’, as sacred, not just as a repository for our eternal soul.

Inner Demons and Better Angels
It seems that our brains are wired for aggression and that we are all capable of violent acts, (recall the 'survival machine' theory) but we are also inclined to counteract those tendencies by invoking our 'better angels', as Pinker calls them. Who hasn't fantasized about hurting or even killing someone at some point in their lives? Thank God most of us don't act out our fantasies.

The first of Pinker's inner demons, predation, is the act of preying or plundering. Predation doesn't involve animosity towards a victim; a hawk doesn't kill a pigeon because it hates it, it is the 'survival machine' doing what it is supposed to do. Human predators, also known as psychopathic killers, are not able to see things from the victim's perspective. They kill pragmatically, amorally, like a hawk kills a pigeon.

The second inner demon is 'dominance', the urge to climb the social pecking order. Dominance is mostly a guy thing, it's driven by testosterone. Would the world be more peaceful if women were in charge? Actually the proof is in the pudding: the world IS more peaceful since women are more in charge and it will continue to be because women will have more influence in the future.

Although the demon called 'revenge' has gotten a bad rap, it is essential in deterring further violence by telling someone that they better think twice before they mess with you. Revenge is necessary in cooperation and it protects the nice guy from being exploited.

Another lethal demon is 'ideology'. When it takes the form of religious or nationalist fanaticism, it justifies violence with the promise of a Utopia, which of course, is a contradiction in terms.

The best of our better angels is self-control, when we are able to anticipate the consequences of our actions and refrain from violent acts. Empathy, another one of our angels, is when we feel someone else's pain or suffering, which (usually) stops us from being violent. Other better angels are morality, our sense of fairness. And finally there is reason. Reason will make us look at something objectively and override our emotions so we can make a better judgment.

Historical Forces
There are several historical forces that have tilted the scale towards peace rather than violence. The Leviathan has pushed us in a more peaceful direction by punishing the aggressor: the rule of law, as long as most people agree to it, is a deterrent to violence. Another development that has reduced violence is 'commerce'. Since it is a positive-sum game, taking care of your trading partner is always better than attacking him: he is worth more to you alive than dead. A third force is what Pinker calls 'our expanding circle of empathy'. We went from feeling empathy for our immediate family to friends, clans, nations, other races and now other species. Holland, for instance has an 'animal party' in government.. And last but not least, the feminization of society has made us more peaceful.

Pinker even tells us why all these forces have pushed us in the same direction. It is in everyone's interest to avoid violence because it is a social dilemma: it might be good for the aggressor but pretty bad for the victim, and since we are all potential victims and aggressors at some point in time, it is better to avoid violence altogether. The trick is to know how to get the other guy to lay down arms too and not end up being the sucker, as in the Prisoner’s dilemma. Those historical forces have given going the peaceful route more leverage.

I am in awe at the amount of research that must have gone into writing this book. It is entertaining, educative and at times stomach churning. The question remains whether our progress will continue in the future? Or is it possible than one nutcase, be it a nation or a group, someone who hasn't read this book, who doesn't believe in the Leviathan, who has inner demons but lacks better angels, someone who still lives in the Stone Age mentally but has access to all the marvelous lethality of modern technology, will blow us all to kingdom come? I prefer to be optimistic. What else can I do? leave comment here

* Two reasons for this cliché are (1) perception: today, the global media report worldwide violence, so when someone gets murdered in Kenya, people in Iowa read about it; and (2) the aforementioned rise is ABSOLUTE numbers: Obviously, in a world of 7 billion people, you can expect more murders than in a world of 500 million (the global population in the Middle Ages).