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Are the better angels really winning?

Are the better angels really winning?

Russia in Ukraine. Hamas murdering Jewish civilians. Israel killing Palestinians indiscriminately. Western airstrikes against Houthis. NATO planning its largest exercise since the Cold War. Civil war in Sudan. Coups in West Africa. Simmering violence in Ethiopia. North Korean weapons testing. Chinese military operations near Taiwan. Under these gathering clouds, Nick Spencer returns to Stephen Pinker’s famous thesis that the world is getting more peaceful and humanity more pacific, and looks at where he was right, where he was wrong, and what kind of angels really govern our nature.

1. Gathering storm clouds

It was Steven Pinker’s great misfortune to publish The Better Angels of Our Nature, his magnum opus arguing for decline of violence, in 2011. The (as–yet unnamed) Arab Spring was just beginning, and Pinker mentioned it only once. “The outcome is unpredictable, but the protestors have been almost entirely nonviolent and non–Islamist, and are animated by a desire for democracy, good governance and economic vitality rather than global jihad, the restoration of the caliphate, or death to infidels.” (443) One decade, around 60,000 deaths, 6 million refugees, ISIS, the use of chemical weapons, and no stable democracies later, his cautious optimism for this “swelling protest movement” seems a bit misplaced.

The Arab Spring did at least get one more mention than Vladimir Putin, who had already been in power for a decade. Over the next decade, the Russian president would annex Crimea, intervene in the Syrian civil war, and bring war back to Europe with a ruinous invasion of Ukraine which, at the time of writing had counted for tens of thousands of deaths, and many reliable reports of beating, suffocation, starvation, sleep deprivation, electrocution, and other forms of torture and war crimes.[i] Russian state television broadcast threats of nuclear strikes against Western Europe and the government declared that it would suspend its participation in the New START treaty, in its last major nuclear–arms treaty with the United States.[ii] Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine rushed to join NATO. Germany pledged to increase its defence spending, after years of evading request to do so.

A few months after Russia’s invasion, China (which at that time had an estimated one million Uigher Muslims in detention centres in Xinjiang) engaged in miliary manoeuvres around Taiwan, involving ballistic missile launches, live–fire drills, air sorties, and naval deployments. A year later Hamas terrorists tortured, murdered and/or abducted nearly 1,500 Israelis and foreign nationals, since when Israel has killed upwards of 20,000 Palestinians, many (the majority?) of which were women and children.

Over the decade or so period since Pinker’s book came out, global defence spending rose steadily and by 2022 has reached a record high of $2,240 billion.[iii] “Believe it or not,” Pinker had written, “from a global, historical, and quantitative perspective, the dream of the 1960s folk songs has come true: the world has (almost) put an end to war.” (364)

Pinker did at least acknowledge that civil wars had increased in frequency over the last 70 years. However, he also insisted that “among wealthy countries in the developed world, the risk of civil war is essentially zero.” (367) A decade later, five people were killed and 138 police officers were injured, when a 2,000–strong mob stormed the Capitol building in Washington, causing $2.7 million of damage, in an attempt to keep Donald Trump in power by preventing Congress from ratifying the 2020 election. This was not a civil war. It was not even close. But it was the first time in 225 years that the handover of power in America had not been peaceful.

All this happened at one end – the big geopolitical end – of the violence spectrum. At the other end, there was a growing problem with intimacy. Since the mid–1990s, but accelerating in the decade after Pinker published his book, there has been an astonishing rise in on–line pornography[iv] which increasingly normalised aggression and violence towards women and girls. One frequently quoted study on the nature of pornographic content found that 88% contained “physical aggression, principally spanking, gagging, and slapping” with “perpetrators of aggression were usually male, whereas targets of aggression were overwhelmingly female.”[v] This study was comparatively early (interrogating content that was available in 2004–05). Pornography has become more violent since then. Remarkably, UK research in 2019 reported that over half of 18–24 year–old women in the UK reported having been strangled by their partners during sex.[vi] On a larger stage, a 2013 report from the World Health Organization found that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence.[vii]

None of this really sounds like a species that has decisively turned its back on violence or is even particularly inclined to do so. Does all this evidence invalidate Pinker’s overarching thesis about humanity and violence? That answer to that rather depends on which Steven Pinker we are being asked to assess. Because his thesis on humanity and violence, a bit like Brexit, comes in either a soft and a hard form, and the strength of his book depends largely on whether we are being asked to vote on Soft Pinker or Hard Pinker.

