569 of 629 people found the following review helpful
This is a huge book, but as Pinker says, it is a huge subject. He organizes himself by lists. First, there are six significant trends which have led to a decrease in violence.
1. Our evolution from hunter gatherers into settled civilizations, which he calls the Pacification Process.
2. The consolidation of small kingdoms and duchies into large kingdoms with centralized authority and commerce, which he calls the Civilizing Process.
3. The emergence of Enlightenment philosophy, and it's respect for the individual through what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution.
4. Since World War II, violence has been suppressed, first by the overwhelming force of the two parties in the Cold War, and more recently by the American hegemony. Pinker calls this the Long Peace.
5. The general trend, even apart from the Cold War, of wars to be more infrequent, and less violent, however autocratic and anti-democratic the governments may be. Call this the New Peace.
6. Lastly, the growth of peace and domestic societies, and with it the diminishing level of violence through small things like schoolyard fights, bullying, and picking on gays and minorities. He titles this the Rights Revolution.
Pinker then goes on to examine the traditional explanations of violence, the traditional explanations of human nature which account for violence. There is practical violence, which you might call necessary violence. Then there are dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideologically driven violence. Opposing these are what he calls the better angels of human nature, empathy, self-control, our moral sense, and reason. Many of these characteristics are shared with our primate brethren, the chimpanzees on down, but some of them are uniquely human. With our ability to reason, and the unique human ability to impute motive to conspecifics of our own or other tribes, and our ability to express ourselves verbally, we are better able than any other species to negotiate our way through situations of conflict. A good deal of the decline in violence has to do with the maturation of these processes through the genetic evolution of the human animal, and more recently, through the evolution of our society and the ways in which societies socialize their members.
He concludes with five historical forces, which I find a little bit harder to grasp, but which serve as a vehicle for explanations of a number of interesting phenomena in the recent evolution of society. We have evolved Leviathan societies, in which the individual is pretty well controlled by state force. Not only our police, but our employers, our schools, and every other institution holds violence firmly in check as a matter of its own functioning. Other forces are commerce, which only happens when the partners are on peaceful terms, the evolution of women from mere propagators of the species to intellectual equals and partners in all of our undertakings, the growing information networks which bind us together, a process he calls cosmopolitanism, and lastly the increasing application of reason, which we would probably call the scientific basis, to human affairs, leading to a recognition that violence is in most circumstances not the best way to achieve one's ends.
In his discussion of ideologically driven violence he spends several pages discussing ideologies themselves. Specifically, he describes the groupthink environment in which a group comes to embrace dogmas that most of the individuals within the group would reject, or at least question, if they approached them on their own. The key mechanism is punishment of dissention, the ostracism of people who don't mouth the groupthink. Sounds to me to describe political correctness at Harvard just as much as Communism under Stalin. I am pleased that Pinker had the courage to resist said PC and defend the science behind the observations which got Larry Summers fired as president of Harvard. Calls to mind the "Kinsley gaffe", "A truthful statement told accidentally, usually by a politician."
For a guy with a long history of writing about evolution, he seems to pretty much avoid its implications in this book. In fact, he has more or less morphed from a true scientist to a social scientist/historian. Whereas "The Language Instinct" and "Words and Rules" got into leading edge science, and "The Blank Slate" brought us up to date on the theory of human evolution, this book is pretty much a compilation of other peoples' statistics and observations, weighted with Pinker's opinions.
The question that will go through every reader's mind when reading a book on the subject this vast is "how do you know?" Pinker answers that question in a way that I really admire - statistics. He says that most of us reason from anecdotal evidence. For instance, because the news media play up terror deaths such as those in Fort Hood, they tend to be grossly exaggerated in our conscience. We would tend to equate the danger of death by an act of terror with that of dying from a lightning strike or industrial accident, when the latter are far more probable. Also, because there have been terror acts in the news lately, we would overlook the fact that the number of deaths attributable to terror have fallen off dramatically over the past few decades. Pinker does a good job of educating us by taking on our common sense understandings, showing that they are erroneous, and showing us a statistical methodology by which we can realistically estimate broad societal phenomena such as terror, death by war, murder and so on.
