SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

The Mystic Chords of Violence’s Memory

by Michael Shermer, Sep 27 2011

This is a review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker
(October 2011, Viking. 771 pages. ISBN 978-0-670-02295-3). Originally published in the Autumn issue of The American Scholar as “Getting Better All the Time.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature (book cover)

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford’s classic 1962 film, a clash of moral codes unfolds in the wild-west frontier town of Shinbone, Arizona. I call these moral codes the Cowboy Code, where disputes are settled and justice is served between individuals who have taken the law into their own hands, and the Law Code, where disputes are settled and justice is served between all members of the society who, by virtue of living there, have tacitly agreed to obey the rules. The Cowboy Code is represented by John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, a fiercely loyal and deeply honest gunslinger duty-bound to enforce justice on his own terms through the power of his presence backed by the gun on his hip. The Law Code is embodied by Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard, an attorney hell bent on seeing his beloved Shinbone make the transition from cowboy justice to the rule of law. Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance is a coarse highwayman who respects only one man, Tom Doniphon, because they share the Cowboy Code that men settle their disputes between themselves. Despite Valance’s constant taunting of the law, Stoddard holds to his belief that until Valance is caught doing something illegal there can be no justice. When Doniphon tells Stoddard “You better start pack’n a handgun,” Stoddard rejoins, “I don’t want to kill him. I just want to put him in jail.” At long last, however, Stoddard decides to take Doniphon’s advice that “out here a man settles his own problems,” and turns to him for gun-fighting lessons. When Valance challenges Stoddard to a dual, the overconfident naïf accepts and a late-night showdown ensues. In a darkened street, the two men square off. Stoddard is trembling in fear while Valance mocks and scorns him, shooting first too high and then too low. When Valance takes aim to kill, Stoddard shakily draws his weapon and discharges it. Valance collapses in a heap. Having felled one of the toughest guns in the west Stoddard goes on to become a local hero, building that image into political capital and working his way up from local politics to a distinguished career as a United States Senator.

So it would appear that the Law Code prevailed over the Cowboy Code, but not so fast. In the end we learn that the man who shot Liberty Valance was Tom Doniphon. Knowing that Stoddard was no match for Valance, in a flashback replay of the dual from another perspective we see Doniphon lurking in the shadows and fingering a rifle, which he engaged to kill Valance at the crucially-timed moment when the two men drew their weapons. Holding to the Cowboy Code of loyalty, Doniphon takes the secret to his grave.

The fictional Shinbone embodies any small community in transition from an informal to a formal moral code and system of justice. When everyone takes the law into their own hands there is no law, and thus the opportunities for unchecked violations of informal codes expands exponentially as populations increase, leading to an increase in violence and requiring the creation of such social technologies as codes, courts, and constitutions. The transition from the informal rule of frontier justice found in pre-modern societies to the formal rule of law pervasive throughout modern democratic nations is a result of the creation of a myriad of political and economic systems and legal and moral codes that together have led to a systematic decline of violence in what the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls “the civilizing process” in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, as America was about to fall into anything but a civilizing process of civil war (so his memorable words are more prescriptive than descriptive):

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Four years and 600,000 dead later, our better angels finally emerged. Or did they? What about the First and Second World Wars, not to mention the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s cultural revolution, Cambodia’s killing fields, and the numerous genocides in Africa? With bodies stacked like cordwood and the ashes in the crematoria still cooling in living memory, how can anyone seriously argue that there has been a decline in violence? Because, Pinker demonstrates through compelling anecdotes and copious charts, long-term data trumps recent anecdotes. The idea that we live in an exceptionally violent time is an illusion created by the media’s relentless coverage of violence, coupled to our brain’s evolved propensity to notice and remember recent and emotionally salient events, of which violence plays second fiddle to no one. Unfortunately, our brains did not evolve to carefully track long-term trends, and thus it is that evolution, along with climate change and other historical sciences, seems counterintuitive. And Pinker’s thesis is nothing if not counterintuitive: that violence of all kinds—from murder, rape, and genocide to parents spanking their kids to the treatment of blacks, women, gays, and animals—has been in decline for centuries as a result of this civilizing process.

