With rapid-fire delivery, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker gave an abbreviated version of the highly researched and heavily supported arguments in the 800 pages of his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Monday night to a packed audience in Princeton University’s McCosh auditorium.
Members of the public as well as students and faculty came to hear the Harvard professor who is listed among the world’s top 100 public intellectuals (Prospect Magazine) and today’s 100 most influential people (Time magazine).
Once described in Britain’s Financial Times as “a handsome man” with a hairstyle befitting Led Zeppelin’s front man Robert Plant, Mr. Pinker, who was born in Canada in 1954, studied experimental psychology at McGill University. He has spent most of his career bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT.
The award-winning author has written for the New York Times and The New Republic. His books include The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007).
He conveyed his seemingly contrary-to-contemporary-experience ideas with remarkable clarity, explaining the claim that humans are currently living in an era that is less violent than any previous period of human existence. And he is not just referring to wars but to violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes, and between states. According to the author and the statistics that back up his assertions, people today are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.
In his book, Mr. Pinker attends to the skepticism that has greeted his ideas in six chapters of support. On Monday night, he began his talk with the words, “Believe it or not, violence has declined.”
Even taking the worst cases in the 20th century, Nazi Germany and Russia, Mr. Pinker debunked the claim that the 20th century was the most violent in human history. While the Second World War is said to have caused 55 million deaths, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century caused an estimated 40 million deaths in a world which then had just one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century.
Since 1945, we have seen a “long peace” in which, for 66 years, the great powers, and developed nations in general, have not fought wars against one another. The past, he said, has seen decades long wars: the 30 Years’ War, the 80 Years’ War and the Hundred Years’ War; the 20th century gave us the “Six-Day War.”
Mr. Pinker presented graphic comparisons drawn from history: paleolithic forensic anthropology, the causes of death in different eras, archaeology, contemporary or recent hunter-gatherer societies, pre-state societies in which life was, as Hobbes put it: “nasty, brutish, and short.”
A graph showed a massive decline in the number of the homicides in England from 1200 to 2000. “This is not to say that the decline will necessarily continue,” said Mr. Pinker, before moving on to discuss the causes of such declines, from the introduction of states that replaced tribal raiding and feuding with industry and trade. Replacing personal revenge and retaliation with a state monopoly on the use of force made everyone better off.
He suggested that the development of printing and the spread of literacy, the mixing of people during the Enlightenment, increasing empathy from novels and journalism led to a decrease in cruelty with people beginning to look askance at practices once taken for granted: slavery, torture, despotism, dueling, and extreme forms of cruel punishment. Apparently sawing a person in half was an accepted form of judicial punishment.
The empowerment of women also has had a pacifying influence, and the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge. Changing norms have come to present war as no longer a legitimate option except as a last resort. Where once war was regarded as heroic, glorious, manly, and thrilling, it is now seen as stupid, wasteful, and cruel. Other norms have prompted declines in corporal punishment, spanking, child abuse (both physical and sexual), and increases in vegetarianism.
Mr. Pinker considered and then rejected the idea that human nature may have changed, citing the example of Germany, once the most bellicose and now the most pacifist country in Europe. Change in such a short period could not have an evolutionary explanation, said the author who believes that human nature has both propensities to violence and inclinations towards peace and cooperation.
His title, he explained, comes from a remark by Abraham Lincoln. Our better angels are self-control, empathy, a moral sense, and reason. What brings them out? Giving the state and justice system a monopoly on violence, gentle commerce, an expanding circle of empathy (as Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, has documented in his 1981 book The Expanding Circle) and the “escalator of reason.”
In less than an hour, Mr. Pinker demonstrated the breathtaking scope of the book, which Mr. Singer, has called “supremely important.”
“To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement,” said Mr. Singer in the New York Times Book Review, October, 2011.
Mr. Pinker not only “convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence,” said Mr. Singer, he is “persuasive about the causes of that decline.”
The Better Angels of Our Nature poses some very big questions: are human beings essentially good or bad? Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse? Along the way, Mr. Pinker also addresses links between the human rights movement and the campaign for animal rights, why homicide rates are higher in southern U.S. states than in northern ones, whether aggressive tendencies are heritable, whether declines in violence could be attributed to genetic change, even the way in which a president’s I.Q. correlates with the number of battle deaths in wars in which the United States is involved.
In a moment of levity the speaker suggested that news media pulls the popular imagination away from considering these declining trends. “It’s rare for a reporter to stand in front of a school with the news that there have been no shootings here today,” he said.
Since his book was written in 2010, Mr. Pinker said that he had updated some of his material to include the Syrian Civil War, which he said “had wiped out about a dozen years of progress.”
But what of the future? This question didn’t arise during Mr. Pinkers presentation on Monday. But, as Peter Singer has pointed out: “Pinker is an optimist, but he knows that there is no guarantee that the trends he has documented will continue. Faced with suggestions that the present relatively peaceful period is going to be blown apart by a ‘clash of civilizations’ with Islam, by nuclear terrorism, by war with Iran or wars resulting from climate change, he gives reasons for thinking that we have a good chance of avoiding such conflicts, but no more than a good chance.”
Founded in 1912, the free public Vanuxem lecture series has previously presented speakers like J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann, and more recently Neil deGrasse Tyson. For further information, visit lectures.princeton.edu.