Saturday, April 27, 2013

Changing perspectives on the history of violence

One shouldn't, perhaps, take such things too seriously, but I was interested to see the results of Prospect magazine's 'World Thinkers' list last week.

More specifically, I was pleased to find a few of my own favourite authors placing highly and equally glad to have some potential new favourites brought to my attention who are now on my -- sadly ever-expanding -- to-read list.

There they are, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and a few others: people who, while I might not agree with everything they've argued or written, have nevertheless positively influenced how I see the world.

They're people with whom I find it's even worthwhile disagreeing, and you can't say that about everyone.

(There are some people on the list for whom that doesn't apply...but I've been trying to focus on the positive recently, so I won't go into that.) 

Coming in at number three is Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, whose most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, surely needs little introduction, seeing that it was both a bestseller and generated a substantial amount of debate and discussion.

I'm particularly pleased about that, for a few reasons. 

His earlier book The Blank Slate was one of those works that began shifting my views on violence from being more or less at home within 'cultural theory' toward trying to integrate cultural history with what might be called 'biological', 'evolutionary' or 'behavioural science' perspectives. (The others being works by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Robert Wright and Frans de Waal.) 

An early version of that shift can be glimpsed in a 2007 essay that I wrote on violence and cultural change; the most recent culmination of my thinking on the matter was in an article that appeared as part of a special issue in the British Journal of Criminology in 2011.   

Steve and I engaged in several mutually rewarding email discussions of violence, psychology and history while Better Angels was taking shape (it is humbling to find myself in the book's acknowledgements), an exchange that we were finally able to take up in person a couple of times in recent years in Bern and London.

Bern, Switzerland, September 2011
We also exchanged our most recent books as gifts. Going by weight and page length, I fear that Steve might feel he got the worse of this deal, but it was very nice to find him recommending my new(ish) book, The Most Remarkable Woman in England, on Twitter as 'A fascinating real-life murder story.'

So, for all these reasons -- and like some other people -- I feel inspired to add my personal congratulations on yet another public recognition.

Then, relatedly and coincidentally, last week I received (from the author) a copy of a review essay in the current issue of the English Historical Review that that considers Better Angels together with some other recent works on violence history.

In the article, Gregory Hanlon -- author of the pioneering Human Nature in Rural Tuscany: An Early Modern History -- offers some constructive criticism of Better Angels from the perspective of an early modern historian; however, he argues that historians will 'learn a great deal' from the book's analysis of the psychological abilities that encourage and restrain violence.

He then critically considers some recent broad-scale analyses of long-term changes in European which have emerged from a more traditional social/cultural history perspective and concludes by pointing out a few more recent contributions to the debate that have begun (whether on a more theoretical or empirical level) to seek some degree of methodological integration.

For those historians interested in (though even for those perhaps sceptical about) behavioural-science approaches to violence history, this essay should certainly be on your reading lists.

And it occurs to me, once again, that I am very fortunate to know such fascinating people. 

Congratulations, Steve!

Well done, Greg!

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