Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Human Violence

Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature may be a more upbeat book than most people can accept. Pinker argues that the rate of violent human deaths of all kinds across the globe has been declining for several thousand years. The 20th century was a bloody horror, but it is also an example of our selective memory; we forget that the second half of the century was relatively peaceful. Humans, as David Hume observed, always tend to “blame the present and admire the past.”

Pinker: "To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders."

Pinker: “To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders.”

Violent deaths declined in stages. Judging from skeletal remains thousands of years old, the violent death rate among the earliest humans was roughly 15%. That dropped as the first governments began to constrain local murders, feuds, raids, and battles. Then in 17th and 18th century Europe, the “humanitarian revolution” reduced the frequency of  forms of violence that had been common for centuries: slavery, torture, cruel punishment, even dueling. Since the end of World War II, the world has seen a “long peace” with no wars pitting major nations against each other and no nuclear holocaust. Most recently, the “Rights Revolution” has reduced violence against minorities, women, children, gay people, and animals.

The prominence of death stories in the modern media is misleading. In the 20th century, only .7% of all deaths occurred in battles, or about 3% if indirect war deaths from famine and disease are included. In Europe and most of America today, the violent death rate is 1% at its highest.

What has caused this steady reduction? In a word, government. Even bad government is better than no government for reducing violence. And expanding education that enables people to glimpse the life of others seems to have been crucial as well.

The Better Angels of Our Nature has received high praise and some hard criticism. Reviewers have questioned Pinker’s comparison of six-year-long modern wars with the century-long Mongol conquest and have noted the book’s omission of Mao, Stalin, and the impact of colonialism. Many reviewers seem admiring of the book but not convinced; the modern world still seems too dangerous and the bad news never stops.

One reason for the skepticism is demographic. Until 1800, the world numbered fewer than a billion people, it reached 2.5 billion only around 1950, and today soars over 7 billion. This curve skews comparisons of violent death numbers. Ranked by death rate at the time, the deadliest event in world history was the 8th century An Lushan revolt in Tang China, resulting in 36 million deaths, a sixth of the world’s population of about 250 million. Today, relatively few deaths are constantly “breaking news.”

About the future, Pinker makes no predictions. We need to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. I remind myself that my suburban life is almost completely safe from violent death and torture, and that is Pinker’s point. In our era of ideologies and technologies not always under the control of governments, The Better Angels is nonetheless sobering and steadying.

Jahren’s ‘Lab Girl’: The Dramatic Life of Plants

Much as people admire plants, it is difficult to relate to them. It takes a special focus to sympathize with a plant’s struggles, to identify with it, to understand its idiosyncrasies. We have an immense range of words and images for capturing our own inner experiences—fear, exhaustion, revulsion, joy, thirst and so forth—but a mere handful for even the most prominent stages of plant life—growing, blooming, wilting, and a few others. This distance isn’t surprising. Plants are different from us in basic ways. They are anchored to the ground, they don’t have faces, and they make their own food. We acknowledge them as members of the family of life, but they also seem alien.

The poverty of our understanding of plants contributes, I believe, to our uneasiness about the meaning of our lives. We’re prone to feeling that being alive is either an exclusively human pleasure or a lonely human struggle. It’s easy to lose touch with the reality that plants along with animals have been passing through the experiences of growing, struggling, fending off threats, and sometimes flourishing, for hundreds of millions of years and by the billions. We might feel more at home in our own skins if our imaginations could take in the  lives of plants a little more easily.

Hope Jahren helps us do so. Lab Girl, her memoir, traces her life through the rigors of becoming an established research scientist and her workaholic triumphs and disappointments in labs and in the field. The bristling autobiographical chapters alternate with brief essays about how plants function and survive. It’s these plant chapters that most caught my attention. Here are excerpts:

      No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phases, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less, dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. ….The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed.  The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.
But when it wins, it wins big. If a root finds what it needs, it bulks into a taproot—an anchor that can swell and split bedrock, and move gallons of water daily for years.  (52)

     A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet. Any plant you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert. The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods: nobody living there can afford to move…. A desert botanist is a rare scientist indeed and eventually becomes inured to the misery of her subjects. Personally, I don’t have the stomach to deal with such suffering day in and day out.   (142)

     Here’s my personal request to you: if you have any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you’re renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there….
Once your baby tree is in the ground, check it daily, because the first three years are critical. Remember that you are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world. If you do own the land that it is planted on, create a savings account and put five dollars in it every month, so that when your tree gets sick between ages twenty and thirty (and it will), you can have a tree doctor over to cure it, instead of just cutting it down….
At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a tree and it will have you. You can measure it monthly and chart your own growth curve. Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective. Stretch your imagination until it hurts: what is your tree trying to do? What does it wish for? What does it care about? Make a guess. Say it out loud.    (282)

It would be easy to characterize this writing as merely heavily personified and emotional. But I take these and other passages as capturing realities about plants that rarely come within our understanding, empathy, or language. Most people would be more likely to imagine what it is like to be on the moon than what it like to be the tree in the backyard that is bracing for winter. And if we think of our human emotions—such as terrified and enjoy— as reactions to situations and not just shifting moods, then a first root really is a terrifying gamble, plants really can be said to enjoy, to benefit from, their mobility as seeds that might find friendly ground, and they really do get exhausted when their physical necessities run short.

And then there’s “you’ll have a tree and it will have you.” Considering the world’s deteriorating environment, Jahren argues, if one tree can rely on you, that tree is well off. I would add that the benefit is mutual; we ourselves are better off if we can share and feel, even faintly, the life of any plant.

Living Closer

One of the pleasures of meditating regularly has been the sensation of coming closer to my thoughts and to the feelings in my body. With my eyes closed and my thought stream lulled but also more noticeable, thoughts and physical feelings seem more vivid than usual, a little larger, more in front of me. I remember my wife saying when I started meditating that she liked what I was doing because I came out of meditation in a pretty good mood. And indeed, I did feel cheerier than I sometimes do in the morning. I’ve since taken the cheery part a little for granted, but the sensation of nearness remains fresh. And something else has happened.

I began wondering why the meditation experience is pleasant. What is there in this closeness, this being in better touch with myself, that feels good? Is it what people call “the feeling of being alive”? If so, there is some other element to it, a communal feeling of some kind. I think the meditative clarity feels good the way that feeling included with others can feel good. Feeling not alone. Feeling included among the living. It is a quietly joyful feeling, even a tender one. Words don’t work easily here, but I hope you get the idea.

The experiences have shifted my view of what is pleasant and even loving about my close relationships with others. With my wife, daughter, close friends, sometimes animals, even a writer behind a very satisfying book, I think the gladness that I feel, without being fully conscious of it, is a gladness at being included in a life with them. Much as meditation can bring a feeling of being more at home with myself, so my other close connections bring a feeling of inclusiveness not just with a person but with all living things. Perhaps, as a lover’s passion springs in part from the feeling that the lover and the loved one are united as one, so familial love and a sense of “glad to be alive” gain some of their strength from the warmth of a wider belonging.

Many humanists and naturalists, interested in the intersection of community and spirituality, try to understand better what love means and how to create more of it. We look at its roots in our sociality, in how we, other animals, and even plants cooperate. One of these many roots may be how we process closeness itself as a smiling reminder that we are members in good standing among living things. Perhaps one of the underground streams bubbling up in moments of kindness is the feeling that our sense of ourselves is turned up a notch by the reminder that we are alive together with others. This may hold true, ironically, even when the closeness, as in meditation, is with ourselves.