You’ve Got to Admit, It’s Getting Better


In his latest novel, Nutshell, Ian McEwan has his main character make the following challenge to the pessimist: Why do we consider ourselves worldly when we say things are worse than they’ve ever been? Why is this the “knowing” attitude? The world tells a different, more hopeful story.

Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so long-lived? When fewer die in wars and childbirth than ever before—and more knowledge, more truth by way of science, was never so available to us all? When tender sympathies—for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners—swell daily? When hundreds of millions have been raised from wretched subsistence? When, in the West, even the middling poor recline in armchairs, charmed by music as they steer themselves down smooth highways at four times the speed of a galloping horse? When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries? Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere.

Half the advances McEwan extols here can be chalked up to technological progress. Smooth roads, for example, are nice things, but they are just an end result of our species’ drive for ever-better toolmaking. They are, so to speak, morally neutral accomplishments. The truly miraculous achievements on McEwan’s list are the ones indicating humans are actually becoming more humane.

It is not only novelists who notice curious facts about the human animal; scientists make their observations as well. The psychologist Steven Pinker, for one, also believes we are becoming more humane. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker argues that, despite common impressions, the data of history and the laboratory results of psychology indicate strongly that we have become measurably less violent over the centuries. There are simply too many violent practices we have recently left behind for the decrease to be coincidental. Better Angels gives Pinker’s best explanation of this striking trend.

Steven Pinker

For all its heft—700 pages of text, 300 pages of notes—Better Angels has a structural tautness and appealing style that make it highly readable. In six “historical” chapters, Pinker analyses the data of humanity’s main, enduring violent enterprises and shows convincingly that in most societies humans are becoming less willing to harm one another. In two “psychological” chapters he delves into the science behind the claim that our better motives can get the upper hand against our baser ones.

Chapter one sets out the adaptive logic of violence, based on the question, “Why should organisms evolve to seek to harm other organisms?” It’s a striking question, not least because it deflates the moral emotivism from our usual stance toward human violence. If we do something as socially perverse as harming one another, Pinker hypothesizes, there must be a strong biological impulse behind our acts. And indeed there is: survival competition. We seek to overpower our competitors for resources. But that’s not the end of the adaptive logic story; we also limit violence if we can see our way clear to cooperation in pursuit of resources. We need, or at least do better with, confederates. “When a tendency toward violence evolves,” Pinker writes, “It is always strategic. Organisms are selected to deploy violence only in circumstances where the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs.”

The strong Hobbsian state, or Leviathan, evolved as the structure that would help humans keep violence in a manageable equilibrium and optimize chances for cooperation. Early social humans may have continued to suspect one another as rivals, but when they created the state, with its defining monopoly on the use of violence, they instituted a functional guarantee that individuals need not constantly fear one another. The police could be counted on to step in and discipline abusers of the system. The creation of the state was, in Pinker’s estimation, the crucial first step in mankind’s self-pacification.


Chapter two charts the astonishing decline of homicide in Europe from the Middle Ages (roughly the time Europeans evolved the various apparatus of state) to the present. The chapter’s centerpiece is its discussion of a methodological tool that is a fascinating revelation in itself—the centrality of homicide for the study of violence in general.

Homicides, Pinker writes, have been one of the better documented facts in European history, at least since Medieval times, when births and deaths correlated with the highly salient institution of property inheritance. And the relatively data-rich record of homicide provides scientists with the gold standard for measuring human violence. Pinker explains:

Homicide is the crime of choice for measurers of violence because regardless of how the people of a distant culture conceptualize crime, a dead body is hard to define away, and it always arouses curiosity about who or what produced it. Records of homicide are therefore a more reliable index f violence than records of robbery, rape, or assault, and they usually (though not always) correlate with them.

So, although Better Angels addresses a broad spectrum of violent practices, from child abuse to spousal rape to religious sacrifice, the book is at bedrock about humans killing each other and how this trend has dropped like a rock in recent centuries (yes, even with the 20th century’s two cataclysmic world wars: more later). According to rates in five European countries, homicides fell from approximately 75 per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages to one per 100,000 in the 20th century.

Today this figure (1:100,000) is considered the standard homicide rate of a peaceful society. It not only tells us how gentle we have become (in general), but also serves as a highly useful diagnostic tool for illustrating exceptions to the trend. If you live in Switzerland, for example, you are a lucky, cossetted citizen of the 21st century, facing only a .5 chance in 100,000 of being killed by your fellow man. In Papua New Guinea, though, your chances go up to 10 in 100,000, somewhere around Europe’s rate during its late modern period. If you live in Chicago or New Orleans, you face homicide rates so steep Europe hasn’t seen them since almost Medieval times, when knights killed each other for fun and the Church executed citizens freely with the full force of law (and Monty Python-esque logic).

