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There’s more to progress than biology

Steven Pinker’s new book certainly does much to suggest that humanity is progressing rather than regressing. It’s puzzling then that he gives people so little credit.

Jason Walsh

Topics Books

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The basic premise of Pinker’s book is this: humanity is less violent and more tolerant than at any previous point in our history. In short, human history is a process of civilisation – and by that I do not mean quite the same thing as the sudden rash of apologists for imperialism do. Moreover, the book asserts that this has come about as a result of what is fundamentally a political process: that through the centuries, progressive ideas and institutions have made us, well, better. That’s a thought that runs counter to the fashionable doom-mongering that Susan Sontag once mocked as ‘not “Apocalypse Now” but “Apocalypse From Now On”‘.

Certainly there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support such a proposition. As Patrick Hayes pointed out late last year, the reason so many people were recently up in arms about a drunk and possibly mentally ill woman’s racist diatribe on a tram is because racist diatribes are no longer commonplace. Going back somewhat further in time, whatever one makes of modern city life, few think it worse than the world presented in Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’.

But are things really getting better? And, if they are, is it because we are developing socially or because we are simply hiding the darker sides of our nature?

Starting with the Stone Age, Pinker hits the fast-forward button on human history to get us to the present day. Given its scope, the fact that the book is just 800-pages long is something of an achievement in itself.

Perhaps the most depressing sentence in the book, however, is in the preface: ‘A large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit there is anything good about civilisation, modernity and Western society.’

Unfortunately, it rings true. Today, there is a demonstrable heightening of the perception of risk, even as life has become longer and safer than ever. Just as critics on the right have looked backward to golden eras that never existed, critics on the left have been keen to deny the very real advances in democracy, freedom and even wealth that have marked the course of human history. True, the state of the world still leaves much to be desired and the benefits of civilisation are hardly evenly spread. But noting, say, the absence of industrial development in Africa is rather different to saying technology is inherently bad because it consumes resources for the benefit of the few.

Naturally enough, war is one of the thorniest topics in the book, given we have not long emerged from a very bloody century that saw millions killed in two world wars. Despite this, Pinker makes the case for a decline in relative death rates in war and also charcterises the post-Cold War era as the ‘New Peace’, not because war has come to an end — clearly it has not — but because, taken as a whole, the scale of violence has declined massively.

While inter-state conflicts have declined, civil wars have risen. Nonetheless, the figures indicate that however bloody and unnecessary these civil wars are, they pale into insignificance when compared to the colonial, imperial and inter-state wars of the past. And it’s not just state violence that is on the decline, either. All violence is.

Pinker’s treatment of rape is particularly interesting, noting as he does that we recognise it as the heinous crime it is because it is a direct assault on the principle of autonomy: that individuals alone have a right to control of their bodies and persons. Pinker notes that this principle was responsible for the actions that overthrew ‘slavery, despotism, debt bondage and cruel punishments during the Enlightenment’.

And yet, there is little if any celebration of autonomy today. If anything, this very concept that underpins our objection to violence is itself considered suspect. We are encouraged to look at ourselves and others with a Manichean, victim-aggressor mindset and seek mediation through external bodies and forces.

Citing US statistics, Pinker notes not only a massive decrease in rapes, but a more rapid decline than other forms of violent crime. Between 1973 and the early 2000s, rapes fell by over 75 per cent in the US. Pinker notes that not only is this not recognised, it is fundamentally fought against. Contrasting with homicide rates, Pinker notes the two are not even: not only does murder remain more common, murder rates declined dramatically over a seven-year period whereas rapes declined more gradually over 30 years. As a result, says Pinker, the decline of the two cannot simply be put down to a general decline in crime between the 1970s and 2000s, going on to bemoan that no-one has taken the bull by the horns and attempted to explain precisely what factors have been at work. ‘Rather than celebrating their success, anti-rape organisations convey an impression that women are in more danger than ever.’

This heightened perception of the likelihood of rape despite its decline can, and probably should, be read in two ways. Firstly, society rightly cares more about rape than it did in the past and, as a result, is more keenly aware of it. Secondly, and rather more darkly, it speaks to a heightened sense of human frailty and our capacity both for harming others and being harmed.

