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While our fellow humans are drowning themselves in each other’s blood, it’s consoling to remember Steven Pinker’s great book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The author’s preface begins with these words:
“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”
Pinker’s book, including notes and index, is 802 pages long. It’s overwhelmingly convincing. You may not want to choose a work of such length for summer reading, or for reading in any season, but even a random walk through these pages will be a corrective to the view that history is on a long downhill trajectory. Some readers may dispute his statistical methodologies, but by and large the trends he focuses on are beyond question.
There are passages describing what humans no longer do to each other, and those pages may be hard to take. The record of violence and cruelty increases as we read further and further back in history, and we’ve forgotten or averted our eyes from the bloody chronicle because we can no longer stomach thinking about what we have done to each other. If you lived in medieval times your chances of being murdered would be thirty times greater than today.
In Steven Pinker’s words “The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her note cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human right almost incoherent. Genocide ad war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.”
The Better Angels of Our Nature is an important book not only because it adds to our understanding of human history, not only because it is a corrective to fanciful notions of a more just and peaceful past, but also because – and this is crucial – it encourages us to persist in our struggle to overcome what Steven Pinker calls “the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression.” Our progress has been straight or smooth, and it is certainly uneven today, but clearly we are moving in the right direction. Because we know we can live better, we should keep pressing forward.