Steven Pinker: Honestly, This is the Best Time to Be Alive

By Tony Allen-Mills

The Sunday Times, Oct. 2011


As a precocious teenager growing up in Canada in the 1960s, Steven Pinker scoured his history books for a political ideology that would inspire his rebel soul. Scorning the bourgeois conventions of democracy, he settled on Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th-century father of revolutionary anarchism.

 

When the Montreal police went on strike in October 1969, anarchy duly erupted, and Pinker’s ideals were put to an early empirical test. After a day of looting, arson, bank robberies and other violence was finally brought under control by the Mounties, Pinker changed his mind about the worthlessness of government.

 

Forty years later the man who went on to become one of America’s most formidable public intellectuals has taken a deeper look at humankind’s capacity for violence, and his conclusions are so provocative that it’s tempting to wonder if he’s got it all horribly wrong again.

 

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, his sweeping new review of the history of human violence, Pinker, 57, argues that whatever we may think of the slaughter, torture and other horrors that have disfigured much of the past century, the world is actually becoming a measurably gentler and much less dangerous place.

 

“Violence has declined over long stretches of time,” he asserts at the outset of his 800-page compendium of murder, mayhem and mass unpleasantness. “Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

 

It certainly felt peaceable to be perching on a vast sofa in Pinker’s magnificent Boston apartment — a sprawling, book-lined sanctuary on the top floor of a converted leather warehouse. Yet shortly before our interview I had been waiting in a local Starbucks and scanned the latest newspaper headlines: “Surge in attacks stokes anti-US sentiment in Pakistan ... Senior government official assassinated ... Gunman kills CIA employee ... Syria: soldiers killed ... Indiana: five bodies found ... Mexico: severed heads dumped”. That was just Tuesday. What kind of peaceable era is this?

 

As a prominent cognitive psychologist with a Harvard professorship and a knack for explaining complex academic ideas — as he showed in a series of bestselling books such as How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought — Pinker is no stranger to the debunking of modern myths. This time, though, he has reached a conclusion that even the least academically inclined reader may be driven to challenge.

 

“People are shocked, incredulous,” Pinker acknowledged happily last week. “They say, ‘Wasn’t the 20th century the most violent in history? Just look at the newspapers every day — someone’s going postal, there are terrorist attacks, genocide in Darfur. How can you believe there is less violence?’”

 

The answer, of course, lies in rigorous scrutiny of the historical record, careful analysis of underlying social and environmental trends and the kind of academic superbrain that can translate otherwise impenetrable statistics into a meaningful narrative of human behaviour. Or, as Pinker modestly puts it: “The facts are not widely known.”

 

The man who would have us believe that we’ve never had it so peaceful is wiry and intense with a shock of curly white hair that seems to have been combed with a Taser. It was during his research for earlier books that he began to come across what he described as interesting “factoids” indicating a long-term decrease in violence.

 

Then his literary agent invited him some time ago to address the question: what are you optimistic about? His answer — that violence seemed to be declining — provoked a wave of feedback from other researchers who offered further examples. “I realised there’s a book in here,” Pinker says.

 

For the next three years he buried himself in thumbscrews, cannibalism, poison gas and sadism. He read about the Spanish tickler, the mask of infamy and countless other instruments of torture. He studied Vlad the Impaler, Mayan sacrifice and Jack the Ripper. “I’d be in bed with my wife, she would look over at me and I’d be reading a book called Why Not Kill Them All?,” he laughs.

 

Steadily, patterns began to emerge, and Pinker’s fundamental argument took shape: that the past was much nastier than we realise; that the present is much calmer than we suppose; and that at least part of the explanation for our comparative comfort lies in those cognitive corners of the human brain that incline us towards co-operation and peace — the faculties that Abraham Lincoln once described as our “better angels”.

 

For the next three years he buried himself in thumbscrews, cannibalism, poison gas and sadism “It was really a fundamental question of whether everything the human race has been trying to do during the past 2,000 years has made us better off or worse,” Pinker says. Reading his accounts of the “high-throughput massacres” practised by, among others, the Scythians, Huns, Mongols, Turks, Magyars, Tatars and Mughals leaves little doubt that the past wasn’t much of a picnic.

 

The book contains analysis of prehistoric burial grounds in North America, which suggests that one in six of those interred there had died violently. It compares recorded death rates: in 14th-century London the murder rate was about 100 per 100,000 people; now it is about 2 per 100,000. In late 16th-century Rome it ran at between 30 and 70; now it is closer to 1.

 

Pinker attributes our imperfect assessments of past violence in part to a “historical myopia” skewed towards the present by advances in communication and technology. The widespread belief that the 20th century, with its two world wars, was the “bloodiest in history” may merely reflect the absence of newspapers in the 14th or earlier centuries.

 

Yet Pinker acknowledges that our gruesome past is only part of the equation, and that any theory of diminishing violence must somehow account for the blood that continues to flow. He is at pains to distance himself from the academic phenomenon he describes as “endism” — most notably represented by Francis Fukuyama’s notorious account of The End of History. “I didn’t call the book The End of Violence, and I don’t think there’s going to be an end to violence,” he says. “But I do think there can be a lot less of it.”

 

Pinker robustly defends his thesis against the modern mayhem that appears to undermine his argument. He seems to regard the bombings and beheadings and other bloodshed as exceptions proving the rule, or as rocks on a path that will never be smooth.

 

“This is not a mysterious process lifting us ever upward,” he says of the long-term trend towards peace. “There are circumstances that push violence down, and when they don’t hold, violence goes up. The challenge is to find what those circumstances are.”

 

While it’s hard to dispute Pinker’s impeccable scholarship — his book includes 100 pages of notes and references with dozens of graphs showing everything from the literacy rate in England in the 17th century to the approval rate of wife-slapping in the 1970s — it’s equally difficult to let him escape without seriously challenging his optimistic outlook.

 

For sure, we are no longer barbarians or Visigoths. We don’t go around sacrificing our children to the sun; nor do we drown women as witches. Yet how much progress are we really making if beheading is back in vogue from Afghanistan to Mexico? Since when did taking a machete to children represent a positive trend?

 

With the air of a man who has already been confronted at too many dinner parties, Pinker smiles weakly and sticks to his guns, or, rather, to his pencils. Yes, beheading is deeply unpleasant, but has it really increased over time? Think of the guillotine, which in turn was regarded as a humane advance compared with previous punishments such as disembowelling or breaking on a wheel.

 

Yes, the Iraq war was also horrible, and scarcely an advertisement for modern sensibility. Yet even in that misbegotten conflict Pinker finds evidence of a helpful trend — “150,000 Iraqi deaths is better than 2m Vietnamese”, he says.

 

“There are going to be lots of exceptions [to the non-violent trend] because the world’s a big place,” Pinker says. “It would be some kind of miracle if violence suddenly just went uniformly and steadily downhill everywhere. It’s a noisy process, with lots of reversals.”

 

On the final page of The Better Angels, Pinker acknowledges that “to review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust and immeasurable sadness”.

 

Yet the optimism that launched his research survives. “To call it uplifting might be going too far,” he says. “But it has changed my appreciation of the state of the world.”

 

The Better Angels of Our Nature is published on Thursday by Allen Lane at £30