I’m reading Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. At 696 pages (before over 100 pages of reference notes), it’s not what you’d call a beach read, even if the weather were warmer. Pinker is a well-known, Harvard-trained psychologist, scientist and linguist who studies and writes about cognition; that is, (to borrow the title of his 2007 book), “the stuff of thought.” An affable, outgoing sort with an accessible writing style and a full head of longish curly hair, Dr. Pinker has his fans. Some of them have been gushing appropriately about Better Angels. In it, Pinker sets out to show that violence is on the decline. He supplements his lecture-like presentation of “six trends, five inner demons, four better angels and five historical forces” with impressive amounts of data with which it is nearly impossible to quibble. The Guardian’s David Runciman viewed it as “an astonishing book” and Nicholas Kristoff devoted an entire column praising the book’s thesis and calling attention to the “stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries.”
Not every critic loved the book. The New Yorker reviewer Elizabeth Colbert faulted Pinker’s methodology: “Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over.” Andrew Brown, also writing in The Guardian, snidely referred to the book as “a comfort blanket for the smug” and followed up with this indictment: “The factual errors in The Better Angels of Our Nature destroy Pinker’s thesis, rendering it no more than a bedtime story.”
Let me stop right here and let you know I won’t be reviewing the book. I don’t feel qualified to judge either the research or the central thesis; I’m not sure I can fairly determine whether Pinker’s conclusions are based on solid science or selective speculation. I will admit that I’m attracted to the notion that on the whole, we’re getting nicer; that may factor into why I find myself reading cautiously and yet with a modicum of hope.
Besides, Pinker introduces the book with caveats: many readers will find his conclusions hard to accept; we are overrun with oppressive news; a series of unforeseeable events could change everything. Notwithstanding his warnings, certain readers seem mightily put off by anyone’s imagining that we might be turning into good guys and gals. Harsh comments have been left on blogs, at the end of articles and interviews and elsewhere. I have no idea whether these readers have actually read any of the book; or whether they’re simply reacting to their understanding of what Pinker is proposing. The suggestion that mankind is evolving into a kinder, gentler version of itself apparently drives people nuts.
Kristoff’s Thanksgiving Day piece praised Pinker’s book, going so far as to give thanks for a world that is, on the whole, improving. His column gave quite a few readers indigestion (“this column’s a turkey,” said one). Other commenters accused Kristoff and Pinker of being dangerously naïve. “What universe are you living in?” asked one. “Maudlin and wishful thinking do not a wise man make,” advised another. And another simply wrote: “This is not true.”
We are, in the view of the commenters, craftier, sneakier, less overt or less inclined to whack someone over the head, perhaps but most definitely not nicer. Anyone suggesting otherwise is dangerously deluded.
Angry, aren’t we?
As a skeptic nevertheless trying to tiptoe towards a version of happiness, always mindful of landmines and booby-traps and the possibility of reversal, I’m both bemused and concerned with our negativism. I’m no fan of blind faith, mindless positivism, or false hope. I don’t know for certain that everything works out for the best; I realize we’re far from perfect–far from it. I detest the xenophobic hucksterism that underlies certain politicians’ insistence on American “exceptionalism”; the word was originally meant to describe a fortuitous combination of history and geography, not the sense of entitlement it currently conveys.
It seems, however, that many people, Americans in particular, may have become stuck in a collective mindset that views gratitude as naive and improvement as unlikely, given the nasty, brutish nature of our fellow travelers. That ticks me off. While I’m aware of the capacity of humankind to inflict suffering upon each other, I also rely on a personal perspective that encompasses more than half a century. I’m not thrilled that in my lifetime, children are threatened, the elderly are swindled, and the rest of us live with a virtually unbreachable income disparity. But I’ve seen things change for the better in my lifetime and so have you, even as the hold-outs object loudly to any changes at all.. It’s neither naive nor unsophisticated to look up from our gloom and doom from time to time and recognize forward momentum for what it is: a type of moral and social evolution that requires our encouragement, not our disdain.