In The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker stakes out a boldly optimistic view of the world, at a time when his readers are no doubt processing all kinds of bad news. Straining at the bigger picture of the trends afoot in human history, Pinker argues that violence is at an all-time low today—and human rights, social equality, and gender egalitarianism are at all-time highs.
With apologies to Shakespeare, we might say that Pinker, who has helped spell out the more arcane findings of his field in best-selling studies such as How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002), writes not wisely but too well. He is a very clever wordsmith on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but in this newest work, serious problems arise with his central story line.
These shortcomings are especially unfortunate here since Pinker’s basic claim is itself largely on target: Physical violence has been decreasing over recent millennia. But the operative words in this formulation are physical violence and recent, and the chronology that Pinker adopts in The Better Angels of Our Nature deftly elides this recent progress with the bulk of the human story—chiefly by his simple failure to acknowledge much of that story’s earlier chapters. In essence, Pinker’s fable of steadily more peaceful human self-improvement starts not at the raising of the curtain, and not even in the middle of the play, but only in the final act.
This brings us to what readers of The Better Angels of Our Nature might call Pinker’s Big Lie—or what he leaves out of the human saga. For most of humanity’s existence, humans lived in nomadic bands and did not suffer from the chronic warfare, torture, slavery, and exploitation that Pinker, trailing Thomas Hobbes, imagines to be our species’ nasty and brutish natural state. For one thing, the very nature of nomadic-band social organization makes warfare, slavery, or despotic rule well-nigh impossible. The small social units lack the ability to engage in large-scale slaughter—and since positions of authoritative leadership are also lacking, there is nothing to plunder, tools and weapons are rudimentary, and population density is extremely low. For another thing, the archaeological facts speak clearly, showing for particular geographical areas exactly when war began. And in all cases this was recent, not ancient, activity—occurring after complex forms of social organization supplanted nomadic hunting and gathering. Pinker ignores this evidence. He also makes a big deal about the recent rise in gender equality and human rights, but turns an unaccountable blind eye to the highly demotic character of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.
There’s a well-established body of literature chronicling early humanity’s egalitarian and peaceful past. In The Foraging Spectrum (1995), for instance, Robert Kelly offered this summary of the salient features of hunter-gatherer social life: “small, peaceful, nomadic bands, men and women with few possession[s] and who are equal in wealth, opportunity, and status.” Richard Lee and Richard Daly have likewise observed, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (2000), that nomadic-band dwellers
have lived in relatively small groups, without centralized authority, standing armies, or bureaucratic systems. Yet the evidence indicates that they have lived together surprisingly well, solving their problems among themselves largely without recourse to authority figures and without a particular propensity for violence. It was not the situation that Thomas Hobbes, the great seventeenth-century philosopher, described in a famous phrase as “the war of all against all.”
What this means, in practical terms, is that Pinker’s foundational narrative—holding that humans have lately emerged from a prehistory of widespread carnage into an era of comparative social peace and equality—badly truncates the actual story. Contrary to Pinker’s thesis, the incidence of warfare and mayhem actually describes an n-shaped curve, rather than a steep drop-off all at once with the advent of recent millennia. War was absent to nonexistent over the vast majority of human existence—off to the left of the n curve. But with a gradual worldwide population increase, the shift from universal nomadism to settled communities, the development of agriculture, a transition from egalitarian social structure to hierarchical pecking orders—and, very significantly, the rise of state-level civilization five thousand to six thousand years ago—the archaeological record is clear and unambiguous: War developed, despots arose, violence proliferated, and the social position of women deteriorated. This comparatively recent explosion in state-based violence is represented on the rising left side of the letter n in the curve.
Pinker’s conviction that he has uncovered a recent quantum shift in human behavior doesn’t exactly make him humble. “This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history,” he boldly asserts, and then continues: “Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
This is bunk. Pinker is only able to make his sweeping claims seem plausible by omitting everything that occurred before the agricultural revolution (circa 10,000 BCE). He is sneaky about this, too, arguing, for instance, that reports of violence from his own self-selected “nonstate” societies from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries would somehow reflect levels of violence prior to ten thousand years ago—i.e., a time when all of humanity lived as nomadic foragers.
