Are we living in a time of unprecedented peace?

Examining Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” five years on

Garrison Lovely
Dec 21, 2016 · 18 min read

Note from 2018: Information I have come across since writing this has convinced me that Steven Pinker is not a good-faith actor simply following the data. The most persuasive evidence I’ve seen is this episode of the great podcast Citations Needed: https://medium.com/@CitationsPodcst/episode-58-the-neoliberal-optimism-industry-and-development-shaming-the-global-south-cf399e88510e

His charitable (i.e. propagandistic) interpretation of American motivations in Iraq, Vietnam, and elsewhere also calls into question the soundness of his scholarship. I found it helpful revisiting this response in the International Socialist Review. A useful summary of how we actually conducted ourselves in Vietnam is found here: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/07/what-we-did. Contrasting this with Pinker’s assessment that the blame for the high body count lies primarily with the victims (the Vietnamese) illustrates the extent of his pro-American white-washing.

My take now is that Pinker’s Better Angels is extremely flawed in how it represents American international conduct (but so is pretty much the entire American media). I also think that the extent of factory farming makes this the most violent time in history (if you care about suffering of all conscious creatures, not just the likelihood that humans fall victim to violence). All that being said, I think the data is persuasive that this is the safest time to be a human being on a per capita basis. What follows is my original, unedited take from 2016.

2016 was a pretty bad year. As I write this, civilians are being slaughtered by pro-government forces in Aleppo, and the world is reacting to the assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey. The Zika virus, an increasingly belligerent nuclear North Korea, ISIS attacks, the Turkish coup, Brexit, and Duterte’s slaughter of “drug pushers” all point to an increasingly chaotic and violent world. Victories for peace and stability like the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement might be undone or diminished by the American president-elect.

These are particularly dangerous times we live in.

Except they’re not.

That’s the thesis of Steven Pinker’s encyclopedic history of the decline of human violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which released a bit over five years ago.

To put it simply, if we measure violence by the likelihood that an individual will experience a violent death or act of violence, then there has been no time more peaceful than the one we live in.

This requires looking at violence relative to population sizes (i.e. the rate of murder declined from x per 100,000 to y per 100,000). Which Pinker justifies near the beginning of the book:

“Part of the bargain of being alive is that one takes a chance at dying a premature or painful death, be it from violence, accident, or disease. So the number of people in a given time and place who enjoy full lives has to be counted as a moral good, against which we calibrate the moral bad of the number who are victims of violence. Another way of expressing this frame of mind is to ask, `If I were one of the people who were alive in a particular era, what would be the chances that I would be a victim of violence?’ [Either way, we are led to] the conclusion that in comparing the harmfulness of violence across societies, we should focus on the rate, rather than the number, of violent acts.” (47)

Pinker launches a well-researched and well-argued assault on what I call “informed pessimism”: the confident belief that times are bad because we are aware of a lot of bad things that are happening.

For reasons that he discusses, we are fascinated with violence. Boys memorize facts about weaponry and wars (even if they won’t do their math homework, they can tell you that the M16 fires a 5.56mm bullet), and adults gobble up stories of woe and terror from around the globe. The media caters to our interests and fills our screens with images of fire and blood, hopelessly skewing our bias-prone brains towards believing that what we see on TV is representative of the world at large.

This fascination is likely a result of evolution: obsessing over how to inflict and defend yourself against violence probably gave you an edge in the pleistocene. Like so many other consequences of our evolution, this propensity may now be maladaptive to our ability to succeed in the world we now inhabit.

The book is ambitious in its scope and examines violence through the entirety of human history, its widespread decline across nearly all obvious categories (war, murder, rape, assault, torture, violence towards children and animals), and explanations for what predisposes us to violence, and what leads us away from it (our inner “demons” and “angels” respectively).

Pinker has posted updated statistics used in the book annually following its release and published a more in-depth look at the question: has the decline in violence reversed since the book was published?

