The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker, Viking, 802 pages

Reading Steven Pinker’s new opus The Better Angels of Our Nature reminds me of how my father taught me one of my oldest—and long most futile—good habits. As we walked down the street in suburban Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, we’d occasionally come upon a parked car whose headlights had been left on. To spare the driver a dead battery, we’d open the car door and flick the lights off.

My dad’s acts of disinterested neighborliness were feasible because, implausible as it now seems, few people bothered to lock their cars back then. Indeed, it was still common in 1965 for motorists to store their keys conveniently in the ignition switch. One of the earliest magazine articles I can recall reading advised drivers that due to the sudden growth in car thefts, they should start taking their keys with them.

As the 1960s went on, my father and I increasingly found that parked cars with burning headlights were locked, so there was nothing we could do. The last time we successfully turned off anybody’s lights was 1972.

The blight of car theft spread overseas. At a business lunch in the leafy suburbs of Oxford in 1994, a half dozen English colleagues regaled me for 45 minutes with stories of their cars being stolen.

Slowly the forces of order responded. Manufacturers armored the ignition system so that thieves could no longer hotwire cars. In the 1980s, obnoxious alarms became common. The Club came along, a big red steel contraption that sent the message, “It will take too long to steal my car. Steal my neighbor’s car instead.”

In response to all this target-hardening, criminals switched to stealing cars directly from motorists: carjacking. In Los Angeles, the most publicized enormity came in 1993, when a carjacker brutalized a young woman for her BMW in placid Sherman Oaks, killing her unborn child. After the public outcry, the LAPD took carjacking seriously, and this most horrifying version of car theft declined.

Indeed, stealing cars isn’t the career it used to be. According to FBI statistics, despite the recession, motor vehicle theft declined 40 percent from 2006 to 2010. The howling of accidentally triggered car alarms seems to have become less frequent as the need for the devices has fallen.

While reading the galleys of Professor Pinker’s immense book, I paused to take a walk. I passed a car with its lights on. Out of ancient habit, I tried the door. For the first time in 39 years, I succeeded in turning off a neighbor’s headlights.

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Disorder is a dauntingly vast topic. So we are lucky that Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist whose 2002 work The Blank Slate may have been the outstanding book of the last decade, has turned his abundant energy and intelligence to understanding violence. No reductionist, Pinker attributes what he sees as the slow retreat from violence to “six trends” interacting with “five inner demons,” “four better angels,” and “five historical forces.”

These 20 factors—ranging from the rise of Leviathan to the expansion of empathy and rationality—aren’t really enough to explain trends in violence, but they’re a start. And I can’t think of anybody who could have done a better job. Pinker’s range is extraordinary. For instance, The Better Angels of Our Nature includes the best introduction to brain anatomy that I’ve read. (And Pinker isn’t even all that terribly impressed by fashionable fMRI scans.) Yet his touch is light. He sums up the research on why marriage makes men behave better with Johnny Cash’s definitive explanatory couplet: “Because you’re mine, I walk the line.”

(And in case you are wondering, yes, Pinker does quote Edwin Starr’s 1970 Motown lyric “War! Huh, yeah, what is it good for?” Being Pinker, he presents a long list of the pragmatic uses of war, while remaining in emotional harmony with Starr’s sentiment: “Absolutely nothing!”)

Pinker is willing to trash the foremost rule of popularizers: no graphs. As network theorist Albert-László Barabási has joked, “There is a theorem in publishing that each graph halves a book’s audience.” (Notice how few of the bestsellers about the recent mortgage mania include any time series, even though economic trends are almost incomprehensible without them.) With over 100 quantitative graphs, Better Angels will presumably sell about 1/1024th of a copy.

I more or less agree with Pinker’s starting point that violence is down:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.

Much as I’d enjoy complaining that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I have to admit that war, for instance, has become less of a threat in my own lifetime. When I was backpacking in 1980 through the peaceful West German countryside shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I was haunted by the premonition that I’d soon be back as a private with an anti-tank weapon on my shoulder trying to stop the Red Army’s 53,000 tanks from reaching the Rhine before NATO decided it had to go nuclear.

Well, that didn’t happen. The Soviet Union is gone. Having dodged that bullet, it would be awfully stupid of humanity to blunder into World War III now.

When I looked up the numbers on military spending in the CIA World Factbook, it turned out that war is a bore to ever more countries. In 2005, the U.S. accounted for nearly half of the world’s military spending. Even South Korea, which you might think would be worried about its lunatic neighbor, devotes to its military only about two-thirds as large a percentage of its GDP as we do.

As John Dolan, the War Nerd, was complaining a decade ago, war has been tailing off in both quantity and quality. Young men would rather play first-person shooter video games than get shot at themselves. John Mueller, who holds the manliest-sounding academic position imaginable, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State, pointed out in his 2005 book The Remnants of War that the much publicized Balkan wars of the 1990s were not quite the mass frenzies of ancient ethnic hatreds they were commonly portrayed as being. The politicians had such a hard time getting draftees to show up for basic training that they largely turned the fighting over to prison gangs, racketeers, and soccer hooligans.

