Rumours of the death of Western liberalism have been cruelly exaggerated, according to Steven Pinker. The Harvard psychology professor spoke to me on the eve of a lecture he is due to give at the New College of the Humanities on the workings of the human brain and we were supposed to be talking about that. But given the parlous state of the world, I was more anxious to speak about The Better Angels of Our Nature, his relentlessly optimistic book about the history of violence. In that 834-page magnum opus, he argues that violence has been in almost continuous decline for the last 2,000 years and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in our history.
Has he had cause to revise that view in light of the civil wars that have broken out in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Libya since the book’s publication in 2011, as well as the rise of Islamic State?
‘It is true that there has been a change in direction when it comes to civil wars,’ he says. ‘The world at its worst used to have 26 civil wars going on, that fell to four and now it’s back up to 11. And likewise the rate of death in civil wars has increased slightly, wiping out maybe 12-14 years of progress. So in the last three years it has gone in the wrong direction, but it has come nowhere close to erasing all of the progress that we’ve enjoyed since the Second World War. All the other trends have continued in a positive direction. That is, there have been still no new wars between countries – all of the wars have been within countries – so the world’s trend of moving away from inter-state war, state against state, is holding fast, the rate of homicide in the world is declining, the rate of violence against women, violence against children, institutional violence such as capital punishment continues to be in decline, hunting continues to be in decline, the criminalisation of homosexuality continues to be in decline, so with the partial exception of civil war, all of the other trends have continued.’
The contention of The Better Angels of Our Nature, which was inspired by a speech by Abraham Lincoln, is that the pessimistic view of our species – that we are fundamentally aggressive and selfish – is based on a misreading of human nature. As a psychologist, Pinker rejects the idea that we’re essentially tabula rasa and that all our sins can be laid at the door of society. ‘Any attention to the facts, to the data, requires us to take seriously the idea that some of the reasons we differ from each other are due to differences in our genes,’ he says.
At the same time, however, he disputes the notion that this renders all attempts to improve the human condition a waste of time. Indeed, debunking this misapprehension is one of the main themes of The Blank Slate, his 2007 book.
‘Among people committed to social reform, there’s this idea that it would be best if humans were blank stales that could be programmed by education, government, parenting culture, and so on, and that if rather than being blank slates we did inherit ugly tendencies like revenge or dominance or nepotism or selfishness or jealousy that would make hopes for social reform futile because people would even in a perfect society revert to their nasty inborn tendencies,’ he says. ‘Now I’ve argued that this is an error because human nature is complex, it has multiple parts, some parts can defeat others, even if we did have, say, a desire for revenge, we also have a sense of empathy, we also have a faculty of self-control, by which we can choose not to act on some of our uglier impulses.’
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, he maintains that these more benign characteristics – empathy, reason, self-control, etc. – are in the ascendancy and, to buttress his case, he employs a mass of data to show that the human condition is, in fact, improving.
As a conservative, I’m a little sceptical about these claims. In particular, I’m worried about the fate of liberal democracy, which has proved harder to establish outside North America and Western Europe than many of us hoped at the end of the Cold War. Is it realistic to imagine that the institutions of liberal democracy can thrive in countries that don’t share our Judaeo-Christian heritage?
‘Democratic institutions have fared pretty well in large parts of industrialised Asia – in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan – to some extent in the Islamic countries of Indonesia and Malaysia and until recently Turkey,’ he says. ‘Virtually all of Latin America has embraced liberal democracy, with a few exceptions, and we’ve seen thriving democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Namibia. So the idea that there has to be some deep-rooted cultural tradition or even some level of economic development before you have the acceptance of liberal democracy I think is too pessimistic.’
In spite of this positive view, however, Pinker does strike one important note of caution, which is to warn against giving succour to the enemies of the West by running down our achievements.
‘I think there is something that intellectuals can do – teachers, professors, pundits, journalists – and that is to back off the narrative in which all of the world’s evils are due to the West, to capitalism – the US, the UK and modern Western civilisation,’ he says. ‘That can feed a narrative at the margins among disaffected young people that the West is an enemy that must be slain. There certainly have been many crimes and injustices perpetrated by the West, and I don’t think we should try and hide that, but I do think we should champion the aspects of it that are praiseworthy – in particular, humanism, reason, science, logic and individual human rights.’
Amen to that, Professor Pinker, and at the conclusion of our conversation, when I ask him about his next book, I’m heartened to discover it’s going to be a trenchant defence of Western achievements.
Professor Steven Pinker will give a lecture entitled ‘From Neurons to Consciousness’ at the New College of the Humanities in the Spring. For more information, go to www.nchlondon.ac.uk