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December 21, 2014
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Hark, our better angels sing


Writing here in 2006, I suggested this possible definition of “civilization:” “...we can be said to be more or less ‘civilized’ as a society, culture, or species to the extent that intentional acts of violence are unnecessary.”

Dr. Steven Pinker, I suspect, would not only agree with that definition, he would say that as a species, we have made significant progress towards its fulfillment. Pinker, a cognitive neuroscientist and Harvard professor, recently published (to near-universal praise, by the way) a book entitled “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.”

Did that subtitle make you do a double-take? “Declined?” you may well say. “What the heck is he talking about? Doesn’t he watch the news??”

Pinker’s thesis, which he backs up with extensive historical data and statistical analysis, is that despite what we might gather from modern-day media, the level of violence in human society has decreased dramatically over time. This decline, in Pinker’s view, has been spurred by many trends (the “better angels” of the title), including greater education, intercultural awareness, trade and empathy. In fact, Pinker suggests the present day may be the most peaceful period in the history of our species.

(You can read excerpts of the book via Google Books, and a lecture by Pinker summarizing his findings can be found on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgNsmW_bAKI.)

He makes a convincing case. I’ve found it hard to find commentators who dispute his conclusions (though he overlooks such factors as the effects of environmental degradation or the “violence” represented by structural economic injustice, in his analysis). That’s not to say that everyone will find comfort in his version of events. Despite the old clichés that “no one wants war,” there are many who, for philosophical reasons, seem to think that war is not only an inevitable part of the human condition but actually salutary. Such people trumpet the superiority of the “martial virtues,” such as courage and sacrifice, and fear the possibility of America “going soft.” One cannot help noticing, though, that many of these commentators (I call them “belligerists,” the opposite of “pacifists”) have never spent time on a battlefield or even in uniform.

And there are others—defense contractors and arms manufacturers, for example—who would find it much harder to make a buck in a more peaceful world. You can hear those people squawking even now, since the failure of the “Supercommittee” has brought about the heretofore unthinkable possibility of an actual cut in defense spending.

Pinker’s book makes an interesting prism through which to view current events. Even as our troops are about to be withdrawn (finally) from our misadventure in Iraq, the global chess game (or is it a game of “Risk”?) is becoming more intense. We remain enmeshed in Afghanistan, and the possibility of major conflicts arising with Iran and even China is growing. Will the nearly irresistible force of our “better angels,” these massive historical trends towards true civilization, overcome our “inner demons” and prevail over the nearly immovable status quo?

Cue Longfellow, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
“...And in despair I bowed my head
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.’”

Happy Holidays to all of us—whether Ashura or Christmas or Hanukkah or Solstice or Kwanzaa. See you in 2012.