There's a shooting in a mall, a restaurant, a school. Christians or Muslims are being killed here or there. It looks like things are getting worse. But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker doesn't think so as he explains in, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
Kayla Jordan was one of my research students interested in moral psychology. We decided to read The Better Angels of Our Nature and write a review, which was published in 2012. I'm drawing on our joint review for this blog post. I listed her name above because she was the lead author in the published book review. I'll give the reference to the academic review below.
In the first chapter, Pinker points out that ancient and medieval times were very different from the present. Numerous prehistoric skeletons bear evidence of violent deaths. Ancient people destroyed entire tribes. Romans carried out violent executions. Medieval Knights led lives of violence and other Europeans severely punished people for behavior, which might not even be judged worthy of condemnation today. Finally, the early 20th century saw two World Wars before the long peace ensued. In light of such a violent history, Pinker argues that perhaps we should reconsider our assumptions about our own world.
In the first section of the book, Pinker identifies six historical trends which could have led to declines in violence. The first trend he calls the Pacification Process by which people gave up nomadic hunting and gathering lives for agriculture and city life. Competition and anarchy in the prehistoric world made violence necessary for survival. The development of agriculture called for greater cooperation between individuals and the formation of governments to impose order created a world where violence was not always in one’s best interest. Statistical analysis supports the idea that the emergence of states lead to a decline in violence.
In the second part of the book, Pinker discusses our inner demons, or the parts of human nature, which incline us toward violence. Pinker begins with an explanation of how brain anatomy and physiology affect aggression and rage. Why are we motivated to commit violence?
1. predation, which is simply violence as means to an end;
The last section of the book discusses the better angels, or the parts of human nature which incline us toward peace.
Pinker’s work bridges the gap between history and psychology. Often, in historical studies, the great overarching trends of history are lost in the study of the minutiae of the past. Psychology often emphasizes the present and tends to overlook the vastness of data available through historical study. In the study of violence, the separation of these two disciplines is possibly one of the factors contributing pessimism regarding violence. Looking at the big picture provided by both disciplines greatly illuminates the reality of past and present of violence.
So, you may be wondering how is it possible that violence is lower --especially considering the two World Wars in the past 100 years? Pinker's argument is not based on absolute numbers but on percentages of people who are victims of violence compared to the number of people on earth. Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista California, challenges Pinker's percentage argument by observing that we ought to see a decline in total numbers--not just the percentage of people who are victims of violence. I would add that getting accurate data on victims of violence is an additional concern.
Jordan, K. & Sutton, G. W. (2012). [Review of the book: The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined by Steven Pinker.]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 31, 367-369. Academia Link Research Gate Link
*As of 2020, Kayla Jordan had completed a Master's Degree in Experimental Psychology and is nearing completion of her Ph.D. in Social Psychology at UT. In addition to her many publications, her work has appeared in the Washington Post. (Graduate Student Profile)