A Book Explorer's Odyssey:The Better Angels of Our Nature

【明報專訊】Whether there will be a Third World War is a nagging worry of this generation. If you are concerned about this subject, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a 2011 book written by Canadian-American scholar Steven Pinker, might offer you some consolation.

An extensively-researched book marshalling huge quantity of data, the book is an encyclopaedic history of crime. It contains in-depth discussion of how humankind has been inextricably linked with all kinds of violence, ranging from homicide, genocide, wars to tribal massacres, since time immemorial. Our inherent inclination towards violence is borne out by the fossils of our ancestors that often carry tell-tale signs of coldblooded murder, such as an arrowhead embedded in the bone or a skull visibly fractured by a blunt object.

But Pinker's book offers cause for optimism: over the course of history, the rates of major bursts of violence have decreased across the board (各方面地). True, the two World Wars, both of which happened in the 20th century, have caused millions of casualties. However, if the figures are adjusted with the world population of their times, they were not the deadliest conflicts. You might be interested to know that the greatest bloodshed in history was actually the An Lushan Rebellion (安史之亂), which killed around two-thirds of China's population. More importantly, the percentage of years where there were wars between great powers and the frequency and duration of such wars all show a downward trend between 1500 and 2000.

Pinker identifies a number of forces that have contributed to our era of peace. One is the concept of the Leviathan as suggested by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes' theory is that the state should monopolise the use of violence, so that ordinary people are barred from using it as a way to settle disputes (such as challenging your enemy to a duel). The second is commerce. While in the past looting was often the only way to acquire resources, the establishment of trade practices nowadays allows us to engage in a positive-sum game, in which everybody wins.

The third factor is humans' expanding circles of sympathy. Humans, like other animals on planet earth, have a ''selfish gene'' (also the title of Oxford scholar Richard Dawkins' book). For the sake of survival, species see other species as either threats that must be eliminated or pawns that can be exploited, which is why they are so ruthless against other animals (just google how an eagle defeathers a blackbird or how a pack of hyenas eat a zebra alive). While humans are equipped with the capacity of empathy, in the early days it was limited to our family and next of kin (直系親屬). Over the course of history, the circles of sympathy have expanded to include our friends, people we do not know, those living in another country or from a different cultural background, or even other species.

The fourth and final factor is the ''escalator of reason''. As the Enlightenment made humankind more capable of thinking abstractly and universally, they became more likely to ''put themselves in the shoes of others'' and refrain from the use of violence.

Then what is the role of democracy in this downward trend? German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that democracy is a leg of the triangle that promoted peace, the other two being open economies and engagement with international communities. Pinker's observation is that while democratic nations do sometimes go to war with each other (an example being the war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006), ''not only do democracies avoid disputes with each other, but there is a suggestion that they tend to stay out of disputes across the board''. He cites the Baltic and Central European countries that embraced democracy after the Soviet empire collapsed, and the South American countries that shook off their military juntas in the 1970s and 1980s. None of them subsequently went to war.

Perhaps what I find the most thought-provoking is Pinker's explanations of why ''Utopian'' ideologies have led to mass genocide throughout history. First, Utopia, as argued by its apologists, is something ''infinitely good'', and anything that stands in its way (even millions of human deaths) will always matter less in comparison. So it is acceptable to get rid of human lives when required, the argument goes. Secondly, Utopian philosophies have a ''tidy'' blueprint, treating people with diverse attributes as incompatible with them that must be ''written off''.

At a time when vitriol (尖刻批評) and intolerance seem to be on the rise in the cyber world, it is important to bear in mind what has taken us to this era of relative peace in the first place.

■Writer's Profile

If life is a voyage, Terence Yip (葉凱楓) likes to navigate by the books. That's what he does in this column.

(Email: terenceyipmingpao@outlook.com)

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