Peaceful Progress?

With frequent accounts of random gun violence, the vehemence with which many Americans cling to their weapons, and the on-going debate over the influence of violent media on consumers, anyone who suggests that perhaps we are an increasingly peaceful (or less violent) species might be laughed out of…or violently removed from…the room. Yet this is exactly what scientist Steven Pinker asserts, backed by extensive research, in his remarkable book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

At 696 pages of text and another 40 pages of notes, working through The Better Angels of Our Nature can occasionally be slow going, but there is something insightful and perspective-shifting on nearly every page. Just when it starts to feel like the text is getting bogged down in more prolonged theoretical discussions, Pinker offers insightful interpretations (often humorous) that bring his frequent combinations of statistics and theory into clearer focus. I don’t know the last time I’ve read a book so extensively researched that weaves together such a wide array of academic disciplines. Pinker moves seamlessly between history, biology, sociology, philosophy, theology, psychology, and the study of religion to arrive at surprising, and potentially hopeful, conclusions about the (non)violent nature of humanity.

Pinker essentially divides his study into two broad sections, history and psychology. It takes him all of a few introductory pages to start to get at his point. Lest you are tempted to argue that we are becoming more violent, think of all the violent moments that have gone the way of the Dodo: the Roman Coliseum, medieval church-sanctioned torture devices, state-sponsored slavery, and the legalized abuse of women and criminalization of homosexuality…just to name a few. Historically, Pinker outlines what he calls the Pacification and Civilization Processes, the Humanitarian and Rights Revolutions, and the Long and New Peaces, the eras in which human violence steadily declined and stayed there with only a few dramatic spikes. Pinker is not trying to diminish the scourge of contemporary violence, but is instead quick to point out that it is important to think in terms of population percentages. Doing so helps put our fearful reactions to radical news coverage in proper perspective. While things may seem terribly violent now, in reality, they have always been much, much worse. Even the mind-numbing death toll of the 20th century is just a blip on the screen when compared to previous war-infested centuries.

In two psychological sections, Pinker considers the biological features of our natures that help “explain” our violent outbursts as well as those features that help us overcome those tendencies. While these play a critical, “evolutionary” role in dampening violence, Pinker seems to suggest that the real driving forces in the decline might be more contextual and environmental. Changes in governance, education, publishing, commerce, and technology, for example, have made violence a far less appealing option for conflict resolution when it (less frequently) arises. In the end, Pinker posits five contributing factors to the decline of violence throughout history:

  1. a Leviathan–stable, democratic governments are capable deterrents to violent outbursts within and between countries
  2. gentle commerce–business changes zero-sum games to win-win situations (why fight when we can trade?)
  3. increased feminization–on the whole, women are less violent than their male counterparts and countries with greater equality between the genders historically experience less violence
  4. an “expanding circle”–changes in technology throughout history have allowed individuals to increase their exposure to the world and thus encounter different people and perspectives
  5. escalating reason–heightened intelligence allows individuals to see through unfounded fears and prejudices and to move beyond violent religious dogmas

For me, as a person of faith, Pinker’s books is a source of hope, even though he might not share in it: “[…My] mood is one not so much of optimism as of gratitude. Optimism requires a touch of arrogance, because it extrapolates the past to an uncertain future” (671). Of course, hope is different from optimism as it also embraces a greater uncertainty about the future. Pinker’s research should drastically influence the way that we look at both historical and current events. Thinking toward the future, The Better Angels of Our Nature might be an important road map for how we can stay on the path to decreased violence and to help bring those statistics even lower.

There are also important take-aways for people of faith or of no faith. Perhaps people who are suspicious or fearful of (post)modernity should re-think their approach. Those who think we are wholly depraved or wholly good have little ground on which to stand. As people of faith, what are the better angels that we should elevate, and what are the inner demons that we need to let go? There are important implications for both producers and consumers of mainstream news and pop culture media. The maxim that “if it bleeds it leads” is certainly unfaithful to most people’s lived experience, if Pinker’s statistics are correct. At the same time, the sustained violence of Hollywood’s reel worlds, for example, are out of balance with the increasingly peaceful nature of the real world in which we all live. When they do include violence in their productions, can artists any longer simply say that they are “imitating life?”

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a heady read, but it is a challenge that more people should embrace. This is just the sort of inspiration that we need to continue to think through the situations that breed violence in our communities and to imagine creative ways to address the brokenness that leads to and results from it.