Sunday, October 23, 2011

Stephen Pinker's Small Ray of Sunshine

I recently attended a conference held at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation where its staff were described as "impatient optimists." That's quite a contrast to the "studied pessimist" role many in the NGO security business take on. Make no mistake, there are days when being a humanitarian safety and security practitioner is rather depressing. Seemingly endless bombings, abductions, vehicle accidents, and natural disasters don't tend to give one warm fuzzies.

But you know, I recently picked up a copy of Stephen Pinker's lengthy new book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." And I'm feeling a bit hopeful. Although the media may lead you to think otherwise, Pinker states that historically we are living in the most peaceful period our species has ever known.

With all the conflict in the world, that seems hard to believe. But his thesis isn't just opinion or idle speculation. Pinker is a well-known and written Harvard psychology professor and he makes a very compelling case that there has been a dramatic, long-term reduction in family violence, murder, racism, rape, and war deaths. He backs up the claim with statistics, charts, maps, peer-reviewed research by other academics, and a variety of historical references (including some fairly gruesome tales of days-gone-by violence and inhumanity).

Pinker's basic hypothesis is as we become smarter, our capacity for violence decreases and life becomes more precious (education-focused NGOs will take heart in that message). However since our brains tend to fixate on accounts of mayhem and destruction, we don't see the decreasing violence and believe the world is getting worse. Of course frequently dealing with safety and security incidents and staying on top of potential threats seems to amplify that belief.

I haven't finished the book yet, but so far Pinker gives me guarded hope that as a whole humanity is heading in a positive direction. And that's a good feeling after a day of digesting the latest news from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Maybe the Gates Foundation is on to something about being optimists.

Check out what Pinker has to say in a conversation called A History of Violence at (one of my favorite sites for interviews with and commentaries by some of today's leading thinkers).



Post a Comment

<< Home