2. Humans or humanity?

By any measure, The Better Angels of our Nature is a hugely impressive achievement. For an 800–page book covering history, sociology, biology, and psychology, to hold the reader’s attention without ever flagging, which it undoubtedly does, is impressive. It was richly and deservedly applauded on its publication, most memorably by Bill Gates who chose it as his Desert Island book[viii] and tweeted to new college graduates that “if I could give each of you a graduation gift, it would be this – the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.”[ix] The book sold well.

Not all responses to the book were quite so gushing and Better Angels also attracted a fair amount of criticism. Some of it was unfair, failing to read the book with the care it deserved, or ascribing to the author claims he explicitly denied. To be sure, Pinker’s often dismissive and relentlessly confident tone could grate, and some critics responded in kind. But the book put forward a careful, sustained, highly–evidenced case that merited a similar response.

The challenge came in identifying precisely what that case was. On the surface, the argument was clear. Humans and the societies in which they live had become less violent over recent centuries and are more peaceable today than at any time in the past. Through a series of rather–too–neatly–packaged historical processes and revolutions – ‘the civilising process’, ‘the humanitarian revolution’, ‘the rights revolution’, etc. – Pinker traced a long, steady decline in personal, social, and political violence over the centuries. The book is packed with graphs and data detailing homicide rates, the legality of slavery, judicial torture and capital punishment, the rate and mortality of wars, the lethality of genocides, the extension of human rights, and much else. In every instance the arrow points in the same direction. In spite of what the news headlines might leave us thinking, we are living in the most peaceful time in history. His data and the argument he constructed on them was persuasive. Critics picked at the details, but none came close to shredding the overall narrative.

On closer inspection, however, it was not clear what this narrative implied. On one hand, one might say humans have become less violent over recent centuries in the same way as we might say the weather has become less stormy over recent weeks. The claim can be true but without significance, bearing no implications for the future. Clement weather passes and no spring lasts forever. Humans are less violent today, but the next century could be positively “medieval” (the word is in scare quotes for good reasons, as we shall see).

On the other hand, one might say humans have become less violent over recent centuries in the same way as Martin Luther King once said that the arc of the moral universe bent, ultimately, toward justice. By this reading, the phenomenon of ever–more peaceful humans is substantive and consequential. It implies that we can expect, perhaps with a few bumps in the road, that things will continue to get better. Unlike with stocks and shares, past performance is an indication of future results.[x] Humans are less violent today and they will be less violent still in the future.

The difference in these two claims is, in effect, that between humans and humanity. Saying humans are less violent today implies a certain contingency and fragility to this new state of affairs. For various provisional and specific reasons, we are less given to physically harming one another today, but those reasons are anything but guaranteed. Humans may be less prone to violence, but this pacific trend has not passed into collective humanity.

By contrast, saying humanity is less violent today gives the trend a serious weight and substance. It implies that, as a collective entity, we have moved on from violence. Our species is fundamentally different from what it once was. Things have changed, enduringly and for the better.

3. Soft Pinker

The Better Angels of our Nature is caught between these two claims – between Soft Pinker and Hard Pinker – and cannot decide which claim it is making.

Explicitly, Better Angels puts forward the soft thesis about violence. Pinker unequivocally distances himself from any kind of metaphysical “arc of justice”, denounces the prospect of the coming utopia, refuses the claim that the decline in violence is inevitable, and repeatedly rejects the belief that violence is a thing of the past. “The book explicitly, adamantly, and repeatedly denies that major violent shocks cannot happen in the future; this reticence is stated in the book’s opening paragraph and echoed in every summation,” he slapped down one of his early critics.[xi]

This is Soft Pinker, and it is eminently sensible and credible. Historically speaking, we are less violent today than we have ever been. Our chances of suffering or dying violently today are comparatively low. There are good reasons for this, which we can trace through history, philosophy, and psychology. We should not treat doom–mongers with the seriousness we do, though nor should we treat this as a reason to take our eye off the ball. The price of possible peace is unceasing effort.

As I say, this is sensible and credible… but also perhaps a little underwhelming, rather undermining the reach and profundity of the book. In effect, Pinker argues that if we can establish states that successfully claim the monopoly on all legitimate violence; if we can maintain and spread functioning and fair judicial systems; if we can establish mutually–satisfactory agreements for trade and exchange which facilitate rising affluence; if we can encourage the recognition of and adherence to political and civil rights; if we can inculcate virtues of empathy, self–control, and the like; if we can continue to ‘feminise’ power; if we can manoeuvre people into non–zero–sum games… if we can do all this, then we will (probably) continue to reduce levels of violence.