What’s true for large-scale violence goes for street crime as well. Pinker plots homicide rates in Western Europe going back as far as records are available—to about 1200 A.D.—and finds a steady fall, especially in Oxford, where town-and-gown violence was off the charts in medieval times.

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Encouraging as all this is, Better Angels can be a frustrating read, in part because of the limitations of Pinker’s numbers-driven methodology, his Blue State triumphalist biases, and his sprawling subject. It would have been helpful for him to have distinguished between, at one pole, disorganized violence committed by, say, your local mugger and, at the other, organized violence committed by, say, the Manhattan Project. Ironically, the Los Alamos physicists exemplified the virtues to which Pinker admiringly attributes the decline in violence, such as rationality, cosmopolitanism, and Enlightenment humanism. Yet those traits helped make those men horrifyingly lethal.

Sure, many examples of violence fall into the gray area between a criminal and Niels Bohr. Yet drawing this distinction points out that the opposite extremes of violence might not trend in the same direction at the same time. That crime has been falling for the last few years in the U.S. at the same time as war is becoming less common around the world is hardly proof that the two tendencies are, as Pinker argues, causally connected.

Why should disorganized violence fall in the long run? Because people who engage in disorganized violence are largely losers. As the Big Lebowski tells Jeff Bridges’s The Dude, “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. … The bums will always lose.”

Not always. But they usually lose.

So what happened in the mid-1960s that we had to start locking our cars and houses? Why did Watts and then so many other inner cities explode into rape and pillage?

This is a dangerous issue for Pinker, one he handles creatively. He praises the “Rights Revolutions” of the 1960s for reducing domestic death and destruction, but his graphs don’t actually show much evidence for that. His basic marker, the homicide rate, hit bottom in America in 1957 and started shooting up again about the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act was signed. A few years later, women’s lib legalized the abortion of tens of millions of fetuses.

(Impressively, Pinker acknowledges this objection to his paean to the pacific powers of feminism. He argues in response that, in the long view, abortion replaced infanticide. Okay, but when I was conceived in 1958, I was in far less danger of being exposed on a mountainside than anyone conceived in the 1970s was of being aborted. A better argument is Pinker’s last one: abortion has been in modest decline for the last two decades.)

Black and feminist leaders object forcefully to mention of any side effects of their ascents to power. Brilliantly, Pinker, who still wears his hair like Roger Daltrey of The Who, sidesteps these landmines by blaming the high crime rate of 1965-1995 on his own kind: the damn, dirty hippies.

While we don’t fully understand crime trends—perhaps lead poisoning played a role in the 1960s?—reducing the imprisonment rate while the murder rate was growing was the most characteristic cause of the 1960s disaster. Pinker notes that from 1962 to 1979, “the likelihood that a crime would lead to imprisonment fell … by a factor of five.” That America allowed rape and robbery to get out of control around 1964 reflected a shameful dereliction of duty by elites.

We’ve since quelled random violence to some degree, primarily by throwing a vast number of men in jail. The actual outcome of the Rights Revolutions appears to be more freedom for the upper reaches of society and more prison for the bottom. In 1960, only 1 percent of black male high-school dropouts were incarcerated, compared to 25 percent in 2000.

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What about war and the state? In the first half of the 20th century, disorganized violence tended to decline throughout the West, while the power of organized violence mounted to previously unimagined levels. It’s not a coincidence that the countries that wreaked so much havoc abroad during the World Wars tended to be orderly at home.

The urge to get better at organized violence drove many of the reforms that Pinker lauds, such as mass education. After the German-speaking lands had been Europe’s designated punching bag in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, the Prussians increasingly rationalized their society to support an army powerful enough to be victimizer rather than victim. The most famous Enlightened Despot was the Age of Reason’s greatest general, Prussia’s Frederick the Great.

As Edmund Burke pointed out in the 1790s, “The Revolution was made, not to make France free, but to make her formidable.” After Bonaparte humiliated the Prussians at the Battle of Jena in 1806, they redoubled their modernization drive. Educator Horace Mann then brought the “Prussian Model” to Massachusetts in the 1840s.

Yet much of lethality of the past is better described as caused by disorder, of which violence is one manifestation.

Pinker’s charts list “Josef Stalin” as the eighth bloodiest “cause” in history. But consider a Moscow disaster of four decades before the Great Terror, the little remembered Khodynka Tragedy. At a public festivity to celebrate the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, a rumor suddenly spread through the throngs that there wouldn’t be enough free beer and sausages for everybody. In the subsequent stampede, 1,389 people were trampled to death. Stuff like that used to happen all the time. (In Russia, it still does, if not as catastrophically.)

Over time, new methods of order are invented, and, with luck and hard work, the better ones accumulate. Most notably, scientific, technological, and organizational advances have made the world a less Malthusian place. People tend to have enough meat on their bones that they are less likely to run amok over whispers that the pretzels might run out.

