The Better Angels of Our Nature – Part 1


As opposed to the former thinkers in this series about violence, the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker doesn’t think humans are naturally peaceful and non-violent. Along his extensive book about violence The Better Angels of Our Nature he thoroughly specifies how violent humans are and how violent humans can be. With numerous statistical evidences, examples and explanations, from the murder rates of non-state societies, through ancient wars, to the earliest known writings which are still canonical cultural elements such as Greek mythology and the Bible (substantially fictional as they are, both probably reflect human life and the values of that era, at least to some extent), corporal punishments, heretics torture, modern wars and up to psycho-evolutionist analysis of violence and brain parts and function specification, Pinker doesn’t really leave room for doubt that humans are naturally violent.

However, another difference between him and the former mentioned thinkers, is that he persistently argues that despite humans’ natural tendency to violence, despite its abundance through history and despite public image (Pinker blames the modern media for that false perception) violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence.

Similar to the previous thinkers, Pinker’s main focus in violence is wars, and probably for the same reason. Wars are the greatest threat on an adult white scholar rich homo-sapiens male from the western world. But since Pinker is a more progressive version of an adult white scholar rich homo-sapiens male, he does refer to other spheres of violence besides wars and homicide rates, but definitely with no proportion to their real prevalence.

And that relates to another prominent resemblance to the others, the most prominent considering its prevalence, violence toward animals.
What was immediately noticeable in the arguments of the Seville committee on violence and Ashley Montagu as the outstanding representatives of the Rousseauistic camp, is their violent omission of violence towards animals and the expression of the relationship of humans and other species along history and especially in the present.
Pinker didn’t entirely omit animals from his book, as there is a sub chapter in it dedicated to the subject, but he did entirely omit animals from his thesis as we’ll further explain.

Generally the book got great reviews, but it also has many critics, some of which are Rousseauistic anthropologists opposing its naturally violent human argument, and many others focus on its disputable claims on violence during the 20th century.
Unfortunately we didn’t find any criticism on the animal rights part specifically, or generally over its de facto disregard of violence towards animals in its general violence decline statements. So our anyway natural inclination to focus on animals is even greater than usual in this case.

This review is long and extensive since it covers a long and extensive book covering a broad topic. Therefore we divided it to 3 parts (consisted of 7 posts altogether): the decline of violence from social-historical perspective, the decline of violence from biological-psychological perspective and the third is a specific review of Pinker’s only part about nonhuman animals.
We recommend that you read the parts in the presented order so you’ll understand Pinker’s basic ideas first, and then what is essentially wrong with them.

The critical review from animals’ perspective of The Better Angels of Our Nature should actually start from the book’s cover.

Isaac’s Angel, the Ram’s Demon


Pinker chose for his book’s cover, a painting of the exact iconic moment from the iconic scene of Isaac sacrifice, in which an angel drops Abraham’s knife saving his child. Indeed it is very symbolic and adequate cover, as the violence that is absent from this picture is the slaughter of a ram instead of the human child by the angel’s guidance. And as you’ll further see, it is just like Pinker’s book, only when you omit the violence towards animals, can you talk about a violence decline.

Isaac sacrifice can set as a microcosm for many human culture characteristics. As we wrote regarding Eid al-Adha in the article Celebrating Suffering:
“Religion was created in humans’ own image and innately so are the myths, the founding stories and the role models. Ibrahim, the undoubtable ultimate believer (Søren Kierkegaard’s Knight of faith) of the Islam which is discussed here but also in Christianity and Judaism, is indeed characteristic of the human race and its cultural milestones. Ibrahim expresses his complete and total submission to Allah by the willingness to kill his son. No questions, no speculations and no hesitations. Following orders is the ideal of being faithful in human culture. But of course infanticide, certainly of your own descendants, cannot be such a fundamental element of humanity and of the exhibition of one’s faithfulness, clearly only a few would pass such a loyalty test. But murdering animals? Everyone pass.

