Would We be Better Off if we Could Go Back in History?
This is a tiny snippet from Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature where he addresses this question.
We hear people complaining about the decline of morality in society and the increase of violence. Often the idea is that if only we could go back in time to when we didn’t have the technology we have today, when people believed in the traditional way of life and in God, when people were much kinder, more peaceable, and moral than they are today.
The question is, is there truth to this idea? Has humanity become more violent, less moral?
Stephen Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature describes this perfectly in the last pages of the last chapter in this 2000 (and some) page book. Below is what he wrote.
Quoted directly from The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (beginning page 1564).
“A loathing of modernity is one of the great constants of contemporary social criticism. Whether the nostalgia is for small-town intimacy, ecological sustainability, communitarian solidarity, family values, religious faith, primitive communism, or harmony with the rhythms of nature, everyone longs to turn back the clock. What has technology given us, they say, but alienation, despoliation, social pathology, the loss of meaning, and a consumer culture that is destroying the planet to give us McMansions, SUVs, and reality television?
Lamentations of a fall from Eden have a long history in intellectual life, as the historian Arthur Herman has shown in The Idea of Decline in Western History. And ever since the 1970s, when romantic nostalgia became the conventional wisdom, statisticians and historians have marshaled facts against it. The titles of their books tell the story: The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong, It’s Getting Better All the Time, The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!, The Case for Rational Optimism, The Improving State of the World, The Progress Paradox, and most recently, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Charles Kenny’s Getting Better. (Note: I included this paragraph in case somebody wants to look up/purchase the books listed here by Steven Pinker.)
These defenses of modernity recount the trials of daily living before the advent of affluence and technology. Our ancestors, they remind us, were infested with lice and parasites and lived above cellars heaped with their own feces. Food was bland, monotonous, and intermittent. Health care consisted of the doctor’s saw and the dentist’s pliers. Both sexes labored from sunrise to sundown whereupon they were plunged into darkness. Winter meant months of hunger, boredom, and gnawing loneliness in snowbound farmhouses.
But it was not just mundane physical comforts that our recent ancestors did without. It was also the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection. Until recently most people never traveled more than a few miles from their place of birth. Everyone was ignorant of the vastness of the cosmos, the prehistory of civilization, the genealogy of living things, the genetic code, the microscopic world, and the constituents of matter and life. Musical recordings, affordable books, instant news of the world, reproductions of great art, and filmed dramas were inconceivable, let alone available in a tool that can fit in a shirt pocket. When children emigrated, their parents might never see them again, or hear their voices, or meet their grandchildren. And then there are modernity’s gifts of life itself: the additional decades of existence, the mothers who live to see their newborns, the children who survive their first years on earth. When I stroll through old New England graveyards, I am always struck by the abundance of tiny plots and poignant epitaphs. “Elvina Maria, died July 12, 1945; aged 4 years, and 9 months. Forgive this tear, a parent weeps. ‘Tis here, the faded floweret sleeps.”
Even with all these reasons why no romantic would really step into a time machine, the nostalgic have always been able to pull out one moral card: the profusion of modern violence. At least, they say, our ancestors did not have to worry about muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation. Surely no Boeing 747, no antibiotic, no iPod is worth the suffering that modern societies and their technologies can wreak.
And here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all. We now know that native peoples, whose lives are so romanticized in today’s children’s books, had rates of death from warfare that were greater than those of our world wars. The romantic visions of medieval Europe omit the exquisitely crafted instruments of torture and are innocent of the thirty-fold greater risk of murder in those times. The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her nose cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human rights almost incoherent. Genocide and war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal. From the vantage point of almost seven decades after the world wars and genocides of the first half of the 20th century, we see that they were not harbingers of worse to come, nor a new normal to which the world would grow inured, but a local high from which it would bumpily descend. And the ideologies behind them were not woven into modernity but atavisms that ended up in the dustbin of history.
The forces of modernity – reason, science, humanism, individual rights – have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence.”