Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Steven Pinker :Degenerate Past, Idyllic Present


How many times, during the last week, were you overcome with the  feeling that in general things are going from bad to worse? How many times were you beset by the nasty thought that people are becoming disagreeable and dishonest as compared to their ancestors in the past? And  ask yourself honestly, whether or not you felt seriously that people are becoming more and more violent these days? 

May be perhaps you are watching too much of television where experts keep on talking of all things that are bad with us. Taking up from a few bad examples and isolated cases from here and there, that are surely not representative of the human race, these experts start building up future scenarios and in the process they  frighten you into believing that we are all, the whole world for that matter, going from bad to worse. 

  But wait; don’t be so pessimistic about your present or future. Perhaps we have been taught to treat the past with reverence and present with suspicion.  Professor Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard Professor of psychology does not think that the world is becoming more violent! He says that we are better and luckier than our forefathers in that we are living in an age that is perhaps the least violent in human history.  His researches on human behavior and history of human violence tell us that if anything, human race is steadily moving away from violence and increasingly embracing new ways of cooperating and co-existing peacefully.  He argues that there is every reason to believe that in future human beings would co-exist more peacefully than they ever did.

Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angeles of Our Nature” is a huge book that very assiduously argues that there has been decline of violence in history. The thought that “things are going from bad to worse” is so deeply engraved on our mind and it comes so easily and effortlessly to mind that we do not feel any need to systematically explore the truth in it. And Steven Pinker has   carried out the task of studying the past violent behavior and our conceptions of our own nature competently.  The book may have become somewhat unwieldy and his argument longish; but he succeeds in convincing you.

He argues that we compulsively believe that human beings harbor an innate drive of aggression; and even if under certain circumstances it is repressed, it still keeps simmering there inside us and surfaces with more intense force.  In a nuanced and reasoned argument, backed by historical evidence and science, he shows that man is not innately violent or aggressive and that human violence has different motives.  He also argues that during the evolution of societies human violence has been shown to be amenable to being tackled fairly effectively. Violence enters in human beings and societies via different survival and existential strategies. These may include basic predatory violence, violence from urge to dominate over adversaries, violence from desire to take revenge etc.  Human beings are not inherently violent and hence violence can be contained by creating certain conditions in society and groups; conditions that reduce violent behavior.

Humans may not be innately good, but neither are they evil. Moreover, they have a better side of their nature where they can co-operate and be altruistic. They have conscience and can feel pain of others. It is with  empathy that man  cultivates higher faculties, shows altruistic behavior and creates art and literature.  During the last few centuries, reason, empathy and other better faculties of human beings have combined to forge more humane forms of cooperation and coexistence. Abolition of slavery was an important stage in human history that ushered in an era that culminated in acknowledging dignity of human beings. Decolonization of a large number of societies/nations after or around the Second World War was another step that recognized innate dignity and worth of societies and human beings and contributed to diminishing violence.    After the Second World War the idea of Human Rights has so much underlined the universal foundation of our existence that it has become a dominant theme of relationship between societies and nations. Feminization and  increasing concern for dignity of women in societies is another reason for bringing down violence.  Increasing commerce and international trade has engaged human beings in meaningful activities and peaceful behavior.   Large business organizations that operate throughout world constitutes influential site that greatly contributes to peaceful behavior.

This is not to argue that all is well and violence has been abolished. What he has argued is that in last several centuries, man has been able to create conditions and mechanisms through which human beings have come to  recognize dignity of human beings and it has helped reduce violence.
Steven Pinker’s book is all about this. But it’s also much more than this. He has carefully researched our long history and here you find valuable  insights in the progress made by man.  It sketches journey through wars and economic activities as humanity’s major vocations.  There are details of cruelties associated with religions and empires and cruel punishments of the past. There are harrowing details of slavery and also narratives on how slavery was abolished.   He identifies various forces and factors that led to this transition in human history. There are interesting stories drawn from history and basic insights in human behavior through history.  

It is  sobering to see that Professor Pinker is very discerning and cautious when it comes to making sweeping and optimistic statements about future of man. Pinker’s book tells us that  traversing the path of peace is like tight rope walking, difficult and requiring calmness of mind.

 Pinker’s book, however, does not tell us that in human life stupidity and wisdom exist side by side and human race has not always chosen wisdom over stupidity.  He also does not   explain why  the twentieth century was the bloodiest century in human history that saw more than 180 million people die of war and violence.  He does not tell us very frankly that history presents cases where people forget what good they have learnt for a few moments and lapse in their old habits with disastrous results for the posterity. He does not tell us that all the progress we talk about also comes with a rider: need fora constant vigilance on our own behavior! 

And yet I am impressed with his argument for it is based on reason and evidence; and it is based on deep insights into man who, despite moments of stupidity, moves ahead with hope.    

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