Why Is This Guy Smiling?

Article excerpt

Byline: Robin Marantz Henig

In our era of wars, genocide, and terrorism, Steven Pinker says we're more peaceful than ever.

Steven Pinker is the very model of a modern intellectual. Since the 1994 publication of his first bestseller, The Language Instinct, he's been known for his ability to boil down complex ideas into accessible, often-funny, cocktail-party-chatter-worthy sound bites. His status as a pop-science rock star was cemented in 2009 when his article for The New York Times Magazine, "My Genome, My Self," featured a full-frontal headshot of him on the cover. (Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, got his whole genome sequenced for the story, and revealed such "blessedly average" findings as a slightly-lower-than-normal risk for prostate cancer and a slightly-higher-than-normal risk for diabetes.) And as a charter member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, he's instantly recognizable: square jaw, blue eyes, and masses of now-graying curls tumbling to his shoulders.

Pinker became a political lightning rod--or maybe the better image is an inkblot test--with the publication nine years ago of The Blank Slate, in which he argued people are born with genetic tendencies that have evolved over millennia. While culture and environment help determine how those tendencies are expressed, the nature-nurture balance tips heavily in nature's favor. He managed to offend most of the political spectrum with that one, being called sexist, polemical, and dangerous.

He is about to be in the news again. In Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he makes the counterintuitive claim that the 21st century--the century of terrorism in the Middle East, genocide in Darfur, civil war in Somalia--is the least violent era in human history. Not only homicide, but all forms of violence, are less common now than ever before, including torture, slavery, domestic abuse, hate crimes--even barroom brawling and cruelty to animals.

"A statement like that might seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene," Pinker admits. "But that is the correct picture." We have trouble believing it partly because we see so many egregious examples of violence streaming on the Web and blaring across our big-screen TVs. "Our own eyes deceive us," he says, "because we estimate probabilities by how well we can remember examples." And images of violence now come to us from everywhere, via anyone with a cellphone camera, making it seem that murder, rape, tribal warfare, and suicide bombers all lurk just around the next corner.

We've also broadened our definition of violence. "My favorite example is bullying," Pinker says. "President Obama gave a speech the other day denouncing bullying, which would have been ludicrous 40 years ago." Opposition to capital punishment, police involvement in domestic abuse--these are all "great moral advances," he is quick to add, but they help explain why people get the impression that violence is so pervasive. …