More than in his other books, Pinker reminds us of his Jewish roots, gently chafing Christianity for celebrating the sacrifice of an innocent man, and turning the cross, the instrument of sacrifice, into its holy icon. He also takes the obligatory swipes at George W. Bush for his bloodthirsty wars, conveniently overlooking the neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle who provided the intellectual foundation for the adventure. He also conveniently over looks the fact that President Obama, despite his vehement campaign rhetoric to the contrary, has continued the wars, presumably also with strong backing from AIPAC, and that he has likewise been captive to advisors such as Larry Summers. His writing is such a thrill to read that I overlook these tropes with an grin. And I appreciate that he is willing to defend the "dead white men" of the Enlightenment and make politically incorrect observations about the different peoples who make up America.
I note, although Pinker does not address them in great detail, some concommitment trends. At the same time violence is decreasing, our religiosity, fertility and our tribalism are likewise decreasing. We are not fighting wars in the interests of religion because large swaths of humanity no longer believe. We are not fighting for lebensraum because we are not having the children that would be needed in order to populate more territory. In other words, at the same time we're becoming less violent, we're losing some of that zest for evolutionary success which led us to become violent in the first place. We can pray along with Doctor Pinker for a world in which there is increasingly less violence, but we need also pray for one in which the drive for human excellence continues to manifest itself.
Afterward: For an excellent review by a professional historian, albeit somewhat more critical than this review, I recommend you google "timothy snyder war no more". Snyder is the author of "Bloodlands," which I also review favorably here on Amazon.
175 of 199 people found the following review helpful
This very ambitious and sprawling book is a serious effort to argue for and explain the progressive decline in interpersonal violence in human societies. The book is divided into 2 parts. The first part is an effort to describe a broad sweep of human history from prehistoric societies to the present, arguing for a progressive though intermittant decline in violence in human societies. The second part is an effort to understand the underpinings of the decline in violence in terms of human psychological processes.
Pinker's sequence of the decline in violence is based on synthesis of a large volume of literature generated by archaeologists, ethnologists, historians, sociologists, political scientists, and psychologists. Pre-state societies, while low in absolute population and absolute number of violent acts, had very high per capita levels of violence. The emergence of states resulted in some decline in violence and the gradual strengthening of the state resulted in a progressive decline in interpersonal violence, even as states became more capable of waging war. This is best documented in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present. Pinker highlights a number of important parallel processes. The "Civilizing Process" described by the great historical sociologist Norbert Elias of the increasing importance of self-control, manners, and social amity from the Renaissance onwards is prominently featured as a key feature in the decline of violence. Similarly, Pinker emphasizes the humanitarianism of the Enlightenment and subsequent reform movements. In the 20th century, the "Rights Revolution" that has brought widespread acceptance of religious and ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals, is also discussed as improving our societies. Pinker makes the important point that while the 20th century saw great violence with the tremendous crimes committed by totalitarian states and the huge casulties of WWI and WWII, on a per capita basis, there is continued decline which has accelerated in the post-WWII era.
