FIRST the good news—people are much nicer than they used to be and they are becoming steadily less violent. This is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s absorbing and detailed survey of human behaviour that goes right back to early Christendom. His work is based on two arguments. The first is that the past was far more unpleasant than it was thought to be, whereas the present is altogether more peaceable, contrary to what many believe.
An evolutionary psychologist who works on cognition and language at Harvard, Professor Pinker writes like a modern Whig. He is a devout believer in the idea that history is progress, and has chosen to call his book “The Better Angels of our Nature”, in homage to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address exactly 150 years ago.
Each big step of human civilisation, Professor Pinker says, has stripped away a layer of violence, whether it is the tendency of nomadic tribes to settle in one place, and to want to be more secure, or the civilising mission of the state, which sought a monopoly on aggression and weaponry. Murder rates in England peaked in 1300 and in New England in the late 17th century. Afterwards both fell dramatically.
Exceptions are often more interesting than the rule here. In the cities of north-east America, the Midwest and Virginia, blacks and whites killed at the same rate in the first half of the 19th century. But African-American homicide rose from three times the white rate in New York in the 1850s to almost 13 times that figure a century later. It was not all progress.
Still, wars, rather than street violence or crime, account for the lion’s share of violent deaths across history. Three particular kinds of conflict account for that: civil war, the killing of ethnic and political groups and, now, terrorism. Here Professor Pinker includes enough evidence of wickedness and brutality to remind readers that the worst angels of our nature are grimly inventive creatures indeed.
Yet killings in conflict, the curse of humanity since the ancient world, have been in marked decline in the past two decades. Professor Pinker calls this development the “New Peace”. He is fond of graphs and the accumulated data is compelling. Deaths due to state-based conflicts show jagged peaks in the two world wars, followed by a bumpy but consistent trailing-off. The 20th century, with its trio of premier-league killers, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, stands out for the sheer scale of the destruction of human life. Technology, in the form of Zyklon B and cheap transport, enabled dictators to dispatch their victims en masse to distant killing fields. But these mass killings ran counter to a general trend of pacification.
Professor Pinker had a choice of ongoing conflicts while he worked on his book: in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan. Even so, there was an “astoundingly low rate of battle deaths: around 0.5 per 100,000 combatants per year” in the first decade of this century. The main reason for this is the decline in interstate wars since 1945. There were 1m battle deaths during the four years of the Korean war in the early 1950s and 1.6m during the nine years of the Vietnam war the following decade. These casualties bring a different perspective to the first Gulf war (23,000 battle deaths in 1990-91) and the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea (50,000 over three years, 1998-2000).
On civilians, Professor Pinker’s case is more patchy. The updated figure of 112,000 civilian deaths in Iraq (according to the Iraq Body Count, a respected non-government organisation) defies the observation that wars have become safer for non-combatants. In Congo the decade-long conflict that ended in 2008 resulted in 5.4m deaths, most of them only indirectly attributable to fighting. But Congo is important; it heads a miserable category described as “nonstate conflict”, a mêlée of warlords, ethnic rivals, mafias and militias, all fighting out in a failed state. Civilian mortality in this kind of struggle is a reminder that a decline in recorded battle fatalities does not automatically mean an advance in peace.
But what is the lesson of this generally benign assessment? Immanuel Kant’s famous “triangle” of factors—open economies, democracy and engagement with the outside world—are still the prerequisites for reliable peace. Professor Pinker (unfashionably) praises United Nations peacekeeping. It makes it harder for the bellicose to start wars and helps nip some resurgent conflicts in the bud before they can spark off yet more carnage. Aspiring to bourgeois prosperity and free trade is also important; people are less inclined to kill those with whom they can do business.
Professor Pinker ends with a treatise on brain science, a fluent home run for a psychologist-turned-historian. Neuro-plasticity, the human brain’s ability to change in response to experience, means that people are less likely to resort to violence in their daily lives than their forebears; other behavioural strategies work better. That may not have been quite what Lincoln meant, though the belief in man’s improvability is as uplifting in this magisterial work as it was in the president’s speech.
The notion that mankind has, as Ian Dury, a punk-rocker, once put it, “reasons to be cheerful”, also lies at the heart of Robert Muchembled’s quirkier work, “A History of Violence”. A French social historian who not long ago published a study entitled “Orgasm and the West”, here he turns his attention from sex to violence, with the bold claim that between 1650 and 1960 the aggressive instinct was “truly tamed in Europe”. Apart from all the wars, that is.
He makes some obvious points along the way, such as: “Territory and sexuality are the main determinants of identity.” That is the conclusion of some intriguing material, though. For example, Erasmus’s “On Good Manners for Boys”, dating back to 1530, became popular again among the middle classes in the 17th century as new cities in Europe required rural migrants to learn the ways of crowded streets.
Mr Muchembled makes one speculative claim worthy of a French intellectual: that popular fiction, from “The Three Musketeers” to crime novels, has provided young men with a way to indulge violent fantasies, while not doing too much harm. Mr Muchembled’s scholarship is less detailed than Professor Pinker’s and the examples he chooses are often odder and more partial, but the basic thesis that violence is declining in civil society is similar.
Sporadic eruptions in the banlieues of Paris pose a challenge on his doorstep. With no wars or national service on which to vent their aggression, today’s urban gangs are, Mr Muchembled concludes, “heirs to ancient traditions…[of] brutal youthful impulses”. Not even the optimistic Professor Pinker could find much to be cheerful about in that.
The Economist (original link here)