Monday, May 21, 2012

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature

Last month I read Steven Pinker's latest book, the ambitious 700-page The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, and it instantly became one of my favorite non-fiction books I've ever read. (It wins for most pages marked of any of my books … see photo.)

It's also one of the books most similar to mine - with the main difference being Pinker's focus on declining violence, which is the focus of just one of my 11 chapters. Essentially, it's a super-expanded version of The Secret Peace's chapter seven.

Pinker is able to go into a lot more detail, and while The Secret Peace focuses on current events, he delves deep into history to make his point that we are living in a less violent world. To me, the most compelling parts of the book were Pinker's colorful depictions of just how awful the past was. For example, he vividly writes that our ancestors "were infested with lice and parasites and lived above cellars heaped with their own feces. Food was bland, monotonous, and intermittent. Health care consisted of the doctor's saw and the dentist's pliers. Both sexes labored from sunrise to sundown, whereupon they were plunged into darkness." Any atrocity you can think of happening today, you can bet that it happened in the past as well, but worse, and more frequently, and with no one batting an eye.

This goes against many peoples' assumptions. In one survey that Pinker did himself, they presented people with sets of two time periods and asked them which they thought had higher rates of violence. In each case everyone thought the modern cultures were more violent, by a factor of 1.1 to 4.6. In reality, the earlier cases were actually more violent, by a factor of 1.6 to more than 30. For example, people guessed that 20th-century England was 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England, even though it was actually 95 percent less violent.

The horror of waterboarding, as bad as it is, doesn't hold a candle to medieval torture. The violence of boxing doesn't compare to the game of nailing a cat to a tree and trying to be the first to kill it with your head (yes, this was real.) Remember when wars used to have names like the "Thirty Years' War" and the "Eighty Years' War"? People in the past believed in the legitimacy and honor of war in a way we no longer do. In the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, wars broke out between European countries at a rate of about three new wars a year.

Pinker describes how the "shocking truth is that until recently [20th century] most people didn't think there was anything particularly wrong with genocide, as long as it didn't happen to them." He discusses the common medieval practice of enacting vengeance on someone by cutting their nose off, which is the source of our charming phrase, "to cut off your nose to spite your face." He talks about customs such as "slavery, serfdom, breaking on the wheel, disemboweling, bearbaiting, cat-burning, heretic-burning, witch-drowning, thief-hanging, public executions, the display of rotting corpses on gibbets, dueling, debtors' prisons, flogging, keelhauling, and other practices that passed from unexceptionable to controversial to immoral to unthinkable to not-thought-about."

At one point, Pinker shows a chart of the rate of battle deaths since the late 1940s (so, starting after WWII ended.) Our current decade enjoys an astoundingly low rate of worldwide battle deaths: 0.5 per 100,000 per year. This is lower than the homicide rate of most countries. In absolute numbers, annual battle deaths have fallen by more than 90 percent, from around half a million per year in the late 1940s to around thirty thousand a year today (and with a much larger population now, too.) He also talks about how effective peacekeeping is: studies have shown that the presence of peacekeepers reduces the risk of recidivism into another war by 80 percent. All other measures of violence have also declined: did you know that the rate of rape in the U.S. has declined by 80 percent just since 1973? (Actually, it was probably more, since women are more willing to report rape in recent years and it is now more often recognized as a serious crime.) Or that 24 countries have now banned not just child abuse, but even spanking altogether? We as a global culture have become so offended by violence that I even read an article recently about the possibility of banning football.

The past was a terrible, terrible place, and by comparison, today looks downright peaceful.

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