Good news, folks. Violence has been declining. We are getting kinder and gentler as a species. That doesn't just go for us in the West. Critics who have accused Pinker of only focusing on advanced countries are mistaken. He shows the decline of violence is across the board: war, genocide, terrorism, riots, and homicide. The trend was and is led by Western Europe but wasn't and isn't confined there. It is not a uniform progress and regression has, can and will happen but just because journalists have missed it, that doesn't mean it isn't so.
Pinker has noticed it and others have, too. But for the first time we have a book that has compiled and interpreted the works of anthropologists, political scientists, historians, neuroscientists, psychologists and many others to tell a story that is as gripping as a murder-mystery, albeit one in which the mystery is why the bodies are not piling up.
It is impossible to do this book justice in a review. The argument is nuanced and works on many levels. A variety of factors account for this decline, but to summarise: humans living in a state of nature (i.e. before the state) were not necessarily brutish, but led lives that short, and led lives far likelier to be cut short by war or homicide. The rise of the state, Hobbes' Leviathan, begins a pacification process, which is achieved by imposing an impersonal system of justice on its subjects. The law of the state may be an ass, but it is a disinterested ass. It curbs vigilantism and imposes peace. Hence murder rates in England have dropped from 100 in 100,000 of the population in the 14th Century to 1 in 100,000 in the 20th. Similar drops extended to most of Western Europe and gradually to the United States. This trend, despite the current Great Recession, continues to drive violence down.
The rise of the Leviathan is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The state itself perpetrated numerous horrors, burning heretics and witches at the stake, slavery, genocide, capital punishment and torture of the grisliest kind, and in public. The state itself had to be pacified.
Pacification is complemented by a normative shift: the humanitarian and rights revolutions. The humanitarian revolutions arose out of the rationalist and Enlightenment philosophies that inspected established practices in the light of reason, and demanded justifications for the supposed goods these practices were supposed to serve. The rights revolutions of the second half of the 20th Century, with campaigns for sexual and racial equality, to curb violence against women and children and even animals, cemented earlier accomplishments.
So the decline of violence is two fold. It's down to institutions in part but it's also down to moral progress, a widening of the circle of empathy and sympathy. Empathy alone is not enough. One can have plenty of empathy and sympathy for those of one's own tribe, but still embark on a dawn raid against the neighbouring tribe on the other side of the river and think oneself no worse for it. The testimonies of former slaves did much to turn opinion against the institution in the 18th and 19th Centuries for example. But for this to happen, reason needs to make the bridge and subject oppressive and violent practices to critical scrutiny.
It is fashionable to denigrate the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. If you are one of those people, then ask yourself these questions: would you justify the reestablishment of slavery? Which is the better way to establish guilt or innocence - trial by jury or trial by fire? If someone told you that a child's epileptic fit was the devil's work, would you be appalled? If you are appalled, and you wouldn't dream of justifying slavery or trial by fire, then you are a child of the Enlightenment as much as I am. And the fact that you are partially accounts for the decline of violence, for it demonstrates that both you and I can be reasoned with.
We humans share a common nature, and that nature is partially given to violence. Pinker does not say that we walk around seething with a murderous rage like the zombies in the film `28 Days Later'. It's a lot more complicated than that. Violence can be predatory or sadistic but in certain circumstances it can be rational. A preemptive strike to neutralise a perceived aggressor is a case in point. Violence can be motivated for moral reasons, because a taboo has been violated, or to exact revenge for an injustice suffered. Epithets like the `Killer Ape' with all its connotations of mindless bloodlust are too crude.
But that is not the entire story, as you can infer from the title of the book. We have the power of reason, of sympathy, of being able to transcend our parochial tribal perspective and see things from a disinterested point of view, from the viewpoint of others, to assess and predict the consequences of our actions and reflect accordingly. The evidence Pinker presents is that this aspect of our nature has strengthened over time and this is a result of both the development of institutions and the rise of progressive ideas.
But this is a simplified summary that I fear does little justice to the richness of this book. There is much, much more that can be said. The discussions of the long peace, the decline of genocide, riots and terrorism, fascinating discussions about what actually occurs in the brain when we are in thrall to both our better and our worse angels, discussions as to why it is considered rude to eat off a knife at the dinner table, discussions of why democracies do not go to war with each other, discussions of how trade fosters peace. There is a scarcely a dull sentence in this book.
You may think that this is Whiggish nonsense. You may well recoil from a claim that violence is in decline. It certainly has not vanished. But, over the long term, it has declined. Whether this will carry on is, of course a moot point. This book tells us what has happened, but cannot tell us whether it will continue to happen. But, in the last analysis, the fundamental point of the book is to show that, despite our inherent propensity for violence, our better angels can and do get the upper hand over our inner demons. This is good news, is it not?