The worldwide archaeological record contradicts the presumption that early humanity lived in a Hobbesian war of all against all. There is no evidence of warfare anywhere on the planet older than the ten-thousand- to twelve-thousand-year mark. In addition, numerous archaeological sequences show the birth of war on a regional scale occurred within the last ten thousand years.
It’s far from clear why The Better Angels of Our Nature fails to adopt a more sophisticated and intellectually rigorous approach that accommodates these facts. Pinker could have easily maintained his position that human violence has indeed declined in recent millennia without ignoring humanity’s peaceful egalitarian past. This omission is doubly surprising coming from a writer like Pinker, who has long professed a strong interest in evolutionary issues.
Pinker’s book is likewise disappointing in its outsize claim to an originality that it does not, on closer inspection, actually possess. Three hundred and fifty years ago, Hobbes pointed out that government can reduce violence. This idea is certainly nothing new. As R. Brian Ferguson commented in Warfare, Culture, and Environment back in 1984: “The point that a strong overarching authority will prevent or diminish internal warfare is valid, but obvious.” Yet Pinker fills pages and pages as he pounds readers over the head with this trite Hobbesian message.
Pinker’s evident fondness for state-based solutions also seems to make for greater analytical confusion as he tries to supply an anatomy of peaceable instincts that may inhere in human subjects apart from the imposition of state control. Pinker proposes that along with self-control, a moral sense, and the capacity to reason, a fourth “better angel” in our nature is empathy. But Pinker can’t seem to make up his mind about empathy. On the one hand, he quotes Charles Darwin in his final chapter’s epigraph, thereby appearing to give a last word to the great natural scientist’s hopeful formulation:
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
However, Pinker concludes earlier in the book, after much discussion, that it is actually rights, norms, and policies—not empathy—that are important for protecting people from violence. Pinker also concludes that “empathy can subvert human well-being when it runs afoul of a more fundamental principle, fairness.” If that’s the case, then why isn’t fairness promoted to angel status and empathy demoted? It’s hard to avoid the impression that Pinker is just jumping, halfheartedly, onto the empathy bandwagon in the wake of best-selling treatments of the subject such as Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization (2009) and Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy (2009)—both of which are far more thorough and lucid treatments of the subject than one finds in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Distinctions like this might seem semantic to general readers, but enormous consequences actually attend on the way we choose to tell the story of how violence figures into human history. If we focus only on physical violence and recent times, as Pinker does, it’s a fairly straightforward tale: Violence has decreased, and progress will continue to build toward more peaceful solutions to human conflict.
But if we follow the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung in adopting a wider perspective on violence, then we can readily apprehend that structural violence exists at very high levels in the twenty-first century. This brand of violence extends beyond the formal organization of war making; it stems from unjust political and economic social structures that inflict pain and suffering through extreme poverty, malnutrition, the lack of safe drinking water, the degradation of the planet’s biosphere, the gross inequities in wealth within and among countries, and lack of access to health care, educational opportunities, and social security. Structural violence translates into untold human misery, suffering, and shortened life spans. To adopt Pinker’s focus on physical forms of violence to the exclusion of structural violence of epic proportions is to miss the big picture.
Nor should Pinker’s book lull us into a sense of complacency that the world is becoming a safer place, when global challenges such as climate change and nuclear proliferation continue to threaten every person on earth. We endorse a foreshortened, and ultimately damaging, view of the question if we fail to understand that the problem area of violence must also include global problems that endanger the lives of everybody. For millennia, our ancestors survived only through cooperation and sharing. The twenty-first century world, with its threats of oceanic pollution, biodiversity loss, and global warming, absolutely requires cooperative solutions to shared problems—of the same sort that had been worked out in our ancestral hunter-gatherer past. If Pinker had not swept that past from the pages of his book, he might have discovered a new angel or two.
Douglas P. Fry is the author of The Human Potential for Peace (Oxford University Press, 2005), Beyond War (Oxford University Press, 2007), and War, Peace, and Human Nature (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).