February 8, 2015
What about the wrenching social changes brought on by capitalism and the Industrial Revolution? Is it your conviction that small-town life, centered on church, tradition, and fear of God, is our best bulwark against murder and mayhem? Well, think again. As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer.I had always considered Steven Pinker to be a pointy-head Harvard Professor, but his Wikipedia entry says "He is a Harvard College Professor and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind." Remarkably devoid of phrenology.
But his The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a masterful work. He collects, analyzes, and communicates voluminous amounts of data from wide-ranging sources and varying disciplines to assemble a comprehensive look at violence from cavemen to 21st Century city dwellers. It does the whole concept of scholarship proud.
The graph stunned almost everyone who saw it (including me-- as I mentioned in the preface, it was the seed that grew into this book). The discovery confounds every stereotype about the idyllic past and the degenerate present. When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent.
It ranges broadly through history, anthropology, economics, genetics, and philosophy -- but there is always a foundation of supporting data. The first and longest portion on the book is dedicated to convincing the skeptical that the world you see on CNN every night (every night you're stuck in a n airport anyway) is less violent than the pastoral settings of indigenous peoples or pre-industrial country life. He describes an illustration from "the 15th -century German manuscript The Medieval Housebook, a depiction of daily life as seen through the eyes of a knight."
In the detail shown in figure 3-5, a peasant disembowels a horse as a pig sniffs his exposed buttocks. In a nearby cave a man and a woman sit in the stocks. Above them a man is being led to the gallows, where a corpse is already hanging, and next to it is a man who has been broken on the wheel, his shattered body pecked by a crow. The wheel and gibbet are not the focal point of the drawing, but a part of the landscape, like the trees and hills.
Ah, the good old days. And this was a huge step up from the hunter-gather societies. The city of Boulder is thick with those who wish we could return to those peaceful days when indigenous Americans roamed an unspoiled land to hunt buffalo and worship mother Gaia. Trouble is they had 100x the murder rate. In some pre-historical societies studied a member had a 50-50 chance of meeting death at the hands of another human as from natural causes -- all before discoveries in hygiene and medicine reduced natural causes.
The same kind of long division has deflated the peaceful reputation of the !Kung, the subject of a book called The Harmless People, and of the Central Arctic Inuit (Eskimos), who inspired a book called Never in Anger. 72 Not only do these harmless, nonviolent, anger-free people murder each other at rates far greater than Americans or Europeans do, but the murder rate among the !Kung went down by a third after their territory had been brought under the control of the Botswana government, as the Leviathan theory would predict. 73
In the concluding chapters, Pinker offers several reasons for the downward slope of the violence curve. I think most ThreeSourcers would agree with most of the reasons; enlightenment values score highly.
The largest reduction comes from Hobbs's Leviathan and is bad news for our Anarchist friends. The Sheriff and courts clean up Dodge. Murder rates fall by magnitudes, but not without cost.
When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats.
The book is not political. Prof. Pinker takes a couple gratuitous swipes at President Bush, but I assume that is in his contract at Harvard.
Pinker does not spike the football, but one could easily use this as a celebration of Progressivism. The greatest gains have been made in Western Europe. The U.S. South (and West) were slower to drop and still lag behind. The sphere of protection and empathy was expanded from tribe to race to all races to homosexuals to animals. Are we all heading to Denmark and just at different locations on the path?
The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance.
That is a difficult consideration for me but I want to repeat that that is not an explicit thesis. Halfway through, I read a Denver Post article on coyote-killing competition. You don't have to be on the PETA board to be discomfited by that. Is there an optimal level of civilization (and homicide?) Most accept liberty's requiring trade-offs in safety. Perhaps that is part.
More appreciated 'round these parts, the second act of the Civilizing and Pacifying process was what the economist Samuel Ricard called "Gentle Commerce."
You have an incentive, moreover, to anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy. 38 A good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be.
Pinker is a Psychologist, and the last chapters evaluate his theories experimentally. Many of the studies make very interesting reading: student/paid guinea pigs who were told to skip a meal given two radishes and having to sit in front of a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and try solve unsolvable puzzles. Sadism has just moved from the fields to the Ivory Tower.
The data in the final chapter comes mostly from studies like these and fMRI scans. I found it interesting but am skeptical of both processes. There's a bit of Jonathan Haidt style, more real world data (and Pinker quotes Haidt extensively). But my skepticism led me to find that a weak finish to a strong -- and important book.
Five stars -- its small flaws are overwhelmed by its important contributions.
UPDATE: Pinker has the lead story on Cato Letters. Hat-tip Facebook friend Brad.Review Corner Posted by John Kranz at February 8, 2015 10:17 AM