Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Book Review

I bought this book, and wrote a blog about it back in November last year, it's a hefty read for a hefty subject and took longer to finish than I'd have liked (a transatlantic move, among other things, got in the way somewhat), but I felt compelled to write a proper review once I was finished.

We've all thought at some point things like "if only everyone thought like me the world would be a better place!", I'd like to propose that if everyone read this book then the world would be a better place.

That isn't to say that Steven Pinker has solved the worlds problems, far from it,  The Better Angels of Our Nature gives us an analysis of the history of violence; from the rate of wars, battle deaths, murder, torture, rape, etc, and the reasons (or potential reasons) for their declines (though it has not been a steady one).

The book pulls no punches in describing various acts of violence, it is not for the faint of heart, but we are not talking about gratuitous descriptions of violence here, it's hard to sugar-coat breaking on the wheel for example. The fact that it's intuitive to recoil in horror at many of the practices that were once commonplace is in itself indicative.

Violence can often be an emotive subject, and most of the objections I have had to deal with when discussing this topic tend to get clouded in personal anecdotes and an inability to consider the vast span of historical time that Pinker has analysed. The first thing to realise upon being faced with statistics on death and violence is not to take anything away from what is still happening today, terrible things still happen and always will, but the world as a whole is less terrible than it was. One also has to remember that behind every number is a life taken too early or inhumanly abused, families robbed of loved ones via spear, machete, bullets, explosions and methods of torture that one can scarcely comprehend. For some of these victims, death must have been a relief.

A further objection I have dealt with is that people claim that the data are simply wrong and that the nature of statistics can show anything (although it's also curious to note that the people I have spoken to have not read the book nor have any interest in doing so), but Pinker is very analytical of the data itself and gives full disclosure of the sources (there are 200 pages of notes and sources). Some people claim that battle deaths in recent wars today are not fully reported (though death in war is just one form of violence analysed in the booked). Even if that were the case they seem to be willfully ignorant of the fact that reported battle deaths will be prone to errors in all wars and not just those of today, but more importantly the number of unreported battle deaths would have to be so high (to compete with past atrocities) it would be a conspiracy greater than a faked moon landing or government involvement in 9/11.

One has to zoom out a little bit (or a lot, in some cases) and look at the big picture, while it's tempting to consider the 20th century as the most violent of all time, this table (reproduced from the book) paints a different picture of histories bloodiest events by recalibrating the death toll to 20th century population equivalents (so they can be compared fairly):

Worst atrocities

Death toll*
Death toll (20C equivalent)**
1 Second world war 20th 55 million 55M 9
2 Mao Zedong (mostly government-caused famine) 20th 40M 40M 11
3 Mongol conquest 13th 40m 278m 2
4 An Lushan revolt 8th 36m 429m 1
5 Fall of the Ming dynasty 17th 25m 112m 4
6 Taiping rebellion 19th 20m 40M 10
7 Annihilation of the American Indians 15th-19th 20m 92m 7
8 Josef Stalin 20th 20m 20m 15
9 Middle East slave trade 7th-19th 18m 132m 3
10 Atlantic slave trade 15th-19th 18m 83m 8
11 Timur Lenk 14th-15th 17m 100m 6
12 British India (mostly preventable famine) 19th 17m 35m 12
13 First world war 20th 15m 15m 16
14 Russian civil war 20th 9m 9m 20
15 Fall of Rome 3rd-5th 8m 105m 5
16 Congo Free State 19th-20th 8m 12m 18
17 Thirty years' war 17th 7m 32m 13
18 Russia's “time of troubles” 16th-17th 5m 23m 14
19 Napoleonic wars 19th 4m 11m 19
20 Chinese civil war 20th 3m 3m 21
21 French wars of religion 16th 3m 14m 17
*Median/mode of figures cited in encyclopaedias or histories. Includes battlefield and civilian deaths
**Deaths were calculated against global population at time, then scaled up to mid-20th century level

When we see that World War 2 barely scrapes into the top 10, it's cause for contemplation. Few people tend to take stock of the fact that European countries tended to initiate two or three wars per year leading up to 20th century (a brief glance at wiki's list of conflicts in Europe gives the scroll button a sprinting start but a strolling end) . We have had an unprecedented peace since WW2 by comparison, which is known as "the long peace".

The world is not a perfect place, and violence is part of human nature (though so are inclinations towards peace, it would seem), but by studying the trends of history, our psychology and having a greater understanding of what indicators influence violence, we can concentrate on what "works" and what doesn't. While violence may well go up in the future, I can't see a situation in a developed society where many of the victories of the rights revolution (in terms of race, gender, etc, etc) are going to be unwon, it's unthinkable that segregation will come back or that women will have their right to vote taken away, these are humanistic victories that we now take for granted. Not to mention the abolition of slavery, witch-hunts (60,000-100,000 Witches were killed over history thanks to biblical instruction) Let's be grateful for the gigantic strides that have been made in most societies.

As a more humorous analogy, I consider what Louis CK says here, Everything's Amazing and Nobody is Happy:

Of course, not everything IS amazing, there are still horrific acts of violence happening every day, but things are better. As Pinker says in this interview, "My first edict as global overlord would be to impose the following rule on pundits: No one may bemoan a decay, decline, or degeneration without providing (1) a measure of the way the world is today; (2) a measure of the way the world was at some point in the past; (3) a demonstration that (1) is worse than (2)."

What is amazing, is The Better Angels of Our Nature.


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