Even though Pinker credits economic historian Gregory Clark’s 2007 book, A Farewell to Alms, for much of his data, he shies away from Clark’s incisive Malthusian perspective. Notably, Pinker’s endorsement of the theory that democracy encourages peace seems naïve when 19th-century American history is examined skeptically. The great democratic presidents—Jefferson, Jackson, and Polk—were expansionary leaders who took land from Indians and Mexicans. That’s what the People wanted: land.

So why is war less common now than in the first half of the 20th century? The simplest explanation, I would argue, is not Pinker’s multifaceted movement toward Enlightenment values. Instead, it’s now clearer that war doesn’t pay. In the past, most of the value of the potential conquest was in the dirt acquired: mines or cropland. War couldn’t hurt dirt. Conquering California in 1846, for example, did little damage to the place, which turned out to have gold in the ground.

Today, though, most of the asset value of a territory is in the buildings and people above ground, which are very easy to blow to smithereens with modern weapons. And if you don’t raze your enemy’s cities, they provide formidable makeshift fortresses for resistance to your invasion. You can’t win. The expected profit isn’t worth your trouble. You might as well stay home.

In the West, we have easier ways now to make a killing than killing. If Sir Francis Drake, the great admiral-pirate of Elizabethan England, were a young man today, would he emigrate to Somalia to get a start in the piracy industry? Of course not. He’d apply for a job at Goldman Sachs.

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The subject of violence is so gigantic that even Pinker is eventually reduced to advocating that all-purpose solution of intellectuals: Be Like Me! Fortunately, I’m all in favor of humanity becoming more like Pinker: witty, learned, reasonable, and very, very smart. I’m even half-persuaded by Pinker’s ultimate argument that people are becoming more rational, as demonstrated by the rising raw scores on IQ tests—the celebrated “Flynn Effect.” Thus they are less likely to, say, invade Russia.

Invocations of the “Flynn Effect” are notorious for woozy hand-waving. But Pinker has thought hard about this. Although IQ tests are frequently condemned as culturally biased, the reason they still have a surprising degree of predictive validity in their second century is because their developers anticipated one direction in which the modern world was headed: toward objective rationality.

Pinker emphasizes Flynn’s argument that we continually develop new conceptual shorthands that help us behave more intelligently, even if we aren’t really any smarter. Consider the business catchphrase “win-win solution.” Sure, it’s trite, but “win-win” is an excellent two-syllable cliché if the goal is to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts.

Unfortunately, the opening chapters of Better Angels—a history of violence—display Pinker’s main weakness. His historical sense isn’t that strong. And a major reason for that is his deep-rooted aversion to engaging intellectually with the effects of Christianity. His distaste for the culture of Christendom before the Enlightenment is palpable. For instance, he responds to historian Barbara Tuchman’s summary of medieval economic theory with, “As my grandfather would have put it, ‘Goyische kopp!’—gentile head.” This old family attitude seems to make this otherwise very bright scholar’s interpretations of the last 2,000 years rather obtuse.

For example, the single most obvious bit of evidence in support of Pinker’s theory that there has been a long trend away from violence is the change in morality from the Old Testament to the New. Pinker recounts at length some hair-raising anecdotes passed on without criticism—indeed, often with approbation—in the Hebrew Bible, such as the tale of what the 12 sons of Jacob did to Hamor the Hivite. Yet when the author’s attention turns to the New Testament, with its radically different moral climate, he’s barely able to begrudge an acknowledgment of this epochal change. He quickly quotes Jesus saying, “I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon famously argued in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that early Christians were too nonviolent, that their pacifistic tendencies undermined the Roman army’s ability to keep out the German barbarians. But that goes unmentioned in Pinker’s history of violence.

Pinker then skips the long Dark Ages, during which the Catholic Church tried, with the slowest success, to turn the illiterate Conan the Barbarian warlords who had overrun Europe into gentlemen. He lands next in the high medieval period. To Pinker, feudalism must represent anarchy because there is no overweening Leviathan to enforce order. To Europeans alive at the time, however, their newly mature feudalism provided them with “stationary bandits”—to use economist Mancur Olson’s term—who protected them from the more terrifying “roving bandits.” The French monk Raoul Glaber exulted in the 11th century that it was as if “the whole world were shaking itself free, shrugging off the burden of the past, and cladding itself everywhere in a white mantle of churches.”

To the visual historian Lord Kenneth Clark, host of the 1969 PBS documentary “Civilisation,” the construction of towering Gothic cathedrals demonstrated that the 12th and 13th centuries were self-evidently better ordered than the wasteland centuries that had preceded them. But Pinker can’t plot the Middle Ages’ improvement over the Dark Ages on his charts because there is no data from the Dark Ages. So he feels free to ignore the considerable progress that Christendom made.

Still, just because Pinker can’t always see that glasses that are half-empty are also half-full doesn’t mean that we should obsess over the inevitable shortcomings of his impressive book. The Better Angels of Our Nature is a major accomplishment.

I was born in an America in which women could walk downtown streets freely at night, where both infanticide and abortion were uncommon, where the prison population was small, and prison rape was not the default punchline as TV detectives handcuffed the bad guys. I have some hopes that, just as with my neighbor’s unlocked car, I might someday live in that America again.

Steve Sailer is a columnist for VDARE.com and TakiMag.com.