Steven Pinker’s new book positing that violence has declined over human history will have some readers up in arms, and that is part of its greatness, writes Frank Carrigan
VERY occasionally a book is published that acts as a graphic reminder that reading is the highest form of human activity. The influence of such a book outlasts a generation and in fact its impact can resonate down the centuries. It ascends into the canon of classic texts. In one way or another such a book speaks to the human condition, and deals with contested terrain in a way that may beg many issues, but its overall impression is to dazzle and immeasurably add to the stock of human knowledge.
Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University in the US. His previous works, such as How the Mind Works (1997) and The Stuff of Thought (2007), have etched a reputation that has seen his name appear regularly on the lists of the top 100 global public intellectuals. In his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker has carved his name even deeper into the annals of scholarship. Written in a clear and lucid style and driven by a proselytising desire to hammer the veracity of his thesis into the consciousness of every reader, this book is simply breathtaking.
It is a brilliantly conceived book and in pursuit of proving its thesis the range of data and argument used almost overwhelm the reader. Pinker’s aim is to highlight that although civil society is nothing but a thin crust covering a volcanic pit of primeval impulses, we are not completely enslaved by our biology. He argues that the growth of cities, states, technology, commerce and an expanded circle of reason and moral consideration for others has tamed our propensity for violence in every social sphere and thus opened a rainbow of hope for human progress.
Set against the pessimistic backdrop of the 20th century with its history of violent revolutions and global wars, Pinker realises he has a hard sell.
Addressing the reader Pinker notes: ‘‘ I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites scepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger.’’
On the issue of the origins of violence Pinker is unflinching. He states that humans share a trait for violence with one of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. In foraging for food chimpanzees developed a territorial imperative to annexe the territory and resources of their weaker brethren by the use of violence. This drive to expand at the expense of kith and kin became a component part of the evolutionary lineage of human beings. The competitive struggle for physical resources ensured humans were wired for violence from the outset.
If all that Pinker was interested in was showing how Darwinian natural selection has created our inner demons and that we are doomed by a fixed human nature to repeat an endless cycle of savagery, he would not be engaged in pathbreaking work. He is irrevocably unsentimental about asserting the existence of a universal human nature inclined towards internecine aggression.
But having established that premise he stakes out a new conceptual terrain. He argues that time and the beneficent impact of the emergence of a strong state supported by key social institutions has tempered the proposition that man is a wolf to man.
Given his characterisation of the intrinsic nature of individuals, it is not surprising that Thomas Hobbes is Pinker’s philosopher of choice. Pinker argues that Hobbes created a notion of governance that offered an escape from the nightmare of interpersonal violence and anarchy that had dogged human development. The Hobbesian cure for disorder was the establishment of a sovereign power that monopolised force. A centralised state and commerce would spearhead the civilising of society and minimise damage inflicted on the social fabric by the darker side of individual nature. Institutions would provide shelter from outbursts of terror. According to Pinker, Hobbes provided a fully fledged theory to explain the decline of violence.
Pinker’s major achievement in this book is to reinvigorate the view that psychology is a branch of the social sciences. He brings together psychology and history to highlight