Or, as Pinker says at the end of the book after 800 pages of close argumentation, “if the[se] conditions persist, violence will remain low or decline even further; if they don’t, it won’t.” (811) Well, I guess that just about covers it. It’s true but it’s not exactly overwhelming, coming perilously close to platitude and tautology. If the conditions remain right, this good weather is likely to continue for a long time.

Nor, it has to be said, is it especially original. Francis Fukuyama’s excellent books on the development and decline of political order[xii] showed that it was the combination of a functioning state, the rule of law and political accountability that led to the decline of violence (though the manner and order in which these building blocks were put together could have an effect on the nature of the resulting order).

More recently, the political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart demonstrated that there is a clear correlation between people’s perceived security and their openness.[xiii] When resources are scarce, security threatened and survival in question, people favour closed solidarity, prefer strong leadership, and reject foreign ideas and people. By contract, at times of existential security people are open to change and diversity. Hence the amazing “expanding circle” of empathy and rights in the post–war West, about which Pinker gets very excited, is primarily down to the remarkable rise in affluence (and with it, job security, legal protection, welfare provision, healthcare, etc).

This is not, I should stress, in contradiction to Pinker’s argument. No doubt he would heartily countersign Inglehart’s conclusions. But it is better evidenced and, accordingly, more confidently asserted. Modernization changes people’s views and behaviour “in roughly predictable ways”, Inglehart argues.

By contrast, and rather instructively, Pinker pooh–poohs the idea that what he is saying has any predictive power. “The goal of this book is to explain the facts of the past and the present,” he says halfway through, “not to augur the hypotheticals of the future.” (435)

This is an odd statement. What kind of theory manages to successfully “explain the facts” of past and present, and yet is unable to say anything about future “hypotheticals”? Moreover, for a man who prides himself on his scientific credentials, who insists on the importance of hard data (“only by looking at numbers can we get a sense as to whether civilization has increased violence or decreased it” (57)), and who packs his tome with over a hundred graphs, tables and charts, this is a mystifying renunciation. After all, a scientific theory that claimed to account for the evidence but declaimed any predictive power, would be a bit suspect.

A little later, responding to the perfectly reasonable expectation that understanding the past should give us some ability to understand the future, Pinker responds with slightly ham–fisted irony. “Oh, all right. I predict that the chance that a major episode of violence will break out in the next decade… is 9.7 per cent” (436)

His point here is that the concept of scientific prediction is meaningless when it comes to a “single event” like a war and it is a fair one (though hardly knock down: wars are not single events like lightning strikes are single events). But Pinker’s rather defensive and prickly response at this point, disguises the fact that his overarching thesis not only refuses to predict the likelihood of future wars but even to augur the future hypotheticals at all. Indeed, it says little substantive about the future of “humanity and violence” – or at least little beyond the effectively tautologous argument that if the [right] conditions persist, violence will remain low or decline even further; [and] if they don’t, it won’t.

So, Soft Pinker is right – life today is less violent than in the past – and he is instructive – there is a cogent cluster of reasons for this decline that we should seek to entrench if we want to avoid violence. But he is also somewhat unoriginal – not saying anything that good historians or political scientists have not been saying for a long time. And, more importantly, it is underwhelming, denying there is any predictive power to what he says or, put another way, that his thesis augurs anything about the future. Soft Pinker’ Better Angels is a good, comprehensive, thoughtful, well–evidenced book, even an important one, but not really the kind of thing that the world’s richest man would want to give to every graduate on earth. That book is written by Hard Pinker.

4. Hard Pinker

If Better Angels is explicitly a ‘soft’ thesis – offering up history, attempting to explain it, refusing to make predictions about the future, circumventing any deep metaphysical principles – it is implicitly a much harder one, positing a history of humanity and violence that is substantive and assured.

Occasionally, the reader catches glimpses of this in the author’s asides. “Our recent ancestors can really be considered to be morally retarded” (795) “The world has (almost) put an end to war.” (364) “Conflicts have essentially disappeared in the developed world” (373). He describes, in his final pages, the “escalator of reason” that is helping carrying humanity towards its peaceable future, defending its “Whiggish… implication of directionality” by arguing that “it is a kind of Whig history that is supported by the facts.” (836) In his response to Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s early criticism of the book, he wrote, “war rhetoric and war planning have disappeared as live options in the political deliberations of developed states in their dealings with one another.”[xiv] By this reckoning, neither China nor Taiwan, neither Russia nor the countries that make up NATO are “developed states”. The soft thesis evades questions about future hypotheticals; the hard one is rather more confident about our direction of travel.