Picking up Pinker’s 771-page magnum feels daunting, but it’s a page-turner from the start as he reminds us through literary anecdotes of what life was like in the foreign country known as the past. To wit, Homer’s Agamemnon explains to King Menelaus his war strategy: “We are not going to leave a single one of them alive, down to the babies in their mothers’ wombs—not even they must live. The whole people must be wiped out of existence, and none be left to think of them and shed a tear.” The Bible (the “Good Book”), Pinker reminds us, “depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.” In fact, the book opens with a murder. After creating the heavens and the earth and Adam and Eve and their two boys Cain and Able, the former killed the latter. “With a world population of exactly four,” Pinker notes, “that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.”

Pinker is not being flippant. A graph in the next chapter, for example, presents the data from dozens of studies revealing the percentage of deaths in warfare from prehistoric times to present. The contrast is striking: Prehistoric peoples and modern hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists are far more murderous than states, with percentages for the former ranging from 10 to 60 percent and an average of 24.5 percent compared to 5 percent and under for the latter. Even the bloody 20th century wars weren’t so bloody by comparison: About 40 million people died in battle deaths during the century in which around six billion people lived, which amounts to 0.7 percent battle deaths. What about noncombat deaths, such as all those citizens who became the collateral damage of war? “Even if we tripled or quadrupled the estimate to include indirect deaths from war-causes famine and disease, it would barely narrow the gap between state and nonstate societies,” Pinker retorts. What about all those genocides and the Holocaust? That brings the death toll up to 180 million deaths, which “still amounts to only 3 percent of the deaths in the 20th century.” What about the 21st century? In 2005, Pinker computes, a grand total of 0.008, or eight tenths of one percent of Americans died in two foreign wars and domestic homicides combined. In the world as a whole, the rate of violence from war, terrorism, genocide, and killings by warlords and militias was 0.0003 of the total population, or three hundredths of one percent.

The numbers go on and on like this for hundreds of pages, punctuated by poignant anecdotes that drive home the point that things really are getting better and that these are the good old days. Readers of this book, Pinker reminds us, “no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments; punishments on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor, beachside fisticuffs to impress their girlfriends, and the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself.” You can, of course, think of a few exceptions here and there, but that’s the point: what used to be commonplace is now rare, and in most of the above examples, nonexistent. Why?

Science is a three-legged stool of data, theory, and communication. Having convinced readers that violence is in decline through data well communicated, Pinker devotes the rest of his tome to his theory that the better angels of our nature are brought out by the civilizing process of two forces: the top-down rule of law and the bottom-up rule of morals. More generous than most scholars in crediting others’ work, Pinker’s grounds his theory in the Jewish historian Norbert Elias’s 1939 book The Civilizing Process, a catalogue of examples from the archives of history demonstrating that over the centuries, “beginning in the 11th or 12th and maturing in the 17th and 18th, Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions. These ideals originated in explicit instructions that cultural arbiters gave to aristocrats and noblemen, allowing them to differentiate themselves from the villains and boors. But they were then absorbed into the socialization of younger and younger children until they became second nature.”

Second nature. Our first nature is to be selfish, greedy, and nasty. Our second nature—the better angels of our nature—requires a little coaxing and persuading to come out. Analysis of medieval books of etiquette, for example, reveal that the numerous prohibitions are reducible to a few principles related to this second nature, as Pinker notes: “Control your appetites; Delay gratification; Consider the sensibilities of others; Don’t act like a peasant; Distance yourself from your animal nature. And the penalty for these infractions was assumed to be internal: a sense of shame.” Externally, other forces were at work along the lines of what I described in the shift from the Cowboy Code to the Law Code. These include, in Pinker’s words, “the centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals,” and the like.

