Sunday, July 19, 2015

Book Review: "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker

In his book, The Better Angels Our Nature (Penguin Books, NY: 2011), Steven Pinker sets out to document that people generally, and those of Western European descent specifically, have become substantially less violent (in orders of magnitude) over time; and offers some explanations of the reason for the decline. Since many types of violence are difficult to discover from the archaeological or historic record, or may vary from one time to another, Pinker has focused on violent deaths (murders and deaths caused by war) as a proxy for violence in general. By that measure, there is no question but that violence had declined. Lawrence Keely's War Before Civilization (on which Pinker draws) documented that in almost all primitive cultures, more than 25% of deaths were due to violence; and in many cultures, violence accounted for more than 50% of deaths; whereas, today, we measure homicide rates in a ratio of a number (generally in the single digits in Western nations and cities) per 100,000! As Pinker notes near the end of his book, "nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all."

Pinker's Thesis

The bulk of Pinker's work discusses 6 major trends (associated with certain developments or time periods in history) that Pinker suggests have reduced violence: (1) the rise of states and state control which he terms the Pacification Process; (2) the spread of social mores and etiquette forcing people to control and curb their behavior, which Pinker terms the Civilizing Process; (3) the Humanitarian Revolution; (4) the Long Peace; (5) what Pinker calls the New Peace; and (6) what Pinker terms the Rights Revolution.  Pinker then explores psychological and sociological drivers or types of violence (which he terms the five demons): (i) predatory or instrumental violence; (ii) dominance; (iii) revenge; (iv) sadism; and (v) ideology. This is followed by an analysis of psychological and sociological drivers of non-violence (the four angels): empathy; self-control; moral sense; and reason/intelligence. Finally, Pinker attempts to join the psychological and historical analysis to identify five historical forces which have driven down violence: (a) the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes; (b) commerce; (c) feminization; (d) cosmopolitanism; and (e) what he calls "the escalator of reason."Pinker concludes from his study of violence, "[l]eft to their own devices, humans will not fall into a state of peaceful cooperation, but nor do they have a thirst for blood that must regularly be slaked. ... Human nature accommodates motives that impel us to violence, like predation, dominance, and vengeance, but also motives that--under the right circumstances--impel us toward peace, like compassion, fairness, self-control, and reason."

It is important to recognize that not all of these trends will appear simultaneously in a culture (or all cultures). Some regions will experience these stages later, or in a different order, than other regions; and some may never fully experience all stages or drivers. Unfortunately, the "five demons" appear to be nearly universal to all cultures and peoples. In fact, a tendency toward using violence peaks in most people at the tender age of 2, declining thereafter. We don't need to learn violence; we, instead, learn to not be violent.

Pinker first examined the statistical evidence for declines in violence first, then looked at drivers both for and against violence. Although the bulk of his book describes the 6 major trends in reducing violence, I plan on only lightly touching on each:

  • The rise of states and state control which he terms Pacification. Essentially, in pre-state societies, life is brutal and short. The formation of states is accompanied by state power that encourages trade and cooperation, and discourages conflict between the members of the state. Pinker viewed this trend as being one of the longest processes, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia which ensconced the modern notion of a nation state, with its monopoly on violence (i.e., removing the rights of cities, districts or princes to raise their own armies). Pacification not only extends to those directly under the control of the state, but those tribes in which it comes in contact. Thus, one of the reasons for the persistence of the myth of the peaceful savage is that ethnographers and anthropologists generally encountered tribes after they had already been pacified by a colonial power.
  • While the Pacification Process represented government forcing "self-control" on individuals when it came to violence, the Civilizing Process required persons to develop true self-control through rules of etiquette that developed among the upper classes, and were adopted by the middle and working classes.
  • The Humanitarian Revolution was another significant event in Western Civilization where concepts of human rights and dignity were developed. These philosophies appeared relatively abruptly, and lead to the decline and virtual elimination of the acceptance of torture and other inhumane punishments, rules as to the handling of prisoners of war and treatment of civilians by enemy troops. 
  • The Long Peace describes the extraordinary long period of peace between the major powers following World War II, which saw per capita deaths by war plummet to lows never seen before. 
  • The New Peace is Pinker's description of the decline in low-intensity conflicts, mass killings of ethnic and political groups, and terrorism.
  • The Rights Revolution seems to be an extension of the Humanitarian Revolution into new areas of increased rights and protections for minorities, children, women, etc.
After discussing the history and statistics of the decline of violence--both deaths from warfare as well as homicides--Pinker then moves into describing the types of violence.