Such explicit asides are rare. More often, the ‘hard’ thesis is implicit from the way he structures and highlights his grand historical account.[xv] In essence, Pinker simplifies and exaggerates the violence of the past, and qualifies and downplays the violence of the present to develop a narrative in which the move from violence to non–violence is clearer, tidier, and more conclusive than is really merited.

Early on, Pinker insists that humans are more closely related to, and more likely to share an immediate common ancestor with, chimpanzees (who are inherently violent) rather than bonobos (who are rather more peaceable).[xvi] A few pages later, drawing on other sources, he concludes that the average prehistoric death–from–warfare rate was 15 percent. In an essay scrutinising to this assertion, Brian Ferguson, professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University Newark, examined the relevant data to show that “this ‘fact’ – as widely invoked as it is – is utterly without empirical foundation… [and] Pinker’s List [of 21 prehistoric cases presented in the relevant chart] consists of cherry–picked cases with high casualties, clearly unrepresentative of prehistory in general.”[xvii]

It is, of course, very hard to be confident about the level of violence in prehistoric societies. A subsequent paper in Nature claimed that “humans are predisposed to murder each other”[xviii] (a conclusion that Pinker latterly endorsed) but also concluded the level of deaths caused by interpersonal violence among prehistoric bands and tribes actually stood at around 2%.[xix] Moreover, however hard it is to be confident about the level of prehistoric violence, it is harder still to be confident about prehistorical attitudes to violence. That becomes less of a problem as we move to literate societies. From the way Pinker writes about these, one would conclude that such societies enthusiastically embraced and celebrated barbarity and torture in his most ghastly forms, and were therefore little more than a centuries–long orgies of bloodshed. Most of our long existence has been characterised by “war, slavery, despotism, institutionalised sadism, and the oppression of women.” (808) “Human history”, he writes as one point, “is a cavalcade of bloodshed.” (580)

That some pre–modern literate societies did glorify violence is beyond doubt. However, not all did, and even those that did, did so ambiguously. There is no ambiguity in Pinker’s treatment of the Christian middle ages. “Mediaeval” has become a popular synonym for barbarity and this is not an association that Pinker wants to sever. “Mediaeval Christendom was a culture of cruelty” (157) we are told. “Torture was woven into the fabric of daily life,” (157).

Not surprisingly, it is his caricature of mediaeval history that has come in for sharpest criticism, and the verdict of mediaeval historians being particularly brutal: “[a] preposterous caricature of the medieval world… Pinker’s brazen confidence in his hypothesis is helped greatly by the fact that he knows nothing about the medieval era”, wrote Sara M. Butler, Professor in British History at The Ohio State University.[xx]

As mediaevalists have pointed out, sometimes his evidence is literally fictional. Pinker draws on Arthurian romances as if they were “historical fact”. Yet, such tales “were intended to appeal to a knightly audience. A modern equivalent would be to regard the Rambo movies as an accurate depiction of the life of Vietnam veterans in America.”[xxi] He republishes two images from Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch – The Mediaeval Housebook – as illustrations of “the everyday texture of life in medieval Europe,” “without noting that they come from a set of astrological allegories about planetary influences, from which he has chosen those for Saturn and Mars rather than, say, Venus and Jupiter.”[xxii]

Reality is not only more complex but less amenable to his ‘hard’ thesis. Torture was not part of the normal legal process but “a last resort”.[xxiii] Courts were reserved about ill–treatment of convicts. Juries were notoriously reluctant to convict when the death penalty was involved.[xxiv] Conviction rates for homicide ranged between 12 and 21 percent, and courts even deliberately undervalued the price of stolen goods “to save the accused from a more severe conviction.[xxv] “Hangman” was not even a profession in mediaeval England, as there was not enough work to keep a man employed.[xxvi] Mediaeval Christians prized charity highly. They understood as neighbourliness as a key virtue. They took the decalogue’s sixth commandment against killing seriously. They placed a great emphasis on hospitality, notwithstanding the limits imposed by widespread scarcity and insecurity.

