As I listened for the second time to the last chapter of Better Angels, I stood on the edge of a pond. It was a gorgeous day and I had just taken a bike ride. Now I stood in one of my favorite places, watching the water and taking in the final words of this remarkable book.
A frog, which had bolted into the water on my approach, suddenly appeared again at water’s edge only inches from my feet. Floating sticks moved about nearby, indicating that a large fish had likely scared the frog back up onto the bank. The frog was suspended between twin terrors: a large bipedal predator on the bank versus a swimming menace in the murky water.
It occurred to me that all that I watched that morning at the pond, while peaceful and serene for me, was deadly serious business for the living things there. Everything – the fish jumping for insects, the turtles chasing snails and minnows, even the geese pulling up pond weed by the roots – was engaged in a life and death struggle. This frog at my feet might very well die on this day, speared on the end of a wading bird’s beak or smothered in the belly of a water snake. And no one would shed a tear.
Death for me would be a quite different affair. Were I to fall in to the pond and drown, there would be search parties, an inquest, an autopsy. If I were dispatched by a predator, whether human or mountain lion, there would be reporters, police, and paperwork. We humans have turned what was once an everyday occurrence into an officious and regulated event.
It’s important, I realize, not to put too much consciousness into the head of that frog. Do frogs understand that they will one day die? Do they even know they are alive? Maybe, maybe not. It is quite a coincidence that the one species on the planet that we know for certain is conscious of death is also the species that has done so much to avoid it.
It’s not a coincidence, of course. One could argue that death-avoidance is one of the major goals of civilization. We have no saber-toothed cats or woolly rhinos in our city parks. We have heating and cooling to protect our fragile bodies from temperature extremes. We transport ourselves at high speed, but surround our bodies with physical restraints and self-inflating pillows. We inspect food, medicine, buildings, and bridges to ensure their safety. We pay a percentage of our population to be on call any hour of the day to respond to fires, heart attacks, accidents, and violent crime. And on and on.
But it hit me, as I watched this frog, which had no choice but to live its life in constant danger of instant death, that for millions of years humans and our ancestors lived in that same state. Unlike the frog, most of these humans and pre-humans knew about death, knew that it was something to avoid, and yet also knew that they could not in any meaningful way reduce their own likelihood of sudden and often violent death. At any moment, death might come from a mysterious disease, a fierce predator, or another human. All those generations, all that fear. It’s a chilling thought.
But as Steven Pinker has pointed out, we humans have accomplished something remarkable. We’ve found a way to reduce the likelihood of violent death, from the near-certainty of animal predation in our pre-human state, to the still-dangerous likelihood of hunter-gatherer violence, to the reduced likelihood of death due to war, murder, or state violence through most of historical time,s to the extraordinarily low likelihood of violent death today.
In his very short final chapter, Pinker solidifies his findings, answers some inevitable criticisms, and finally emphasizes why this message is both uplifting and important.
Before I get to that, though, I want to quote two paragraphs that all non-theists should keep in their back pockets. Anyone who has discussed the pros and cons of religion has inevitably run into the Hitler/Stalin/Mao argument. While the self-serving inanity of the argument has been pointed out before, I find Pinker’s response to be the best I’ve encountered to this line of apologetic. Here is Pinker’s answer in full:
“Defenders of religion claim that the two genocidal ideologies of the 20th century, fascism and communism, were atheistic. But the first claim is mistaken and the second irrelevant (chapter 4). Fascism happily coexisted with Catholicism in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia, and though Hitler had little use for Christianity, he was by no means an atheist, and professed that he was carrying out a divine plan. Historians have documented that many of the Nazi elite melded Nazism with German Christianity in a syncretic faith, drawing on its millennial visions and its long history of anti-Semitism. Many Christian clerics and their flocks were all too happy to sign up, finding common cause with the Nazis in their opposition to the tolerant, secular, cosmopolitan culture of the Weimar era.
“As for godless communism, godless it certainly was. But the repudiation of one illiberal ideology does not automatically grant immunity from others. Marxism, as Daniel Chirot observed (page 330), helped itself to the worst idea in the Christian Bible, a millennial cataclysm that will bring about a utopia and restore prelapsarian innocence. And it violently rejected the humanism and liberalism of the Enlightenment, which placed the autonomy and fluorishing of individuals as the ultimate goal of political systems.”
The point of all this, of course, is that fascism and communism were disasters not because they were godless. They were disasters because they were anti-human. By ignoring the great accomplishment of individuality and reasoned discourse called the Enlightenment, both these “godless” philosophies brought forth disaster. It is much more accurate to say that it is all the anti-humanist philosophies, including monotheism, fascism, and communism, that have brought about the greatest atrocities in history.
OK, back to the ultimate value of Pinker’s magnificent book. We’ve all heard appeals to nostalgia, a wish to turn back the clock to a simpler time. All these appeals ignore the facts. The past was nasty. Disease, starvation, and early death were rampant. Living conditions were filthy, too hot, too cold, plagued with bugs, vermin, dangerous predators, and also incredibly dull. As Pinker says on page 693. “Musical recordings, affordable books, instant news of the world, reproductions of great art, and filmed dramas were inconceivable, let alone available in a tool that can fit in a shirt pocket.”
The one “moral card” remaining for those nostalgic for the past was the idea that modern life has brought with it an increase in violence – “muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation.” But as Pinker has shown in this book, this conception of a peaceful past vs. a violent present gets things precisely backward. Life is not only richer and longer today, it is far, far safer.
One more quote from Pinker, because it’s just too good not to repeat:
“The forces of modernity – reason, science, humanism, individual rights – have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence.” – p 694
We are the children of the Enlightenment that, through science, reason, and justice, has molded the world as it is today. David Deutsch and Steven Pinker (and doubtless many others whom I hope to discover next) have shown us the way to complete the work begun by our forebears. Will we continue this optimistic and wholly human path, or will we slink back to superstition, fear, and violent death? The next chapter will be written by the human reading these words.