Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: The Better Angels of our Nature

In spite of the fact that this blog is mostly dormant and its once thriving comments section is dry, not long ago a reader responded to something I wrote with a warm recommendation that I read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. You keep on wondering about violence in military contexts, Yaacov, and about Israel's wielding of it; you really need to read Pinker, who'll tell you lots and lots of really pertinent stuff. So I did. And yes, it is a very interesting book; and yes, it is very very well written; and yes, it is very informative in that once you finish reading it you'll know lots of things you didn't know before.

Sadly, however, it didn't do for me what it apparently did for that reader. It wasn't much of an eye opener; in some ways, it wasn't even particularly convincing.

Before I explain, however, a short diversion. A year or two ago I read Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem: The Biography (Vintage), and even referred to it once or twice here on the blog, but then I never got around to reviewing it, the new job came along, I stopped blogging, and then Pinker's book offered a way of reading Sebag Montefiore's book which I hadn't noticed - so here goes. A three-sentence review within a review.

Jerusalem's story, in Sebag Montefiore's telling, is one of ancient and unrelenting violence and horror. Mass crucifixions, eye-gouging, beheadings, disembowlings, assassinations: century after century, millennium after millennium (Jerusalem really is a very old place). Only quite recently, in the 17th or 18th century, did things calm down, and while the wars went on and still go on, much of the gore was toned down. And that, says Pinker, is the story of humanity. Had he read Sebag Montefiore's book, he would simply have noted that it's a typical instance of the general rule. The history of human violence is the tale of a steep and mostly consistent decline of violence, from all pervasive in pre-history, through pervasive in early history, common and repulsive until a few centuries ago, ever more tamed in recent centuries, mostly tamed and perhaps even an endangered phenomenon in our day and age. And yes, he's heard of Nazism and Communism, thank you for mentioning them.

To sum up his historical presentation, the first 500-odd pages of the book, humans in the wild were violent by nature; civilization enabled ever larger groups to work together while being violent towards other groups and anyone who peeved them; Leviathan reduced the violence within society without ever reducing it between groups or from the hegemon to the individual; the Civilizing Process (he capitalizes it) created an ever growing sphere in which violence was forced aside; there was a Humanitarian Revolution in the 18th century which abolished torture and vicious executions; and then in the latter 19th century, and in full force in the second half of the 20th, individual homicides and communal and international wars took a nosedive; today, even rough games among boys are forbidden by boards of educational curmudgeons.

He demonstrates this all with dozens and dozens of charts, all of which show lines of violence which begin in the upper left corner and end in the lower right corner.

Charts are a good thing, by the way. Historians don't use enough of them, and literature professors probably never use them. They demonstrate an ability and willingness to bring quantifying discipline to prose narratives which is refreshing and useful. Pinker even has a section on this near the end of the book, when he tells that people are vastly more intelligent today than they used to be, which is of course nonsense unless you qualify the statement to mean that contemporary folks are much better, in general, at scientific and numeric argumentation. That's probably true.

Having spent 500-odd pages doing the history, his final 200 look at the science. If nothing else, here he displays an impressive cross-disciplinary erudition. Not only has he read a lot about violence, he also knows about diverse fields of scientific scholarship, from philosophy (which is what science used to be) through lots of psychology, statistics, neurology and more. Not only does he write better than almost all academics, he's also got much broader horizons. So in this section he tells all about how scientists like to watch people's brain scans while provoking them into all sorts of behaviour, so as to identify the parts of the brain that light up when we do natural things such as be angry, sad or bad. Then, having demonstrated that being bad has neurological existence, he tells how other social behaviours - or shall we call them conditions? - also have neurological existence. The idea being that if we could strengthen the positive urges we could change our individual and communal chemistry, and reinforce us in being gentle and reasonable.

