Carole Allsop, Commentary, Reviews
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We need our better angels more than ever

Carole Allsop looks at The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.

As we move towards the end of the 21st century’s second decade, Steven Pinker’s ‘better angels’ seem more and more worth holding up to the light. The year 2017 offers little to celebrate. Corporations continue to amass vast amounts of wealth, workers are being replaced by machines and robots, and nationalist populism is escalating as the natives of Britain, the USA and many parts of Europe show increasing hostility towards the presence of immigrants. Terrorism haunts the news, and immigrants bear the brunt of the blame for the tide of economic austerity, unemployment and low pay that threaten the western working and lower middle classes. There’s a chance that power will one day be up for grabs. The USA’s dominion is ebbing away in the imperceptible manner of erosion, with China gradually laying the foundations that could allow a rise to supremacy.

The Better Angels of our Nature was first published in 2011 and its propositions are presented with awe-inspiring lucidity. In his hefty examination of the history of violence and humanity Pinker has gathered his evidence meticulously and embraced a huge range of disciplines – history, palaeontology, archaeology, evolutionary theory, game theory, maths, economics, neuroscience, biology, psychology, criminology, anthropology, philosophy. The central tenet is that violence is on the wane, and human rights are steadily improving. The diversity of his data sets the book apart from others, and Pinker  is at pains to make sure he is not mistaken for some rose-coloured-specs-wearing Pollyanna. Researching the book, he has pored over some of the most grotesque accounts of violence in our human history, much of it quite recent.

He fastidiously  documents how woven into the fabric of human life cruel and degrading punishment once was, a social spectacle that was both admonitory and entertaining.  From our prehistoric past –  the preserved bodily remains of humans found in bogs routinely appear to be the victims of violence – taking in the slow, agonising horrors of crucifixion as a form of punishment under the Roman empire – to more recent times, when it was considered standard practice for ‘upper-class’ men in Europe to challenge one another to a duel to the death in response to a minor insult. It is impossible to do justice to the pages and pages of bloodcurdling cruelty, rape and thuggery that Pinker recounts from humanity’s history.

His claim is that today’s journalistic and intellectual culture is guilty of the crime of  innumeracy. We should look at relative numbers, rather than absolute numbers. Although the 20th century involved some of the largest numbers of mass killings ever recorded, the population of the world is immensely larger than it was when some of history’s other great genocides and slaughters took place. Do the maths. If 5000 people are violently killed from a population of 5 million, the rate of death is 0.1 %, whereas if  1000 people die from a population of 50,000, the rate is 2%. Scale the numbers and you get a more accurate sense of how violent life is and was. The world’s population in 10,000 BCE, around the dawn of agriculture, was the size of London’s today.  And the numbers of violent deaths proportionately are vastly smaller than they have ever been. Pinker offers plenty of graphs in evidence of the ratio of death by murder to population size, and there’s no doubt it’s going down rapidly.

If you have ever hankered back to a time when it was all so much simpler, then think again. The noble savage is an idealistic myth.

Estimates based on skeletons from small nomadic hunter gatherer groups, and the averages of present day hunter gatherer society murder rates, suggest that the average rate of violent death is about 14-15%. Hunter horticulturalists living in pre-state tribal groups averaged a violent death rate of 24.5%, yet the violent death rate for state societies in  the 20th century, including both world wars and several genocides, is a mere 1%.

Pinker lays out his thesis in the preface to the book, and then proceeds to prove it over the next 800 pages. The violent brutality of nomadic hunter gatherer horticulturalists with their chronic raiding and feuding only began to abate with the move to agricultural lifestyles and the developments of governments and cities. Rates of death by violence fell as feudal territories became kingdoms with centralised authority and a structure of commerce. With the age of reason and the European enlightenment came the first organised movements to abolish slavery, despotism, duelling, judicial torture and so on. It was not until the after the second world war that the Great Powers stopped going to war against each other, and violence decreased further proportionately. Then came the human rights revolutions, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, even animal rights.flie 4_mini
Pinker systematically explains the inner demons that cause of violence, among them the urge to obtain resources, to dominate and control others, to wreak revenge and achieve justice, to experience the pleasure of inflicting pain and to pursue the ideological goals of belief systems that justify violence. Almost all violent acts fall under one of these categories. Much violence is quite logical. When living up close and personal with others who are prone to assault it’s useful to show that one is not the sort to be messed with, and pre-emptive attack is one way of proving this.

So, what caused the gradual downturn in violence?

One of the better angels of the title is the virtue of empathy. Why are we getting better at seeing things from alternative points of view, at being able to feel for the suffering of people other than ourselves or members of our in-groups? One reason is the growth and spread of fiction. Literature, movies and TV soap operas allow us to routinely inhabit the experiences of others in a way that factual accounts do not. Cosmopolitanism and the circle of empathy that has widened outwards from family, clan and nation to encompass strangers in distant lands have made us less violent . Another better angel is self-control and the move away from the ‘steep discounting of the future’ that allows the indulgence of impulses, violent or otherwise.

