Steven Pinker has a new book coming out next week, and I’m very much looking forward to it. It is titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined, and its premise is that humans have been becoming increasingly less violent over time. I’m very sympathetic to this view: I think cooperation, not conflict, has been the hallmark of human evolution.
There’s an overview of Pinker’s argument at Edge.
Believe it or not—and I know most people do not—violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it’s a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.
It’s full of charts — all kinds of graphs illustrating correlations and changing rates of war fatalities, homicide, slavery, etc. He identifies five causes of violence: exploitation, dominance, revenge, and ideology (I know, that’s four…I guess he left one out). He also identifies four forces that counter violence: the state as a mediator of justice, trade, an expanding circle of empathy, and reason.
I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an “escalator of reason.” As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.
It would be so nice to read a book that’s optimistic about humanity’s future. I’m definitely getting a copy.
(Also on Sb)