Pinker also has very good things to say about commerce in chapter two. As peasants developed the means to specialize in the production of various commodities, trade increased significantly. Ho hum, right? Far from it. With Europe’s massive scaling up of trade, individuals who formerly based their lives on hoarding and thus had reason to fear everyone else as a potential raider presently had an interest in the well-being of other people as viable commodity-producers and trading partners. Again, humanity was climbing Hobbes’s ladder out of the ruthless state of nature: specialized economic development, what Hobbes called a more “commodious life,” created huge incentives to treat others well.

For me the most absorbing chapter of Better Angels is the third one, in which Pinker describes how Europe triumphed over the institutionalized sadism of religious violence that held sway from early Medieval times until late modernity. I risk going on too long if I note all this chapter’s graces, so I will limit myself to two.

First, Pinker notes the key role played by mass literacy in liberating the laity from priestly torture. As long as the Church leaders controlled the texts that gave the masses meaning in life, they protected not only a monopoly on the use of violence, but even the means of controlling public opinion about what constituted a good life and a proper fate—including highly consequential judgments about who deserved to be put on the rack for the good of their soul. After Gutenberg, though, books became available to the masses, who suddenly improved their ability to imagine other people’s perspectives, including the experience of pain, death and humiliation.

The literacy revolution contributed directly to a civilizational attitude shift that changed European culture forever (well, at least so far). Gradually, as the Church lost its authoritarian grip on the minds of the masses, the people came to replace the Church’s doctrine of the sacredness of the soul with a doctrine of the integrity of the body. Let the soul take care of itself in the private realm of religion, the people said, but we will not tolerate the killing and torturing of physical bodies for a “righteous” cause anymore. Although it took Europe’s religious elite a good (?) 400 years to abandon practices of sacred harming altogether, when the pivot away from holy torture happened, the masses never looked back. Today, religiously-inspired acts of harm have disappeared altogether from European and North American culture.

Chapter five offers an insightful, statistically informed analysis showing that wars between states have become less and less lethal. This chapter requires patience, as one must suspend one’s intuitions about the unique disastrousness of the 20th century’s three major blood-lettings—World War One, World War Two, and Mao’s mass killing of his own citizens in China. Despite the sheer size of these “hemoclysms,” they must be measured in terms of homicide rates if they are to be validly compared to other phases of history.

And the story is indeed a surprising one. When rates of killing are adjusted for world population size, the religious wars of early modern Europe (of which the famed Thirty Years War was just one) achieved homicide rates that easily outdo World War One and nearly keep pace with World War Two, sometimes described by historians as the greatest disaster in human history. The downward trend of lethality in war is a sawtooth graph with two spike toward the low end of the present day. But it still goes down.

In chapter six Pinker emphasizes the oft-neglected fact that the 20th century had two halves, and the second half, which he terms the “long peace,” has been the most peaceful period in history, by far. Not only have whole categories of violence disappeared, such as colonial war and open slave trade, but most of the categories of violence still in existence have seen large drops.

There is a clear bias at work in our tendency to see the present as very bad despite all the good news. Hume chalked it up to a petulant part of human nature. For Pinker, it is primarily a failure to appreciate simple math and statistics. We are simply being innumerate when we bemoan the near-past as a repeat of the “same damned” evils that plagued the more-distant past:

This [attitude] assumes that 5,000 Americans dying is the same damned thing as 58,000 Americans dying [in Viet Nam], and that a hundred thousand Iraqis being killed is the same damned thing as several million Vietnamese being killed. If we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programming policy “If it bleeds it leads” will feed the cognitive shortcut “The more memorable the more frequent,” and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.

Another reason violence has plummeted since the Enlightenment, according to Pinker in chapter six, is that we have criminalized or at least “stigmatized” temptations to violence through “a cascade of campaigns for ‘rights’—civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights.” The advancement of rights for one category of sentient being after another indicates we are converging on Jeremy Bentham’s ultimate criterion for membership in the moral community. We qualify for moral regard, Bentham wrote, not by virtue of what Aristotle would have called our “accidental” properties, such as height, skin color, gender, or even ability to reason. What sets us apart is our sentience, our capacity to suffer. Increasingly, Pinker argues, we are building our entire ethical system on the principle that we ought to avoid, prevent and sanction suffering; and, we are reinforcing this principle with the status of law.