Pinker says nothing of this, just as says nothing about the almshouses, hospitals, and hospices that littered Christendom, and ignores the Peace of God and Truce of God movements that sought to limit the frequency and impact of noble violence, or the careful deliberations of what constitutes a just war. He also ignores the considerable variation there was in the Middle Ages. To take his example of the treatment of women, a favourite theme for him: early mediaeval English law treated violence against women very seriously.[xxvii] A woman could not be forced to marry a man against her will. She had custody of the children and her share of property protected in the case of divorce. She could own, inherit, and sell land. She could be a litigant or an oath–giver in court. And her life was valued equal to a man’s when it came to compensation for death or injury. In the words of one scholar, “women in early medieval England were more nearly the equal companions of their husbands and brothers than at any other period before the modern age.”[xxviii]

None of this is to claim that early mediaeval women were better off than modern ones. They were not. Rather, it is to say that there was considerable variety in such matters across the millennium of the Middle Ages and that that period was not simply the theatre of barbarous, misogynistic violence that Better Angels implies. Pinker ignores all this, however, because, as one historian astutely observes, “to make [his] narrative a success, Pinker needs a barbaric Middle Ages.”[xxix]

There is a similar massaging of history at work in his glowing treatment of the Enlightenment, which epitomises everything that the mediaeval period doesn’t. (I will say less about this because I have written elsewhere on Pinker’s misunderstanding of the Enlightenment.[xxx]) In the meantime, it is simply worth pointing out the ahistorical weight he puts on the period, even suggesting at one point that “people began to sympathise with more of their fellow humans, and were no longer indifferent to their suffering” (160) during this period. The idea that people knew no sympathy for their fellow humans before 1750 is not persuasive.

Pinker’s gentle massaging of history continues right up to the modern period by drawing out the pacifism of modernity. Sometimes he works the numbers. One might think that the fact the most recent century of human civilisation saw upwards of 150 million deaths through warfare might act as an obstacle to any theory of declining violence, but Pinker manages to circumvent it. In one table, he breaks up the sheer enormity of 20th century mortality in discrete blocks (Second World War, Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, First World War, Russian Civil War, Congo Free State, Chinese Civil War) and then compares them with episodes some of which lasted for centuries (Annihilation of American Indians, Trans–Atlantic Slave Trade, Mid–Eastern slave trade). The result inevitably softens the magnitude of modern genocide.[xxxi]

More generally, he insists that a proportional measure is the only one that can reliably compare levels of violence between different eras. “Two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the United States.” Mathematically speaking it’s a defensible position, but as the author Marilynne Robinson (among others) has said, it feels dishonest to compare solely on the basis of percentages when actual numbers are so hugely different. “Any extended family with twenty–five members suffers a death from time to time. Is this in any way equivalent of the loss of five million people out of the whole population?”[xxxii]

Pinker dedicates a chapter to the years 1945–1990 calling them the long peace, as if 45 years can legitimately be called “long” in terms of human history, and then, even more remarkably, calls the period after 1990 the “new peace”, when it’s not really much more than a historical heartbeat. He caveats himself here, writing at one point that “no reasonable person would prophesy that the New Peace is going to be a long peace… perhaps new leaders in China will decide to engulf Taiwan once and for all or Russia will swallow a former Soviet republic or two.” (454) But if that’s so, is it really right to call it a “peace” at all?

Modernity is decisively tilted to the peaceable in other ways. “People have lost their thirst for cruelty,” (160) he writes early on. Well, perhaps. It is true that we don’t attend the public torture of criminals any more. But then again, we do watch films. Indeed, in the decade before Pinker’s book was published, a range of movies that were subsequently grouped under the rubric of ‘torture porn’, in which ordinary people were graphically abused, humiliated, terrified, tortured, mutilated, and murdered, was fantastically successful. The Saw franchise, in which a serial killer physically and psychologically brutalises his victims, grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. And that is not to mention the streak of violence and cruelty that pervades video games and the internet. Video torture isn’t public square torture, granted, but nonetheless this doesn’t sound like a species that has altogether lost its taste for cruelty.

To be clear about this, none of these corrections, whether prehistoric, mediaeval, Enlightenment, or modern, challenges the soft thesis of Better Angels. Pre–state prehistory (and non–state contemporary) societies were very violent. The Middle Ages were more violent than we are today. Important ethical and legal strides towards peace were made in the Enlightenment.

