Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature, Preface

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Yes, you read that title correctly. Here’s the story. I read about this book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in a Scientific American article. A deadly shooting had just occurred in Norway, and the author used it to promote this book, about the decline of violence in the modern world. There’s a statement to stop a reader short. A decline of violence? The article went on to summarize Pinker’s theme, as it related to the shooting. Namely, that a decline in violence is evidenced by the shock value of a random act of violence that kills only a handful of people. In times past, such events would have been commonplace, and hardly newsworthy. Interesting point, I thought, but is that not just semantics? I was intrigued, and bought the book… The 1341-page book. Shit.

My loyal readers know I do not like long books. However, all of my research into Pinker and this particular book of his led me to believe that it was important. 481 pages in, I can tell you this is not just an important book, this is an incredibly important book, not just in its content and theme, but in its accessibility. A few years ago I read Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, and it so struck me as one of the most important books I’ve ever read that I went out and bought about twenty copies and started gifting them to people I knew. I am not going to do that here. I doubt very much that my friends and family, if gifted a 1341-page book, would read it. So, while my impression so far is that this is one of the most important books I will ever read, I am in a pickle as to how to share its essence with others.

I have decided that rather than a short, blurb-like review of the book once I’ve finished it, I will write a short blog post after finishing each chapter, summarizing the main points for a skeptical audience. That way, I can satisfy my prophetic urges to disseminate the profound content of this book to the masses, while still respecting my friends’ and family’s sense of patience. That’s right, after 481 pages, I am turning back to page 1 to re-read, re-bookmark, re-highlight, re-live, and re-hash this book in more granular detail, so I can broadcast my reactions as I go. Having said all that (which I will not repeat in subsequent reviews), I suppose I can summarize the preface for interested readers:

Review of the Preface

An interesting starting point is the question of whether the public really believes the world is a peaceful place. Certainly, an opinion poll would reveal quite a healthy dose of despair stemming from the news feed today. But an opinion poll is not reality, and we must proceed scientifically if we are to investigate the question of whether modernity with all its virtues and vices, is a force of good or evil in the overall moral progress of the world. The first problem, of course, is the old “if it bleeds it leads”:

The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. (p 16)

Another problem is what Pinker refers to as “historical myopia,” that is, the tendency to dwell mostly upon recent events in thinking about the world as a whole, and ignoring more distant events. Thus, the world as it existed to a peasant during the time of Attila the Hun, is too remote to incorporate into our modern vision of life as it exists today. When we think of violence, we tend to think of the days of innocence we remember from our childhood, and that our parents relay to us, and the contrasting ugliness of events we see on TV today. We forget to acknowledge that (a) as children, things just seem innocent by default, though surely awful things were going on then too, and (b) parents sugar-coat the world for their children, and tend to remember the best things their generation accomplished in their prime, not the ugliness of the world around them.

One thing Pinker does not do is claim that human nature itself is changing for the better. He clearly states that this book is an investigation of the external (or, in the scholarly parlance, exogenous) factors that push the world towards peace. Thus, the thesis is that while human nature itself does not change, the environment does change, partly by our conscious effort, and partly by happenstance. For example, things like medical progress, decreasing infant mortality, literacy, and urbanization, are all factors that, via one route or another, can lead to decreasing rates of, say, rape and domestic abuse. While some factors are truly exogenous, having (at least ostensibly) nothing to do with violence, others are very purposeful, like feminism:

Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men. (p 23)

Even if we accept Pinker’s thesis without a fight, we are still left with a moral qualm. Should we dismiss modern acts of violence as symptoms of the death throes of anachronistic world views and not worry about them, since the overall trend is opposite, effectively giving them a free pass? Absolutely not. The book will argue that, far from giving anachronistic violence a free pass, societies going through periods of pacification will amplify the reactions of rage and disgust to such acts, and push even harder to eradicate them than before. In other words, an anti-segregation movement, for example, could not take hold until an anti-slavery movement had succeeded. If that statement seems obvious, think about it a little more. Not until a disgusting and unspeakable evil (by modern standards) had been eradicated, could sentiments react to the more subtle and insidious evils that took its place.

One starts to appreciate the small gifts of coexistence that would have seemed utopian to our ancestors: the interracial family playing in the park, the comedian who lands a zinger on the commander in chief, the countries that quietly back away from a crisis instead of escalating to war. The shift is not toward complacency: we enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time. (p 23)

The moral lesson is not, then, to ignore the eddies of violence in the overall flow toward peace. Rather, it is this: Let us first acknowledge that we, as a civilization, are doing something right. Then, let us identify those somethings so we can do more of it, and perhaps leave an even more peaceful society behind for the next generation.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.