At the Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in Hartford, Steve Pinker gave a very good 45-minute talk about his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. (I’ll have a fuller report on the FFRF meeting, with pictures, when I’m able to stay in one place for a bit.) As you probably know by now, the book’s thesis is that violence in our species has declined drastically since the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Steve documents that decline and then tries to explain it.
In today’s New York Times, philosopher Peter Singer gives the book a three-thumbs-up review (on the cover too!) Snippets:
In 800 information-packed pages, Pinker also discusses a host of more specific issues. Here is a sample: What do we owe to the Enlightenment? Is there a link between the human rights movement and the campaign for animal rights? Why are homicide rates higher in the southerly states of this country than in northern ones? Are aggressive tendencies heritable? Could declines in violence in particular societies be attributed to genetic change among its members? How does a president’s I.Q. correlate with the number of battle deaths in wars in which the United States is involved? Are we getting smarter? Is a smarter world a better world?. . .
Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought. . . .
Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution. . . .
“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline.
You can’t get a much better review than that, and I’m happy for Steve.