The book recounts many examples of the paradoxes of human society. In an untamed culture of violence, a man who swears is threatening because he gives the impression of being someone who could turn violent – on a hair-trigger hence the social  norm urging people not to swear in public. Similarly, in a society where revealing clothes invite sexual harassment, it is necessary for women to cover up. The informalisation of our culture where people can cuss openly and women dress in scanty mini-skirts actually indicates just how non-violent our society is, where the swearing man no longer presents a threat and the immodestly dressed woman need not fear assault.

Another paradox for anti-abortionists is the correlation between liberalisation of abortion laws and the improved rights of children. As women have had greater access to the right to terminate a pregnancy, so the lives of the children they do have are more greatly valued. It is now unthinkable for children to labour in factories or fields, or to be thrashed by parents or teachers as punishment for misdemeanours.

Pinker offers graphic accounts of torture in the past, and of course, torture is still going on today in 90% of the world’s countries. However, there is one major difference. Modern day torturers make great efforts to conceal their deeds, and the reason is that torture is no longer acceptable in the way that it once was.

The influence of women – the feminisation process has been another calming effect, as evidenced by the taming of the wild west as women moved in. A term coined by philosopher Pete Singer is taken up by Pinker, the notion of  ‘the escalator of reason’. Once people are on this escalator they cannot but move upwards. As we become capable of abstract reasoning through primary and secondary education, we recognise increasingly the futility of violence. However, as Pinker points out it is a rather jerky escalator, and moves in fits and starts.

Olaus Magnus

Rape – a routine form of courtship in times past.


The Flynn Effect is a well-established phenomena – the fact that IQ averages today are higher than the past and that someone of a medium IQ now could be nearer the top echelons of IQ if they travelled back in time (due largely to the development of hypothetical reasoning). So we have undergone a moral Flynn Effect – those on the right today proclaim views on homosexuality, women’s rights and race that sound considerably more tolerant than those of liberals of earlier times.

The Enlightenment and the development of liberalism were crucial turning points in our history,  but less obviously the state’s monopoly on the use of force through the judicial system. A key idea is that the power of ‘gentle commerce’, or mutual trading between groups, is vital to create the conditions for a positive sum game in which it’s in both side’s interests to keep the peace.

The salience of the bad news stories of violence and horror – ‘if it bleeds it leads’ – mean that we are often more aware of the atrocities going on than the increase in peace and human rights. I would love to see Pinker take on Chomsky, not on linguistics, but on the nature of ‘gentle commerce’, as it becomes subsumed in today’s neoliberalism. The latter term is bandied about a lot, but I mean what Wikipedia defines as ‘economic liberalization policies that include free trade, deregulation, fiscal austerity, privatization, reduced government spending, and an increased role for the private sector’. The organs of commerce are destroying the planet’s climate, securing fortunes in offshore accounts, and gambling with the present and future lives of those who struggle under the grip of the corporations, and suffer the worst consequences of this globally weirding earth.

Another question is how safe is humanity from the threat of another great war.

Pinker talks of how there has been no war between the great powers since the Second World War, and seems optimistic that there is too much to lose, due to the positive sum game of international commerce. With commentators comparing the developing political situation to the 1930s, with Trump at the helm of the USA, Europeans and Americans rejecting the immigrants in their countries, protectionism on the rise, and the balance of power wobbling precariously, can we be sure there isn’t another peak of violence on the graph of humanity’s history imminent?




*”Wild West”, by Charles Marion Russell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*Book photo by Steve Rainwater |

*Never Again, by Adam Jones, Ph.D. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

*Graph by Koyos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

*Rape – a routine form of courtship in times past. Olaus Magnus.


1 Comment

  1. A Devonshire says

    This is an excellent reminder that a wide perspective ensures the clearest view. Invariably, all is not as it at first seems/feels and one can only hope, and do one’s bit to ensure, that the ‘escalator of reason’ keeps on moving in the right direction.

    There is indeed a precarious, teetering balance of power. Such imbalance is nothing new but there is a colossal difference of weight today in the destructive capability of those who wield it. It’s hard to view Trump’s abusive hands and narcissistic braggadocio as anything other than what it is but, not to excuse the behaviour or to belittle its impact on his prey, the unprecedented difference of recent decades lies in the fact that those hands, and others, are now capable of bigger and darker things: the unthinkable.

    You’re right that 2017 offers little to celebrate. Every act of our new ‘most powerful man on the planet’ seems to contradict the hitherto well-established phenomena of the Flynn Effect. Perhaps there have always been such examples, but few before have had access to so much destructive power.

    As we witness a new age of alt-facts and understand their devastating potential, we must ensure that hope is kept alive. The influence of women, who tamed the wild west and gave voice just days ago to the alternative world order proposed (shouted) from the pulpit by Trump the previous day, provides evidence that, far from being extinguished, hope is burning bright around the world. But we all need to step up because you’re dead right: we need our better angels more than ever and there is one every one of us – even perhaps in Trump.

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