The Long Peace

Is humanity becoming more peaceful?

Yes, says psychologist Steven Pinker in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking), glowingly reviewed by bioethicist Peter Singer in this past Sunday’s The New York Times. You’ve got to be kidding, replies philosopher John Gray, reviewing the same book earlier this fall in the British magazine Prospect.

Pinker, The Better Angels of Our NatureI think Gray would agree with this list of basic (and enormously important) questions that preoccupy Pinker, as drafted by Singer: (here with my take — from the reviews; I haven’t read the book itself — on how Pinker would respond in a couple of sentences)

Q: Are human beings essentially good or bad?

A: Well, not essentially bad in the sense that Augustine or Luther would assume. But not inherently good either. Singer summarizes Pinker as arguing that evolutionary processes have “given us propensities to violence — our ‘inner demons’ as well as ‘the better angels of our nature’ (Abraham Lincoln’s words) — that incline us to be peaceful and cooperative. Our material circumstances, along with cultural inputs, determine whether the demons or the angels have the upper hand.” As Richard Webster noted in an earlier essay, discussed briefly in Alan Jacobs’ cultural history of Original Sin, Pinker rejects the “blank slate” of Enlightenment rationalism, but does not have a neat and tidy replacement for it.

Q: Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse?

A: On aggregate, surprisingly sizable moral progress. Without entirely ignoring the catastrophes of the twentieth century, Pinker claims that violent crime is lower now than ever before, that we’re more revulsed by violence against marginalized groups (including non-human life), and that it’s significant that Great Powers have not gone to war against each other since 1945. (I would say 1953, since China and the United States fought in Korea from November 1950 until the ceasefire.) All of this supports what, for Singer, is the central thesis of Pinker’s work: “…that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.

Q: Do we have grounds for being optimistic about the future?

Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker - Harvard University (photo by Henry Leutwyler)

A: Yes, if this history is any guide. Pinker conjectures that reason itself is on the upswing (he cites IQ studies here) and produces a kind of morality in which (again, using Singer’s summary), “We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably.” While there’s no guarantee this will continue, Pinker is more than a little hopeful about our chances as an increasingly reasonable (secular?) and therefore moral species.

Here Singer is a bit more circumspect. While he praises Pinker for demonstrating mastery of research from a wide array of fields, Singer wonders if Pinker would have been even more cautious in his optimism had he seen a recent study in Nature linking climate change to violence. (In short, in El Niño years of higher temperatures and less rainfall, the chance for new civil conflicts doubles.)

Still, Singer finds Better Angels of Our Natures a “supremely important book,” and does not challenge the central historical claim: that humans are becoming less violent over time, that we are in the middle of what’s already a “Long Peace.”

Turn, then, to John Gray, who finds that claim entirely unconvincing. Pointing out that the “Long Peace” among the Great Powers has happened at the same time as a rise in other kinds of international and internecine violence, Gray suggests a connection: bloodshed got exported from the Global North to the Global South. (As someone who dabbles in the history of the supposedly “Cold” War, I found myself nodding along vigorously. Lots of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America died in proxy wars, dirty wars, coups, terror campaigns, and superpower-abetted ethnic cleansings while the Americans, the Soviets, and their European allies congratulated themselves on having averted a thermonuclear World War III.)

Violence also moved from the privileged to the marginalized. Per Pinker’s argument that Americans grew tired of violent crime and engaged in recivilizing themselves, Gray is furious at Pinker’s failure — again, I’m just going by the review, having not read the book myself — sufficiently to take into account what happened to those who bore the brunt of the recivilization process:

Just as [Pinker] writes off mass killing in developing countries as evidence of backwardness without enquiring whether it might be linked in some way to peace in the developed world, he celebrates “recivilisation” in America without much concern for those who pay the price of the recivilising process….

The astonishing numbers of black young men in jail in the US is due to the disproportionate impact on black people of the “decivilising process,” notably the high rate of black children born out of wedlock and what Pinker sees as the resulting potential for violence in families (black or white) that lack the civilising influence of women. While “massive imprisonment” has not reversed this trend, it “removes the most crime-prone individuals from the streets, incapacitating them.” America’s experiment in mass incarceration is, apparently, an integral part of the recivilising process.

