Thursday, 3 November 2011

Pinker's Angels

Steven Pinker is in town. The Harvard Professor of Psychology has a new book to push and in the last three days alone he's spoken at the LSE, the RSA and the Royal Institution.

And that's good because Steven's new book - The Better Angels of our Nature - is important.

In his RI lecture he presented a vast amount of data showing that human violence has declined over thousands of years. Looking at deaths relative to population he traced falling rates of death in war and by private murder. The showed the second half of the 20th century to be a peaceful period - and the first decade of the 21st century to be even more so. These findings will surprise many and shock some - even humanists sometimes forget how bad the past was - but the evidence, from history and archaeology, is overwhelming.

Steven traces the decline in violence before, say, 1700, to the establishment of states, trade and the rule of law. For the last three centuries he also pointed to literacy, printing, the Enlightenment and the 'decline or domestication of religion' as causes. His data suggests at least one further factor - the sheer destructiveness of modern warfare between major states has made those states avoid such warfare - at least with each other.

This is a profoundly optimistic view. It's not optimistic despite the facts but because of them. It holds that things have got better fairly consistently over a long period and that they can continue to get better.

It also a humanist view - ascribing the improvements to the spread of reason, the rule of law and an expanding circle of compassion. And it shows, as H4S believes, that scientific method is applicable to history, politics and even morality.
Steven Pinker. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

1 comment:

Chris Street said...

Got the book for Xmas.