Recognising the paradox only partially, Pinker says:

‘Though feminist agitation deserves credit for the measures that led to the American rape decline, the country was clearly ready for them. It was not as if anyone argued that women ought to be humiliated at police stations and courtrooms, that husbands did have the right to rape their wives, or rapists should prey on women in apartment stairwells and parking garages. The victories came quickly, did not require boycotts or martyrs, and did not face police dogs or angry mobs.’

This is undoubtedly true, but this is also a chicken-and-egg situation. While claims that we live in a ‘rape culture’ and so on are self-evidently themselves part of a cultural project, it is similarly self-evident that without the initial feminist agitation any change that may have come about by other means would have been much more gradual, if indeed it would have come at all.

The role of women in the civilising process Pinker describes cannot be overstated. Clearly any society that routinely ignores or suppresses the will of half of its population is hardly going to be an ideal one. Despite our dark, postmodern view, women’s struggle to escape prehistoric ties that saw them defined solely by biological function cannot but have been a factor in the creation of a more cosmopolitan society.

More troubling is Pinker’s drawing of rape into a continuum with ‘male sexuality’, even if he says it is ‘not exactly a normal part’. Pinker sees this as part of an unbridgeable gulf between the sexes that expresses itself in, for instance, the difference between pornography and erotic fiction. This is all very well, but just a page prior Pinker notes the centrality of the universal human subject in the liberation of humanity.

‘We are all feminists now: Western culture’s default point of view has become increasingly unisex. The universalising of the generic citizen’s vantage point, driven by reason and analogy, was an engine of moral progress during the Humanitarian Revolution of the eighteenth century, and it resumed that impetus during the Rights Revolution of the twentieth.’

So, Pinker seems to want to have it both ways, being particularist one minute and universal the next. As a result, his attempts to show that we live in the best times ever, he does so in quite unconvincing terms.

Enter the media. Pinker notes that press reporting of events has a tendency to focus on the negative. As a journalist, I make no apology for this. In fact, I would look askance at those who would not. For example, in the past year I have reported on riots in Ireland, disputes over internet domain-name ownership in the courts and arguments on what to do about the crisis in the eurozone. What this diverse group of events has in common is that they are all centred on disputes. That, to my knowledge, no one has ever tried to settle domain-name problems by taking lumps out of anyone else does not minimise the fact that it remains a conflict, however minor and unimportant. Reporting is primarily the action of recording human actions. Even in cases like natural disasters, a reporter is focused on the effect they have on people and what those people do about it.

A reporter’s primary job is to nail a story, not to eke out every microscopic fact. But in doing so, reporters are attempting to contextualise events and help readers make sense of the world they live in. That we are recording human actions makes it inevitable that the bulk of our time will be spent writing down examples of how one person’s agency butts up against that of another. It may be unfortunate that this, according to Pinker, predisposes us to take a dim view of those around us, but it also provides us with the basis for action: taking sides.

The idea that intelligence and liberalism go hand-in-hand is one that will delight or infuriate according to one’s outlook, but Pinker is careful to point out that this is not an endorsement of ‘populism, socialism, political correctness, identity politics, and the green movement’. What he is actually saying is that reason and autonomy are the result of a specific mode of thought that derives from the Enlightenment and Pinker has the honesty to point out that the contemporary liberal-left can often be hostile to these very things.

In an interview about the book, Pinker equates Marxism with violence. On one level, this is an uncontroversial claim. Nothing much good came out of the twentieth-century experience of Stalinism. But Pinker goes further than this, though. He says that Marxism’s key flaw is in its attempt to short-circuit social progress, achieving it more rapidly than is possible and often using violent means to do so. This is not an entirely unfair criticism. Certainly apologists for the Soviet Union tend to gloss over its monstrous record, wishing the repression, brutality and murder away with fairy tales about state capitalism or invoking the Great Man theory of history by blaming Stalin alone.

