Stephen Pinker at the Long Now

I went to see Pinker’s talk at the Long Now this evening.  He is promoting his latest book “The Better Angels of our Nature” in which he proposes that many forms of violence have declined over time.  His previous TED talk on this topic caused “Sex at Dawn” author Christopher Ryan to criticize his characterization of hunter gatherer society as violent.  But Pinker’s talk this evening focused mostly on the last 500 years and stayed away from prehistoric man.

I liked it when Pinker pointed out that when people say that the 20th century was the most violent in history, they never mention any other centuries to compare it to.  He had data that showed that even World War II was only the 9th most deadly event in human history on a per capita basis.  I do agree with his view that per capita violence is the only intelligent way to measure it.

When evaluating causes of this great decline in violence, Pinker asserts that literacy played a greater role than wealth. English wealth was fairly flat during a great decline in murder and capital punishment, but efficiency of book production and literacy greatly increased.  He posits that reading allows us to be in the mind of others to some extent and naturally increases empathy.  It also supposedly decreases ignorance and superstition which may lead to violence.

Another cause of this decrease is alleged to be cosmopolitanism.  As humans rub shoulders with one another in cities, it forces them to share ideas and develop some tolerance of others.  Our allegiances expand outward from family and tribe to include our entire nationstate and on to other races, sexes, and children.

Pinker says that there is a propensity for genocidal totalitarians to push anti-city, back to nature ideologies.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and even Hitler’s Lebensraum all focused on pushing urban populations into rural areas.  Stewart Brand commented on the fact that many of his contemporaries had followed suit and went out into the countryside only to become bored and returning to the cities.  Brand regrets that more of his friends don’t acknowledge the failure of this experiment.

Several times during the closing discussion with Brand, Pinker said that he was excited by social network science.  He mentioned the study of how social norms arise from individuals exchanging ideas explored in the work of Nicolas Christakis, Duncan Watts, James Fowler, Michael Macey.  I was deeply impressed by Connected by Christakis, so I will definitely be checking out these other researchers as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this talk.  I sense that Pinker is trying to defend the narrative of progress and the virtues of Western Civilization that are so maligned in this post-modernist era.  More power to him.