Again—and it must be repeated in every discussion of this controversial topic—the decline of violence is tracked in a systematic sloping downward curve with occasional bumps along the way. Think of a saw blade tilted down at an angle. Individual teeth point upward, but the overall slope of the blade is downward. Or think global warming. Yes, some years are cooler—and climate deniers are only to happy to point them out—but the overall trend is that of a warming earth. The analogy applies to violence of all kind. Compared to 500 or 1000 years ago, today a greater percentage of people in more places more of the time are safer, healthier, wealthier, and freer. With the recent ascendency of the Tea Party movement and the media coverage of angry white men, liberals understandably believe that things are grim and getting worse. But, in fact, Pinker notes that “in every issue touched by the Rights Revolutions—interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals—the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.”

This is a shift to be celebrated, even as we honor the principle of that other great American President, Thomas Jefferson, that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

36 Responses to “The Mystic Chords of Violence’s Memory”

  1. Jarvis Puttinghet says:

    A nuclear world war could still happen. Russia may be becoming friendly, but there are still others.
    North Korea, Pakistan… maybe they couldn’t exactly level the planet before we level them, but it’d still cause a major catastrophe.
    And what about the Pacific theatre? One lunatic, or even one simple mistake, and we could have a nuclear World War III on our hands.

  2. Max says:

    …Pinker’s [sic] grounds his theory in the Jewish historian Norbert Elias’s 1939 book The Civilizing Process, a catalogue of examples from the archives of history demonstrating that over the centuries, “beginning in the 11th or 12th and maturing in the 17th and 18th, Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions.”

    And this was published in the year that Germany invaded Poland.

    • And, published by a Jew the year AFTER Kristallnacht. Motivated reasoning? Pop Ev Psychers like Pinker do it as at least as much as others, on average

      Shermer, I appreciate you noting that in the review. I won’t have to waste time on another wrongly-reasoned Pinker book.

      • d j krause says:

        “. . . another wrongly-reasoned Pinker book.” But what about his numbers??????

      • Jason M says:

        Did you guys even read the review? The Second World War killed at most 3 percent of the population, compared to 24.5 percent among hunter-gatherers. It was a blip on the general downward trend of violence in history.

        Your responses are not unlike climate change deniers who say: look how cold it is outside this week, therefore global warming is wrong.

      • First, “readers of the book” may not have to worry about sexual slavery and other things, but, in most the non-western world, people still DO have to worry about things like that, reinforced with the power of modern automatic weapons.

        Second, John Horgan’s great review noted the other problem … Pinker’s reliance on a “deep roots” theory of violence.

  3. CasaAlta says:

    Whether one believes in God or not, it seems odd not to mention the Judeo-Christian tradition of morality in its contribution to civilization.

    • steve gray says:

      The Christian tradition of morality is mostly one of intolerance, violence, persecution of minorities, wars, and silly claims of absolute truth. Note that even if Pinker exaggerates, violence and Christianity have declined together. Yes, correlation is not causation, but your claim that Christianity’s “contribution” reduces violence is weak, to say the least. That is not to discount its contributions to art, music, architecture, etc.

  4. Gene says:

    You might want to put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this review. I never saw “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”.

    Now I don’t need to.


  5. LovleAnjel says:

    Violence here in part is calculated by death toll. What about the mitigating effect of better technology, armor and medicine? Less people die now in war because they are better protected, can be stationed away from battle zones (I’m thinking of remote control weapons & surveilance)and are more likely to survive their war wounds. I doubt that accounts for the full difference, but it has to cause some of that drop.

    • Jeff Piper says:

      Excellent point! It’s also noteworthy that modern armies have gotten much better at killing only those that represent a threat by using precision guided munitions and tactics that spare non-combatants. Gone are the days when an entire city was laid to waste in the execution of a military campaign.

    • gdave says:

      That’s true for American troops – not so much for the other guys. And most wars still take place in the 3rd world, between 3rd world combatants, without body armor, helicopter medevacs, drones, GPS guided munitions, etc.

      Also, most of those mitigating factors are very recent developments – in the first Gulf War, in 1991, for example, something like 90% of the munitions used were still “dumb”. And 20th century “total war”, with artillery, machineguns, strategic bombing, deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure, and disregard for civilian deaths (even deliberate targeting of civilians), as in WWI and WWII, was FAR deadlier than earlier conflicts. Yet the numbers seem to indicate that the overall rate of violent death continued to decline (with, of course, spikes during those wars).

