The paths of peace

The better angels of our nature by Stephen Pinker.

Review by Stephen Cox

This is a big book, addressing an enormous set of questions.  Is war and violence inevitable?  Is there a human nature and if there is, are we trapped by it?  Has the bloody twentieth century shown that progress is a mirage?

Pinker argues that the sweep of recorded history shows that society has usually been bloody, violent, cruel and unjust.  The idyllic Eden did not exist – hunter gatherer tribes usually had higher murder rates than the gun ridden slums of America.  Society has, in stages, become less violent.  The creation of states reduced murder within each state on average fivefold.  States were often vicious to their minorities and between each other.  But in the last five hundred years, there has been a dramatic widening of empathy.  Developed countries have done away with – or vastly curtailed – torture, execution, and animal cruelty for fun.

Pinker never shies away from the horror of what he is discussing.  (For example he spends pages spelling out how vile much of the Old Testament was, and alien to our understanding.)  Central to his argument is whether one looks at the total number of deaths from a cause, or the likelihood of dying of it.  Viewed in absolute numbers, the twentieth century is the worst in history, but then it has a much bigger population.  Viewed as a proportion of the world population, World War two ranks with other conflicts in recorded history and the twentieth century with the wars of religion in the seventeenth century.   Proportionately the English Civil War was worse than either World War.

The world is, he argues, getting more peaceful.  The UN has vastly reduced constant major wars over borders.  Nuclear weapons have stayed in their silos and more states have dabbled and turned away from them than acquired them.  The great powers fight wars by proxy if they fight them at all.  More states are functioning democracies; functioning democracies can get into wars (Tony) but they are less likely, the wars are less bloody, and don’t last as long.  And on average, countries which trade with each other are less likely to attack each other.

Since the Second World War we’ve seen a new expanded language of universal rights.  Feminism, civil rights, gay rights, a new approach to children and animal rights have transformed the developed world and somewhat altered the climate in the developing world.  Murder, rape, domestic violence, and the smacking of children have declined.

Pinker is not a starry eyed idealist.  He points to times when societies go backwards – when sociopaths took over Germany, when post colonial states fail, or the rise in Western crime during the 1960s and 1970s.  Grasping the reasons and what solutions worked allows us to understand where progress comes from.  Pinker believes the view that we are ‘blank slates’ molded wholly by society, to be wrong.  He argues that there is a human nature – he gets into the nuts and bolts of brain structure and a lot of psychology experiments –  but it has better angels, in that we are capable of thought and empathy.  Since the Enlightenment, a critical mass of thoughtful, educated, literate people have been exposed to enough new ideas to think, debate and reason about the good.  That, he argues, is where such progress has come from, progress most of us downplay in enjoying a good moan and a blindness to the reality of the good old days.

A Pinker book is packed with anecdote, reasoning, graphs and references, very readable, and rarely failing to be contentious.  He points out how much of the cruelty was sanctioned by religion, although Quakers pop up surprisingly often in the text.  This will challenge some Quaker platitudes.  But his overwhelming thesis is that societies within states or across states can change the rules of the game and things once accepted can become almost unthinkable.  In the year where for the first time an international court held a head of state responsible for war crimes, a more peaceable world seems within our grasp.  It will take time and it won’t be without reverses.

Two paths to choose from in a forest in the Peak District, England.

The paths of peace. Photo: jez s/flickr CC.

2 thoughts on “The paths of peace

  1. Steven Pinker is a leading academic but I am suspicious of his clever theories. How would he know that “hunter gatherer tribes usually had higher murder rates than the gun ridden slums of America”? Instead, I recommend Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be as an antidote: it explains how we got into the ‘domination culture’ that is seen all around us in war and structural violence. Domination culture has been with us for about 8,000 years (according to Wink), which is why even a leading thinker like Steven Pinker thinks it is part of ‘human nature’.

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