What such clarifications do, rather, is undermine the implicit ‘hard’ thesis that runs through Pinker’s book, that humanity has made conclusive and decisive progress, and that history is a trajectory, even an arc, from the bloodthirsty barbarity and moral idiocy of the past to the enlightened peaceableness of modernity.

The reality is that the past was not as categorically and unapologetically violent as Pinker makes out, and the present is not as progressive and pacific. The conditions under which so many of us live – strong state, property rights, rule of law, social security, medical care, unprecedented affluence – have enabled us to live less violently than our forbears. But this is all contingent and fragile, having more to do with affluence than morality, with new–found security rather than new–found sympathy, and with there being a lower percentage of young men in developed societies (violence being disproportionately young and male) than it has to do with any radical, new, systemic commitment to reason, peace and empathy.

All of this that leaves us with a question. Why would someone as intelligent and enlightened as Pinker not simply settle for a soft thesis? Put another way, why would he feel the need to caricature and exaggerate the violence of the past and the peace of the present, when he already had a reasonable case? Is this just a familiar authorial temptation – why put forward a provisional, tentative case when you can imply an epochal one – or is there something else going on? I believe there is, and the answer has something to do with Stephen Pinker’s psychology.

5. A Secular Faith

Pinker’s treatment of religion in Better Angels makes his understanding of the Middle Ages seem positively sophisticated. The book opens with a few pages lovingly surveying the cruelty of the Hebrew Bible. “The Bible is one long celebration of violence”, Pinker informs us (7). Here is no God who commands his people to welcome the stranger or to love truth and peace.[xxxiii] The idea that that the lex talionis was an attempt to limit ever–escalating blood feuds, rather than simply a crude approval of mutilation, is not to be found. The thought that God’s promise that “vengeance is mine” might be an attempt to deter human vengeance, rather than to legitimise it, is not considered.

The book quickly skirts over Jesus Christ, whose irksome insistence on non–violence doesn’t fit Pinker’s narrative. In any case, Pinker says, “of course, there’s no direct evidence for anything Jesus said or did.” (15) Christendom’s subsequent interest with “bloody crucifixes” is judged to be part of the Middle Age’s obsession with and endorsement of violence, rather than a warning against violence by showing its impact on God himself. The idea that every week, in every community in Europe, for over a thousand years, people assembled to hear and mark the message of a man who told his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek is ignored.

At the very end of the book, Pinker distances himself from the anti–theists by claiming that some (highly secularised) forms of religious belief have been peaceable, but it’s an anaemic caveat. Saying you think Christopher Hitchens’ claims about religion are a bit of “an overstatement” does not necessary mean you have a balanced and moderate opinion on the topic yourself.

And yet, in spite of his wholesale dismissal of Christianity, Pinker cites a remarkable number Christian ideas and movements that did and do contribute to peace. He mentions the prohibition against infanticide introduced into the Roman bloodstream by Jews and Christians in the early Christian centuries (510). He mentions Quakers (and evangelicals) and the abolition of slavery (186). He talks about the way in which missionaries helped eliminate human sacrifice in many parts of the world (163). He references how churches added “institutional muscle to women’s civilising offensive” through Sunday discipline and the temperance movement (126). He brings up the “moral energy” of the American church in tackling the upsurge in violence during the secularising 1960s (150). He recalls the way in which conservative Christian movements like Promise Keepers obliged men to take care of their wives and children (152). He references the manner in which many church leaders in violent communities lure young men away from gang life (109). And he alludes to the overall Christian emphasis on virtues like self–control and forgiveness, on institutions like marriage, and on the very idea that human life is sacred (511).

This is a fair list. Recognising and accepting it does not compel anyone to believe that Christianity (or religion) has been the sole driver of the fall in violence, let alone to forget the very real examples in which religious thought and practice has legitimised and encouraged violence. It is quite possible to hold both truths in tension. History is messy.

Pinker’s inability or unwillingness to do so, and to lay the entire reason for the pacification process at the door of secularised reason, empathy, the Enlightenment, and the like, by means of his heavily massaged history, strongly suggests that, his protestations notwithstanding, there is some kind of teleology going on here. It’s not the Christian one, of course. There is no room for sin, redemption, grace, sacrifice, love, eschatology, and the like in his scheme. Except that perhaps there is, with these apparently hackneyed, disproven ideas appearing in heavy secular disguise.

