We Can Be Optimistic as Long as We Don't Lean Back

Almost whenever violence can be quantified, the trend shows a decline. Martin Eiermann sat down with Steven Pinker to discuss the spread of reason, human nature, and the importance of empirical analysis.

The European: Your current book addresses the question of violence. What is the focus of your argument?
Pinker: That violence has declined over the course of history on multiple scales of magnitude and time. Homicide, war, genocide, rape, corporal and capital punishments, and the harsh treatment of children and animals have all become less frequent. It’s not that human nature has changed during these transitions. But human nature is a complex system with many parts. Some tempt us towards violence – exploitation, dominance, revenge – and others can inhibit us from being violent – self-control, empathy, moral norms and reason. My goal was to identify the historical forces that have increasingly favored “the better angles of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln called them.

The European: What historical forces can be causally linked to a decline in violence?
Pinker: A major one is the rise of effective government, which helped to pacify society, just as Thomas Hobbes had predicted in his theory of the “Leviathan.” Governments removed the incentives for exploitative violence on one side, and thereby reduced the temptation for pre-emptive attack and for violent retaliation on the other. Another force was the expansion of trade and commerce, which made it cheaper to buy things than to steal them, and meant that other people were worth more alive than dead. A third was the rise of cosmopolitan forces like literacy and travel, which expanded people’s circle of empathy. At the same time, reason and free speech were enhanced, which encouraged people to become cleverer to treat violence as a problem to be solved.

The European: Did you expect the seeming prevalence of these trends?
Pinker: I was surprised to see how many domains of human violence show declines. I knew that homicide rates had been declining since the Middle Ages, that cruel corporal punishments had been eliminated in most of the world, and that violence had declined during the transition from tribal anarchy to the first states. But I had not realized that deaths in warfare had plummeted since 1945, or that rates of child abuse, domestic violence, and rape were way down. Pretty much whenever violence can be quantified, the trend is one of decline.

The European: It’s a bit surprising to see a psychologist write about historical trends. How is the psychology of violence linked to the history of violence?
Pinker: As a cognitive psychologist, I was delighted to discover that reason is one of the psychological faculties most responsible for the decline of violence. I had started the book thinking that three parts of human nature had driven violence down – self-control, empathy and fairness. But I discovered that the spread of reasoned arguments had a role as well. Moral entrepreneurs used reason and persuasion to argue that some practices of the day were barbaric. The arguments went viral and caused a change in practices. I can’t deny the importance of emotion and empathy, but it was often the use of reason which spearheaded those changes.

The European: The standard view of Western history is that the Enlightenment was a watershed moment that signaled the advent of modernity, of new ideas and new practices. Do you agree?
Pinker: In large part, yes. There are two questions here: What periods of history saw dramatic declines in violence? And what caused them? The term “Enlightenment” refers both to a historical transition that began in the 18th century, and to the spreading of reason and open discourse. Not all the declines of violence can be tied to the Enlightenment in either sense of the word. For example the decline in European homicides preceded the Enlightenment and probably owed more to the rise of government and commerce. And the end of the World War II saw a second Enlightenment. Print and digital communication expanded, and a new round of humanitarian reforms kicked in, including the American civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. Institutions like the UN and the EU were explicitly designed to prevent war, and statements like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 echoed statements from the first Enlightenment such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man in revolutionary France and the American Declaration of Independence.

The European: A lot of your previous work has focused on the innate and constant features of human nature. And suddenly, you’re talking about change and about how certain aspects of our nature can come to the societal forefront. Has your thinking evolved?
Pinker: Yes, but not in that way. I discussed declines of violence in my two previous books, though they only got a few paragraphs. As I mentioned, human nature is not a single entity. Although I believe that violent impulses – such as the thirst for revenge or the quest for dominance – are constant features of human nature, so are the faculties that inhibit us from violence, like empathy and self-control. We can only understand history by tracing the tensions among them. And other constant features of human nature are cognition and language, which can crank out an infinite number of new ideas. So even with a constant cognitive apparatus, historical changes in ideas —including ideas about how to live together without killing each other – are unlimited. And since the advent of written language, the products of cognition can accumulate. We learn, we pass along our knowledge, and we see how our affairs are affected by what had already been accumulated before our own time.

