We live in a violent world but not quite so violent!
Steven Pinker has a new book out — The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined — which I finally finished last night. It’s a longish book of smallish print at 696 pages, but it is well worth reading for people interested in human violence towards our fellow humans. We tend to remember the good old days as filled with wine and roses, but Pinker does a great job of disabusing us of that fairy-tale notion. He has an abundance of proofs that human society was incredibly violent in the distant past, but that it has been getting less violent for several reasons.
The Savage days were savage.
The warm and friendly past when primitive people lived in balance with nature was also filled with the probability that as a human you would quite likely be killed by your fellow human. The bucolic farming of ancient times was a little better because there was a modicum of social structure and there was some law which dampened down the violence, but it was still barbaric.
The Romans were brutal but law abiding.
We tend to think of Romans as being brutal; the very word brutal comes from Brutus who helped assassinate Julius Caesar. The Colosseum was dedicated to deadly combats for public entertainment. But this was shown by Pinker to be tame stuff compared to what was considered the natural state of man at the time. He shows how the Leviathan, the legal holder of brutal power, of Roman Law dampened down personal and family feuding and homicide because it was costly to the perpetrator. The interpersonal violence was costly to the state; it was a dead loss to the strength of the state which ever side won, and therefore the state suppressed it with brutal methods. Although the Roman Law might have been harsh and deadly for perceived evildoers, it decreased by an order of magnitude the total number of homicides within the state controlled territory. Thus for the normally law-abiding citizen it was much better than law enforced by local groups or personally perpetrated violence.
Pinker seeks testable reasons for the decrease in violence.
Humanity has gone through several similar discernible steps of decrease in violence, as defined by Pinker, which have exogenous causes. He carefully avoids confusing cause and effects as being defined by each other and searches and generally finds testable outside reasons for humanity’s improving social health. He gives clear testable evidence that where states have poor laws poorly enforced they also have consistently more violent crimes associated with expected daily social interactions. The modern reduction of violence is because of: 1. The Leviathan. 2. Gentle commerce. 3.
Feminization. 4. The expanding Circle of We. 5. The escalator of reason.
A convincing book of human social improvement.
Pinker is an excellent writer and combines carefully researched information with a sufficiently light and clear writing style. This long book is an easy read. I suspect that it will become a must-read classic because it not only shows us how humanity has improved in the past, but gives us realistic hope for even more progress in the present and near future.
We are a friendlier species than we used to be.