But apart from differences in historical interpretation and use of evidence, what most bothers Gray about Pinker is his explanation for why this (supposed) trend away from violence has taken place:

Gray, Black MassWhile Pinker makes a great show of relying on evidence—the 700-odd pages of this bulky treatise are stuffed with impressive-looking graphs and statistics—his argument that violence is on the way out does not, in the end, rest on scientific investigation. He cites numerous reasons for the change, including increasing wealth and the spread of democracy. For him, none is as important as the adoption of a particular view of the world: “The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism.” (The italics are Pinker’s.)

Gray (hardly an apologist for Christianity or other religions) has numerous objections to such a founding assumption. First, Pinker’s list pointedly ignores humanists who had little aversion to violence (e.g., the Jacobins, Marx, Bakunin, Lenin): “The fact that prominent Enlightenment figures have favoured violence as an instrument of social transformation is—to put it mildly—inconvenient.” Second, while Pinker (to Gray’s mind) seems to assume that science is a natural partner to humanism, Gray warns that science might actually undercut its presuppositions; for example, certain fields (he points to behavioral finance) suggest that humans are fundamentally, indispensably irrational. More crucially:

For a devoted Darwinist like Pinker to maintain that the world is being pacified by the spread of a particular world view is deeply ironic. There is nothing in Darwinism to suggest that ideas and beliefs can transform human life. To be sure, there have been attempts to formulate an idea of progress in terms of competing memes—vaguely defined concepts or units of meaning that are held to be in some ways akin to genes—although nothing like a scientific theory has been developed. Even if there were such things as memes and they did somehow compete with one another, there is nothing to say that benign memes would be the winners. Quite to the contrary, if history is any guide. Racist ideas are extremely resilient and highly contagious, as is shown by the re-emergence of xenophobic ethnic nationalism and antisemitism in post-communist Europe. So are utopian ideas, which have resurfaced in neoconservative thinking about regime change. The recurrent appearance of these memes suggests that outside of some fairly narrowly defined areas of scientific investigation, progress is at best fitful and elusive. Science may be the cumulative elimination of error, but the human fondness for toxic ideas is remarkably constant.

In the end, Gray finds Pinker’s effort “to ground the hope of peace in science profoundly instructive,” but not for the reasons that Singer (whose own research is cited and endorsed by Pinker, as the reviewer acknowledges) would say:

…it testifies to our enduring need for faith. We don’t need science to tell us that humans are violent animals. History and contemporary experience provide more than sufficient evidence. For liberal humanists, the role of science is, in effect, to explain away this evidence. They look to science to show that, over the long run, violence will decline—hence the panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts. The result is no more credible than the efforts of Marxists to show the scientific necessity of socialism, or free-market economists to demonstrate the permanence of what was until quite recently hailed as the Long Boom. The Long Peace is another such delusion, and just as ephemeral.

Like I’ve noted a couple of times, I’m presenting reactions to a book I haven’t read. So I’m hesitant to respond to these responses, except to say that I take Pinker’s evidence and interpretations quite seriously. Precisely because my profession (by training, a student of the 20th century, when nearly 200 million people died as a result of organized violence and hundreds of millions more were imperiled by nuclear proliferation) and my religious convictions (among others, that humans are, in their origins, sinful and in dire need of redemption and transformation beyond what their own efforts or ideas can produce) tempt me to dismiss him out of hand, I hope I’m open to hearing what he has to say.

I don’t think I’ll be convinced that the spread of higher IQs and a morality rooted in human reason alone is going to make the 21st century seem downright safe to those looking back from the 22nd. But if nothing else, it’s refreshing to have a non-historian remind us that we ought neither to idealize or neglect an earlier age. Violent as the 20th century is, we should be cognizant that we tend to give too much emphasis to a time that is more prominent in our personal and collective memory, and we might not realize the horrors of more distant ages and cultures. (Aztec Mexico seems to have been the bloodiest, with 5% of the population dying at the hands of other people. The “Mongol Peace” was no picnic either, with 40 million people dying.)


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