      The data seem to indicate violent death rates have been in decline for centuries, globally, even as the killing power of weapons has increased.

  6. Ellen H says:

    Although it is not politically correct to say anything remotely disparaging of Islam, what about their culture of honor and the fact that they are said to be the fastest growing religion in the world today? “Moderate” Muslims study the same Koran that has prompted violence and intolerance for centuries, typified today by “radical” Muslims and intolerant Muslim states. Will we have another “bump in the road” sometime this century? Mr. Pinker’s theory may be tested again.

    • Max says:

      It was Sam Harris who warned, “In the year 2006, a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get seventy-two virgins in Paradise.”
      I hope Pinker’s book doesn’t “jinx” us the way Norbert Elias’s 1939 book apparently did.

    • Phea says:

      I just recently watched a documentary from Netflix called, “The Third Jihad”. It was made in 2008. I found myself not wanting to accept the points the film was making, but it was difficult not to. I would appreciate anyone who’s watched the film to present another side.

  7. oldebabe says:

    So, M.S., what you are saying is that Pinker is saying that the majority of the violence in our society has lessened and shifted in our current culture. This has occurred because of the shift from violence being perpetuated mostly by individuals to the responsibility for that violence now delegated to the `State’?


  8. Hal says:

    MS seems to be saying that civilization has, over time, created the rule of law. For the most part people are now content to accept this rather than eyes-for-eyes, vendettas, and wiping out the “Other’s” tribe. No one is saying we now live in a perfert world, only that the bad old days were a lot worse.

    Anyone here still believe in the “noble savage”? Seriously??

  9. Dave Husted says:

    I think the book would be an interesting read. The past was definitely a violent and grim place for most- cold, dark, hungry and dangerous. As Vonnegut said in a book “ideas were seen as dangerous germs” (compare this to the internet age). I think he is showing that like climate science (the trend line) the violence curve, on average, with international cooperation increasing in general, will show a downward trend. Its hard to appreciate this with the mechanized swift death of the recent past and with such brutal efficiency. Percentages don’t matter much to victims of mass murder/genocide. But most people today aren’t in constant fear and paranoia. The higher centers of our brain are recently evolved, so violence will still be a problem for the foreseeable future. Part of the reason the Christians’ crucifixtions were a powerful symbol for the development of that religion was the slaughter of innocence issue so prevelent in the past (compassion issue versus raw arbitrary power). Unfortunately the tribal mentality (nations and gangs included) tend to have blinders on as to compassion for the “others”. And what is the definition of evil?

  10. MikeB says:

    >>About 40 million people died in battle deaths during the century in which around six billion people lived, which amounts to 0.7 percent battle deaths.<<

    What an inhumane statement. He stops just short of saying "only 40 million people died."

    The subtext of Pinker's book is apparently: Pay no attention to exponential population growth and the fact that, in such a regime, decreases in rates of violent acts can equal increases in numbers of people who die violently."

    Asimov was right:

    "The same way democracy cannot survive overpopulation, human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn't matter if someone dies. The more people there are the less one individual matters."

    • Brian says:

      Oy, get over it dude, it’s a factual statement, not and inhumane one. And your analysis is woefully over-simplified. If anything, the (so-called) subtext to this book, though it might be more accurate to call it simply the text of this book, is that, due to a number of factors, including the increase in total population (which adds working minds to the pool, resulting in accelerated development of such things as technology, philosophy, education etc), more education, more communication etc, the RATES of violence and violent deaths within the total population, has significantly declined, and that’s undeniable, whether your sensibilities are offended or not – it’s a statistical fact.

      But given the dramatic rise in total population, and just what kind of factorial increase that actually is, it would be nearly impossible to envisage such an increase that didn’t include an increase in total violent deaths, even when accompanied by a decrease in RATES. The numbers are just too large. But apparently not completely impossible, which is why it still needs to be pointed out to some readers. So, taking it as a given that any capably-thinking individual can make this realisation without experiencing too much of an aneurysm, it seems less inhumane than simply functional and non-pandering (to pedants bent on focusing on effective irrelevencies).