The first category of violence is termed by Pinker as practical, instrumental, exploitative or predatory, and is summarized as "the simplest kind of violence: the use of force as a means to an end." It also includes defensive or preemptive violence, as well as violence committed out of boredom, lust or sport. He also notes that persons driven by predatory violence "have no destructive motive like hate or anger. They simply take the shortest path to something they want, and a living thing happens to be in the way. At best it is a category by exclusion: the absence of any inhibiting factor like sympathy or moral concern." In its purist form--hunting food--hunters not only may lack hate or anger, but actually valorize and empathize with the prey. However, Pinker notes that while hate or anger may play no role in the initiation of violence, as soon as the prey takes protective measures, emotions are likely to run high, and the predator's state of mind may shift from a dispassionate means-ends analysis to anger, hate, disgust, or wrath. On an individual level, once the emotions appear, a simple mugging or property crime can turn vicious; on a larger scale, a small conflict can morph into a genocide. Those that epitomize of this type of violence are the 1 to 3% of the population that are psychopaths. As Pinker writes, "[p]sychopaths are liars and bullies from the time they are children, show no capacity for sympathy or remorse, make up 20 to 30 percent of violent criminals, and commit half the serious crimes."

The second category or driver for violence is dominance (or egotism)--the drive for supremacy over one's rivals. Pinker notes that both individuals and groups may engage in violence to achieve dominance. He also observes that "[e]ven though nothing tangible is at stake in contests for dominance, they are among the deadliest forms of human quarrel." Pinker observes that "the single largest motive for homicide is 'altercations of relatively trivial origin; insult, curse, jostling, etc.'," and Pinker writes:
Studies of American street violence have found that the young men who endorse a code of honor are the ones most likely to commit an act of serious violence in the following year. They also have found that the presence of an audience doubles the likelihood that an argument between two men will escalate to violence.
On the other end of the scale, Pinker lumps World War I into the category of war driven by dominance, to-wit, dominance of Europe and the European colonies.

Dominance is also related to mating success, so that "[i]n nonstate societies, dominant men have more wives, more girlfriends, and more affairs with other men's wives." (Although this seems to be the case in nation-states, as well). Dominance is related to self-esteem. Pinker reports that psychopaths, street toughs, bullies, abusive husbands, serial rapists, and other violent criminals generally score extraordinarily high self-esteem, even narcissim. In other words, "[v]iolence is a problem not of too little self-esteem but of too much, particularly when it is unearned." The consequence of this is not limited to just encounters between a couple of men. Not only can national leaders seek dominance through war or genocide, but it can infect nations:
... [N]ationalism can get virulent when it is comorbid with the group equivalent of narcissim in the psychiatric sense, namely a big but fragile ego with an unearned claim to preeminence. Recall that narcissism can trigger violence when the narcissist is enraged by an insolent signal from reality. Combine narcissism with nationalism, and you get a deadly phenomenon that political scientists call ressentiment (French for resentment): the conviction that one's nation or civilization has a historical right to greatness despite its lowly status, which can only be explained by the malevolence of an internal or external foe.
The third driver of violence is revenge: "the drive to pay back a harm in kind." Revenge is basic to human psychology, has been extolled in most cultures, and is one of the major motives of tribal warfare. It is the motive in 10 to 20 percent of homicides worldwide. And, of course, a major factor in nations declaring war. It can be short-circuited through apologies or reconciliation, particularly where the persons involved share some common bond or interest, or where the state offers an alternative method of redress through a justice or court system. Thus, people in countries where rule-of-law is weak are more likely to engage in revenge.

