Steven Pinker has written a game-changer on the little matter of how quickly humanity is headed for hell or redemption. The short form of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is that we’re on the verge of Liebniz‘s (and Candide‘s) “best of all possible worlds.” Much more than that, Better Angels is a tour de force in 700 pages of dense, witty prose, distilling and explaining the ever-steeper downward trends in battle-deaths, state executions, murder, rape, wife-beating and child-spanking, among others things. “Interesting if true” was my instinctive newspaper-guy response. After a month’s immersion, and this conversation, I’m staggered and stunned, avid for the new Enlightenment.
In this conversation, recorded in William James Hall, high above Harvard Yard, Steve Pinker is setting his own conclusions in the context of intellectual forbears and peers in this field of violence and human progress.
Among my questions this hour: How are we to categorize the violence of poverty in a half-hungry world? How do we calculate the risk of a single nuclear attack that could smash the conceit of better living through science? In American popular culture, what does Steve Pinker make of the rise of Mixed Martial Arts and the decline of boxing? In George Carlin’s sainted name, what about the rise of TV football and the decline of daylight baseball — where the object of the game is to “be safe, at home!”?
Has Steve Pinker been watching the Republican presidential debates — the whooping and hollering for the death penalty, Texas-style, and the Get Your War On rhetoric pointed at Iran, the Arab world, even Hugo Chavez and Venezuela? Of course he’s been watching — “I share the revulsion” — because he watches everything. “The crazies have all crashed and burned and probably the survivor, Mitt Romney, hell, he was our governor in Massachusetts. A lot of the sound and the fury coming out of the right, I think, is in part a reaction to the fact that they keep losing. Go back to the sixties; what the liberals were in favor of then, the conservatives take for granted now: racial integration, women in the workforce, women in the military, no spanking of children, toleration of gay people.”
Does robot warfare by predator drones fit a pattern of progress? “It’s a great advance. I can’t say I’m a fan exactly, but compared to carpet bombing, it’s a fraction of the deaths, a great advance.”
How, on this steep downward slope of human violence, do we explain that the United States — in one of those imperial fits of absent-mindedness — slipped into an immeasurably destructive $5-trillion war in Iraq, then Afghanistan and — who knows? — maybe tomorrow Pakistan?
It’s a main premise of Steve Pinker’s science that, as he says, “You have to have a quantitative mindset to understand history.” My last question: what if not all our critical measures are quantitative?