Review: The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

When I talked about Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules, I complained that the topic was not worthy of the quality of the writing and science on display.  His work has steadily been becoming more universal, while his skills as a writer and scientist have remained at their high level.  The Better Angels of Our Nature stakes out a universal claim of great importance and defends it meticulously, working from the demonstrated facts to an affirmation of the Enlightenment’s classic liberal ideals.  It’s one thing to believe that those ideals – reason, empathy, commerce – are worth affirming.  It’s another thing entirely to build an objective case that this is so.  As with any social science, there are still points to argue, but the scope and quality of Pinker’s arguments are dazzling to behold.

It is clear that Pinker is a defender of the Enlightenment and classic liberalism – though not necessarily of liberalism in modern American politics – and that he has a stake in defending that position.  He remains a meticulous seeker of truth and believer in science and statistics.  When he’s confronted with the choice between making a stronger, vaguer claim or explaining the limits of what he believes science can prove objectively, he does the latter.  It is refreshing to be written to as an adult about an interesting and important topic rather than being recruited to an ideological position.

Explaining a nuanced argument about a topic as large as human violence in a manner suitable for adults takes a lot of space.  Angels runs some 800 pages.  Pinker needs to first convince his readers of his counter intuitive thesis – that violence is declining – and then make the connections to the causes of that decline.  His arguments that there is a real decline in violence run several hundred pages and require the reader to internalize ideas from statistics and cognitive psychology.  It is to his credit that he brings in the relevant ideas from those fields comprehensibly, and is able to make a lucid case.

In a lesser writer’s hands the arguments would be opaque and unconvincing, but Pinker guides the reader through convincingly.  He does this through careful explanations of the relevant science (including lots of citations) and well-chosen examples.  His honesty is at least as great an asset as his eloquence.  He is always careful to quantify and qualify what he believes the data shows and how strong the consensus is around it. This comes off not as hedging his bets, but as being open about what humans know and can know about these inherently slippery topics.  He’s willing to admit what he doesn’t know, which makes the principles he can establish more compelling.

All that clarity and nuance, explaining the supporting evidence and context, and working through the examples takes time.  While Pinker keeps it as lively as possible, the exposition can be dry at times.  It never becomes a complete slog, but there’s a lot to get through. While I believe that the supporting evidence makes his remarkable case stronger, I also believe that if the reader gets too tied up in the details of the earlier chapters, and starts to flag, it’s worthwhile to peek ahead at Chapter 9 and see where it’s all going.

Chapter 9 is Pinker’s gentlemanly and scientific paean to Reason and Enlightenment making the world a fairer and safer place.  That song, sung in the most scientific and objective voice, is one of affection and joy for ideals that have objectively improved life for the majority of people on this Earth. Mankind collectively has slowly, in fits and starts, built a culture and collective mindset that has objectively reduced the violence and cruelty we inflict on each other, even though we barely realize it. Reading this chapter, I felt a little like one of those omniscient aliens from a SciFi B-movie must when it tells the humans that there’s hope for them yet.

Strongly Recommended.

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