One of the notable sections in this part of the book, for me, was his discussion of empathy. Those of you who were boys roughly at the time Pinker and I were (he's a few years older than me but we both grew up on Tom Lehrer satires), must have read and remember Clifford D. Simak's magnificent City (Sf Masterworks), published in 1952 and still in print. In that book Simak has an invention which enables people effortlessly to understand the perspective of other people - and it's the end of squabbling humankind as we know it. Well, 60 years later, according to Pinker and the researchers he cites, the Age of Empathy is upon us, and it isn't the end of history, it's the beginning of a better one.

Near the very end he talks about rationalism as a force for improvement of the human story, and his discussion also passes the topic of classical liberalism versus contemporary American-style liberalism. It was around then that it became clear to me that Pinker seems to be arguing with a type of left-wing American liberalism which would have us accept that human history was mostly benign until the Europeans came along and screwed up, the Enlightenment spawned Communism and Fascism, and the US was horrendous to lots of colored folks abroad while its white elites were nasty to the minorities at home. (My formulation). The whole enterprise of his book, in an over-simplification, was to show those believers that actually, no. It was always a lot worse, it has gotten much better, and rationalism is the keystone to making it ever better. And the funny thing is that that's the thesis, more or less, of J.B. Bury's 1920 classic The Idea of Progress (which is also still in print, I'm pleasantly surprised to report). (Or anyway, I think that's the thesis of the book. I read it when I was much younger and foolish).

So that's the first reason I was disappointed by the book: it states the obvious, even if many people today would prefer not to accept the obvious because of all sorts of political fashions. The cumulative actions of centuries of dead white European men, most of them Christians though with a strong influence of Jewish ideas and a smattering of Jewish men among them, have made the human story vastly better than it was. They didn't do it alone, and in the past few generations they have been joined by lots of all the rest - women, non-whites, non-Christians - but the facts remain, and accepting them is no shame. (And yes; there are facts. Really. They aren't constructs of confused thinking. But that's a different book).

The second reason I was disappointed is Pinker's preference for scientific universalism over historical specific knowledge. Scientist seek overarching laws of nature, and they think in categories of replicable demonstrations of phenomena. Historians (or at least the good ones) know that in the human story, unlike in the world of physics, nothing can ever be replicated, because each specific situation, event and condition is the result of a fiendishly complicated chain of unique vectors and actors. The task of the historian isn't to identify universal rules; at its most daring, the best it can hope to do is demonstrate viable potentials. If it can even do that, since the conditions which brought about the earlier results aren't replicable.

Pinker's eagerness to find the laws irked most when he dealt with the single biggest problem with the theory of consistent decline of violence: Nazism and Communism and their many dozens of millions of dead. If the inertia of history is so strongly active in one direction, how to explain the first half of the 20th century, even if things went back on track thereafter. (Assuming they did). His explanation, which boils down to a statistical fluke, is simply too silly to argue with, even if he spends an entire section on it, replete with more charts and an otherwise interesting disquisition on the nature of statistics and flukes.

Then there was the annoying underlying political agenda. It was underlying, in that Pinker pokes fun at political spinmeisters of all stripes; but his own preferences, of a mildly-left-leaning Liberal Democrat such as densely populates the Boston area where he lives, were woven into the text as if they are obviously true - when they're not. They're merely one political persuasion amongst many. To cite one random example from dozens: The American reaction to 9/11 to go to war in Afghanistan could perhaps have been an emotional response motivated by fear or revenge or whatever; then again, it could have been the cool and calculating result of a reading of the facts. There a big difference between the two, and someday the historians may reach agreement which it was (or what the combination was), but then again, they may not, because too many of the relevant facts are hard to get at, such as the internal frame of mind of many of the individuals who formulated the response.

