Around a century ago a Frenchman named Emile Coué coined a phrase. “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better”. Its optimistic autosuggestion has become a bellwether associated with evolutionary psychology. In particular, the Harvard professor Steven Pinker seems to have developed, against all odds, a rosy picture of the future, a worldview of a glass half full rather than one in which mankind is hurtling to hell in a handbasket. Below is a piece that he wrote in 2007, in which I have altered some wording in order to offer a little dialectical thinking – my thanks to him.
In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, “the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonised.”
We don’t bait bears any more, fight bare-knuckle or arrange for dogs to fight to the death, but the principle of cruelty or violence for entertainment is still a smoking residue from a not-so-distant past. For example, MMA fighting is brutal, savage and seen by some as the ultimate test of manhood.
As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism as was routinely practised long ago would be unthinkable today in most of the world. The most important and under– appreciated trend in the history of our species seems to be the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanours, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.
And yet, Taliban 2.0 – the softer, cuddlier face of Wahhabism – has promised that not only will amputations and executions begin again, but they will no longer be public events, which no doubt comes as a great relief to the recipients of Islamic justice. The rebooted Taliban is no different from the old, they still hide behind superstition, fear of eternal punishment and a cavalier disrespect for human life or alternative points of view. Furthermore, they expect massive aid from abroad to rebuild a devastated economy and a banking system on the verge of total collapse.
Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the twentieth century, find over-optimism incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward although of course with many zigzags and bumps in the road..
Anyone who doubts this by pointing to residues of force in America, the Middle East (capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, sex slavery in immigrant groups, and so on) misses two key points. One is that statistically, the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. The other is that these practices are, to varying degrees, hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial. In the past, they were no big deal. Even the mass murders of the twentieth century in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union probably killed a smaller proportion of the population than a typical hunter-gatherer feud or biblical conquest. (I am not sure this is an accurate observation) The world’s population has mushroomed, wars and killings can no longer hide under a radar of ignorance; they are scrutinised and documented, so we are more aware of violence, even when it may be statistically less extensive.
What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question—”Why is there war?” instead of “Why is there peace?” There have been some suggestions, all unproven and, perhaps, unprovable. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan is the moderator and guardian. Thomas Hobbes wrote “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.”
Democracy to a large extent has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us. Perhaps it’s because for many people, life has become longer and less awful, less brutish, when pain, tragedy, and early death are expected features of one’s own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. Technologies have evolved that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. The more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over those of other sentient beings. Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that “there but for fortune go I.”
Pinker’s fourteen year old optimism may be misplaced – indeed this article suggests that it may be but at its heart lies the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, in that it is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate on smaller and smaller scales, and if we can identify those forces, we can corral them and perhaps contain and neutralise them.
The Taliban haven’t heard of Dr Pinker. They haven’t read him because most of them can’t read. They are therefore driven to supremacy by one force alone, violence. Violence is at the heart of Islam, however as much as Western snowflakes would wish to sugarcoat it or deny it altogether. We see it in their recent actions – specifically the hunting down of female judges in Afghanistan. These women are in hiding, moving nomadically from one address to another and, if caught, will suffer humiliation and probably death. It is a perfect example of the worth of evolutionary psychology since we see in real time the behaviour of the primitive, the neo-Neanderthal. We as Homo Sapiens survived, the Neanderthals did not, thus it is worth speculating that perhaps they were exterminated not by our intellectual superiority necessarily but by their own violent tendencies. If this is so, then the Taliban are on a path to their own self-destruction. For the sake of the educated women, may it come soon.