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Better Angels Of Our Nature

The Angels Of Our Better Nature: The Decline In Violence And Its Causes By Steven Pinker

This book is not an easy read, it is a scholarly piece of work detailing the evidence for the decline in violence and more difficult task of proving its causes. Whilst in places it may be lots of statistics the overall result is a thought provoking and positive message that could do with being widely disseminated.

If you are a regular consumer of news media you could be forgiven for thinking, “what decline in violence?” There seems always to be a war going on somewhere, our towns and cities are crime ridden, aren't they. The answer is yes war has not been and seems unlikely to be eliminated any time soon and violent crime is a daily fact of life in many places in this world.

When you take a cold hard look at the facts rather than the news headlines the conclusion is undeniable that the world is a less violent place today than its ever been. Starting with our hunter/gatherer ancestors where life was truly nasty, brutish and short, travelling forward in time through early civilisations to our modern era of nation states and global commerce there has been a huge decline in the odds of suffering injury and untimely death at the hands of a fellow human. This decline has not been steady or constant but has wavered up at times and down at others, and from place to place, but long term, the decline is very real. Pinker stacks up the evidence in a clear and digestible form, that can seem repetitive but makes the case for the long term decline of violence irrefutable by any reasonable mind.

The big question this book attempts to answer is “what are the causes of this decline?” This is a question that it is vital for us to grasp if we are to ensure that the “long peace” may continue into the future and the world continue to get less violent. That we have come to think that war and other violence is not a smart way to behave is a triumph of reason and rational action that we may take for granted but just a few generations ago many still believed in the honour of war and the necessity of defending one's honour by violently destroying your enemies.

The conclusions that Pinker arrives at seem entirely plausible. The decline in violence seems inextricably linked with a rise in education, the sharing of information, the ability to read and be transported into the lives of others, and the sympathy this engenders. The resulting rise in enlightened reasoning overtaking received dogma as a better way to organise ourselves. Democracy for all its faults does seem a force for peace. Democracies that function passably well don't go to war with each other. The positive changes in western culture in just my own life time have been quite remarkable. The universal declaration of human rights, the civil rights movement, the rise of women's rights, gay rights, animal rights, the downfall of communism and other ideologies and despots that diminished the rights of the individual. Glance a little further back into the past and things our ancestors gave little thought to, slavery, wife beating, child beating, torture, witch burning, infanticide, now fill us with horror. It is unthinkable that we could now accept such things as a part of civilised life in the 21st century.

It is no accident that the most peaceful and safe places to live in the modern world are those places with a well educated populace governed by a functioning democracy, policed by an impartial justice system, with open access to information. Conversely the least safe places in the world lack some or all of the above.

The ideas that were yesteryears liberal radicalism, women's rights for instance, have now become so mainstream that even the most conservative have embraced the inevitable and sometimes even claim it as their own idea.

The feminisation of world is also a force for peace. Violence is by no means exclusively male but it is overwhelmingly so. Most violence is perpetrated by young men. A fact that is beginning to haunt those parts of the world that have used modern methods (and old fashioned infanticide) to preferentially select for male offspring. The resulting large groups of young adult males, without the prospect of marriage and its calming influence on male testosterone fuelled behaviour, is the cause of much criminally or ideologically driven violence. The countries where violence within the family and wider communities is rife also happen to be the countries where women's rights and their influence is weakest.

The lesson I think I have learned from reading The Better Angels Of Our Nature is that whilst the future is by no means assured to be less violent than the past, we now have a fairly clear idea of how to steer ourselves in that direction. This is to embrace science and reason, reject ideology and dogma. We need functioning democracies, we need shared commerce and resources, we need impartial justice, we need open information and free discussion. None of those things can happen unless all the people are sufficiently educated to be able not only to read, write and do arithmetic but to be capable of abstract reasoning. We have to be able to walk a mile in another man's (or woman's) shoes.

Over a century ago Charles Darwin summed it up in The Descent Of Man.
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to men of all nations and races.