Thoughts on The Better Angels of Our Nature, part 1
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Thoughts on The Better Angels of Our Nature, part 1 

I recently read this very interesting book by Stephen Pinker. He argues that, contrary to common belief, violence has fallen dramatically over the past few centuries, including over the past few decades. The 20th Century saw some of the worst episodes of killing in human history, but Pinker states that this should be taken in context. First, the mass killings attributable to Hitler, Stalin, and Mao derived largely from their own schemes and were not widely endorsed by the populace. Second, there have been many other, earlier conflicts in which there was comparable or greater fractions of people killed but with a less absolute number of people killed, because there were a lot more people in the 20th Century than in previous eras.
Meanwhile, Pinker shows that there have been great reductions in torture, killing due to superstition (such as burning of witches), homicide (which in Europe is now 1/30th that of the Middle Ages), abuse of women (with great reductions in rape, and only recently has it been a crime for a man to rape his wife), racist violence (with lynchings that were once a frequent public spectacle now being rare, fully prosecuted events), abuse of children (including infanticide and severe beatings), and, he argues, abuse of animals. I’ll discuss that last item next essau. Further, Pinker notes the “Great Peace” since the Second World War, in which no major world powers have gone to war. An exception of sorts was the Korean War, but China was not really a world power, and the war was not fought on the soil of either major combatant. While violence remains a human scourge, historically violence has been a leading cause of human death, and in relation to the past we live in peaceful times.
Much of this lengthy book consists of Pinker’s exploration of possible reasons for these changes. Among them, he notes that the printing press has helped educate the people of the world. In particular, fictional novels have put readers in the minds of characters who have experienced mistreatment and enhanced sympathy for their plights. Also, satire has betrayed as silly many ideologies that have lent themselves to violence, such as extreme national pride. Pinker also notes that numerous studies have shown that the population in general has demonstrated a marked increase in abstract thinking ability. This has been due to in part to growth of scientific thinking, a skill that also helps people empathize with those who come from very different backgrounds or tribes.
Pinker does not mention René Girard and his theory of the scapegoating process as a basis for violence. I think Pinker’s observations about improved abstract thinking are helpful for those, such as me, who find Girard’s insights very relevant to our understanding of the problem of violence. When we envision the world from the victim’s perspective, we can better identify injustices. And, as our critical thinking skills improve, we can understand the many factors that contribute to a given situation, militating against the simplistic thinking that elimination of one or a few “evil people” who account for discord and violence will restore peace and tranquility.

What about animal issues? In terms of both absolute numbers and numbers in proportion to the human population, contemporary animal abuse occurs on a far greater scale than at any time in human history, particularly on factory farms. Pinker argues that there is far greater sympathy for animal rights today than in recent generations, and far, far greater than in the Middle Ages, when torturing animals was a source of public entertainment. If Pinker is right, why has animal abuse increased? I will consider this question next essay. 

Go on to: Thoughts onThe Better Angels of Our Nature, part 2
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

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