EMPATHY and fellow-feeling for human beings beyond our immediate family or tribe derives from reading — but not from studying Holy Writ: we learned sympathy from novels. This was perhaps the most startling claim in The Violence Paradox (BBC4, 4 May).
The bestselling author the psychologist Professor Steven Pinker presented an array of evidence supporting his thesis that, despite every assumption that the opposite is self-evident, “we are living through one of the most peaceful eras in human history.” Studies of court records planted the seed: first in Britain, then in every other Western country where documentation survives, rates of homicide have, since the Middle Ages, hugely reduced.
Far from being peace-loving hunter-gatherers at one with nature, our prehistoric ancestors were, forensic study shows, three times more likely to be killed by others than we are today. Surely our industrialised wars deal far more death than our forebears did? In numerical terms, yes — but not as a proportion of total population.
Gradually, we came to accept that the appropriate response to personal affront was not violence, but self-control; most states no longer employ torture in the judicial process. Eighteenth-century enlightenment taught that even savages might be noble, and that all people were equal; reading novels leads us imaginatively into the lives not just of other members of our team, but of people completely unlike us; so it is clearly wrong to hurt them. Well, yes, but surely “Love your neighbour as yourself” played some part in this process.
Care for general humankind movingly animated Jabbed! Inside Britain’s vaccine triumph (Channel 4, Monday of last week). This celebrated a remarkable team of diverse experts, who put their ordinary lives on hold for as long as it took to achieve goals that, for many months, had no guarantee of success. This is a glorious reversal of our familiar national narrative of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The rule book was torn up; academic, commercial, and industrial experts pooled skills and expertise, dared to work way beyond their traditional processes, and achieved success both in developing vaccines far more effective than expected and in speedy manufacture and delivery way beyond their wildest dreams. For their heroic pains, they were attacked and pilloried by public and social media.
Contrasting with this triumph of science, Johnny Vegas: Carry on glamping (C4, four episodes starting on 5 May, all now available at All 4) celebrated artistic licence and irrational commitment. The deadpan comic is determined to create a high-end campsite of vintage buses and campervans, eschewing financial realism, business models, planning regulations, etc. It’s funny — but the hare-brained venture reveals, soberingly, Johnny’s emotional depth and vulnerability.