Humans are tainted with a kind of original sin. “Human nature… is not up to the challenge of getting us into the blessedly peaceful cell [of his Pacifist’s Dilemma].”[xxxiv] (840) Our moral faculties, like our cognitive ones, are, well, fallen. “Our cognitive processes have been struggling with the aspects of reality over the course of our history, just as they have struggled with the laws of logic and geometry.” (840) Heaven, or utopia, is not a possibility on earth.

We are not wholly depraved. Pinker is no closet Calvinist. On the contrary, we are capable of, indeed oriented to, grace and peace. “Human nature also contains motives to climb into the peaceful cell, such as sympathy and self–control.” (840) We simply need the right virtues, relationships, institutions, and culture to draw us away from our sinful urgings. The most “comprehensive solution” for doing so is “the principle behind the Golden Rule.” (840) Understanding rather than judging others, being willing to forgive, turning the other cheek: that is what we need.

In the book’s dying pages, Pinker writes how “the nonrandom direction of history is rooted in an aspect of reality that informs our conceptions of morality and purpose” (839). I can hardly think of a better description of a theistic or providentialist concept of reality, traces of natural law detected amidst the randomness of evolution and the mess of history, emerging, slowly, blinking into the light of truth, and steering human history towards a peaceable kingdom. Given such a precedent, it is no wonder Pinker was keen to distance himself from any disreputable religious associations. The book could never claim the mantle of the most desirable graduate present in the world if it were revealed that it was, ultimately just repackaged faith.

6. Everywhere is War

“Everywhere is War”. So ran the headline of Politico‘s morning briefing in mid–January 2024. It certainly felt like it.

US and UK forces had just launched a military strike against Iranian–backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The rebels had been targeting shipping in alleged response to the Israeli killing of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Israel had been at war for three months in an attempt to eradicate Hamas for their murder of over a thousand civilians the previous October. Estimates varied but the ensuing death toll among Palestinian civilians was well into five figures. Violence bred violence. The Middle East, never long in the peaceable quadrant of Pinker’s Pacificist Dilemma, slid ever further into the most belligerent quarter, where distrust breeds distrust and aggression is met with ever greater aggression.

At the same time, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had just arrived in Kyiv to announce a major new £2.5 billion funding package for Ukraine in its war against Russia, which was about to enter its third year, the only signs of its end coming in the ignominious fatigue felt by some in Washington, or in the nightmarish re–election of Donald Trump. Myanmar continued to struggle with its long–running civil war, which was claiming around 10,000 lives a year, and there were annual causalities in four figures in each of Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria, on account of civil war, ethnic violence, terrorist insurgency, drug battles or some combination of all of these. Whatever else this was, it was not a world that had decisively turned its back on conflict.

To be clear, Pinker never actually claimed it had. He only ever left the claim hanging in the air – “the dream of the 1960s folk songs has come true: the world has (almost) put an end to war” – with just enough deniability in the text to allow him to defend his thesis if things turned self–evidently more violent.

Most people, surveying the state of the world in the early 2020s would be excused for thinking that this is just what it is happening. But we should be careful. Today’s foreboding geopolitical climate should not be taken to mean that the centuries–long drift from violence, which Pinker did correctly identify, is over, any more than a few decades of general calm (interrupted by ‘only’ a couple of genocides) after the hideous violence of the 20th century, should be interpreted as a “new peace”.

We should be cautious about drawing too firm a line from what is happening now, or indeed what has happened over recent years, to making (or, in Pinker’s case, gesturing in the direction of) conclusive statements about what kind of angels now govern human nature. Humans may embrace or abjure violence but that doesn’t mean humanity follows suit. It seems our destiny, as a species, is to be poised eternally between the angels and demons.


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 [i] David Patriarakos, Inside Putin’s torture chambers, Unherd, 3 March, 2023; The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies | Bridging Journalism and Justice

[ii] Is nuclear war more likely after Russia’s suspension of the New START treaty? (

[iii] World military expenditure reaches new record high as European spending surges | SIPRI

[iv] Pornography use was highly prevalent (>85%) in all age groups; s13178–022–00720–z.pdf

[v] Bridges, A. J., Wosnitzer, R., Scharrer, E., Sun, C., & Liberman, R. (2010). Aggression and sexual behavior in best–selling pornography videos: A content analysis update. Violence Against Women, 16: 1065–1085. The researchers analysed 304 scenes from the most popular titles of a major distributor of pornographic videos, Adult Video News (US, Dec 2004 to June 2005).

