Are we getting better?

Are we becoming less violent, more empathic, more caring?

Is humankind evolving into humankinder?

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker thinks we are, and he’s stated the case convincingly in his panoramic 696-page tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). His argument is not new. Jeremy Rifken, in Empathic Civilization (2009), masterfully demonstrated that Homo sapiens has been evolving on an upward empathic curve throughout the centuries, a progression toward seeing others more and more as, well, fellow members of Homo sapiens. It is true: Understanding that there will be occasional declines on the curve (and we may very well be on the brink of experiencing one now), the overall arc of humanity is toward the empathic and the less violent.

I can hear the skepticism: How can one take seriously the proposition that we are getting better in a world in which horror surrounds us, in which one cannot watch the news without being assaulted by the seeming ordinariness of war, terrorism, and near continuous acts of random violence? The 24-hour news cycle impinges on our psyches the unrelenting message that we are experiencing the worst of times, that “the blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” in the poet’s words, with no relief on the horizon—a time-honored recipe for the emergence of demagogues, as historians and philosophers have observed for centuries: “The world is going to hell, those people are to blame, I alone can save you.”

But the world as it is presented to us through television, radio, and the internet is not the world as it is. We do not tune into the news expecting a Hallmark card-style report on the state of planet Earth. We expect conflict, tragedy, and general mayhem, on a global scale, and the media delivers it, 24/7. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say. No wonder we respond with healthy skepticism toward suggestions that things are getting better.

The folks populating the villages of, say, 14th or 15th century Europe had this advantage over us: They were largely unaware of the scope of the horrors taking place on the world stage. They were aware of the violence and cruelties in their own villages but ignorant of inhumanities elsewhere. But inhumanity abounded, on a massive scale: If you harbor any doubts about the gruesomeness of life in Europe during the centuries before the “discovery” of the Americas, google “medieval torture.” No matter what horror we might experience in today’s world, we can be assured it was much worse in the not-so-distant past. No doubt about it, we’ve come a long way. And, yes, we have far to go.

Pinker refers to the evolution of our species in moral terms—a progression away from, for example, burning witches and heretics at the stake and toward more humane approaches to crime and punishment (and more reasoned approaches to what constitutes crime). He refers to what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution as a broad descriptor of what has been taking place over the past few centuries, the long slow movement out of tribalism and toward civic community that led to one of the most noble proclamations of the Age of Reason, “that all men are created equal . . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” At least within the world’s democracies, that statement, over the subsequent 250 years, would lead to the abolition of state-sponsored slavery and the almost universal end to capital punishment, among numerous other reforms. 

But there’s a larger point that needs to be made here, one that focuses on the importance of our intentional response to Pinker’s and Rifken’s (and many others’) research: If our natural evolutionary direction is toward the empathic and away from the violent—and the evidence appears incontrovertible—what are we then called to do? Are we to rest on the laurels of the millions of reformers of the past who have made this march toward humanitarianism possible, hoping that it will continue with little effort on our part today? Or should we, instead, focus our energies, steel our consciences, and increase our efforts to advance this movement, both individually and through community-based entities such as social service agencies, humanitarian organizations, universities, religious communities, philanthropic foundations, and local, state, and federal government agencies? 

More to the point, are we up to the task? 

Better still: Is there an alternative?