The answer on almost all accounts: no.

I don’t intend for this to be a summary of his arguments. He does that himself here, here, here, and here. Also you should just read the book, even if (especially if) you disagree with what I’m describing.

I instead took on the task of reading as much of the book’s criticisms and Pinker’s follow-on material that I could find. The book’s conclusions are profound and, if true, should upend many people’s core beliefs about the world. I wanted to see how well the arguments on both sides held up under scrutiny.

Here’s what I found

Pinker is pretty much the closest thing we have to a contemporary academic superstar, and his books attract a lot of attention because of their lucidity on challenging topics and the profound claims they make about people and the world.

Better Angels received much praise. Praise isn’t very interesting. It also received substantial criticism from heavy hitters like Pulitzer prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, statistician and professional egomaniac Nassim Taleb, pessimistic philosopher John Gray in the Guardian, and Penn professor emeritus Edward Herman and author David Peterson in the International Socialist Review. Many others take issue with the book: amateur historians, communists, and libertarians to name a few. Enough is covered between its covers to rankle feathers of any ideology or academic background.

Frankly, I think most of the criticisms are nonsensical. Many critics either purposefully misread/misquote Pinker, ignore the overwhelming amounts of data in favor of vivid anecdotes of contemporary violence, choose a different statistical measure of violence, reject evolutionary psychology entirely, or have a wildly different understanding of what “violence” is. Pinker addresses many of these criticisms well in his FAQ on the book (including a direct rebuttal to Kolbert). He published a response to Nassim Taleb’s bizarre refutation of the book. Here is another refutation of Taleb’s refutation if you’re interested.

I think there are a few criticisms that stick, and I emailed them to Dr. Pinker. Here’s what I wrote:

Many critics accuse you of cherry-picking data that supports your thesis (unfortunately, nearly all of them cherry-pick your arguments and ignore your caveats, undermining their credibility in the process). There are, however, some compelling examples they bring up.

The criticisms that I haven’t found a persuasive response to are:

- use of an unrealistically high estimate of deaths from An Lushan rebellion

- use of non-representative tribal societies to generate pre-state violence rates, related: inadequately addressing the argument that war was a cultural invention that was particularly infectious

- failing to classify acts of violence appropriately, e.g. improperly categorizing interventions from great powers into the developing world, claiming that the use of chemical weapons was a thing of the past despite their use by the United States in Vietnam and the Syrian government against its people (albeit following the book’s publication)

- downplaying the role of the U.S. in perpetuating violence globally through international arms dealing and meddling in foreign affairs

- inadequate discussion of the harms of global commerce, not all commerce is gentle

- use of medieval art out of context

- sloppy usage of historical data/examples (e.g. citing torture devices that were probably not used, using face-value death records that don’t pass a sanity check)

- selective readings of Enlightenment philosophers (to downplay their less enlightened positions)

Some of these criticisms stem from your necessary simplification of incredibly complex historical trends and abstraction of events that have causes and consequences, but some of them also seem like avoidable mistakes in presenting information.

You have addressed many of the spurious arguments found in these links, but I’d like to focus only on these specific criticisms.

And here’s Pinker’s response:

Thanks for your interest, and your positive remarks on The Better Angels of Our Nature. The questions you raise are good ones, and as you note, I anticipated many of them in book itself (sometimes in footnotes), and in the various published replies, available on my Web site.

Pinker then listed a series of responses and interviews that address common criticisms and wrote:

Unfortunately, because I get so much contentful email (dozens of requests a day, on subject ranging from genes to consciousness to swearing to writing style) that I can’t engage in lengthy, substantive exchanges with individuals. That would essentially require my switching careers from professor, researcher, and writer to full-time blogger and correspondent.

While it was very exciting to receive a reply from such a busy person, it really only addressed the criticism of the deep roots theory of war and the accusation of biased selection of pre-state societies to generate estimates of rates of violence before the advent of the state.

