Debate Magazine

Steven Pinker on ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ (Video)

By Carnun @Carnunmp

I’m back! (I think.)

My exams are nearly over, and I now have enough free time to not feel at all guilty when spending it on this blog! Hooray.

I can’t speak for you guys, but I’ve certainly missed it… So let’s get cracking.


Steven Pinker on ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ (Video)Back in March I attended the exceptional annual Voltaire Lecture, hosted by the British Humanist Association. This particular talk – given by ‘Canadian-born experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author’ Steven Pinker (pictured left) and chaired by the wonderful Jim Al-Khalili – focused on, essentially, the question of whether or not the present is more or less violent than the past was.

And, as it turns out, contrary to the instinctive sentiments of many, we seem to be currently living in what is generally the most peaceful time in human history.

In the lecture – and in the book accompanying it, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature‘ – Pinker explores the proportional statistics of tribal warfare vs modern war and genocide, the murder rate of Medieval Europe vs today, and the decline in the acceptance of practices such as slavery and sadistic corporal punishments, among other things, in order to draw this conclusion, before moving on to what he sees as the causes of this shift towards peace – “the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism”.

But why write about it all now, if it happened back in March?

Well, it was filmed, and the video‘s now up on Youtube:

It’s well worth a watch, and I’m so glad that the BHA is putting it out there for all of those who couldn’t make it on the day.

Which, I guess, is the point of this post: to simply share the lecture with you.

If, however, you just don’t have enough time to watch it right away, here’s a more thorough description of the book (and lecture) from Steven Pinker’s website (a lot of which I unashamedly and obviously mined for the material of the above paragraphs) to give you an idea of what you’re missing:

We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition.  Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.
How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment? The key to explaining the decline of violence, Pinker argues, is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics,  Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.

And yet, I still haven’t picked up a copy…

Carnun :P

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