While watching Broadchurch with my wife last night, it struck me how it proved Pinker’s thesis on violence true.
To unpack that statement, allow me to back up a moment.
For those who are unaware who Steven Pinker is, he is a Harvard professor of psychology, with a focus on evolutionary psychology and linguistics. After several books on the “Nature vs. Nuture” debate, he turned his hand towards the phenomenon of violence. His book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined has been immensely popular. The thesis is simple, if not polarizing: The world is a much less violent place than it once was. While Better Angels devotes several hundred pages to proving this; he also does so quite admirably in this Reason interview;
If you do not have time to watch the ten minute video, he makes a convincing case that can appeal to the conservative, the free market libertarian and even the Enlightenment secular liberal. The growth of the state system curbed intra-national and tribal violence, the growth of commerce and civil society (afforded by order) lessened state warfare and Enlightenment ideals helped decrease institutional violence (think torture, public beheadings, etc…). To read a more thorough, yet concise, explanation, Slate has a decent piece (for once). If you have an objection, then I suggest his FAQ on his website at Harvard.
To put it simply the world is much less violent proportionally. By any measure you use, you have a much smaller likelihood of being violently killed in the modern world than in any other era in history. True, numerically, there are more violent deaths in the last century than before. But proportionally, the world as we know it shockingly peaceful. This comparison becomes even more stark when you compare modern, market-oriented, developed states to primitive tribal societies. When you crunch the statistics, it becomes more than clear that we live in one of the most prosperous and peaceful times in human history.
However by arguing points that would ring true with conservatives, libertarians and progressives, Pinker has made himself a large number of enemies across the ideological spectrum.
Leftists tend to dislike his conclusion as it passes major judgement on premodern, tribal cultures. It is a huge defense of modernity and thus deals a deathblow to the noble savage myth. Naturally this makes cultural relativists very uncomfortable, as they posit the nobility or even superiority of “quaint” (read: desperately poor and primitive) cultures in Subsaharan Africa, the Amazon Basin or Papua New Guinea. As a quick aside, the works of Nicholas Wade and Lawrence Keeley have reduced this nobility to the utter absurdity it is.
But the main group that seems to utterly loathe Pinker come from my own ideological tribe: conservatives. If you don’t believe me, by all means go visit First Things and enter “Steven Pinker” in the search bar. While criticisms range from Pinker’s deficient understanding of the history of Christianity (somewhat valid) to his alleged liberal assumption about the inevitability of peacefulness (a point he never makes), the most common denunciation is aimed at the main point. I think conservatives are uncomfortable with the conclusion that the world is much less violent than it once was. This comes from, in part, a healthy distrust of the dark element of human nature. Rightfully we mock the confident Fukuyamas who confidently predict that liberalism and human reason will lead us to the “end of history.” Unfortunately it seems that The Last Man bears an awful resemblance to the first one. To deny an inherent brokenness in human nature is, to the conservative, borderline Holocaust denial. Kirk argues;
[W]e must reckon [sin] as the greatest force which agitates society. …the necessity for taking sin into every social calculation. [Sin] remains merely an uncomfortable theory to men of the twentieth century, an age that has beheld human beings consumed in the furnaces of Auschwitz or worked to death like old horses in the Siberian arctic.
Now it should be noted that Pinker’s conclusion does not have to disagree with this basic truth. Pinker agrees violence will never be fully ended, nor is its decline part of some inevitable march of history. In fact one of his causes is a fundamentally conservative one: State order disincentivized violence and allowed for civil society to grow peace in an organic method. We are the inheritors of a thousands year old work of taming Enkidu. The conservative response to Better Angels should be, “Yes Messrs. Pinker and Keeley, civilization has made us more peaceful. Let us then be careful in how we tinker with it.”
Yet this is not good enough for some. To them, any argument that the world is less violent must be fundamentally untrue. David Bentley Hart does point out a clever criticism when he notes,
…statistical comparisons like that are notoriously vacuous. Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents. Obviously, though, a remote Inuit village of one hundred souls where someone gets killed in a fistfight is not twice as violent as a nation of 200 million that exterminates one million of its citizens.
