Whether you agree or not with the premise made in Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, it cannot but help to provoke a great deal of interest in anyone who thinks and cares deeply about the human condition. The significant amount of media attention given to the book suggests that we humans, as a species, have a strong need to understand (or wish to believe) that we, as a species, are making progress as moral beings.
Pinker thinks so. I would like to think so, too. But I am not so sure. He begins with this assertion in the Preface,
This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not — and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.
With already too many people following me around (read: books) like a phantom of the library, I am far from being in the position of reading, cover to cover, Pinker’s 700 plus page book. Nevertheless, I could not resist.
Since its arrival, I periodical find myself, when I have the spare time, to not read it from cover to cover but to dip into and out of it as the moment takes me. Of course, I would like to read it from the beginning to the end. That is not likely for the time being. Further, it is a book that I think I should study as there is a lot of material in it of interest and relevance to my own research and writing. I must, therefore, make the time for it.
All this preamble is my way to lead you into the dilemma I now found myself with the book.
I have read something in it that I know is not true. Pinker states otherwise. In fact, it is such a blunder that I can not believe he has made it. Further, it is a significant, pivotal point in his argument about our moral evolution. He writes in the chapter entitled ‘The Rights Revolutions’ in the subsection called ‘Animal Rights and the Decline of Cruelty to Animals’ the following:
But any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism. Hitler and many of his henchmen were vegetarians, not so much out of compassion for animals as from an obsession with purity, a pagan desire to reconnect to the soil, and a reaction to the anthropocentrism and meat rituals of Judaism. In an unsurpassed display of the human capacity for moral compartmentalization, the Nazis, despite their unspeakable experiments on living humans, instituted the strongest laws for the protection of animals in research that Europe had ever seen. Their laws also mandated humane treatment of animals in farms, movie sets, and restaurants, where fish had to be anesthetized and lobsters killed swiftly before they were cooked. Ever since that bizarre chapter in the history of animal rights, advocates of vegetarianism have had to retire one of their oldest arguments: that eating meat makes people aggressive, and abstaining from it makes them peaceful. (462)
Now, it is possible that buried elsewhere in the 700 pages Pinker refutes the claim that Hitler et al were vegetarians and the Third Reich were the forerunners of the contemporary animal rights movement. I just have not come across … yet.
Having got this benefit of the doubt out of the way, I am left with asking: How can someone as smart as Pinker get it so wrong?
Hitler was no more a vegetarian than the Third Reich gave birth to the contemporary animal rights movement. This nonsense is usually written by those who oppose animal rights and have a financial vested interest in the commercial exploitation of animals. But a world-renowned psychologist and author studying the behavioural and moral development of our own species?
Nevertheless, I will continue to read the book. But all the pleasure, excitement and the anticipation of discovering new things and ideas, well, they are long gone. Which is such a shame.