Nonetheless, in Pinker’s book there is a serious misunderstanding of Marx’s conception of class conflict. Marx argued that class struggle has existed since the days of primitive accumulation, that the democratic revolutions were themselves the struggle of one class, the bourgeoisie, rising up against its feudal overlords. Open class struggle, at least from the bottom-up, has been at an all time low for at least three decades now, but that does not mean that class antagonism, which is fundamentally an economic struggle, has gone away. In fact, capitalism’s capacity for creating abundance is only matched by its capacity for creating artificial scarcity. This contradiction is what plays itself out in politics today.

The problem with Pinker’s argument is not that he criticises Marx. He’s welcome to do so and, frankly, there are few things more tedious than people droning-on about Marxism despite the fact that the agent of change Marx wrote about, the organised working class, has all but disappeared. The problem is that arguments over just who gets what in society are surely one of the driving forces in society. These disputes are often bloody and unpleasant, but they need not be so, and to remove the desire for economic betterment, a bigger slice of the pie, is to remove one of the major motors that drives us down the very road Pinker celebrates.

When interviewed recently, Pinker said: ‘However much we might deplore the profit motive, or consumerist values, if everyone just wants iPods we would probably be better off than if they wanted class revolution.’ Without wanting to be flippant, everyone wanting iPods, or at least access to goods of their choice, is a major component of the economic tug-of-war between the masses and the elites. It is precisely this that has become distorted in recent years with self-declared leftists arguing not for more, but merely a more equitable share of less. If ‘really existing capitalism’ proves itself capable of delivering universal prosperity then great, but right here, right now it seems to be doing all it can to back away from its promises of liberation from toil and a high standard of living for all.

Pinker is expressly hostile to ideology of any stripe, seeing it as a destructive force. Undoubtedly many crimes have been committed in the name of ideology and it would be childish to dismiss the role of ideology in conditioning those involved to view this as acceptable, but to dismiss ideology altogether is to entirely dismiss human activity on a grand scale. Moreover, not all ideologies are equal: political reductionism, for instance, equates Communism and Nazism but this simplistic morality tale view of history is not only ignorant, it also disguises the fact that the crimes committed in the name of Communism were a betrayal of the Enlightenment heritage on which Marxism, as much as capitalism, drew.

No doubt orthodox Marxism came to be inevitablist under the baleful influence of the Soviet Union and, later, dreadful theorists like Louis Althusser (no stranger to a bit of violence, himself), who did all they could to bury Marx’s fundamental belief in human agency and free will. But lumping it in with the counter-Enlightenment is just a plain factual error. Similarly, the nostalgic romanticism of today’s far left stems not from their reading of Marx, but precisely from their misreading — or non-reading — of him. To blame ideology — any ideology — for today’s incoherent critiques of capitalism would be to put the cart before the horse.

There is also the matter of whether violence can ever be justified. Clearly it can. We may tell our children that violence never solves anything in the hope of raising them as caring, thinking, rational beings, but violence is not necessarily a bad thing. Few would argue that Libyans were wrong to overthrow the Gaddafi regime because they did so violently. What was the alternative? To continue to be passive and accepting in the face of state violence? Life brings many challenges and just as there are times when we must suck it up and times when we must argue our case, surely there are also times when we must fight back? Working out which response to take at any given time seems to me a more pressing issue than issuing Gandhi-esque condemnations of violence.

The principle difficulty with Better Angels of Our Nature is much more fundamental: Pinker has the clarity of mind to see history as a process unfolding, but he sees it primarily as a biological one. Which is not to say he is peddling a crude biological determinism – he does accept human beings have agency and will. But in describing a political process Pinker also goes some way toward dismissing it.

Pinker’s book is at its strongest when making a statistical argument that all forms of violence are demonstrably in decline, even if in the case of wars, for instance, this is relative to population size. That this is obvious to anyone with an understanding of history does nothing to undermine the book because, not only is such a circumspect view of history rare today, but also facts and figures making the case for humanity’s capacity for growth are always welcome. It’s a shame he does not give people more credit for the marvellous developments he so meticulously charts.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. Visit his website here.

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Topics Books

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