Saturday, December 28, 2013

Better angels of our nature - Ode to 2014

The perfect way to start a new year is to take a big picture look at our future trajectory. For that, one book stands above all others - Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature.

This summer I linked to a TED Talk by Pinker when I first described his work in my blog Rising above the swamp.

I've just re-read Better Angels and it's terrific. Pinker shines a beam of analysis through the dark media images of "breaking news exclusives" and instant access to every hell-in-a-hand-basket story in every corner of the globe. In doing so he reveals that violence world-wide is on the decline. Contrary to media stories, things are getting better, not worse!

Pinker is no slouch waxing eloquent. He is an award-winning, Harvard based, Canadian-born experimental and cognitive psychologist. Twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Time Magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential scientists.

Peter Singer's review says it all:

"The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. "

Pinker's book Better Angels of Our Nature reexamines the history of violence

Enter the naysayers: Edward S. Herman and David Peterson's On The Alleged Decline of Violence.

First they say Pinker ventures too far outside his field of expertise. Now there's an irony-drenched slam (Herman is a professor of finance and Peterson a journalist).

Then they claim Pinker "completely ignores the kind of violence that is built into the structure of social relations and shows up…as unequal life chances…such as the savage global class war of the 1 percent against the other 99”.

Wandering so blithely onto the thin ice of political polemics, I wonder how long it would take their "savage global class war" to crash through the frozen pond of cultural relativism upon witnessing the bloody genocidal slaughter of the Mongol invasions or a half million murdered during the Christian Inquisitions?

Perhaps the long-term decline of violence will not persist. Perhaps war will break out over environmental collapse or an empty island in the East China Sea. There are plenty of problems to fix, especially the environment! And crime still persists.

But I'm a bit weary of the cynical, sky-is-falling crowd…when it isn't. Stewart Brand says "It is sometimes fashionable to despise modernity. A more appropriate response is gratitude." 

I agree.

A new year is upon us. Let's take a breath, appreciate our remarkable historical progress, and then reset our sights on our many remaining problems. Including crime.

Happy New Year!

We still allow places of high crime risk. We can do better.

4 Replies so far - Add your comment

  1. Excellent speech by Pinker. He has a good deal of insight about social relations and the consequences of the violence. I think sometimes, the violence can't be the perfect answer to a violence in return.

    Arnold Brame

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Ok, 3rd time trying to post.  

    I disagree with the two critics generally, but not completely. But what would you expect from a couple of non-criminologists writing in a tendentious forum like the "International Socialist Review" or whatever their magazine is called?  

    Consider my thesis:  "we kill each other in massive numbers because of personal (environmental) motivation, not nature or governments, or ideology."  

    Sure Pinker's factors (governments, security, international links) play a part in reducing our opportunities for violence, but our natures are no different now than when Genghis Khan united the mongols or Sarajevo fell into murderous chaos in one generation. 

    I believe we will kill millions tomorrow if the environmental conditions demand it. Just as the religious, social, economic and military machinations of the middle ages caused people to kill a few thousand non-witches ( ;-) ) we need to understand we haven't evolved 1 iota  in terms of fundamental changes to our DNA.

    As well, although they seem politically pre-destined to their opinions, I do not feel comfortable dismissing out of hand the class factors Herman and Peterson identify. We owe them at least a nod for their view about the deaths resulting from poverty. One is equally dead from starvation and disease as from an AK 47 bullet.  

    But I digress.  Pinker may be right (for now) about violence reduction, but in 1923 we may well have accounted ourselves as properly schooled in avoiding senseless deaths that just couldn't happen again.  Oh, and then we killed 60 million within 25 years!  Ooops - "I thought we were better than that"  said the masses.

    Finally, I wish people would stop using Shakespeare - those metaphors always limp! Remember it was Gratiano who was telling Othello (right after the big O murdered Desdemona) that he was glad her father was not alive to see her strangled by the one she so loved.

    Classic human nature right?  Nope, wrong! When we take Othello (the play) to certain (paternalistic) cultures, the audiences don't see a tragedy, they celebrate a righteous killing.  Sadly that personal motivation is hard-wired into our human nature and our inherent violence will always be there, just below the surface ready to arise when the right sort of Iago comes along to convince us towards violence.  

    Sorry for the ramble, but I when I read Pinker I liked what he was saying, but I wanted more about "how the (violent) brain works" like he gave us in previous books.  
    Keep up the excellent posting !

    Gerry Cleveland

  4. Thanks for that thoughtful reply. Sorry about the problems posting. Just posted and reposted your message :-( I've been trying to get Google to fix this bug. Talk about motive for violence!

    Pinker's book is groundbreaking because the decline that he measures holds true for an entire swath of history, not only for violence declines right now. As he says in his conclusion "The multiplicity of datasets in which violence meanders downwards is a puzzle worth pondering. What do we make of the impression that human history contains an arrow?" The shocking fact is how conclusive the data shows the downward direction of that arrow.

    As for the witch burnings in Medieval times - a few thousand non-witches murdered? I read it was up to a million. Turns out both our figures are off. Pinker says "a hundred thousand women were burned at the stake for witchcraft between the 15th and 18th centuries".

    But the bigger issue is the cause of that catastrophe. Pinker concludes: "Medieval Christendom was a culture of cruelty…Sadistic tortures were also inflicted by the Christian church during its inquisitions, witch hunts, and religious wars."

    Of course Medieval Christendom isn't the only culprit behind violence; people are. I suspect Pinker would agree with you that we kill each other because of "personal (environmental) motivation". In fact as you know it is the "environmental" part of that equation that CPTED attacks.

    I don't think Pinker's point is that there has been a fundamental evolution of our DNA. In Chapter 8 through 9 he exhausts all the many motives; self-control, neurotransmitters, ideology, predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, etc. He suggests something else; there are many triggers to those motives. It sounds similar to the environmental conditions you mention. I suspect we both agree with him on that, especially his argument that we continually need to be vigilant.

    He not only acknowledges the role of our hard wiring triggers of violence; he also acknowledges the role of our hard wiring triggers of peace, like his chapters on the "Rights Revolution", the "Humanitarian Revolution", and the "Civilizing Process" and the others he discusses in chapters 2 through 7.

    "Motives like greed, fear, dominance and lust keep drawing us towards aggression… But human nature also contains motives to climb into the peaceful cell, such as sympathy and self-control."

    In that sense, Better Angels, unlike so many other writers (non-fiction and fiction alike), balances the ledger more honestly.

    And for mere mortals like us, I am reminded of the great philosophy in Star Trek: The Next Generation when, after defeating a political witch-hunt on the good ship Enterprise, Captain Picard pronounces: "Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That's the price we must continually pay."

    Happy New Year!


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