Probably because I had read all but one of the responses Pinker listed, I think the rest of the criticisms stick. Better Angels contains some questionable historiography, inadequate analysis of the harms of global commerce, and minor white-washing of Pinker’s intellectual progenitors.

Problems like these are likely to arise when a cognitive scientist, however talented, dabbles in history and when a book claims a grand theory of history (like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel or Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations). Human behavior is much harder to predict than the positions of celestial bodies and is far less likely to be completely explained by grand theses.

However, I don’t think any of these attacks, even if completely warranted, successfully undermines the thesis that a randomly selected individual is less likely to experience a violent death now than at any other time in human history (whether pre-state societies are 100x or 50x more violent than nation states hardly seems to matter).

And regardless of the accuracy of counts of historical deaths, we have been living through a period of unprecedented peace following the second world war. This extends across nearly all categories of violence from wars to murder.

The Incarceration Question

There is one notable exception to the downward trends in violence over the last 40 years. Here is what I wrote in my email:

Many of the forms of violence described by your critics, like economic inequality or homelessness, are rightly not categorized with murder, rape, and assault. However, one piece that I don’t think is adequately analyzed is incarceration. The removal of someone’s freedom under threat of violence surely should be considered a class of violence. Furthermore, rates of violence experienced by incarcerated people are almost certainly misreported. The removal of people who are likely to inflict violence on others from normal society may have been a factor in declining American crime rates, but this benefit surely comes at the expense of the people incarcerated. Even if the incarceration of some people is justified, whatever the “just” rate of incarceration and length of sentencing may be, they are almost definitely far lower than those used by the U.S.

I know you discuss incarceration in the book and the FAQ, but the fact that things were worse in the past is not particularly satisfying and glosses over the reality that incarceration is something that has gotten measurably worse in the U.S. over the past 4 decades, even while other forms of violence were declining. For example, you include debtors prisons as an example of a form of violence that has gone the way of the Dodo, but the sad reality is that many Americans are incarcerated due to their inability to pay child support or other fines. This is one of a few cases where you declare that something no longer exists, when it has merely been rebranded or obfuscated. As someone who spent a good portion of his undergraduate career advocating for prison reform, this is a topic near and dear to me and I may be overweighting its importance. Still I can’t help but feel that it is a topic worthy of further analysis when looking at trends in violence.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a response to this query. I think that even the most significant and universal historical trends have outliers and counter-examples that can’t merely be explained away.

A comfort blanket for the smug?

Another criticism of using macro-level stats is that they can be used to justify complacency or callousness in the face of suffering.

To the people of Aleppo, or Honduras, or West Baltimore, the fact that the overall likelihood of being shot, stabbed, bombed, or gassed has gone down is irrelevant. Or perhaps it’s worse than irrelevant; educated elites could take comfort in the idea that times are more peaceful than ever before and fail to use their influence to reduce violence befalling people far outside their bubbles.

Pinker is well aware of this and explicitly acknowledges that the decline of violence has not been smooth or universal across geographies.

Furthermore, I think the idea that being aware of how good most of us have it will demotivate our efforts to fight social injustice is patently absurd. We are closer than ever to eliminating violence, and the existence of entire countries with annual murder rates below 1 per 100,000 is evidence that it’s possible.

The idea that humans have the right to the security of their person is relatively new. It has also been incredibly successful at spreading and leading to humanistic outcomes. Internalizing this belief necessarily means that every violent death, rape, and assault is intolerable.

I firmly believe that the better you have it, the more of an obligation you have to fight the injustice so ingrained in the world. The larger the discrepancy between the safety we enjoy and the risk of violence others suffer, the greater the injustice we are obligated to fight.