Did I mention that I was wearied by the insistence on explaining every form of human behaviour in terms of its Darwinian justification? As in, people do this sort of thing because their ur-ancient ancestors found it useful for survival in those caves? Enough already! It's all speculation, I don't see how it could be seriously proven (or disproven, which is a requirement for proof), and why should those speculations be so important anyways? Might not the immediate, historical, motivations and explanations be more important? Similarly, I'm unimpressed by all those lightings sighted in folks' brains. Clearly, humans have a very wide range of emotional and cognitive options; the fact that some of them light up this section of the brain while others light up a different section, while it may well be true, doesn't seem to explain why some unique individuals have this section light up one way while other nearby unique individuals set off different sections. And is it irrevocably proven that the lighting up of some switches causes the behaviour, and not the other way around?

Finally, I had my problems as a Jewish reader, and as an Israeli. The Talmud has repeated discussions about the sanctity of human life, the eternal unacceptability of torture, and the abolishment of capital punishment, more than a thousand years before those great enlightened Christian white men stumbled across the ideas (and some of them were antisemites even as they enlightened the world). The talmudists - thousands of men over a span of some four or five centuries, and their followers in later centuries - had a power of reasoning, some of it abstract, which is non-existent today. They even seem to have lived according to their ideals, more or less. None of this fits into those charts, and it didn't much influence them either, but if the sentiments are so modern, where did they come from ten centuries before modernity?

Then there's Pinker's need to overstate his case. At one point he goes out onto a branch: "Oh all right. How likely is it that there will be a massacre of 100,000 people in a year, or a war with a million casualties? 9.7%. Why that number? Because it is conceivable, but it's highly unlikely." (I'm paraphrasing, but that's what he wrote). Well, in spite of the media's insistence these past three months that there have been 70,000 casualties in Syria over the past two years, a stable and unmoving number even as hundreds are killed daily, we all know that Syria is quite close to 100,000 casualties in little more than a year. And getting worse. My point being that all the talk about the disappearance of war, and the dwindling of violence, and the disappearance of torture, and the acceptance of rationality and universal norms and so on and on and on: well, seen from Jerusalem they look like a wistful pipe dream. Something you'd love to have, and some other folks maybe even do have so long as they don't look around them, but a pipe dream nonetheless. Hatred of the Jews in civilized cultivated gentle Europe is alive and growing, it's roaring across the Muslim world, the Arab Spring is getting colder by the week as some of us expected it would even as it was being feted by fools worldwide - Sorry. The end of warfare and violence and torture and pain and man-inflicted pain and suffering is not here, and it's not near, either.

Which brings me back to that history of Jerusalem with which I started. In the long history of this ancient city there have repeatedly been permanent, multi-century-long chapters of stability, in which the order of things was clear and immutable and seemingly final. And then there was another, different one. And then another. And another. And another....


the sad red earth said...

Regarding your summary of Montefiore's book, I wonder if you ever saw Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. My favorite moment in the film is just before its final battle for Jerusalem, when Balian of Ibelin parleys with Saladin just beyond the walls. Half the pleasure of their final exchange is from the light in Saladin's eyes and the clench of his first before his final word.

Balian of Ibelin: What is Jerusalem worth?
Saladin: Nothing.
[rides away]
Saladin: Everything!

milton said...

what a wonderful review, thank god there are people who can both write and think

Avigdor said...

Thanks Yaacov!

Anonymous said...

Dear Yaacov,
Keep posting, please! I used to be a regular reader when you were a regular blogger and have always enjoyed your views.

Fabián said...

Dear Yaacov,
Again greetings after so much time has passed since I wrote in your blog and you answered. I hope you are still getting updates on people who write comments in older posts.
I have decided today to quit the book by Steven Pinker I was reading. This book you reviewed. I quite by the end of the chapter on statistics and war. I remembered you reviewed it and came here to remember what you said. I am glad to read that you found that part of the book the silliest. Well, I had enough of statistics to explain war (though I kind of like statistics).
I never got into the book much, reading it on my cellphone whenever I was in a supermarket queue or similar situation. I think it was a waste of time. I will find something else.