Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Falling Downs summer book review

Every summer I try to read at least one "serious" book, and this year it was Steven Pinker's The better angels of our nature.

I'd heard Pinker interviewed on the radio and was skeptical but intrigued by his thesis that humankind is evolving towards some more peaceable iteration of ourselves. Seems counter-intuitive when you look at the world around you.

First of all, at just shy of 700 pages exclusive of footnotes, what Pinker really needs is an editor. His recitation of medieval torture techniques goes on for a hundred pages and left me shrieking for mercy. Alright already!.. I get the point!

A dozen pages to explain the Poisson process, a couple dozen more on brain physiology... a half-decent editor could have lopped 300 pages off this bloated tome and left us with a more readable book.

Be that as it may, and although I'm disinclined to believe in "progress," there seems no question that today we are less likely to murder our rivals, abuse our spouses, beat our kids and our dogs, and lynch members of minorities than we have been in the past, and that's a good thing.

As individuals we are becoming less violent.

Pinker argues this is a result of a gradual process whereby as society became more literate and cosmopolitan we were able to broaden our circles of empathy to include more and more folks who looked less and less like us.

Meanwhile, and again owing to the spread of literacy, the escalator of reason was carrying us ever upwards, to the point where in the last two hundred years or so we were finally able to figure out that if both I and my arch-nemesis each settled for a slice of pie instead of trying to kill each other over the whole damn thing, not only would we both have pie, there'd even be pie left over for breakfast!

While that was going on, the modern nation state evolved right along with us and codified a lot of these new enlightened rules about pie-sharing and neighbor-killing, and to bind all of these developments together and spread them far and wide was a phenomenon called "gentle commerce," not to be confused with the dog-eat-dog rough commerce we are all too acquainted with.

Well, I'm not so sure, Steven. It's not that I don't want to believe you, but... this "new peace" we're enjoying is really just a blink in the overall scheme of things, isn't it? And look around you; it could all go for a shit really fast, couldn't it?

I think if and when it does, it will be because of the work of what might be called the "war lobby" that is based mainly in the US, with chapters in the NATO gang and a few other followers of empire. These are folks who have a vested interest in making weapons, making profits, and making war. They've been busier than ever these last few years bringing freedom and democracy and death and destruction to a string of less evolved people, mostly in the Islamic world.

So it's not that I think you've got it wrong, Steve, it's just that it seems we could be but one false move by one sweaty-palmed ideologue away from having the bloodiest century in history.

We'll have to wait and see...

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