Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, wrote a book The Better Angels Of Our Nature whose thesis is that violence has declined in several phases since our cavemen ancestors walked the earth. It is also a book about mind-numbing evil, practiced by many of our ancestors from cavemen on down.
There is a lot to ponder in this book, and I’ll give some of the points here.
Thomas Hobbes (an English philosopher who lived between the year 1588 to 1679), said that in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: gain (predatory raids), safety (preemptive raids) and reputation (retaliatory raids). And, Pinker adds, the numbers confirm that relatively speaking, “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war,” and that in such condition they live in “continual fear, and danger of violent death.”
Perhaps our foraging ancestors left their garden of Eden because they had multiplied to a point where they needed agriculture to sustain them and even though there were some adverse health effects of leaving the foraging lifestyle, “Eden may have been just too dangerous. A few cavities, the odd abscess, and a couple of inches in height were a small price to pay for a fivefold better chance of not getting speared.”
A strong state can reduce the violence of its citizens versus each other, relative to the hunting/gathering stage, though the state itself could and did use horrible punishments against some of its own citizens. Also ordinary commerce may reduce violence as well. Commerce requires honesty, trustworthyness, and empathy, the latter to understand what the customer wants, for instance. Also commerce requires trust: “It must be harder to work with your neighbors if you think they might enjoy seeing you disemboweled.” A final theory, this one of Pinker’s, is that widespread literacy and reading may have helped reduce violence and cruelty. Books could expose the suffering of a forgotten class of victims such as black slaves in the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Books could help people see the world from other people’s vantage points, and could show them that other societies did things differently. Books could create a “hothouse for new ideas about moral values and the social order.”
Early practices such as Human Sacrifice have been practiced in the places ranging from Mexico to Ireland to Rome and China. It was banned by the Hebrews in 600BC, and by some others a few centuries later. Perhaps a literate elite and contacts with neighboring societies give people the idea that their gods really don’t require a sacrifice of another human. Or perhaps a more affluent and predictable life elevates valuation of other lives.
In the ancient world, even up to early modern times, cruel punishments were thought to be reasonable. And Steven Pinker describes the tortures and punishments in enough horrifying detail to make you wonder why a moral god did not hurl an asteroid at the earth. He says that spectators enjoyed the punishments.
In 16th-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, “The spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were…singed, roasted, and finally carbonized.” And from Pinker’s description of what was done to humans who fell afoul of the law, I would think that humans suffered much more than those cats. It was easy to fall afoul of the law, you could be executed for trivia such as criticizing the king’s gardens, for instance.
Professor Pinker ends his book with the following statement:
A final reflection. In writing this book I have adopted a voice that is analytic, and at times irreverent, because I believe the topic has inspired too much piety and not enough understanding. But at no point have I been unaware of the reality behind the numbers. To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness. I know that behind the graphs there is a young man who feels a stab of pain and watches the life drain slowly out of him, knowing he has been robbed of decades of existence. There is a victim of torture whose contents of consciousness have been replaced by unbearable agony, leaving room only for the desire that consciousness itself should cease. There is a woman who has learned that her husband, her father, and her brothers lie dead in a ditch, and who will soon “fall into the hand of hot and forcing violation.” It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred. But the numbers are not in the hundreds, or the thousands, or even the millions, but in the hundreds of millions–an order of magnitude that the mind staggers to comprehend, with deepening horror as it comes to realize just how much suffering has been inflicted by the naked ape upon its own kind.
Steven Pinker adds that the violence has gone down dramatically, and we should cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.
He makes a convincing case, but it does strike me that progress in morals can easily go backward. For instance, I don’t want to appear obsessed with Islam in this blog, but I notice that for a while many Moslem states were somewhat westernized, now they are reverting to radical Islam, and that means accepting punishments such as cutting off hands of thieves and even crucifixion. In fact, those who celebrate the Israelis leaving Gaza (an area occupied by Israel in 1967) and then a democratic election voting in the Islamic Hamas party there, should note that
Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council approved in its meeting in Gaza a new bill proposed by the Hamas who have a majority in the Legislative Council, whose purpose is “to implement Koranic punishments.” The newspaper Al Hayat of London reported on Dec. 24, 2008, that this step is seen as unprecedented, and has brought criticism and concern from human rights organizations in the Gaza Strip, especially as this law includes punishments by lashes, cutting off of hands, crucifixion, and execution…
Likewise I think Pinker is way too optimistic about what will happen when Islamic Iran gets nuclear bombs (he says basically nothing will happen).
Steven Pinker does describe several cases of going backwards from the general trend of improvements, including his interesting description of the sixties. That period did show a uptick in violence in the Western world, and the hippie love generation was not quite what it was advertised as.
I found this book well worth reading, though I could not agree with all of it. It is a thought provoking book.
The Better Angels Of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker