Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Viking Press, 2011

Book Review by Dr Qamar-ul Huda

Despite the headlines of civil war, conflict, terrorism and civilian casualties from government genocide, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker claims that the world has historically become more tolerant and peaceful.

The New York Times best-seller, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker asserts that the 21st century began with horrendous acts of violence – the Dafur genocide, 9/11 attacks, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - however, comparing to the previous centuries, there is a global agreement that the use of war is unacceptable form of resolving conflict and disputes.
Pinker starts with a particular pressing question: “How are we to make sense of modernity—the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science?” His response is that modernity produced a less violent world. With an immense amount of data and examples of torture, sadism, genocide, punishment for civilians, Pinker takes the reader with details of past atrocities as a normal form of existence. But this normative use of violence was purposely controlled by the rule of law and democratic principles of governance.

Pinker believes that the pace of “moral progress” on civil rights, human rights, equal treatment of women, the dismantling of caste systems, supporting children to thrive with education, and even the positive attitudes toward animal protection. Human chauvinism that promoted violence as a means to an end is no longer a prevalent moral assumption.
“Violence has declined over long stretches of time,” Pinker asserts at the outset of his 800-page compendium of murder and mayhem. “Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

There is a global consensus that mass killings of civilians is an outrage. Governments will attempt to conceal their atrocities, but global institutions like the United Nations and International Criminal Court, Human Rights Watch exist to prosecute against government abuses.

Pinker identifies education as the single important factor to the changing views of violence. It is not only the fact that nation-states emphasize education for the success of their citizens, rather it is the public affirmation of compassion, empathy and learning to feel the pain of others.

He is staunch advocate of humanism. He attributes the declining violence and cruelty with the achievements of Enlightenment humanism. For him, humanism concerns itself with “the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied.” According to Pinker “human flourishing must be defined by the maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain.”

This book thoroughly demonstrates historical violence as a truism for societies to prosper has dramatically changed in the modern world. Pinker believes one of the pearls of modernity is its victory of human values that preserves life instead of destroying it. With a rich use of resources, and an interdisciplinary study of violence, this is an immense contribution to the field.