Ibrahim is not supposed to doubt the supposed command from god, and Ishmael is not supposed to doubt his father’s actions no matter how crucial the consequence is for him. Hagar’s (Ishmael’s mother) voice is not even mentioned, not to mention counts for anything and far down the line there is a ram who his whole life’s purpose is to serve humans and is expected to feel very proud that he was chosen to be slaughtered instead of Ishmael.
And so should the hundreds of millions of animals who their throats are publicly cut and they bleed to death for the longest minutes in their poor lives as humans’ meat vessels and rituals.”

Shadowing the Present

The best way to shadow present atrocities in order to argue that violence has declined through history and that the present is the most peaceful time ever, is by detailing past atrocities. Therefore, Pinker starts his journey with a vast sample of common violent atrocities from different periods of history.

From Homeric Greece:
“Homer vividly described the large-scale damage that warriors of his day could inflict. Gottschall offers a sample of his imagery:
Breached with surprising ease by the cold bronze, the body’s contents pour forth in viscous torrents: portions of brains emerge at the ends of quivering spears, young men hold back their viscera with desperate hands, eyes are knocked or cut from skulls and glimmer sightlessly in the dust. Sharp points forge new entrances and exits in young bodies: in the center of foreheads, in temples, between the eyes, at the base of the neck, clean through the mouth or cheek and out the other side, through flanks, crotches, buttocks, hands, navels, backs, stomachs, nipples, chests, noses, ears, and chins…. Spears, pikes, arrows, swords, daggers, and rocks lust for the savor of flesh and blood. Blood sprays forth and mists the air. Bone fragments fly. Marrow boils from fresh stumps….”

From The Hebrew Bible:
“The Bible 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. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure. They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons. And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond. According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible “contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. . . . Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.”

Several examples from The Roman Empire and Early Christendom:
“A Roman execution began with a scourging of the naked prisoner. Using a short whip made of braided leather embedded with sharpened stones, Roman soldiers would flog the man’s back, buttocks, and legs. According to the JAMA authors, “The lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.” The prisoner’s arms would then be tied around a hundred-pound crossbar, and he would be forced to carry it to a site where a post was embedded in the ground. The man would be thrown onto his shredded back and nailed through the wrists to the crossbar. (Contrary to the familiar depictions, the flesh of the palms cannot support the weight of a man.) The victim was hoisted onto the post and his feet were nailed to it, usually without a supporting block. The man’s rib cage was distended by the weight of his body pulling on his arms, making it difficult to exhale unless he pulled his arms or pushed his legs against the nails. Death from asphyxiation and loss of blood would come after an ordeal ranging from three or four hours to three or four days. The executioners could prolong the torture by resting the man’s weight on a seat, or hasten death by breaking his legs with a club.”

“The early Christians also extolled torture as just deserts for the sinful. Most people have heard of the seven deadly sins, standardized by Pope Gregory I in 590 CE. Fewer people know about the punishment in hell that was reserved for those who commit them:
Pride: Broken on the wheel
Envy: Put in freezing water
Gluttony: Force-fed rats, toads, and snakes
Lust: Smothered in fire and brimstone
Anger: Dismembered alive
Greed: Put in cauldrons of boiling oil
Sloth: Thrown in snake pits”

From the Spanish Inquisition: “Church officials concluded that the conversions of thousands of former Jews didn’t take. To compel the conversos to confess their hidden apostasy, the inquisitors tied their arms behind their backs, hoisted them by their wrists, and dropped them in a series of violent jerks, rupturing their tendons and pulling their arms out of their sockets. Many others were burned alive”

From Middle Ages:
“If the word saintly deserves a second look, so does the word chivalrous. The legends of knights and ladies in King Arthur’s time have provided Western culture with some of its most romantic images. Lancelot and Guinevere are the archetypes of romantic love, Sir Galahad the embodiment of gallantry. The medievalist Richard Kaeuper tallied the number of acts of extreme violence in the most famous of these romances, the 13th-century Lancelot, and on average found one every four pages.
Limiting ourselves to quantifiable instances, at least eight skulls are split (some to the eyes, some to the teeth, some to the chin), eight unhorsed men are deliberately crushed by the huge hooves of the victor’s war-horse (so that they faint in agony, repeatedly), five decapitations take place, two entire shoulders are hewn away, three hands are cut off, three arms are severed at various lengths, one knight is thrown into a blazing fire and two knights are catapulted to sudden death. One woman is painfully bound in iron bands by a knight; one is kept for years in a tub of boiling water by God, one is narrowly missed by a hurled lance. Women are frequently abducted and we hear at one point of forty rapes…”

