Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Peace Be upon Us

Steven Pinker is not only a terrific writer, he’s also brilliant. His views are in agreement with mine on almost every issue, and, though I won't go so far as to say this is the ultimate criterion of brilliance, I'll admit to the temptation to think this way.

Pinker has a new book coming out in October, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and I’ve been given an advanced copy of it to review. I’m not sure I’m going to get to properly review it though, because it’s about 700 pages long and it will take me a while to get through it quickly given my professorial duties. And now that the semester has begun in earnest, these duties can be quite time-consuming. When your spouse begins referring to your job as “that cheap whore that keeps you away from home,” you kind of sense that taking on more work would not be a wise move.

Anyway, in Better Angels Pinker argues convincingly that we live in relatively peaceful times. Yes, you read that line right: We now live in relatively peaceful times. Furthermore, there are powerful trends that have steadily driven down levels of violence on virtually every front for centuries, and these trends should reduce levels of violence even more in the future.

“But,” you may well say, “what about Al Qaeda? 9-11? Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya?” And that’s not to even mention Somalia, Chechnya, Yemen and the Philadelphia Eagles fans.

Yes, there is violence in the world today, but less than there was in the recent past, and much less than there was in the distant past. Pinker identifies six trends, some having lasted for millennia, others for just a few decades, but all of which have helped reduce levels of violence both between nations and within them.

Pinker cites a number of ancient sources, including the Homeric epics and various biblical chapters to support his contention that we are much more peaceful and humane today than our ancestors were. Passages he refers to in the book of Deuteronomy are so intriguing that I found myself going to the original source to see just what God had in mind for the ancient Israelites where warfare was concerned.

Deuteronomy 20. Check it out:

“When the Lord your God delivers [a resisting city] into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.”

Hard cheese on the Hittites, I’d have to say.

From the next chapter we get Divine instructions on what to do with female hotties that fall into the victors’ hands:

“10 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

Question: Do Christian fundamentalists, who insist on accepting every word of the bible as God’s truth, believe that our guys in Afghanistan should be putting local women under house arrest as potential future wives? If not, why not? Was God just kidding when he wrote Deuteronomy? And what would GOP front runner and Christian prayermeister, Rick Perry, say about this?

Sabine Women by David

So far, I’m only about 25% through with The Better Angels of Our Nature, but I’m happy to report that, like all of Pinker’s previous books, this one is interesting and beautifully written. It has Pinker’s characteristically engaging style and its argument is supported by reams of data, much of it in the form of charts and graphs. One of the minor points he makes is that in the U.S., the violence-prone frontier took root before proper policing by state authorities could bring it under control. Canada, on the other hand, policed its frontier courtesy of the Mounties, and consequently Canadian society is not racked with the gun-loving nuttiness (my word, not Pinker’s) that makes America so unique in the Western world. Hard cheese on us.

But ultimately, the varied array of data Pinker brings to bear, and the logical coherence with which he presses his points home are not only thoroughly convincing but even hope-engendering. This is an important story, and we are fortunate that Steven Pinker has taken the time to tell it and to tell it so well.

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