The Triumph of Secular Science (Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined)

The response to Steven Pinker’s new book has been remarkable. While there are a few mixed reviews (James Q. Wilson in the Wall Street Journal comes to mind),  virtually everyone else either raves about the book or expresses something close to ad hominem contempt and loathing.

At the heart of the disagreement are competing conceptions of research and scholarship. How are we to study violence and to assess whether it has been increasing or decreasing? What analytic tools do we bring to the table?

Pinker, sensibly enough (in my view), chooses to look at the rate of violent death over time, in pre-state societies, in medieval Europe, in the modern era, and always in a global context; he writes about inter-state conflicts, the two world wars, intra-state conflicts, civil wars, and homicides.

In doing so, he takes a critical barometer of violence to be the rate of homicide deaths per 100,000 citizens; the global gold standard for homicide can currently be found in states where the figure in question hovers at an annual rate of about one per 100,000 culpable homicides within a population – a status currently achieved by the Baltic States of Finland, Denmark and Norway, the province of Newfoundland, and with many Western European states, and Canada itself, in close pursuit.

Pinker’s aim is to explain the variables that have contributed to the global decline in violence that we have witnessed, particularly during the past 30 years, but also, perhaps more fundamentally, during the past 500 years.  He points to the emergence of literacy and the enlightenment, to competent democratic governments, peaceful commerce, and more recently, the overwhelming support for racial equality, women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights, and animal rights.

He does not pretend that the world is now safe from significant violence in the future; he is not so foolish as to make such a confident prediction about a necessarily complex future (see Dan Gardner’s book, Future Babble). Pinker is simply assessing, rather, what the evidence is telling us about the extent of violence in the world today. For example, we learn that the risk of being a victim of a homicide has always been much higher in often romanticized tribal or non-state societies than it is today in a modern liberal state. And even during the 1970s and early 1980s the homicide rates in Canada and the United States were more than twice as high as they are today.

It is not surprising that Pinker has his critics, generally individuals who are reluctant to acknowledge quantitative data as relevant, and who cling to the notion that human beings have never been more violent than in this century. Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in the New Yorker, laments, contrary to fact, that there is no discussion of “colonialism” in Pinker’s book and concludes, “Name a force, a trend or a ‘better angel’ that has tended to reduce the threat, and someone else can name a force, a trend, or an ‘inner demon’ pushing back the other way”.

The response to this is simple: yes, one can do this, but there will be no credible evidence in support of such a claim. Kolbert and her dance of the dialectic cannot disguise the reality that the rate of violence, as measured by culpable homicide, has markedly decreased over human history. Other critics (for example, Robert Epstein in Scientific American), oddly enough, take issue with canvassing the rate of culpable homicide, preferring to focus on the absolute numbers of deaths as a more critical variable of relevance.  And still others, John Gray in Prospect and Joe Carter in First Thoughts, take issue with Pinker’s atheism:  “the delusions of liberal humanism”, as Carter puts it, and a “delusion of peace” claims John Gray. He writes, “Pinker’s attempt to ground the hope of peace in science is profoundly instructive, for it testifies to our enduring need for faith”.

Oh dear. For those of us who have no need for faith, this is a little insulting. But back to the book. One of the most interesting passages in the 696 page treatise concerns the “de-civilizing” era of the late 1960 and early 1970s, a time when homicide rates in both Canada and the United States (and most other Western democracies) more than doubled, before falling dramatically after 1990. How to explain the increase in violence and its subsequent decline?

Pinker is skeptical of the often cited influence of demographic shift, suggesting, fairly enough, that the arrival of the baby boom generation (a surfeit of young men within the population between the mid 1960s and the early 1990s) cannot account for all of the more than doubling of homicide rates during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead he points to the conflicts of the era as more critical, “ a glorification of dissoluteness shaded into an indulgence of violence and then violence itself”. Pinker points to support for Marxist theories of violent conflict, lack of respect for an older generation, the sexual revolution and its rejection of marriage, and the depiction of work or wage labour as a bourgeois enterprise. As these sentiments began to disappear in the 1990s they were replaced with a new logic of respect for rights: feminism, gay rights, children’s rights and animal rights. In this context, cultural support for violence has dramatically diminished; we have plenty of good evidence, from both police data and victim surveys, that domestic violence has dropped dramatically in North America during the past 30 years.

Scholarly literature in criminology reveals disagreements about the strength of the importance of demographic shift, in explaining both the increase of the 1970s and the decrease of the 1990s. There is virtually no support for claiming that population changes perfectly explain both the rise and the fall of violent crime, but there is also very little support for the notion that these population changes are entirely irrelevant (as Pinker concedes, though to a rather limited extent).

What factors gave rise to the licentiousness of the late 1960s and early 1970s, other than having a high percentage of young men in our populations?

We have plenty of evidence that this was a time of remarkable social change. The divorce rate rose by more than 400 per cent, after separation and divorce became socially acceptable (and legally acceptable) practices. For men and women at the margins, with limited resources and limited social skills, intimate violence increased.  The per capita rate of consumption of alcohol also rose by 50 per cent within the decade. And the rallying cries of “make love, not war” and “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” both pointed to a substantial challenge to the existing social order.

But where did these sentiments come from? I’d suggest two external factors of relevance: the technology of the birth control pill, first made widely available in the early 1960s, and the emergence of accessible global transportation – travel by jet – available to millions, made possible again during the 1960s. The birth control pill changed the realities of sexual relations between men and women; it was now possible for women to enjoy sexual freedom without the fear of pregnancy. Questions were raised about the roles of sexuality, sexual freedom and monogamous commitment.

And global travel brought young men and women into contact with mind-active drugs beyond the confines of North America: marijuana and hashish in Lebanon, India and Thailand, coca in South America and opium and heroin in southeast Asia.

The Beatles and others celebrated the insights of these “new” mind-active drugs, and the young pointed to both the limiting taboos of apparently outdated sexual mores and the hypocrisy of the line that divides legal from illegal drugs.

We are still sorting out these profound cultural changes; the rate of marriage has declined and the rate of divorce has remained relatively stable since the late 1970s. The violence of the drug trade continues, but a mandate of public health has begun to emerge, albeit in a somewhat limited and inchoate form.

This is all to say that the changes of the 1960s remain with us today, with the sharper edges smoothed out; there is no longer talk of the bourgeois nature of work, the desirability of violent class conflict, or the lack of any need for monogamous commitments. To paraphrase Pinker, we have re-civilized ourselves, supporting new recognitions of gay rights, women’s rights, animal rights and children’s rights.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature is a remarkable book, extolling science as a mechanism for understanding issues that are all too often shrouded in unstated moralities, and highly questionable empirical assumptions. Whatever agreements or disagreements may spring from his specifics, the author deserves our respect, gratitude and applause.

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