Or, can we really say that the modern world is less violent simply because of statistics? Is one or two deaths in a small village really more violent than, say, 500,000 lost to violence a society of 100 million?
At first glance, it appears that Hart has a point.
This is where Broadchurch comes in. For the uninitiated, and without giving anything away, it follows the murder of one young boy in a small community in Dorset, England. While it is a classic detective story, it analyzes how a small community is left behind in the wake of senseless violence. In this tight-knit community the bonds of civil society start to fray as people become consumed by anger, grief, and suspicion.
And that is when it struck me, “Of course a murder in a small village is equally indicative of violence as a proportional amount of violent deaths would in a larger society.”
The series is a great exposition of how even one death can be an acid that erodes a small community. Now imagine that act repeated over and over again. Watch Broadchurch and imagine if more Danny Latimers were murdered; year in and year out. The picture isn’t a remote village that can shrug off an untimely death but rather one where violence becomes an endemic and destructive part of every day life.
The twist is that the most poignant example is the one that Hart himself makes. The hypothetical Inuit village did in fact exist. The extremely remote Copper Inuit lived in small networks of bands, rarely composing of more than 100 people. In fact in the early 20th century, when the Royal Mounted Police had contacted one such band, every single man interviewed had freely admitted to taking part in the murder of another person. Think on yourself. Think on every single person you know and then think on the people they know. How many can you say have taken part in a violent killing? How many even know someone who has killed someone or was themselves violently killed? The answer would be, with rare exceptions, very, very few. The United States, constantly bemoaned as a violent hellhole among developed nations, suffers an annual murder rate of 4 to 5 people per 100,000. By contrast, the average tribal, non-state society enjoys a violent death rate of 1,500 per 100,000. To put that in perspective, Detroit has a murder rate of 45 per 100,000. Chihuahua, in the throes of the Mexican Drug War, has a murder rate of 77 per 100,000. Even Syria tops out at an annual 395 per 100,000.
To bring that down to a smaller perspective, sit down and write down the names of 100 people you know. Now imagine every other year, three of them being violently killed. Imagine that they were murdered by people within that network you wrote down or those living nearby. What if that process goes on for generations? The levels of distrust, violence, hatred, bitterness, grief, psychological problems and basic depravity would be immense.
The irony here is so bitter, it’s almost sweet. Hart and his fellow travelers have no historical memory of living in such miniature hells due the exact decline that Pinker writes about. Hart’s historical forgetfulness is a luxury bought by the process of civilization that he denies has ever taken place.
The history and analysis of violence and crime is a morbid fascination to me, so here’s some pretty good sources on that topic. Also just watch Broadchurch already.
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Viking Books, 2011. Duh.
- Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade. Penguin Group, 2006. Really decent primer on the evolution of humanity.
- War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley. Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Dale Peterson & Richard Wrangham. Houghton, 1997. An interesting thesis that rustles the jimmies of both Enlightenment liberals who pretend humanity is perfectible, anti-feminists who pretend males are not predisposed to violence and those who think that there are no strong, biologically based differences between the sexes.
- Gangsters Without Borders: An Ethnology of a Salvadoran Street Gang by T.W. Ward. Oxford University Press, 2013. A small case study of how even violence contained in a small area can coarsen and degrade our humanity.
- The Remnants of War by John Mueller. Cornell University, 2004. Goes into how war has declined largely to intra-state/failed state conflicts and how we can police them.
- The Locust Effect by Gary A. Haugen & Victor Boutros. Oxford University Press, 2014. Great analysis on violence in the Third World. Opening point is clutch.“What eventually emerged for me, and changed me, was a point of simple clarity about the nature of violence and the poor. What was so clear to me was the way [victims of Rwandan Genocide] did not need someone to bring them a sermon, or food, or a doctor, or a teacher, or a micro-loan. They needed someone to restrain the hand with the machete – and nothing else would do.” Woof.