      Too harsh? I don’t think so. If anything, I think it’s a bloody shame that this differnce between rates and totals needs to be delineated in the first place, and reflects badly on the intended readership, who can’t be assumeed to make this intellectual leap on their own, and even worserly on those who still feel the need to call it into question, which suggests that not only could they make the leap unaided, but were still unable to do so when lead by the hand.


  11. tmac57 says:

    “…the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.” ”
    Would Nixon or Reagan be able to be nominated as viable candidates by today’s GOP? I think not…too liberal.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      But Zombie Reagan, on the other hand…

      • tmac57 says:

        Well,he does have the right hair for it.That’s very important!

      • Dave Husted says:

        Remember Nixon said he was sabotaged in the 1960 election by the make up artists. Rick Perry and Dan Quayle were encouraged, I bet, due to the perception they would be “attractive” to the public. Lets ban abortion, crush the China one child policy and see where it all leads! How exciting!!! Reminds me of the woman who was going to marry serial killer Danny Rollins even though he was in jail- She said, “It’s kind of exciting”! Global cooling ya’ll!

  12. Tres Jordan says:

    I’ve been trying to point this out for years and people look at me as though I’m insane.In my own lifetime the change has been remarkable considering how slow change has come Historically.Beating your children in public was derigeur, using racist,sexist words was your God given right, kids used to fight in schools everyday if not 3 or 4 times and even dogs were meaner. If you walked by a house with a dog or worse you had one, there would be a fight …. now they seem to sniff one another out first especially in the city.
    All the factors Mr Pinker points out are true but secondary facts to this phenomenon. The primary fact is that this is our evolution at work and the planet is getting smaller and more familiar….As I always tell my young peeps ” if your not excited and optimistic about the future then your not paying attention or you know nothing of history”. Thank You Mr Pinker and Mr. Shermer

  13. StarMichael says:

    There are some real glaring problems with this line of thinking that has not been mentioned in these comments or by Mr. Shermer. the first being the problem of numbers. to say that this century has had less violent deaths than centuries past by comparison of death rates to population rates is flawed. the world population has exploded this century. the population rate during WWII was not six billion it was closer to two billion. this leaves us with a violent death rate much closer to that of centuries past than that given by Pinker.

    second i would like to point out the book, On Killing, by Dave Grossman. in his book he talks about the killing rates, no fire rates, and training and propaganda of state entities that counter act human being’s desires not to kill each other. Grossman asserts that states make people more violent and use psychological methods to decrease soldiers resistance to killing. well worth a read.

    while human rights movements have made us less ignorant and fearful, therefor somewhat safer from each other, it would be nonsensical to say that violent state systems should have any credit for that relative safety, and totally ignores institutional hierarchy, patriarchy, racism, nationalism, xenophobia and other forms of oppression used by states to maintain legitimacy for violence and control. to say that now is the “good old days,” is still a gross misrepresentation of reality and where our “popular” moral compass lays on our slow, and still very much influenced by bronze age superstitions, march toward real progress and human flourishing. no amount of rose colored, or libertarian colored, glasses are going to change reality toward these biases. are there more people alive today? certainly. is there more violence and death? also certainly. is it a statistical trick to assert the past was a more violent time for most people? probably not, but it doesn’t follow that modern times are somehow less violent, just because so much violence is exported by the state, or because of population booms and the manipulation of quantitative data to confirm one’s world view.

  14. George Baker says:

    Yse, as Tres Jorday says, thank you Mr Pinker and Mr Shermer. Two of my favorite authors. Sure, you can pick points but over all they generally hit the nail on the head. After reading the comments, I see there are reasons why Shermer and Pinker get paid for what they write and most of the rest of us do not.

  15. Phea says:

    Ah, but the three things that always have, and always will plague our species are alive, well, and thriving: the necessity of greed, the enjoyment of cruelty, and the rigidity of opinion.