Friday, 4 November 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature

We are constantly bombarded from all directions with news stories and images of various atrocities throughout the world, so it's no surprise that when someone claims that we're actually living in the most peaceful time in human history, a few heads are turned. This is the claim that cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, has made in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

I haven't read the book yet and am looking forward to doing so (it is a whopping 800-or-so pages, but such a subject is deserving of a full analysis). I did, however, have the pleasure of seeing him do a lecture about his new book at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on the 3rd of November. Unfortunately it wasn't possible for Steven to use a screen to emphasise some of his points with various charts and images, but it just made for more emphasis on what he actually had to say. While violence has not decreased to 0 and there are no guarantees that violence will not increase again in the future, there are reasons to be cheerful.

It seems Pinker has the empirical evidence to back up his claims (the list of source data is hefty), even the catastrophic wars and regimes of the 20th century are part of this decline in violence, it almost seems natural to think that it was the most violent time in human history, but as a % of the world population, World War II barely scrapes into the top ten of the most horrible events of all time. People never seem to cite pre-20th century atrocities in the first place (the Triple Alliance War is thought to have decimated 60% of the population of Paraguay, for example). To justify his claims, Pinker has to account for violent deaths as a % of the world population which may seem a copout for some who could say that a rise in the absolute number of violent deaths would be cause for concern (WWII is the deadliest in terms of absolute numbers), but it's the only fair way to gauge violence over the ages. If you consider that % of world population is not a fair measurement you run into some problems (both morally and rationally). Here is a passage of the book that goes a little way to explaining why a violent deaths as a % of world population is the best way to measure violence over history:

As I note in the book,  “Part of the bargain of being alive is that one takes a chance at dying a premature or painful death, be it from violence, accident, or disease. So the number of people in a given time and place who enjoy full lives has to be counted as a moral good, against which we calibrate the moral bad of the number who are victims of violence. Another way of expressing this frame of mind is to ask, `If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?’ [Either way, we are led to] the conclusion that in comparing the harmfulness of violence across societies, we should focus on the rate, rather than the number, of violent acts.”

There are many reasons speculated for the decline of violence, abolition of slavery (as of 1980 slavery is now illegal everywhere on the planet) and witchunts, humanitarian and equal rights movements, etc. Printing and literacy get high praise and other enlightenment values, when knowledge and reason have surpassed superstition and ignorance then there is no reason to be violent towards certain groups. Also the increase of literacy can increase the amount of empathy in the world, imagining what it is like to be someone else, is cited as a potential reason. Pinker shows that human nature is complex and while we still have inclinations to be violent, we also have historical circumstances that favour peaceful intentions.

This is not the lecture I witnessed but it is the lecture with which he is currently touring:

I got my books signed afterward (I also have a copy of Words and Rules) and he was kind enough to pose for a photo. It's also interesting to know that Pinker carries a gene that causes baldness in 80% in carriers, clearly he is in the 20%!

So, if Pinker is right (and I think he is), we should be optimistic and even more grateful for enlightenment principles than perhaps we take for granted, but it's important to remember that there is no guarantee that violence will continue to decrease and it would seem foolish to ever speculate it would become 0 (a point he stresses himself). It seems while we need to concentrate on what we as a species has done "right" over history to drive violence down, we shouldn't get complacent. It strikes me that while idiotic ideologies are still rife in the world, coupled with an increase in technology, it may become possible for fewer people to inflict more destruction on more people with less effort. While we still have irrational superstition in the world, and people who are willing to kill in the name of iron age mythology, we have reason to be wary. It seems obvious that reason and rationality will be the driving force towards a more peaceful future if we are to reach one on a much larger global scale.

Since this post, I have read the book, my review is here.

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