Finally, we benefit by having a grounded understanding of our situation relative to the past. Pessimism is not constructive, and believing that positive change is actually possible is necessary to achieving it. Better Angels provides an intellectually sound foundation for rational optimism by showing that progress isn’t just possible but that it’s been happening, even if we didn’t know it.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” —American abolitionist and transcendentalist Theodore Parker

Are we living through a counter-enlightenment?

To the decline of violence, Pinker attributes five factors:

The Leviathan — the rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent … self-serving biases.”

Commerce — the rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization.”

Feminization — increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”

Cosmopolitanism — the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which “can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.”

The Escalator of Reason — an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.

He also does not claim that these forces are unstoppable in Better Angels:

I am sometimes asked, “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?” The question misses the point of this book. The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them.[…] If the conditions reverse, violence could go right back up.[…] (Pinker 361)

I found these explanations and the evidence he gives for each to be persuasive. They led me to a disturbing realization that I asked about here:

A Contemporary Counter-Enlightenment?

2016 will be remembered as a year where populists and the people who support (manipulate?) them surprised elites across the globe. Brexit, the popular rejection of the Colombian peace deal, the election of Duterte in the Phillipines, and the American presidential election (I shudder to write the name) speak to a global trend against “elites”. While not explicitly stated, many of the forces that you identify as leading to the decline of violence originated with the elites and trickled down to the masses through literature and philosophy (e.g. the reading revolution), global institutions like the United Nations (e.g. Declaration of Human Rights), and international trade agreements. Intellectual orthodoxies in the U.S., like the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, the equality of genders, and the very necessity of fact-based reason, are now questioned by the American president-elect (shudder). The growing anti-intellectualism, isolationism, protectionism, vigilantism, and misogyny defining the populist right is re-opening long-settled debates. If the forces you cite really are responsible for the decline in violence, these changes don’t bode well for its continued decline. Insofar as the United States has been a hegemon championing the five forces leading the decline in violence, the recent election is both a symbolic and practical defeat for the forces working against violence. My question is twofold:

1. Do you agree with this characterization of global trends? Is this merely a blip in the long march of progress or a persisting paradigm shift?

2. How does one combat anti-intellectualism as an intellectual? The credentials that used to be necessary to having a voice in these civilization-scale debates have become a liability in the eyes of many voters. I don’t mean to propose that distrust of elites is a new phenomenon, but American popular confidence in our institutions is at record lows. This confidence is not likely to improve now that we’ve granted the GOP control over Congress and the Presidency (a party determined to prove government doesn’t work probably shouldn’t run the government).

And Pinker’s response:

I am working on a new book (a major reason I can’t engage in one-on-one exchanges) which will take on the larger question of contemporary enlightenment and counter-enlightenment currents. With any luck it will be finished this spring and published in early 2018.

Again, my apologies for not being able to reply to your thoughtful questions and comments.

I think I can tease out some of his thoughts from recent interviews he’s given.

In an interview with Motherboard (a part of Vice), Pinker discusses the American election:

[Pinker]: When people believe that the world is heading off a cliff, they are receptive to the perennial appeal of demagogues: “What do you have to lose?”

[Motherboard]: …do you see Trump as a threat to American democracy? Could this be the beginning of fascism in America?
[Pinker]: Yes, he is a threat, and yes, it could be the beginning. The question is, what are the chances? No one knows, but I think that after 240 years, American democracy is too robust to be overturned by one man. To convert a democracy into an autocracy requires disabling an enormous, distributed infrastructure: legislators who have to respond to constituents and lobbyists, judges with reputations to uphold, bureaucrats who are responsible for the missions of their departments, and the tens of millions of people who have to carry out their jobs in order that the government and society function… I doubt the mercurial Trump has the commitment and concentration it would take to implement a fascist dictatorship, nor that the stroppy American public would easily fall into line.

I generally agree with this assessment. While a Trump presidency terrifies me, I don’t think it means the end of the Republic. However, his rhetoric, policies, and behavior could lead to an uptick in violence by undermining the forces working against it. The disgusting wave of bigotry following the election does not bode well (although there is reason to believe that the extent of this wave is exaggerated).

