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Montreal’s Steven Pinker on violence

In our modern world, riddled with police brutality, assault, murder, genocide, and war that stretch for decades, the mere suggestion that violence is declining may be met with incredulity. Yet, that is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. It is an extensive look into violence as it has been practiced throughout human history, from our existence in hunter-gatherer tribes to us presently in the 21st century.

This undertaking is no easy task, but Steven Pinker is uniquely suited to tackling such a broad subject. Pinker, a Montreal-born McGill graduate who is now a professor of Psychology at Harvard, has built a considerable career by understanding the nature of human cognition. His previous books include The Stuff of Thought, an illumination of human language use, and The Blank Slate, an incredible exploration of the scientific understanding of human nature.

Violence, as Pinker reveals, is wired into our brains – an intrinsic part of the human condition, shaping the fabric of society. With excruciating detail, The Better Angels of Our Nature delves into the cruel and unusual ways humans have devised to torture and kill each other. However, the chances that the average person will act on this universal feeling of violence have gradually declined over time.

Pinker outlines six main factors that can potentially explain this decline: first, the pacification process, whereby warring tribes are brought under a centralizing authority, giving rise to the first civilizations. The second is the civilizing process, where this centralized authority begins to extract resources through work (albeit slave labour) and taxes as opposed to plundering or looting. The third is the humanitarian revolution where the communication of ideas begins to radically raise the collective consciousness, The fourth is a long peace, the post WWII era which is remarkably free of nuclear carnage despite nations’ nuclear capabilities. Finally, there are the various human rights revolutions, where increasing numbers of people are protected by rightful access to certain basic rights.

It seems more feasible to highlight small aspects of Pinker’s observations, rather than attempt to summarize the behemoth that is The Better Angels of Our Nature. Honour appears as a small, but interesting factor, given that it is intangible. There is no quantifying measure of honour, nor is there some sort of “honour particle.” It is a social construct that only exists because we all agree that it does. In the past, people would be quick to act violently towards those who had threatened or hurt their honour. Today, people still die for honour, but to a much smaller extent. One factor contributing to the decline of honour killings may be the creation of a legal system. In a society with a legal system, the power to wield violence is given to one – ideally uninvolved – third party. This third party, or leviathan, as Pinker calls it, reduces violence caused by individuals, so long as the legitimacy of this third party is accepted. According to Pinker, this has allowed for the rise of such things as manners, holding your tongue, and other general niceties we even extend to our enemies.

Another important change Pinker outlines seems to be an increase in literacy, made possible by relatively recent technological advancements such as the printing press and the Internet, both of which allow the brain to temporarily inhabit the viewpoint of another brain. While this observation may appear rather banal to our modern sensibilities, the value of formalized education, and the general increase in intelligence that follows, cannot be measured. Anecdotal evidence from WWII left a much larger impact on a population that was able to access and understand it, than that from WWI. Literacy and education gave us the ability to learn, not only in school, but also from our own mistakes in life.

Though The Better Angels of our Nature was, at times, depressing to read as it gives insight into the machinations of serial killers, rapists, and perpetrators of other unspeakable atrocities, it nonetheless left me feeling cautiously optimistic about the future of our species. In an age defined by our seemingly inexhaustible cynicism, this is certainly a welcome development.