Anger man­age­ment

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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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