Peace talk

Steven Pinker argues compellingly that mankind is less violent than previously, but this reviewer is not convinced.

Iraq tank drill  521 (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER Iraq)
Iraq tank drill 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER Iraq)
Steven Pinker’s latest tome is as heavy in its claims as it is in weight, at 800 pages. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, was recently in Israel to attend a conference at the Shalem Center and to speak about his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He is the author of several academic books that have been consumed by the general public, including The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate. In his latest book, Pinker argues that humankind and the lives we lead have become increasingly peaceful.
“In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene,” Pinker notes. Nevertheless, as he deliberately and carefully explains, almost everything that used to be true about violence has changed. For instance we no longer accept chauvinistic displays of military symbols as natural.
“Another major change we have lived through is an intolerance of displays of force in everyday life.”
For instance, he argues, whereas violence used to be typical in advertising in the 1940s, today this is no longer so.
In order to build his argument, the book is full of photos and figures – 117 in all – that illustrate the decline in violence.
For example, homicide rates have declined in Europe. Torture has all but disappeared. “Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized… [it] was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated.” Furthermore, the death penalty has ceased to be used in some modern Western countries and “much of the rest of the world.”
The central thesis hinges on the fact that, in the author’s view, in the old days people were basically savage. “The killing of innocents was also combined with other superstitious customs,” he writes. In addition, “violence correlates with low socioeconomic status.”
But what will strike most inquisitive readers is that almost all the data are from Western Europe. The only data available for the savagery of ancient man are the archeological discoveries of skeletons in mass burials where many of them died violently. Pinker argues that we can make up for the lack of data in many other parts of the world by adjusting for what he calls “historical myopia.” Therefore “for every massacre that was recorded by some chronicler and then overlooked or dismissed, there must have been many others that were never chronicled in the first place.” This view leads to clear conclusions. “Before the advent of colonialism, large swaths of Africa, the Americas and Asia were host to predation, feuding, and slave-raiding that slink beneath the military horizon or fell in the forest without any historian hearing them.”
This is an appealing argument and one that is difficult to debate. After all, who can debate evidence that is primarily lack of evidence? What is perhaps more problematic is that some of the evidence is also suspect. One figure ranks the death tolls of major conflicts in the world. Pinker argues that while World War II was bloody, it did not cause as a high a percentage of deaths in the world as, say, the An Lushan Revolt in eighthcentury China. But this table of data is deceptive. The data claim that the “adjusted rank” of deadliness means that the Mongol conquests were the second most deadly war in human history, with some 40 million deaths, the equivalent (as a percentage of the world’s population) of 278 million today. But no one knows the figures for how many people died in the Mongol conquests; 40 million is just a modern estimate. For some reason the Middle Eastern slave trade, with an estimated 19 million deaths, is also listed as a type of conflict, along with a “preventable famine” in British India in the 19th century.
When the figures that serve as evidence for this tendentious claim are so open to debate, it seems the entire argument has some problems. The reader is left, after leafing through what is generally an enjoyable and erudite book, with the impression that the West has certainly become more peaceful.
The claims about the rest of the world are less clear.