Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Is violence in decline?

Billed as one of the most important books in recent years, Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes has received rapturous reviews – writing in the Guardian, David Runciman called it "an astonishing book" – but does it deserve all the accolades? Do you agree with his explanation for why violence has declined? And could this decline be reversed? I hope you'll join me in reading the book over the next fortnight, and help me to thrash out the strengths and spot the flaws in the thesis, which Pinker has also set out in today's Guardian.
  1. The Better Angels of Our Nature
  2. : Why Violence Has Declined
  3. by Steven Pinker
  4. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop
  1. Tell us what you think: Star-rate and review this book
Pinker argues that we are far less likely to die violently than any previous generation. Even 20th-century atrocities such as the second world war pale into insignificance when death rates as a proportion of the population are compared with events such as China's An Lushan revolt and civil war in the eighth century, which killed 36 million people (the proportional equivalent of 429 million in the mid-20th century).
The book is now sitting on my desk waiting to be read. To be honest, I'm not sure the thesis is much of a surprise to me; I've studied too much history to have any illusions about some golden past of peacefulness. I gather from reviews there is plenty of detail on the human appetite for unspeakable cruelty and sadism – I'm not sure I can stomach much of that.
What strikes me as much more interesting are the causes of this decline. The feminisation of society? The rise of the nation state? Is it the spread of reason and empathy courtesy of the Enlightenment?
That's why the book seemed a good choice to start the Reading Room series, because it is packed with big debates. One of the most contentious is the claim that the decline is in part the outcome of a unique European enlightenment, which extended the scope of human reason. Equally contentious, he seems to suggest that the decline of violence is evidence for a concept of human progress – although Pinker concedes that progress could be fragile and reversible. Whatever else this book is about, it is raising a kind of intellectual standard for liberal humanism at a time when it imagines itself besieged by doubters and critics.
This is what the philosopher John Gray disagrees with and in his review he argued that Pinker was stuck in a contradiction that "afflicts anyone who tries to combine rigorous Darwinism with a belief in moral progress".
There is no doubt that Pinker is on a sort of crusade here and he makes clear his target: "a large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity and western society." His response is this massive tome, a counterblast against the pessimism of our age, which is so full of gloom at the possibility of climate wars, global warming and nuclear proliferation.
The reviews on both sides of the Atlantic have lavished praise on Pinker's scholarship. He is a psychologist by background, but this book sees him roaming across many disciplines from international relations to sociology and philosophy. So far reviewers haven't picked him up on any substantial errors in the evidence, so has Pinker got all his homework right?
Back in March, one blogpost questioned an earlier Pinker TED talk on this thesis. It claimed that he had misrepresented rates of violence in hunter-gatherer societies by picking up and extrapolating from data gathered in Papua New Guinea in the mid-70s when the place was well known for high levels of violence and there were already "missionaries, guns and motor boats". It would be dangerous, the blogpost argued, to extrapolate from this period to generalise about the past. So archaeologists and anthropologists might be able to help us out on working through this part of the thesis.
It's a big book and not everyone is going to have time to read it from cover to cover. The Guardian has an excerpt here. Others can be found here and here. Reviews that give you a really detailed sense of the book are Peter Singer's at the New York Times and Runciman's. John Naughton in the Observer did an interesting email interview.
If you want a very skeptical take, John Gray in Prospect makes some characteristically elegant points. Also worth a quick look are the reviews in the Sunday Times and in the Financial Times. And for a very thoughtful discussion of some of the wider implications of this book, look at New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He raises the question that the decline of violence perhaps more properly should be called the "nationalisation of violence" and that it is linked to the rise of the modern state since the 16th century. He also makes a very good point that Europe's unparalleled peace over the last half century may be the outcome of centuries of civil war, and ethnic and religious conflict; peace has come at a very high price indeed. He came back to the issue in a blogpost and there are some good comments on the thread. He poses the question that several centuries of violence may be required to produce the kind of post-war peace Europe has experienced – and that might be a trajectory for parts of the world where there is currently a lot of conflict, such as parts of Africa. A rather gloomy thesis.
I will be interviewing Steven Pinker tomorrow so post your questions below and come back to watch him on video later this week. In the meantime, this thread will remain open for you to post your ideas about the book, and I'll be joining you regularly as I make my way through it.

by taken from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/nov/01/steven-pinker-violence-in-decline

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