The Better Angels of Our Nature

by Steven Pinker

Declinism is the belief that civilization, or at least Western Civilization, is going to hell in a hand basket. Americans are getting fatter, our political system is increasingly dysfunctional, globalization is impoverishing millions of Americans, Islamic fundamentalists will get a nuclear bomb and set if off in New York City, videogames are rotting the minds of our children, climate change will kill us all, and they’re going to cancel CSI.

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard; he has written a series of excellent books on language and the mind. His first,
The Language Instinct, presented a compelling case that the human brain is pre-wired with the fundamental elements of language. In further books, he expanded on this concept, in every case presenting his arguments with overwhelming evidence and crystal clarity. In The Blank Slate, he demolished the belief that the human mind is exclusively the product of nurture, establishing instead that nature and nurture are both powerful components in the structures of our minds. I have greatly enjoyed every one of his books.

Thus, when I learned that he had published a new book, I rushed to order it from Amazon. This book, however, breaks away from his main line of thought and moves in a related but different direction. He asks, has humanity learned anything from experience? Have we gotten better at restraining our violent impulses? Most people, thinking of the slaughters of World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust, are pessimistic about our future. Mr. Pinker utterly refutes the notion that we’re getting worse. When it comes to violence, we’ve steadily improved over the centuries.

Once again, Mr. Pinker presents a mountain of evidence to support his claim. He must have a huge research team; no single person could have scoured the literature to find so much material. He adduces murder rates in medieval London, life expectancies of males in various societies, and lots more evidence. The galaxy of information he has assembled is truly dazzling. One cannot read this book without concluding that humanity has indeed grown steadily better at suppressing the flames of violence that has wrought so much destruction in the past.

Pinker then explains how these changes happened. He devotes one chapter to the dark side of human nature, the personality characteristics that drive us to violence; in the next chapter, he lists the cultural factors that have arisen to counter these inner demons.

In the final chapter, Pinker pulls all the pieces into a big picture, and here he fails badly. It’s not that he’s wrong, but rather that he loses focus and meanders aimlessly. I devoured the first half of the book, slowed down a bit when he delved into the psychological and cultural factors, and slowed to a crawl in the final chapter. The last 20 pages took me a week to slog through; I kept falling asleep.

Nevertheless, this is a brilliant book that has caused me to soften the edge of my pessimism about humanity’s future. I still believe that civilization must collapse within 200 years. It took us thousands of years to develop the cultural mechanisms to conquer violence, a problem that has plagued us for at least 10,000 years. We don’t have that kind of time to deal with problems like climate change and the rejection of reason.