Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"

Steven Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, has been getting a lot of attention in the media and blogs of late, much of which has been positive.

Two recent pieces of interest include an interview of Pinker, by neuroscientist and atheist Sam Harris, and a review of the book by political philosopher John Gray (NOT the men are from Mars dufus).

First up, a little bit of Sam Harris speaking with Pinker.

Twilight of Violence

An Interview with Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the author of several magnificent books about the human mind, and one of the most influential scientists on earth. He is also my friend, an occasional mentor, and an advisor to my nonprofit foundation, Project Reason.

Steve’s new book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Reviewing it for the New York Times Book Review, the philosopher Peter Singer called it “a supremely important book.” I have no doubt that it is, and I very much look forward to reading it. In the meantime, Steve was kind enough to help produce a written interview for this blog.


I suspect that when most people hear the thesis of your book—that human violence has steadily declined—they are skeptical: Wasn’t the 20th century the most violent in history?

Probably not. Data from previous centuries are far less complete, but the existing estimates of death tolls, when calculated as a proportion of the world’s population at the time, show at least nine atrocities before the 20th century (that we know of) which may have been worse than World War II. They arose from collapsing empires, horse tribe invasions, the slave trade, and the annihilation of native peoples, with wars of religion close behind. World War I doesn’t even make the top ten.

Also, a century comprises a hundred years, not just fifty, and the second half of the 20th century was host to a Long Peace among great powers and developed nations (the subject of one of the book’s chapters) and more recently, to a New Peace in the rest of the world (the subject of another chapter), with unusually low rates of warfare.

And here is a rather negative review from the British philosopher John Gray, who holds a rather dark and unpleasant view of human beings. According to Wikipedia:
Central to the doctrine of humanism, in Gray’s view, are the inherently Utopian beliefs that humans are not limited by their biological natures and that advances in ethics and politics can accumulate or that they can alter or improve the human condition in the same way that advances in science and technology have altered or improved living standards.[4]
Gray contends, in opposition to this view, that history is not progressive, but cyclical. Human nature, he argues, is an inherent obstacle to cumulative ethical or political progress.[4] Seeming improvements, if there are any, can very easily be reversed: one example he has cited has been the use of torture by the United States against terrorist suspects. [5][6]
Furthermore, he argues that this belief in progress, commonly imagined to be secular and liberal, is in fact derived from an erroneous Christian notion of humans as morally autonomous beings categorically different from other animals. This belief, and the corresponding idea that history makes sense, or is progressing towards something, is in Gray’s view merely a Christian prejudice.[4]
He argues that the idea that humans are self-determining agents does not pass the acid test of experience. Darwinist thinkers who believe humans can take charge of their own destiny to prevent environmental degradation are, in this view, not naturalists, but apostles of humanism.[4]
He identifies the Enlightenment as the point at which the Christian doctrine of salvation was taken over by secular idealism and became a political religion with universal emancipation as its aim.[4]Communismfascism and ‘global democratic capitalism’ have all led to needless suffering, in Gray’s view, as a result of their ideological allegiance to this religion.[7]
Anyway, here is a bit of his review, from Prospect Magazine (UK).
Delusions of peaceJOHN GRAY   21st September 2011  —  Issue 187 
Stephen Pinker argues that we are becoming less violent. Nonsense, says John Gray
This is from a little ways into the article, after he establishes that violence is widespread and may even be worse than in the past.
While Pinker makes a great show of relying on evidence—the 700-odd pages of this bulky treatise are stuffed with impressive-looking graphs and statistics—his argument that violence is on the way out does not, in the end, rest on scientific investigation. He cites numerous reasons for the change, including increasing wealth and the spread of democracy. For him, none is as important as the adoption of a particular view of the world: “The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism.” (The italics are Pinker’s.)

Yet these are highly disparate thinkers, and it is far from clear that any coherent philosophy could have “coalesced” from their often incompatible ideas. The difficulty would be magnified if Pinker included Marx, Bakunin and Lenin, who undeniably belong within the extended family of intellectual movements that comprised the Enlightenment, but are left off the list. Like other latter-day partisans of “Enlightenment values,” Pinker prefers to ignore the fact that many Enlightenment thinkers have been doctrinally anti-liberal, while quite a few have favoured the large-scale use of political violence, from the Jacobins who insisted on the necessity of terror during the French revolution, to Engels who welcomed a world war in which the Slavs—“aborigines in the heart of Europe”—would be wiped out.
Read the whole review.

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