It’s human nature to casually assert that something is better or worse than it used to be, even if at times it’s difficult to tell. Some things just seem obvious. Medical care, industrial design, and professional hockey: all better than they used to be. Public schools, air travel, and late-night talk shows: all worse. Or so it seems to me. Many, of course, would disagree. And, if pressed, I’d have to acknowledge that my judgments are almost entirely subjective and frequently clouded by nostalgia. Yearning for an idealized past is also human nature—and, to the extent that it obscures our view of the present, troublesome.
If I say that the quality of public discourse has declined since the ’60s, am I simply idealizing the past, or were the politicians of that era more constructive? If my recollections of the public utterances of Lester B. Pearson, John Diefenbaker, and Tommy Douglas are rose coloured, then my criticisms of their successors are unfair. If what is said on political platforms today in fact suffers by comparison, then I’m right to complain and expect something to be done about it. But which is it? And since I haven’t reread the speeches of Pearson, Diefenbaker, and Douglas, how would I know?
There’s nothing nostalgic about an important new book by Steven Pinker, the Canadian-born Harvard psychologist whose research on language and cognition has made him one of our most influential thinkers. In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he argues that the world was more violent in the past and that this is the most peaceful era in human history. If that seems counterintuitive, it’s because (as he acknowledges in his preface) we are psychologically predisposed to believe that we live in violent times. Apparently, the human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event based on the ease with which it can recall examples, and the examples we receive from the mass media—Syria, Rwanda, Sarajevo, and so on—are more likely to be violent than not.
The violence we experience today is real enough; it’s just that, according to Pinker, there’s less of it. Much less. He calculates, for instance, that if the wars of the twentieth century had killed the percentage of people who died in the wars of tribal societies, the toll would have been not 100 million, but two billion. Yet Pinker isn’t concerned only with violence among tribes, nations, and states; violence has declined in every precinct of our lives, including the family, and the question he sets out to answer is why. The mind, he writes, is a complex system of cognitive and emotional faculties. Some incline us toward violence, and others—“the better angels of our nature,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln—toward co-operation and peace. How, Pinker wonders, did our peaceable inclinations get the upper hand? Or, as he put it in The New Republic in 2007, we must be doing something right, and “it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.”
Exactly what it is, is hard to pin down, but Pinker—who describes his book as a tale of six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces—points to, among other things, democracy, trade, the spread of ideas, the empowerment of women, the ascendance of reason, and the state monopoly on force. The Better Angels of Our Nature is, in the author’s words, about “what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.” Based on research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics, and sociology, it also reminds us that, when it comes to measuring human progress, scholarship and science are more reliable tools than memory. And it raises the question: if we missed something this big, what else have we missed?
Sometimes our eyes and minds deceive us. And often it doesn’t matter. If I’m wrong about late-night talk shows, so what? But sometimes it does. Schools matter a great deal, and if I have no real evidence that they’re declining, then maybe I should reserve judgment. Pinker’s brilliant book enjoins us to say, more often than we do, those other three little words: I don’t know.
This appeared in the May 2012 issue.