Stephen Pinker’s latest book — on the decline of violence over time — is getting an early rave review. I’m planning to read the book, but the cautionary note struck in the closing of this Guardian review seems appropriate.
What might change [the steady decline of societal violence]? As I was reading this book I was repeatedly reminded of two novels. One is Lord of the Flies, an earlier generation’s definitive allegory of the violence lurking in us all. Pinker’s book makes Golding’s vision look dated: there is no state of nature bubbling away beneath the surface of civilised man, notwithstanding all the hysterical nonsense that has been uttered about the recent riots (which were, for riots, remarkably unviolent). The other novel is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this generation’s definitive allegory of how it could all go wrong. McCarthy pictures a world in which some random future spasm (perhaps an environmental catastrophe) leaves us all unhinged and lets the inner demons loose. Does our gradual move away from violence towards civility leave us better or worse equipped to deal with the next great calamity when it comes?