Thursday, December 05, 2013

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature

The news is full of bad things.  Wars, murders and accidents sell papers and keep us glued to our screens.  So, it's natural to think that disastrous events are growing more common as they become better reported.  I call this the headline fallacy.  That's our inclination to generalise from the latest gory headlines and so miss the big picture.  Behavioural psychologists have bigger words for this propensity: the "heuristic of availability".  Many experiments have shown that we tend to answer broad questions from the specific instances at the front of our minds.

The headline fallacy badly distorts the way we see the world.  Most people in the UK think crime is rising.  In fact, it has fallen precipitously since the 1990s.  Environmentalists tell us that global warming has increased the likelihood of big storms like recent typhoon in the Philippines.  With Haiyan hogging the headlines, that seems highly plausible but it just isn't true.  On the smaller scale of individual tragedy, a recent cluster of cycling deaths in London has led to claims that riding a bike has become more dangerous.  But, statistically, it hasn't.

In his recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker takes the long view and asks whether violence has declined over the course of human history.  And, if so, why has it?  Let's get one thing out of the way first.  This is a long book containing a large number of errors.  Here are just some examples I jotted down from the first few chapters: the iron maiden and pear of anguish are modern hoaxes, not authentic torture implements (the latter is a misidentified surgical tool); Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake but not for believing the earth goes around the sun; watermills, horse collars and horse shoes are not late medieval - they were all widespread by 1066; and public executions were outlawed in England in 1868, not in 1783.  Pinker appears to believe that Henry VIII was a protestant, that Thomas Hobbes opposed executing witches and that Barbara Tuchman is a scholarly source on medieval history.  I could go on, but you get the drift.  Just in case you don't, here and here are a couple of longer articles by fellow clerk Humphrey on Pinker's historical illiteracy.

All these mistakes are unfortunate.  Really, if you are going to argue for a controversial thesis then you need to get your facts right.  Nonetheless, Pinker's central point is surely correct: violence of all kinds has declined massively since prehistory and very considerably over the last half a century.  There are fewer wars, fewer murders, and less violence against women and children.  Even animals are subjected to lower levels of suffering.  Our instinct to believe otherwise is a symptom of the headline fallacy.  Campaigning groups, having won many battles, are loath to admit their success in case the funding dries up.  But Pinker provides reams of statistics covering all sorts of unpleasantness that brook little argument notwithstanding that his anecdotes, as I noted above, can go badly awry.

He deserves congratulations for demonstrating some good news in a world of pessimism.  That said, this is a deeply flawed book.  While he devotes 23 pages to animal suffering, Pinker's short section on the violence of abortion is grossly inadequate.  And it is pretty clear why: Pinker is a liberal secularist who just doesn't have a problem with the industrial slaughter of foetuses.  He concedes that abortion rates are slowly declining but appears to consider this less a cause for celebration than the better living conditions now enjoyed by laboratory rats.

And this book has wider problems than just not recognising that abortion is violence even though it has received a liberal imprimatur.  Pinker's explanations of why violence has declined sound like the musings of an undergraduate who has digested too much nineteenth-century Whiggish history.  His thesis, in summary, is that violence is caused by religion and conservatives.  It has declined because reason and blue-state values are conquering the world.  I simplify, but not by all that much.  The first chapter of Better Angels seems calculated to alienate Christians and they receive random jabs in the ribs throughout the book.  Moreover, Pinker goes to enormous lengths to avoid giving Christianity any credit at all for social progress (except for the occasional nod towards Quakers).  The trouble is, contrary to Pinker, the abolition of the slave trade was a victory for evangelical Protestants whose zeal and organisation culminated in the successful campaign in England decades before the American Civil War.  And religion was an essential part of the process by which civilisation got going in the first place.  Pinker admits the formation of stable societies, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, was an essential first step in reducing levels of violence.  However, he clearly has no idea how this process of state formation got going because he cannot admit that it was religion that first bound these new entities together.

Maybe Pinker has come down with a touch of Russell's Syndrome: the condition that gives so many intelligent atheists a case of the stupids when they start talking about religion. Or perhaps Pinker is only interested in convincing his fellow east- and west-coast academics.  Admittedly, this is likely to be hard enough for him.  He finds that much of the recent reduction in violence had its roots in the rise of individualism and the erosion of community values.  Trade, free markets and capitalism have done more for peace 'n' love than socialism ever did.  It is classical liberal values (sometimes called libertarianism) rather than left-liberalism that Pinker finds most conducive to amity and concord.

Pinker is always engaging and I am a huge fan of The Blank Slate.  Unfortunately, with Better Angels, his inability to give credit to any factor associated with faith or conservatism means he has to accept some implausible alternatives.  Postulating that the Enlightenment was caused by the spread of novels and the decline of murder by improved table manners seems a stretch.  His remarks on how the Flynn effect (whereby the results of IQ tests have risen over time) represent a rise in moral intelligence are especially unconvincing.  That's not to say that these explanations are wrong.  It is just that in a book of 1,026 pages, much of what Pinker says seems seriously undercooked.  Better Angels would have been superior if it were shorter and more focused.  Nonetheless, Pinker has done us a service by showing that the decline of violence is real.  That's very good news.  Arguing over the causes is of secondary importance.

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