Just how violent are the times we live in? The answer seems obvious: violence is everywhere. Wars, murders, torture, and the occasional genocide dominate our mass media. We must be living in dangerous times, where memories of history conjure simpler times, devoid of such atrocities. Steven Pinker’s newest book, “The Greater Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” shatters this assumption with glee.
If someone told you that we live in the most peaceful period in human history, would you believe it? If you allow Pinker 700 pages, you probably will. Pinker makes a powerful case, with extensive use of empirical evidence, that we do in fact live in what our ancestors would call “utopia”.
How could we possibly be living in even a somewhat peaceful era, let alone the most peaceful? Pinker explains this using relative violence rates. We have a huge population, and the chances of dying because of violence have never been lower. One could look at it this way: its not that we are so peaceful, its just that our ancestors were almost unimaginably violent.
Pinker uses the first part of the book to get us to understand the world as it used to be. Lives were short, violent, and horrible. In Europe, a popular game involved nailing a cat to the wall and bashing it to death with your head. It made the NFL look like checkers. Its hard to understand the minds of people who lived before the age of reason, the enlightenment, but Pinker does a fine job.
He then walks us through the reasons why violence declined. Two main reasons are capitalism and democracy. No two democracies have ever gone to war. The theory goes that people who have a say in how they are governed are less likely to go to war. Pinker shows us how accurate this view is. Capitalism reduces violence by changing the incentive structures in geopolitics. Domination and conquest are what is known as “zero sum games,” there must be a winner and loser. Capitalism is a “positive sum game” where two or more parties can win. Capitalism has made war between nations obsolete because is pays to cooperate more than fight.
Let me stress that I have barely scratched the surface of this magnificent book. At over 700 pages, “Angels,” is a formidable read, but well worth it. Steven Pinker shows how versatile his mind is. He challenges our assumptions about the world we live in, and we are better for it.
As a bonus, Andrew Sullivan featured Steven Pinker on his Ask ____ Anything feature.