All of these phenomena are generally well known to historians and many social scientists. Pinker deserves considerable credit for bringing them before the broad reading public and for synthesizing them into one broad arc. That said, Pinker's presentation and discussion of these topics is uneven. In general, Pinker does better when drawing on political science and other social science literature. His discussion of the democratic peace phenomenon, for example, is quite good. His discussions of historical topics often leads a good deal to be desired. Treating the admirable Barbara Tuchman as an authoritative source on late Medieval Europe when there is a lot of excellent secondary literature seems a bit lazy. Referring to Napoleonic France as the first fascist state is very misleading about both France in this period and 20th century fascism. I share Pinker's enthusiasm for Enlightenment reformism but his schematic version of the Enlightenment is a distortion of this rich historical phenomenon. Pinker also overlooks an important complication of his primary story. All of his discussion of the decline in violence from the Middle Ages onward, the Civilizing Process, Enlightenment Humanitarianism, etc., is based on European examples. But this is the same period during which European expansion results in the victimization of the pitiful remnant of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and the Pacific. It is also largely the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which probably caused a marked increase in violence in sub-Saharan Africa. These phenomena were accompanied and followed by considerable imperialist-colonial depredations, some of which had marked destabilizing effects. One of the most traumatic events of the 19th century was the Taiping Rebellion, which caused tens of millions of deaths in China. The Taiping revolt was partly a result of the destabilization of the Qing regime by European colonialism. None of this means that Pinker is wrong about the overall story but its a much more complicated evolution than he suggests.
In the final part of the book, Pinker discusses the possible mechanisms of the decline in violence. This is largely a discussion of possibly relevant psychological processes. Pinker discusses psychological processes that would favor violence and other processes that would reduce violence. As with the descriptive part of the book, this is an effort to synthesize a lot of prior literature, notably social psychology literature. Pinker develops an interesting model in which some psychological mechanisms could interact in virtuous circles to enhance personal restraint, sympathy with others, and improve sociability. This is somewhat speculative but plausible. In one case, Pinker offers an interesting specific hypothesis that the decline in violence and increase in social tolerance we've experienced in the past decades is due to the Flynn effect, an apparent increase in certain aspects of intelligence across the 20th century. Also as with the first section of the book, these discussions are uneven. Pinker does better when discussing social psychology literature. As someone who is involved in neurobiology research, I found his efforts at including brain mechanisms overly simple. Given his reliance on social psychology studies for many of his most important analyses, the gestures at neurobiology add little to his overall presentation.
Another deficiency of this book is Pinker's style of argumentation. On a paragraph by paragraph basis, Pinker is a clear and often engaging writer. Some sections could be confusing because of a tendency to abruptly reverse directions. In a section on the decline in crime in recent decades, he expands at some length on the effects of increased incarceration rates. He then abruptly changes course and attacks this idea. Without careful reading, it would be possible to take very different conclusions away from this discussion. Similarly, he has a discussion of so-called power law relationships in which he suggests the presence of apparent power law curves suggests a uniform process. He later suggests that dual processes could underly a power law curve and, in fact, the existence of a an apparent power law curve tell you nothing about whether a single or multiple processes underlies the phenomenon under study. Pinker also has a tendency to punctuate his analyses with opinionated asides that may or may not be relevant or valid. The purportedly destructive effects of the 1960s counterculture seems to be a idee fixe.
This book would have benefited from a major revision prior to publication, some shortening, and a lot more historical research.
162 of 191 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2011
In his lauded but controversial best-seller "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature", Steven Pinker set out to quash a romanticized nostalgia for the lifestyle of people in pre-state societies: the myth of the "noble savage". Now, in his new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined", Steven Pinker extends this rectification of prevailing but misguided opinion to grand scale, presenting a strong case for our ennobled present; we are living in the most peaceful era humanity has ever known.
Pinker blows the reader away (forgive the violent metaphor) with sheer weight of analytical shot. At 700 pages of text interspersed with graphs and heaps of reference data, "Better Angels" is thorough-going and methodical because it has to be; contradicting common folk theories (like the noble savage), overriding an often overwhelming sense of unceasing or imminent violence from media coverage (see compassion fatigue), and compensating for a general lack of statistical thinking and probabilistic understanding in the lay public is no easy task. People are right to be skeptical of controversial theories, and knowing this Pinker has patiently lain it all out for us to see for ourselves that violence truly has declined with clear and unambiguously downward direction.
