'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature"

"We're in the least brutal period in human history" is how the World Service sums up Steven Pinker's thesis. Pinker uses historical data sets to measure violence. Deaths worldwide are at 1/2 person per 100 000, declares Pinker. He compares this to "the worst years of" World War II, which he calculates as 300 deaths per 100 000.

Using data sets is always controversial (see for example the debate over Democratic Peace Theory using the Correlates of War database [Tarak Barkawi has critiqued this data set]) but this is an extremely valuable work. The debate over New and Old wars is saturated but placing violence within an empirically analysed, quantitative historical trajectory is a significant development. From this, the methodological debate and the reasons for what we see are set to break out into the social sciences.

"A problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won" is how Pinker elegantly defines how we are increasingly seeing violence. 

Is the increasingly visual nature of war, beamed into hour homes in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, causing us to develop anti-war norms? We get conflict fatigue.  Pinker also examines and endorses the trade theory - greater economic interdependence reduces the probability of going to war with each other. John Darwin touches on this in After Tamerlane. 

Yet Pinker in the quote compares the present day with World War II. Many who fought in that conflict are still alive. It was a national ideological with racial architecture that drove this war in Europe and Africa. In the Sino-Japanese theatre, each foe dehumanized the other. Ideologies can be as potent a weapon as a nuclear arsenal and the question I have is, does social networking make antagonistic ideologies more or less likely?

A full World Service piece on the Pinker work is here

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