The fourth driver is sadism, or the joy of hurting another. While generally associated with serial killers and torture, Pinker notes that there are plenty of anecdotal evidence that persons caught up in violence may find themselves enjoying it.

Finally, there is violence driven by ideology. Pinker writes:
Individual people have no shortage of selfish motives for violence. But the really big body counts in history pile up when a large number of people carry out a motive that transcends any one of them: an ideology. Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end. But with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.
And, I would add, an end that can never be realized, meaning that the desire for violence will never be satiated.

Opposing these drives for violence are drivers for peace (the four angels): empathy (sympathy); self-control; moral sense; and reason/intelligence.

Obviously empathy or sympathy, when combined with altruism, a sense of fairness ("do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), or guilt, can short circuit a desire or motivation for violence. However, there are limits. Pinker notes that our circle of empathy can only be stretched so far; generally it is limited by kinship, friendship, similarity, and cuteness. Moreover, when divorced from altruism, fairness or guilt, it can lead to increased violence. For instance, Pinker notes that serial killers or torturers resort to empathy in order to more effectively torment their victims. On a larger societal level, he observes:
Great harm has befallen societies whose political leaders and government employees act out of empathy by warmly doling out perquisites to kin and cronies rather than heartlessly given them away to perfect strangers. Not only does this nepotism sap the competence of police, government, and business, but it sets up a zero-sum competition for the necessities of life among clans and ethnic groups, which can quickly turn violent. The institutions of modernity depend on carrying out abstract fiduciary duties that cut across bonds of empathy.
Self-control is one of the more significant factors in reducing violence. Pinker writes:
Self-control has been credited with one of the greatest reductions of violence in history, the thirtyfold drop in homicide between medieval and modern Europe. Recall that according to Norbert Elias's theory of the Civilizing Process, the consolidation of states and the growth of commerce did more than just tilt the incentive structure away from plunder. It also inculcated an ethic of self-control that made continence and propriety second nature. People refrained from stabbing each other at the dinner table and amputating each other's noses at the same time as they refrained from urinating in closets, copulating in public, passing gas at the dinner table, and gnawing on bones and returning them to the serving dish. A culture of honor, in which men were respected for lashing out against insults, became a culture of dignity, in which men were respected for controlling their impulses. Reversals in the decline of violence, such as in the developed world in the 1960s and the developing world following decolonization were accompanied by reversals in the valuation of self-control, from the discipline of elders to the impetuousness of youth.
Not only that, but self-control is associated with better physical and mental health, higher intelligence, better marriages and friendships, and greater economic well being. Conversely, people with lower self-control are more likely to perpetrate acts of violence.

The description and analysis of moral sense is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that Pinker analyzes and employs several moral models which, in various forms, describes three basic categories of morality: Autonomy (the purpose of morality is to allow individuals to exercise their choices, which can be subdivided into Fairness/Reciprocity--the morality behind reciprocal altruism--and Harm/Care--the cultivation of kindness and compassion, and the inhibition of cruelty and aggression); Community (which equates morality with duty, respect, loyalty and interdependence to a community or group, and can be subdivided into In-Group Loyalty, and Respect for Authority);  and Divinity (or Purity/Sanctity). Morality is useful in reducing violence because it creates a universal or community norm as to what behavior is acceptable and what is not; and, moreover, violation of a moral norm (or taboo) will motivate the community to punish the transgression.

