A friend sent me yesterday a link to the current issue of Nature, in which the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker presents the central argument of his new book--that violence has declined over the last decades (or centuries) because human beings fall ever more under the sway of reason, and reason teaches us that we should not be as casually violent as we were throughout much of human history. Although Pinker has a large reputation as a philosopher of mind and language, his thesis, at least as presented in the short space of this article, is not at all persuasive. Why it should have received the honor of a guest opinion prominently displayed in one of the nation's premier journals of science is beyond me, except that the man is one of those growing number of celebrity intellectuals, like Stanley Fish, Richard Dawkins, and others, who have stepped out of the lecture hall in order to address an audience much larger than those who ordinarily listen to them because of a shared interest in a narrow field or because of the requirements of their college curriculum. (That the present writer is also an academic scribbling just now for a general audience is by no means the same thing: the present author is neither a celebrity nor, judging from the number of hits on this blog, is his audience quite general.) Their status, however, as celebrities in one field does not make them experts in another, and therefore they ought not to command special attention simply because of who they are. For a person to be accorded that type of respect, he must have a much larger reputation for wisdom generally. I am prepared to listen with rapt attention to Jesus, Socrates, and Confucius because their words are true, and their words are true because of who they are. Our current crop of celebrity intellectuals aren't anywhere near that league, so we ought to be as skeptical of them as we are of anyone who addresses general topics on life and humanity. One suspects that the real reason Pinker gets so much space in such prestigious places is that he sells. Maybe having him inside the pages of Science expounding on history and human nature is perhaps a little like having Elle McPherson on the cover of Glamour. They both sell copy.
Pinker begins with an a claim that produces almost as much astonishment as his byline: that the twentieth century was not the bloodiest period in human history. The assertion must be astonishing to command our attention--if he simply says the uncontroversial thing, then no one will read him. On the other hand, the truly controversial statement about matters so well studied as the twentieth century or historical atrocity is likely to be wrong precisely because with so much knowledge generally accepted about these topics, telling us something explosive about them is more interesting than enlightening. The truly astounding thing to say about the shape of the earth--as Tom Friedman has shown, if only rhetorically--is that it is flat. In these matters one gets no points for originality if one merely states the truth. So the problem with his opening is that in any significant sense it is untrue. After grabbing our attention with the flashy headline, Pinker begins, as he must, to backpedal: he means, it turns out, that the twentieth century was not the bloodiest if we look per capita--other centuries, in which human population was much smaller, were perhaps as, if not more, bloody. But this is a trivial point. When historians speak of the twentieth century as the bloodiest in history, they have in mind the industrial-strength genocide of Nazi Germany or Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, the willed starvation of the Ukraine in the 1930s or the millions who died in Mao's China. The fact that at the time of these enterprises the population of the world happened to be much larger than it had been at the time of the Antonines is meaningless--a mathematician's point (or debater's trick), not a substantive revaluation that changes the character of the age. Pinker himself seems to forget this point later in the essay when he says "Indeed, because morality furnishes people with motives for violent acts that bring them no tangible benefit, it is more often the problem than the solution. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of rough justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and the eggs broken in genocides to make utopian omelettes, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest." What he seems to describe here when he needs a club with which to beat true believers seems precisely (as the reference to Lenin's metaphor makes clear) to be a description of the twentieth century. He also makes the rather smug point that because the second half of the twentieth century has been relatively peaceful, but this is also beside the point. When a historian calls the twentieth century the bloodiest in history, he does not by "century" mean the years 1900 (or 1901, if one wishes to be as precise as Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower) to 1999; rather he means precisely that very nightmare time of phantasmagoric brutality from about 1915 until 1945--rather as a scholar in English literature defines "the Seventeenth Century" as the period from 1603 until 1660.
The more serious flaw with Pinker's argument, however, lies in his double assertion that the world becomes more reasonable over time and that such reason is responsible for a general decline in violence in the contemporary world. To make the latter assertion, of course, Pinker has to ignore or explain away the inconvenient history of twentieth century (i.e., as defined above), which stands as an unanswerable counterargument to his thesis--hence his eccentric musings on twentieth-century history. But even if we granted his claim that the world grows more reasonable over time, it by no means follows that that reasonableness produces peace. It has, for example, haunted George Steiner for all his career that perhaps the best educated society in all of history--Germany of the early twentieth century--could have furnished us with the one of the most grotesquely violent regimes ever seen. The paradox is there, and if an explanation is to be had, it will require thinking of a deeper level, as Theodor Adorno or Paul Celan indicate, than Pinker's implication that comparatively speaking Nazi Germany wasn't so bad. Indeed, if this is what Pinker is asserting, then he reminds one of nothing so much as the naive optimists of the full flush of the Enlightenment, who were certain that human reason would bring about universal brotherhood and tranquillity, a belief finally shattered by the mindless and unproductive violence of World War I.
And there is, finally, the highly problematic thesis that human beings are indeed growing more enlightened over time. Pinker adduces interesting evidence from IQ tests taken over the course of (once again!) the twentieth century. But this is again to confuse matters. What Pinker discusses is raw intelligence, but it is precisely something along the lines of emotional intelligence, or empathy (a category which, to fair, Pinker discusses) that produces the type of peaceful society that Pinker believes he finds slowly materializing around us. But there is little evidence that such a trait of character is increasing over time. Homer for example wrote almost 3,000 years ago with plaintive eloquence of the senselessness of violence--what is the Iliad but a meditation on precisely that theme? And while Homer was a singular genius, his singularity consisted not in his message, which after all has found a very receptive audience through the ages, but in his ability to compose great poetry. What's more, Homer--and his first, responsive audience lived not in a period of civilization, to which Pinker attributes the rise of an enlightened world view, but in a period of barbarism and violence--seems near the beginning of recorded history to arrive at the type of vision that Pinker implies is a product of modern society. Throughout time, we have had those few who espouse the concern with others lauded by Pinker and those many who do not. It is man's constant nature to be complex, driven primarily not by reason but by passion but to have as examples those who exemplify the possibility that man can live the life of higher reason. This is why the young Jonathan Swift could while a student at Trinity College mark through the definition given in his logic textbook of man as "animal rationale" and substitute his own description of humanity: "animal capax rationis." Moreover, it was a mature Jonathan Swift who shows us in the final part of Gulliver's Travels the problems with a life lived purely according to reason: Houyhnhnmland is so reasonable, so entirely devoid of those Burkean ties of tradition and affection, that for all their peaceful reasonableness, it is a cold and bloodless place perhaps not very far from the totalitarian Utopias that in the past have produced so much misery for so many.
Perhaps the main problem is that Pinker confuses intelligence with enlightenment. Raw intelligence is good for helping to produce the comforts of the technological world we inhabit, but it can be misdirected and is therefore a dangerous substitute for enlightenment. Enlightenment in its truest sense is a type of love--a concern for others deep enough that one respects their freedom as human beings made in the image of God. Such enlightenment does not come easily--certainly it is no mere adornment of nature. It is won by a solid education in the great works of the past, pursued in humility, with an eye toward what we can learn about human nature (for good and ill). Perhaps most of all such an education leaves one impervious to all the various determinisms that would render us less than human by trying to convince us that gender, evolution, economics, biochemistry, society, or the forces of history determine our nature and destiny. Pinker is a good man but ultimately another in a long line of self-regarding thinkers who redefine human nature downward. The easiest thing in the world is to succumb to the spirit of the age and swallow Pinker's nostrum. It is much harder to do the human thing--to subject his thesis to a rigorous analysis made possible by a broadly humanist education and then freely to accept or reject what he says, swayed not by who he is but by whether what he says is true.