The European: It’s easy to slip from a focus on innate features into a kind of biological or psychological determinism. So I guess the interesting question is whether these new ideas can override innate features.
Pinker: It’s only easy if you’re a lazy thinker. Nature and nurture are not alternatives. Nor are the emotional parts of human nature – such as sexuality – “biological” while the cognitive parts are something else. Cognition is just as biological, because our brain is capable of thinking in certain ways. The same goes for language. It’s a matter of interactions among various components of our biology. And some of those components – such as language – can create cultural products, like the idea of human rights, and the institution of democratic government. We can take advantage of the products of cognition to improve our lives.

The European: But it seems that our cognition can give rise to very different feedback mechanisms. It might cement the idea that sexuality is biological, and that certain gender roles are appropriate. Or it might lead us to think that gender, too, is a cultural product.
Pinker: These, too, are lazy associations. The fact that aspects of our sexuality are biological says nothing about whether certain gender roles are appropriate, any more than the fact that aspects of our appetites are biological implies that it’s appropriate to keep eating until you’re obese. And similarly, the fact that certain aspects of aggression might be biological does not imply that it’s appropriate to act on them. People may be tempted toward violence but they also realize that everyone would be better off if no one acted on them. They have big frontal lobes which can override violent impulses, and allow them to foreswear revenge, to think before lashing out, and figure out ways to lessen the temptations to attack others.

The European: How can we bring those insights from the natural sciences together with the moral or sociological debates that inevitably appear when we talk about violence?
Pinker: There are many areas for dialogue. One of them is to recognize that we may have intuitions that ought to be discounted, because we recognize them as evolutionary legacies that have outlived their purpose. If we have a primitive need for revenge, we can step back and say: “That was useful in a state of anarchy when we had to deter a neighboring village, but we can do better today. So let’s see if we can write it off.” The same can be said about the urge for dominance, which is especially obvious among men. We can also scrutinize our own assessments of how violent the world and ask: “Is our perception of violence biased by certain design features of our cognitive apparatus, like our tendency to estimate probability based on vivid anecdotes of violence?” Research in cognitive psychology has shown that this is one of the design flaws of our cognition, and it has an impact on our intuitions about the world. These are just a few of the ways in which a better understanding of human nature can be immensely informative for sociology, economics, and politics.

The European: There still seems to be a disconnect between those – mainly natural scientists – who say that you can investigate human nature through a series of experiments and express it as a list of numbers and those who argue that there’s something to our cognition and human experience that is hard to grasp in the lab.
Pinker: Not every causal process needs be summarized by numbers. History is affected by ideas, which can be stated precisely and explicitly, though not necessarily quantitatively. But in some areas, numbers are mandatory. Every time someone makes a statement that uses the words “more”, “less”, “better” or “worse”, they are already making a quantitative claim. It might be based on gut feeling, intuitions, stereotypes or ideology, and it’s far better to see whether those claims are actually true or false. And to do that, we have to look at numbers.

The European: Let me rephrase the question by going back to something you said earlier about the effect of vivid anecdotes. Is there some aspect of violence that you can’t capture by looking at graphs and aggregate trends?
Pinker: Of course, but that’s completely irrelevant. There are aspects of violence that you can’t capture in words either, or in images, or in movies. Unless you climb into a time machine and relive an event in its entirety, you always choose to set aside some details to focus on others that are relevant to the question you’re asking. And if you’re asking the question, “has violence increased or decreased?” you’re asking a question about numbers. History is about changes over time, and as long as history is different from narrative story-telling it will seek patterns, and those patterns consist of aggregate data. Saying that “violence increased (or decreased) during the 20th century” necessarily averages over years and countries. The challenge is to aggregate in a way that shows us whether certain claims are true or false instead of keeping it so vague that our analysis comes down to intuition or dogma.

The European: One of the arguments you present is that violence has declined especially in the West since 1945. But we might ask whether that decline was achieved at the expense of countries that find themselves in a much more precarious and dependent situation. So what do you say to critics who argue that the picture you’re presenting is rather incomplete?
Pinker: It depends on which part of the book you’re referring to. When it comes to homicide rates, the decline is most obvious in the West because that’s where we have the best data. We simply have no historical data on homicide rates in Angola for the last 800 years. But when it comes to wars involving great powers, which are too big for historians to miss, we have data from 500 years for the entire world, including China, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire. And since 1945, we have data for all countries, not just the great powers, and they, too, show a dramatic decline. Moreover, for earlier periods we have archaeological and ethnographic evidence which shows that rates of death in tribal warfare were orders of magnitude higher the world in the past. So no, the data do not only come from the West. And no, the decline of war in the West since 1945 was not accompanied by a rise in war in the rest of the world—-the figures are down for the entire world. It’s also not true that the developing world is in a more precarious and dependent situation than it was in the past. Figures on life expectancy, literacy, education, and health are up throughout the world.

