Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker

I’ve had the feeling that humans are behaving better ever since I started reading medieval history. The ease with which people accepted torture and public and bloody executions. Roving bands of knights raped, killed, and sacked. Later on, the genocide of Native Americans. Child labor in mines and factories. Lynchings. We don’t do that any more.
Even in my lifetime, there have been improvements. Civil rights for African-Americans, women, and gays. Hazing is no longer acceptable on college campuses. And no great-power wars for the last half-century.

Steven Pinker includes all that and more in The Better Angels of Our Nature, on how humans have moved away from violence since prehistory. That’s not to say that all is well and no more improvements are necessary; it’s a long process that is still going on. My view in the first two paragraphs is from a rather protected position in the United States.

Peter Singer nicely summarized the book in his New York Times review. So did David Runciman in The Guardian. Better Angels was published last fall, and those reviews are from then. I am frequently a little late in coming to new books.

So take a moment to read one of those reviews, and then come back, because I’m going to take off from those summaries. It’s important to understand the structure of Better Angels. Pinker amasses an enormous amount of data to support his contention that violence has decreased. Much of the criticism ignores that first part of the book to argue that of course we are more violent now than we ever have been: we have the technology to do it better. That’s the argument that Pinker refutes early on; he is quite aware that many people believe it.

Remarkably, most measures show that violence is decreasing. I was surprised at some, even with my optimistic outlook. Because of the large number of trends all in the same direction, Pinker’s argument is robust: several or most of these trends must be refuted to refute his overall argument. And the refutation must be in the same terms, using data from respected sources. I haven’t seen any of that yet. Most of the attempts at refutation, like John Gray’s, simply ignore the numbers and speak from personal beliefs as to whether violence has declined and the causes for that. Ross Douthat presents the same kinds of arguments.

As Pinker investigates (and supports) a thesis I’ve been interested in, he uses evolutionary psychology, a field I am extremely dubious of, to make some of his arguments. However, he relies on other evidence as well.

Evolutionary psychology depends on reconstructions of what primitive societies must have been like. Not much of psychology gets fossilized – thoughts and brains don’t lend themselves to that, although as brains leave traces in the size and internal shape of skulls, so do thoughts leave traces in artifacts and graves. Unfortunately, this isn’t anywhere near enough information to reconstruct a society or how people participated in it. So the logic of various arrangements must be thought out. This thinking comes from modern people who have attained professorships or equivalent positions in today’s society. It’s obvious now that earlier reconstructions came from a male-dominated professional class’s mindset and expectations. In response to that, attempts are being made to make those reconstructions less vulnerable to justification of today’s inequalities.

I’m a chemist and uncomfortable with the nature of psychological proof anyway. I can usually think up multiple interpretations of the data and questions or procedures employed. I can see how, if I were an experimental subject, I might have problems figuring out how to respond to some of the experiments, providing data for opposing interpretations with varying moods, and suspect that others might do the same.

I’ve been particularly unhappy with the recent crop of books that glibly say we can’t trust our own minds – subconscious elephants lumber in one direction or another, transforming our veneer of rationality into rationale. If that’s the case, and if we can’t do anything about that, then I can stop writing now and you can stop reading. We are stuck with our evolutionary needs and can’t be changed. I’m now reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and it doesn’t quite say that, but it's close.
Pinker takes on this issue from a number of directions. Are humans evolving genetically? He examines the evidence and decides probably not – the changes are awfully fast for genetic evolution. He also translates Haidt’s moral foundations into the outcomes of relational models. Relational models describe how people interact. Moral foundations are givens, whether of biology or some sort of divinity. Thinking about interactions versus givens makes a difference in the kind of conclusions you will reach.

In the first half of Better Angels, Pinker shows that people’s relationship to violence has changed. He tries to find the reasons for the changes he documents. One he puts forward is the increasing ability to imagine ourselves into others’ places. Wars have decreased as we have had the technology to broadcast their action immediately from the battlefield. As our imaginations are stretched by books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we become less willing to kill, torture, or humiliate others. He documents the “Rights Revolutions,” civil rights and the decline of lynching, women’s rights and the decline of rape, children’s rights and the decline of spanking, gay rights and the decriminalization of homosexuality, animal rights and the decline of cruelty to animals.

Then, and only then, does Pinker go into possible explanations for these changes, including but not limited to evolutionary psychology. He is much more careful about invoking simple explanations for both the violence and its decline than other recent writers. He agrees with the general view that human history has molded us to a blend of individualism and cooperation, the two often in tension.

I’ll go beyond Pinker to suggest that we humans have been engaged in a long experiment in cultural evolution. Not by “memes”, but we are changing our environment in ways that pressure us to act in less violent ways and lessen our support for the societal forms of violence. Our actions and expectations shape our environment, and then that environment shapes our actions and expectations.

Pinker’s book is well worth reading and thinking hard about. It will inform my thinking from now on. I’m hoping to find something that might help with the difficult situation of Israel and Iran.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner and The Agonist.


donb said...

Perhaps one-on-one violence has decreased, but government-sponsored violence increased tremendously during the 20th century. The Nazis killed six million Jews and five million Christians. The Communist governments of the USSR, China, Cambodia, and other nations killed at least tens of millions if not more than 100 million combined.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Pinker considers all kinds of violence.

I find it useful to read a book before commenting on it.