[vi] Louise Perry, The Case against the Sexual Revolution (Polity, 2022)

[vii] World Health Organization, Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women: Prevalence and Health Effects of and Non–Partner Sexual Violence (Geneva: WHO, 2013), 2. At least some of this increase will be on account of a greater sensitivity towards such issues; as Pinker rightly says, violence towards women and girls was simply an accepted part of life in many cultures before the late 20th century. However true this is, however, it is hardly likely to account for the recent rise in violent pornography.

[viii] Bill Gates recalls rivalry with ‘genius’ Steve Jobs on Desert Island Discs | Bill Gates | The Guardian

[ix] [x] Pinker cites (almost) this phrase in his response to Taleb.

[xi] comments_on_taleb_by_s_pinker.pdf (

[xii] The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution and Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy

[xiii] Ronald F. Inglehart, Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations are Changing, and Reshaping the World (CUP, 2019)

[xiv] Steven Pinker, ‘Fooled by Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb’s “The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion”’

[xv] This was the conclusion reached by the scholars who contributed to a special edition of the journal Historical Reflections examining Better Angels, the editors of which wrote, “Not all of the scholars included in this journal agree on everything, but the overall verdict is that Pinker’s thesis, for all the stimulus it may have given to discussions around violence, is seriously, if not fatally, flawed. The problems that come up time and again are: the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western–centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world.” [Emphases added] Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques Volume 44 Issue 1 (2018) (

[xvi] In reality, it is hard to tell, both species being very close and some evidence suggesting that bonobos are closer.

[xvii] R. Brian Ferguson, ‘Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality’ in War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, ed. Douglas P. Fry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.116

[xviii] The phrase is actually from a newspaper report of the paper. Natural born killers: humans predisposed to murder, study suggests | Evolution | The Guardian (

[xix] José María Gómez et al, ‘The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence’, Nature; The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence (

[xx] Sara M. Butler, ‘Getting Medieval on Steven Pinker’. Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Spring 2018, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Spring 2018), pp. 30

[xxi] Butler, ‘Getting Medieval’, p. 31

[xxii] David Bentley Hart, ‘The Precious Steven Pinker’, First Things, January 2012. “Think what a collection of Saturnine or Martial pictures he might have gathered from more recent history.”

[xxiii] It was deployed “in those instances in which the defendant was presumed guilty, but the evidence did not meet the ius commune‘s high evidentiary standards of two eyewitnesses or a confession.” Moreover, “the law set restrictions on its implementation: torture was to be used only in capital crimes; the defendant was not to be maimed or killed; a physician had to be present at all times; torture might not be applied for longer than it takes to say a prayer; and so on.” Historical Reflections, p. 37

[xxiv] “Leery of the death penalty, medieval juries typically saw indictment itself as a worthy punishment for most offenders because it meant time in prison awaiting trial, along with the discomfort and expense of a prison stay, as well as lost income and potentially irreparable damage to one’s reputation within the community”. P.33

[xxv] Sharpe 395

[xxvi] p39

[xxvii] “stress[ing] that the seriousness of these offences is magnified by the fact that they have been committed without their victioms’s consent”. Sharpe 481

[xxviii] Wordhoard 108; C.G. Clark, ‘Women’s rights in early England’, Brigham Young University Law Review 1 (1995), 207–36

[xxix] P. 30. Emphases added

[xxx] Enlightenment and Progress, or why Steven Pinker is wrong – Theos Think Tank – Understanding faith. Enriching society.

[xxxi] His modern data have also been criticised for its “reliance on ‘battle death’ statistics”. “The pattern of the past century — one recurring in history — is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically… Pinker’s battle–death ratios… are somewhat skewed by the fact that overall populations have exploded since 1940; so even a very deadly war can be masked by a ‘per 100,000 of population’ stat.” John Arquilla, ‘The Big Kill’, Foreign Policy, December 2012; The Big Kill – Foreign Policy

[xxxii] Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale, 2010)

[xxxiii] Leviticus 19.34; Zechariah 8.19

[xxxiv] Pinker explains his Pacifist’s Dilemma, which is essentially a version of the better known Prisoner’s Dilemma, on pp. 820–42. In essence, it is the balance of rewards and punishments in a situation that makes it more rational to be an aggressor and less rational to be a pacifist. The “peaceful cell” is the one in which both parties choose the pacific option.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 17 January 2024

Ethics, Humanism, Humanity, Israel, Morality, Palestine, peace, Review, Secularism, Ukraine, War


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