Violence and Human Progress: A Correspondence on Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

Morgan and I debate the merits of Steven Pinker's new book in The Boston Review:

Dear Abbas,

MorganAndAbbasSteven Pinker has written a book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, about violence and progress. It is, moreover, an extended defense of modernity. At the very beginning he asks, “How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity—the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science?” Pinker responds that modernity has produced a less violent world. It’s a great answer. Who in their right mind could object to less killing in the world, less cruelty? And if you accept that modernity has created a less violent world, then aren’t you obliged to look favorably upon it? Aren’t you obliged to see history as a work of progress?

Pinker’s first task is to convince us, through exhaustive historical data, that there is less violence in the world today than there was in the past. He knows people don’t want to believe this. He knows that everyone thinks about the world wars of the twentieth century, the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda, the Holocaust. So he sets out to convince. As could be expected from Dr. Pinker, the facts are numerous, well organized, and well argued. I cannot find any holes in the basic argument. The data look sound. We are forced to accept the basic fact that the world is less violent than ever. There are fewer wars, wars kill fewer people, and everyday violence (murder, assault, rape, etc.) is down as well.

More here.