Finally, is the role of reason and intelligence in reducing violence. As Pinker summarizes, a smart society is also a less violent one. This is because reason allows us to move beyond the close circle drawn by empathy, and intellectualize the need to treat others with fairness and altruism. Greater intelligence is also associated with greater self-control. Finally, reason allows us to dispel false notions and moral positions, and apply morality in a more abstract means. Fortunately, as Pinker documents, intelligence (at least in the area of abstract reasoning) has been measurably increasing in industrialized nations during the past century as evidenced by the need to constantly revise upward what score on an intelligence test constitutes an average intelligence (i.e., I.Q. of 100)--known by the shorthand of the Flynn Effect. Pinker states that "[a]n average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have had an IQ of 118. If the teenager wen back to 1910, he or she would have had an IQ of 130, besting 98 percent of his or her contemporaries." And, because intelligence is inheritable, it suggests that this is a permanent rather than transitory development. Interestingly, higher intelligence generally correlates to holding values consistent with classical liberalism--individual autonomy and economic freedom; and to oppose left leaning "liberalism" such as socialism and communism, and "right wing" populism and nationalism. Similarly, nations that invest in education have lower chances of becoming embroiled in civil war.

However, the forces driving a decline in violence need not always move in the same direction. Pinker notes that "[d]eclines of violence are a product of social, cultural, and material conditions. If the conditions persist, violence will remain low or decline even further; if they don't, it won't." In attempting to identify the general forces at work, Pinker begins by eliminating certain theories which have proved untenable. One of these was technological determinism: that the development of weapons results in the use of the weapons. As Pinker points out, "[h]uman behavior is goal-directed, not stimulus-driven, and what matters most to the incidence of violence is whether one person wants another one dead." Thus, the saying "guns don't kill people; people kill people" is literally true whether one is discussing firearms or nuclear weapons. "Weaponry, in other words, appears to be largely endogenous to the historical dynamics that result in large declines in violence."

Another theory of violence which appears to be untrue is resource determinism: that conflicts over land and resources are inevitable and the principle drivers of violence. However, as Pinker notes, "[t]he most destructive eruptions of the past half millennium were fueled not by resources but by ideologies, such as religion, revolution, nationalism, fascism, and communism." Pinker also discounts any correlation between affluence and nonviolence; "[n]or does violent crime closely track the economic indicators. The careenings of the American homicide rate in the 20th century were largely uncorrelated with measures of prosperity: the murder rate plunged in the midst of the Great Depression, soared during the boom years of the 1960s, and hugged new lows during the Great Recession that began in 2007." The exception to this seems to be the risk of civil unrest, which starts to soar when its annual per capita domestic product falls below $1,000. "And since war is development in reverse, we cannot even know the degree to which poverty causes war or war causes poverty."

Pinker also dismisses religion as a general force for or against violence. He writes: "Religion plays no single role in the history of violence because religion has not been a single force in the history of anything. The vast set of movements we call religions have little in common but their disctinctness from the secular institutions that are recent appearances on the human stage."

After discounting common shibboleths about violence, Pinker sets out the five forces he views as behind the decline in violence.

First up is the Leviathan, responsible for a 5 fold decrease in violence just in the formation of nation states, and a further 30 fold decrease after law enforcement was consolidated in the state. Thus, "[a] state that uses a monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer that we have encountered in this book. ... If a government imposes a cost on an aggressor that is large enough to cancel out his gains ... it flips the appeal of the two choices of the potential aggressor [to pursue violence or pursue peace], making peace more attractive than war." He continues: "In addition to changing the rational-actor arithmetic, a Leviathan ... is a disinterested third party whose penalties are not inflated by the self-serving biases of the participants, and who is not a deserving target of revenge. A referee hovering over the game gives one's opponent less of an incentive to strike preemptively or self-defensively, reducing one's own desire to maintain an aggressive stance, putting the adversary at ease, and so on, and thus can ramp down the cycle of belligerence. And thanks to the generalized effects of self-control ..., refraining from aggression can become a habit, so the civilized parties will inhibit their temptation to aggress even when Leviathan's back is turned." Conversely, according to Pinker, "[i]nept governance turns out to be among the biggest risk factors for civil war, and is perhaps the principal asset that distinguishes the violence-torn developing world from the more peaceful developed world."