“Medieval Christendom was a culture of cruelty. Torture was meted out by national and local governments throughout the Continent, and it was codified in laws that prescribed blinding, branding, amputation of hands, ears, noses, and tongues, and other forms of mutilation as punishments for minor crimes. Executions were orgies of sadism, climaxing with ordeals of prolonged killing such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, pulling apart by horses, impalement through the rectum, disembowelment by winding a man’s intestines around a spool, and even hanging, which was a slow racking and strangulation rather than a quick breaking of the neck. Sadistic tortures were also inflicted by the Christian church during its inquisitions, witch hunts, and religious wars.”


From the early united states:
“Formal dueling was not, of course, an American invention. It emerged during the Renaissance as a measure to curtail assassinations, vendettas, and street brawls among aristocrats and their retinues. When one man felt that his honor had been impugned, he could challenge the other to a duel and cap the violence at a single death, with no hard feelings among the defeated man’s clan or entourage. But as the essayist Arthur Krystal observes, “The gentry . . . took honor so seriously that just about every offense became an offense against honor. Two Englishmen dueled because their dogs had fought. Two Italian gentlemen fell out over the respective merits of Tasso and Ariosto, an argument that ended when one combatant, mortally wounded, admitted that he had not read the poet he was championing. And Byron’s great-uncle William, the fifth Baron Byron, killed a man after disagreeing about whose property furnished more game.”

Don’t get us wrong, some of these atrocities did vanish as Pinker argues. And he is right to mention these cruel norms, especially as part of his general criticism of nostalgic longing that blurs many humans’ perception, which is best illustrated in the former post regarding violence among hunter-gatherers. However, we have 3 fundamental problems with this way of presenting things.

In that same chapter, when Pinker reaches the 20th century, the attitude of his violence review changes. He does not sample some common atrocities as he did with the rest of the historical periods but samples what is not happening anymore, while obviously a modern atrocities list can be easily made as well (and even of atrocities which are exclusive to modern times). Pinker however, not incidentally, chooses not to do so. It serves his argument, since obviously drawing a more violent past, makes the present look much better.

Another fundamental problem and much more extensive, is that drawing hope from human history is possible only by setting an appallingly low standard for violence. The fact that these atrocities (and many more that he specifies along the book) are part of human history is not a source for optimism but rather a giant red alert. If humans are naturally capable of the cruelty portrayed above, then even if we agreed that violence is in decline as a result of some cultural elements (which we’ll further refer to), still, this is the “raw material” we must deal with.

The third and biggest problem is that Pinker’s atrocities list is not a part of the long gone past but part of the very present of billions of animals every single year. What he presents as ancient history cruelty that most would never happen again, is happening right now and in much greater numbers.

Backed-up with plenty of data, Pinker is out for his argumentation journey with exploding myths about the past. Like the former thinkers who idealized the past, non-state societies and hunter-gatherers or the natural state of humans to establish their arguments, Pinker is doing the opposite.
He is more sophisticated and erudite and so a little bit more reserved than they are but still his thoughts about the past and about the present are clear:
“If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away. A woman donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving prince. We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors’ way of life, but we are barely aware of them. Just as travel broadens the mind, a literal-minded tour of our cultural heritage can awaken us to how differently they did things in the past.”

Pinker is right that modern life are less brutal than they used to be, but that is true only for parts of the human population and for humans only.
The animal world is still a foreign country. It is easy to forget how violent and torturous life is today if you are a nonhuman, how deeply brutality is woven into the fabric of daily existence.

Pinker argues that violence is biologically intrinsic, evolutionarily logical and historically habitual, so what according to him made it decline?
In the next part of this book review we’ll detail his explanations and why some are insufficient, some are false, and others have actually caused a violence increase.


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