Expect a lot of press over the next few weeks about Steve Pinker’s new book, a massive tome (832 pages long) called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It will be released October 4, and can get it for about $25 on Amazon.
The title tells the tale: it’s a meticulously documented argument about how much violence has declined from our hunter-gatherer days ten millennia ago through medieval times to the modern day. Such a rapid decline argues, of course, that either we are not innately violent or that, if we are, we’re increasingly able to control our genetic endowment. Such a steep decline in violence can’t reflect the action of natural selection weeding out our “aggression genes,” for the change has simply happened too quickly.
Over at The Guardian, Andrew Anthony briefly summarizes the book and gives a longer, and pretty good, account of Pinker’s life as a public intellectual, which at times has been tempestuous. Anthony does mention one potential criticism that I find strange:
As both conservative pessimists, such as the philosopher John Gray, and postmodern relativists dismiss the post-Enlightenment understanding of progress as pure folly, Pinker is likely to stand accused of Panglossian naivety. Indeed, he says that when he told colleagues what he was writing, they said he reminded them of the man who jumped off the roof of a tall building and halfway down observed: “It looks good so far.”
To be tagged as a credulous optimist is one thing, yet Pinker also risks being condemned as a scientific racist. His graphs on the incidence of murder show present-day tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures to be far more homicidal than even the most lethally armed developed nation, a fact that is bound to bring censure from those Pinker derides as the “anthropologists of peace”.
If the data indeed show that difference—and given Pinker’s meticulousness and awareness of what is at stake here, I’m sure they do—it would be foolish to claim he’s a scientific racist. It’s of immense scientific interest if populations living the way our ancestors did not so long ago were more prone to violence, and ethnicity is the last thing that I would think could explain that.
You can see Pinker’s nascent ideas for this book in a 2007 TED talk here.