Next is commerce, because it rewards cooperation over antagonism. It depends not on just a willingness to trade, but also "on whether each one specializes in producing something the other one wants, and on the presence of an infrastructure that lubricates their exchange, such as transportation, finance, record-keeping, and the enforcement of contracts. And once people are enticed into voluntary exchange, they are encouraged to take each other's perspectives to clinch the best deal...."

The third force is what Pinker describes as feminization, by which he means a retreat from the "culture of manly honor, with its approval of violent retaliation for insults, toughening of boys through physical punishment, and veneration of martial glory," as well as social and sexual arrangements (such as marriage) that favor the interests of women while reducing competition between men for sexual opportunities. Pinker's thesis for this force rests on the observation that violence is mostly committed by men, and that "[s]ocieties in which women get a better deal, both traditional and modern, tend to be societies that have less organized violence." For instance, he points out the low levels of political and judicial violence in Western Europe versus the high levels "in the genital-cutting, adulteress-stoning, burqa-cladding Shria states of Islamic Africa and Asia." Nevertheless, he also notes that "feminization" may itself be the fruit of society that is already secure from outside physical threats.

The fourth force is the expansion of the circle of sympathy. Cosmopolitanism--the exposure to other peoples and societies, even if only through literature or entertainment--invites us to take other's point-of-view.

Pinker labels the final force the "escalator of reason": the ability to abstractly think about or imagine another's vantage point, and consider that person's interests as equivalent to your own. The application of reason can not only explode erroneous moral positions or arguments, but also force a movement away from tribalism, authority, and purity in moral systems and toward humanism, classical liberalism, autonomy, and human rights. "A humanistic value system, which privileges human flourishing as the ultimate good, is a product of reason because it can be justified: it can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation, whereas communal and authoritarian values are parochial to a tribe or hierarchy."

It is important to note that Pinker's work is not intended to urge universal pacifism. In fact, he points out that "[u]nilateral pacifism is a losing strategy, and joint peace is out of everyone's reach." But his message is one of hope. He concludes: "For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and in impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible."


I have three basic criticisms of Pinker's book. First, and foremost, is the absolute reliance on homicides as a proxy for violence. I understand the need to do so when records are incomplete; my criticism has to do with his failure to verify from modern records whether it is an accurate reflection of overall violence. And, in fact, it does not appear to do so. Where this shows up most spectacularly is in the United Kingdom. According to statistics reported in this 2009 article from The Daily Mail, even though the UK had a homicide rate of just 1.49 per 100,000--making it among the lowest in the world--its overall violent crime rate was 2,034 per 100,000. By comparison, the same story indicated the the overall violent crime rate in the United States was 466 per 100,000--a number not only well below the UK's rate, but far less than other European nations. (For additional comparison, the FBI reported that the homicide rate in the U.S. was 5.0 per 100,000 in 2009). Thus, there does not appear to be a direct correlation or relationship between violence generally, and homicide in particular.

The second criticism is somewhat related. One of the forces that Pinker names is what he called the "feminization" of a culture. This theory, as well as other portions of Pinker's book, implicitly or otherwise rests on the assumption that women are inherently less violent than men. Of course, it is impossible to tell the gender of an attacker from the nick left in bones, an arrow head embedded in wood, or a fragment of a spear head. Instead, the assumption is that if women commit fewer murders today, they must have committed fewer murders in the distant past. To me, accepting this assumption is as foolish as accepting the myth of the noble savage. Moreover, while women may be responsible for fewer homicides, the difference shrinks when considering other types of violence. For instance, in the United States, women initiate the majority of incidents of domestic violence, although men are more likely to seriously injure or kill a women.  (See also here for additional links to the CDC study; and here for studies revealing that the high incidents of domestic violence among lesbian couples). It is also clear that women are the aggressors/attackers in nearly half of sexual assaults.  (See also this article at Time magazine and this article at The Pacific Standard; and this article on female-on-female rape in the Congo). And women are more than capable of committing murder: 1 in 6 known serial killers were female. (I suspect the number is actually higher, but that they simply weren't discovered or prosecuted). If abortion and infanticide were to be included, women clearly kill more than men. In reality, what Pinker describes as "feminization" was an enforcement of moral standards that, prior to the Victorian period, had been honored in word only, and not some victory of "female qualities" over "male qualities."