From an interview with Vox:

Julia Belluz: Do you think the perception that the world is going the wrong way makes it more likely that progress will be overturned?

Steven Pinker: It certainly is a danger. Pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. While we have to be realistic about changes both up and down in rates of violence, we have to remind ourselves that violence is a problem we can deal with, that we have dealt with, and what’s important is to look at it realistically. To keep track of when it goes up, when it goes down, and what causes it to go up and go down and do more of what causes it to go down. We know over the last couple of years that it has gone down, so we should figure out what we did to achieve that and do more of it.

I wholeheartedly agree.

His advice to policymakers:

Steven Pinker: I do think that politicians, especially on the left, would be unwise to ignore changes in violence. It’s important not to panic. But there has been a small increase in the US in the last one and a half years, and it would be foolish for politicians to just hand that issue over to the right and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Gifted communicators like President Obama failed to make the case to enough Americans that America is already great. When your opponent is claiming that crime is on the rise and the country is going to hell in handbasket, soberly arguing that crime is at its lowest point in human history is exceedingly difficult. When your audience’s understanding of the prevalence of crime is informed by media and anecdotes, the job is that much harder.

“The public will believe a simple lie rather than a complex truth” — Alexis de Toqueville

On explanations for the crime uptick in America:

Steven Pinker: There is a concern over the phenomenon of depolicing — of police being less willing to intervene in potentially violent incidents out of a fear they’ll be accused of racism. There’s reason to think that this phenomenon, post-Ferguson, has been one of the contributors to the increase [in violence] from 2014 to 2015. I think it’s not addressed by liberal politicians and if they pretend it doesn’t exist at all, they’ve created an opening for the right to exploit the issue.

…They [Politicians] should acknowledge that there has been a small change in a bad direction and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand — and therefore to balance the dangers of police shooting innocent people, which really has to be reduced, but at same time not to let that turn into a push back on policing.

Despite what some on the far left might believe, police do have an impact on the crime rate. It’s tragic and unacceptable that Americans, particularly Black Americans, legitimately fear for their lives during routine interactions with police. But whatever measures we take to reduce this scourge must account for how they affect an officer’s ability to successfully police crime. One of the most promising options is the use of body cameras.

Final thoughts

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this project is the realization that such intelligent, pedigreed, and (ostensibly) informed people can disagree so fervently over a conclusion that has such an overwhelming amount of data supporting it.

Unfortunately, the attention that one can receive by attacking a popular book written by a prominent intellectual is tempting. These attacks led to overblown controversy around peripheral claims in a very long book. Too many of his critics don’t engage with what is otherwise a well-supported and well-argued thesis.

I think it was useful to read through even the most poorly-argued criticisms. I came away with a better understanding of the perspective of the critics. Furthermore, nonfiction writers, especially highly credentialed ones like Pinker, have great power to influence their readers. What facts and arguments they use and exclude in their pages shape the narrative, conclusion, and ultimately the reader’s understanding of the world. These books shouldn’t be taken at face value simply because we trust their authors or agree with the arguments (especially if we agree with the arguments). The critics who identify flaws to come to conclusions that are more aligned with the truth are doing a service. Those who care more about their careers or egos than intellectual honesty are muddying the waters.

There is something inherently uncomfortable about abstracting something as tragic and personal as the history of human violence. Yet this abstraction and dispassionate study is necessary to understanding the conditions that reduce the likelihood of this greatest of all evils. This inhuman analysis has a profoundly humanistic goal: to understand how to reduce human suffering.

And with that I will leave you with what may be my favorite quote of all time:

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory” — Howard Zinn

Garrison Lovely

Written by

Freelance writer with work in Current Affairs (http://bit.ly/2K0BhKs) and Jacobin (http://bit.ly/2GN9ifh)

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