The European: Can we extrapolate any of those trends into the future, or is this a strictly historical account of what has happened in the past?
Pinker: When the declines in violence come from institutionalized changes and don’t depend on the whims of a small number of actors, we can cautiously extrapolate. Various trends in the area of human rights fall into that category, such as the declines in autocracy, violence against women, the persecution of homosexuals, and violence against children, and I think they will continue to decline. The reason for this optimism is that earlier shaming campaigns, such as campaign against slavery, piracy, whaling, and atmospheric nuclear testing took decades or centuries to accomplish their goals, but they did accomplish them. We are now seeing large-scale shaming campaigns on violence against women, and there is a similar reason to believe that they will eventually be successful. Shifting norms also suggest that war between countries is becoming less likely. We no longer think that war is “the pursuit of policy by other means,” as Clausewitz said. However, there are other categories of violence in which a small number of individuals can do a lot of damage. A terrorist with a nuclear weapon, a despotic leader who tyrannizes a country, or a coup d’état by a small insurgency movement continue to pose dangers. Seven billion people live in the world, and no trend applies to every last one of them. For that reason it is impossible to predict that deaths from terrorism will decrease, because that would require would that hundred percent of us agreed that terrorism was bad. Even if 99 percent agreed, that would leave a lot of people who encouraged terrorism, and a lot of damage that they could do.

The European: Now, on to the bad news: Are there trends that run against the overall decline?
Pinker: There are some. The surge of Islamic fundamentalism may result in a contraction of human rights that comes with the imposition of Sharia law. Weapons of mass destruction could fall into the wrong hands. And there are local increases in violence of various kinds, such as the American prison system, in which many non-violent offenders like drug dealers are now incarcerated.

The European: You have called violence a “social dilemma” that costs us more than it earns us. Could a scarcity of resources lead to situations where we actually have a lot to gain from being violent towards our neighbors or towards distant others?
Pinker: Not necessarily. For one thing, a scarcity of resources does not eliminate the social dilemma and suddenly make violence profitable. War is expensive: it requires resources and social organization, which is why in the past it was rich countries that fought the most destructive wars. Also, studies that try to correlate resource shortages at Time One with war at Time Two tend to show little to no correlation. People tend to fight over ideology, fear, revenge, and rectification of what they see as historical injustices far more often than they fight over resources. Unlike sacred causes, resources can be split down the middle.

The European: I want to finish by talking about violence and human agency. How can we act in the world?
Pinker: By knowing the facts about what reduces violence and what does not. The study of violence points towards certain institutions that have made us more peaceful, including decent democratic and non-corrupt governments, commerce and reciprocal exchange, intergovernmental organizations, and educational institutions. The facts don’t always conform to our ideological commitments. For example, many people believe that capitalism is a source of war, but the data suggest otherwise. We should not try to understand violence with ideology or dogma or a priori first principles but examine it scientifically and with an open mind. If global free trade leads to a decrease in violence, we should know that. If more government and more democracy are conducive to peaceful world, smaller government might not be such a good thing.

The European: Recently, we have seen the rise of the idea that the world in the 21st century is much more uncertain and unpredictable than most models suggest, and that institutions matter less than our ability to cope with unexpected changes. It seems like our leverage over global events is decreasing.
Pinker: We certainly don’t have anything that approximates complete control. There may indeed be unstable sandpile-like aspects of the world, like terrorists, economic shocks, and maniacal dictators. But what reason is there to believe that the likelihood of unpredictable shocks has increased, or that the world has gotten less controllable? Coups, riots, famines, epidemics, sieges, conquests, and collapsing civilizations have been common throughout recorded history; there is no evidence that they are more likely today than they were in the past. For example, the current recession has driven US unemployment rates up to nine percent. During the Great Depression, that number was 25 percent. The Great Depression resulted in the rise of fascistic regimes, and that has not happened today. Violent crime in the US has decreased during the recent recession, not increased. Some people prognosticate that chaos could recur if the world sees dramatic climate change, but there is remarkably little evidence for such a connection. Climate change could bring misery and waste without necessarily bringing war.

The European: Can we cautiously lean back and be optimistic?
Pinker: Those are two completely different things. Optimism is justified only because specific, concerted efforts to reduce violence were made in the past. If the efforts had not occurred, violence would not have declined. The lesson is: we can be optimistic as long as we don’t lean back.

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