And this leads me to my third criticism, which is the general antagonism toward religion. As even the book cover demonstrates, Pinker likes to pick on religious stories (especially from the Bible) to show how "bad" is religion; at best, as noted above, Pinker takes the position that it played merely a neutral role. Unfortunately, Pinker's personal viewpoint on religion (he describes himself as an atheist at one point in the book) blind him to how Judeo-Christian beliefs have helped drive down violence. For instance, the cover of Pinker's book illustrates the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. To Pinker, the incident only serves to illustrate the barbarity of the time. Yet, even if the symbolism of the event escapes him (i.e., that Abraham tells Isaac that God will provide a lamb; and that the incident occurred on the same hill where Christ would later be crucified), he should have been aware of the fact that Abraham had been forbidden from human sacrifice at a time when it was common among surrounding cultures. Similarly, Pinker seems to overlook the fact that the Humanitarian Revolution was largely the result of wide-spread printing and distribution of the Bible; while obviously Christian mores underlie much of the recognition of human rights.


Of course, for purposes of this blog, the real value of Pinker's book is attempting to understand what could happen in a decline of civilization. Unfortunately, as Pinker notes in his book, reduced violence is not guaranteed. Pinker notes, for instance, that when the Civilizing Process (i.e., following etiquette and manners) was reversed in the 1960's counter-culture, violence increased. He also notes that in areas where the Leviathan does not reach or where an honor culture persists (e.g., ghettos), rates of violence remain high. 

The historical forces that shaped our peaceful society are in retreat. Reviewing them in reverse order:
  1. The Rights Revolution. Although it may seem that the rights revolution may be progressing due to the devotion to political correctness, it is not. Instead, we see the "social justice warriors" emboldened to persecute anyone that does not believe as they do; and, in many countries, they are backed by the full force of the law. Meanwhile, civil rights laws increasingly exist solely for the purposes of shaking down cities and businesses. The Rights Revolution was the fruit of the victory of reason. But, as Pinker observes, reason is the friend of classical liberalism, and the alien to collective philosophies. We are, however, increasingly subject to socialism and Islamic ideologies, both of which are anti-intellectual.
  2. The New Peace has largely ended: the last several years has seen Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen largely collapse into civil war; Iraq is fracturing; Islamic armies such as Boko Haram and ISIS kill and torture. China is facing increasing unrest among the Uyghers.
  3. The Long Peace is at risk as Russia and China increase their military provocations and the Middle East is on the eve of a nuclear arms race and outright war.
  4. The Humanitarian Revolution seems secure, but it must be remembered that the Humanitarian Revolution was uniquely European; the only reason it spread to the rest of the world was due to European colonialism. As European and American power recedes, practices such as slavery, rape and torture as tools of war, and so on, are returning to many parts of the world.
  5. The Civilizing Process, as Pinker has already noted, began to reverse in the 1960's. Etiquette and manners seem quaint today.
  6. As the Leviathan retreats, so does the Pacification Process. While rule of law still exists in most countries, as I noted above, the collapse of the New Peace demonstrates that we have entered a period where the international order and historical Nation States are falling away. Rule of law may still be strong at the core of Western Civilization and other great powers, but the periphery of the modern world has frayed.
The West could be secure in avoiding barbarism even if the rest of the world burned except for the fact that the West is importing millions of immigrants which do not come from societies with the history and traditions that led to the low rates of violence in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. Worse, the West is doing so while at the same time pursuing unilateral pacifism which, as Pinker warned, is a losing strategy.

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