The Pequod Review:
Steven Pinker’s thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature is simple: Human societies over time have become less violent and more humane, a trend that is apparent over both short-term and long-term timeframes. While these trends are not always well-communicated in popular historical accounts or in the media, they are nonetheless true — and therefore we should be more optimistic about our future than we are.
This is a valuable and well-argued book as Pinker marshals an enormous amount of compelling evidence to support his thesis. And in one of his more insightful sections, he speculates that the Enlightenment and the spread of literacy increased human empathy and led us to be more considerate to one another. But crucially, Pinker’s strongest evidence is drawn from public health and criminal statistics, and his argument is less compelling when it comes to mass violence inflicted by governments, terrorists, and similar actors. While it is true that the post-World War II period has seen these forms of violence decrease, Pinker fails to adequately prove that the last 75 years of relative peace is proof of a sustainable trend as opposed to merely luck.
It is useful to consider Pinker’s argument assuming some minor variants to recent history: What if the Cuban Missile Crisis had blossomed into a full-scale nuclear confrontation? What if the Russian colonel Stanislav Petrov didn't disobey orders in 1983 when it appeared to Soviet radar that the US had launched an attack on the USSR? What if al Qaeda had been a better-organized movement that was able to carry out a larger attack than they did on 9/11? What if one of the several post-9/11 terrorist plots had been successful? If any of these scenarios had materialized to any significant extent, Pinker’s argument would be much less compelling and maybe even downright foolish. Furthermore, given that most of the post-WWII era was dominated by the Cold War, it is not clear that this period's lack of violence has any bearing on our future. Whatever you believe about the merits of the conflict, it is highly likely that the mutually assured destruction dynamic between the US and USSR created a stalemate equilibrium that prevented large-scale conflicts from arising.
Despite all of these questions, Pinker has written an intelligent book, one that at the very least makes you reconsider your own views and think through issues like these.