The historical narrative of Better Angels soars so high, it can be a letdown, and hard work, to attend to the gritty laboratory results of psychology that support Pinker’s hypothesis. But without the lab work, all Pinker has is an appealing psycho-history of Western civilization. In chapter eight he lays out an extensive (and in places depressing case) that we are all “wired for violence” even if we steadfastly refrain from acting violently. We have five “inner demons,” psychological systems which make the potential for violence part of our ordinary life: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. Yes, even sadism. that unimaginably bad thing, plays an adaptive role in our psychological makeup; it expresses a drive to probe our own vulnerabilities. Very luckily for the human race, it rarely goes haywire in the form of psychopathic violent crimes.

Chapter nine tells a much more optimistic story, that we are not just raging predators only kept in check by the state’s police power, but that we may achieve genuine changes in mindset (I am inclined to call them advances), which have real correlates in our individual psychologies. After reviewing a broad swathe of primary literature Pinker concludes that we have ingrained too many attitudes that preclude the kinds of cruelty we once callously tolerated—or even delighted in—to attribute our whole change of heart to external factors like more jails and better policing. The evidence shows we have actually increased and reinforced our violence-reducing faculties, such as “prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.”

What is driving our development of such faculties and our overall turn from violence? Although Pinker says there is no grand unifying theory, there are five forces that appear repeatedly in the processes describing our pacifying trend.

  1. The creation of the state. “A state that uses its monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence reducer that we have encountered in this book,” Pinker writes. We all deplore politics, at least occasionally, but our lives without politics and government truly would be nasty, brutish and short.
  2. The rise of commerce. Building, crafting or growing things then exchanging them as benefits turns life from a zero-sum competition for resources into a positive sum pursuit of profit. You may not like the guy you do business with, but you have a rational motive to wish him well and do well by him.
  3. Feminization. For most of our species’ history it has been customary for males to control women and exclude them from public life. This is too bad. “From the time they are boys,” Pinker writes, “males play more violently than females, fantasize more about violence, consume more violent entertainment, commit the lion’s share of violent crimes, take more foolish risks in aggressive attacks, take more delight in punishment and revenge, vote for more warlike policies and leaders, and plan and carry out almost all the wars and genocides.” Only in the last minutes of human existence have women entered public life and begun to infuse it with their gender values, evolved over millennia of nurturing. The early results of this revolution are promising: “Societies in which women get a better deal, . . . tend to be societies that have less organized violence,” Pinker concludes.
  4. The expansion of the circle of sympathy. The Hobbsian individual, in the state of nature, is unable to see his fellow man as anything other than a potential adversary. At a basic level we are wired to fear and suspect others. Once we form groups capable of collective action, we are wired to fear and despise other groups, which also have collective goals, potentially clashing with ours. What a long way we have come. From the rise of novels in early modern Europe to the most recent developments in LGBTQ activism, people are getting ever better at imagining and re-prioritizing other people’s perspectives and interests. Put very simply, we have evolved a unique ability to feel solidarity with others who are not like us but with whom we have a shared interest in keeping the social peace.
  5. The escalator of reason. Our ability to take on other’s perspectives is a two-part act. It involves the pre-rational, affective achievement of suspending one’s all-or-nothing group loyalty and then, in a rational act, extending to others a claim equal to our own on basic rights and freedoms (beginning with the right not to be harmed). In much of the developed world, Pinker argues, we have taken the elevator of reason out of the jungle of Hobbes’ state of nature, enabling a universalist system of ethics.

Science is expected to predict the future. Do Pinker’s findings indicate we are on a path toward Kant’s dream of perpetual peace? Pinker is cagey, as I think he ought to be. The social sciences can barely predict the present, as he points out in several places; they should be very chaste about trying to predict the future. It would be “arrogant” Pinker offers in conclusion, to think his case indicates a force or direction in human history. Our better angels must always be guarded and cared for.

The recent rise of right-wing populism in Europe and America suggest there is nothing permanent about enlightenment; we always retain a violent instinct that can be deployed in the service of in-group loyalty. Or as Slavoj Žižek put it (admittedly, somewhat drastically): “What if culture is itself nothing but a halt, a break, a respite, in the pursuit of barbarity?” Then Better Angels is a sort of prayer of thanks for what we have.





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