"Better Angels" is structured around an inventory of six Trends, five Inner Demons with four Better Angels, and five Historical Forces (Pinker can't help but enumerate). More than half of the book is dedicated to a chronological exploration of the Trends of our history, six paradigm shifts in the human condition: The Pacification Process, The Civilizing Process, The Humanitarian Revolution, The Long Peace, The New Peace, and The Rights Revolutions. The bulk of the remaining half of the text is a fascinating look at psychology and sociology, showcasing a combined total of nine human traits (the Better Angels & Inner Demons) that dictate our behavior depending on their interplay with our environment and circumstance. The last five items in Pinker's syllabus, the five Historical Forces, feature in the concluding chapter and encapsulate much of the book's overall content by reflecting combinations of historical trend and human trait.
The Five Major Historical Forces for Peace:
The Leviathan (the state; reigns in internal violence)
Gentle Commerce (economic incentives for cooperation)
Feminization (empowerment of women; men are naturally more violent)
The Expanding Circle (empathy; sympathizing with ever wider classes)
The Escalator of Reason (rationality; application of empathy)
A few minor quibbles with value judgments aside, "The Better Angels of Our Nature" assiduously justifies its subtitular contention: violence really has declined, and now it's not so hard to see why. Steven Pinker has assembled vast quantities of data to support his position, sourced in turn by the assemblies of other preeminent scholars in ethnography, anthropology, and the history of man. Add to this a trove of lab-tested social psychology, game theory, and the areas of Pinker's own expertise in cognitive psychology. The resulting dissertation, structured with the incredible skill and forethought that define Steven Pinker's books, sums these component analyses into the rational juggernaut needed to upend the conventional wisdom it is up against. Though consistently dispassionate in tone and bearing throughout, the title of this book betrays its emotional impact: optimism for humanity.
51 of 64 people found the following review helpful
Pinker tells us we may be living in the most peaceful ear of man's existence. This conclusion is substantiated via six trends, five 'inner demons,' four 'better angels,' and five historical forces.
The first of the six trends took place over millennia, and consisted of the transition from the anarchy of hunting and gathering societies to agricultural civilizations with cities and governments some 5,000 years ago. That change brought a reduction in chronic raiding and feuding, and an approximate 5X decrease in violent death rates. The second spanned more than half a millennium (between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century), and brought a 10 - 50+X decrease in European homicide rates. The reduction is attributed to consolidation from a patchwork of small territories into large kingdoms and an infrastructure of commerce. The third transition took centuries and began in the 17th and 18th centuries via movements to abolish socially sanctioned violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, along with the beginnings of pacifism. The fourth took place after WWII, with the great powers and developed states ceasing to wage war on each other. The fifth trend, though more tenuous, is based on the further decline of civil wars, genocides, autocratic government, and terrorist attacks since the end of the Cold War. Pinker's final trends consists of the growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against minorities (civil rights), women (women's rights), children (children's rights), and homosexuals (gay rights).
The five inner demons include predatory violence deployed as a means to an end, dominance(urge for authority, prestige, glory, and power, revenge (retribution, punishment, and justice, sadism (pleasure in another's suffering), and ideology (shared belief system that justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good). The four better angels are motives orienting away from violence and towards cooperation and altruism. These include empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason (allows us to reflect on ways to better live our lives). The five historical forces are comprised of a state with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, commerce providing a positive-sum game in which everybody can win and technological progress, feminization involves increasingly respecting the interests and values of women, cosmopolitan forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media prompt people to take the perspective of those unlike themselves, and reason can bring people to recognize the futility of trying to boosting their own interests over others.
Bottom-Line: 'The Better Angels of Our Nature' reaches a somewhat surprising, though well-documented, well-reasoned, and welcome conclusion.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2013
It's a big, thick book, but that's in large part because it is so very full of facts: tables and charts, references, footnotes, index: this is a work that is bound to show up on required reading lists in sociology classes, political science classes, perhaps philosophy and others.
Pinker has gathered this impressive array of data to make one point: we are growing nicer over time. We are experiencing a humanizing, civilizing force that has reduced violence of all kinds, from war and murder to schoolyard bullying. An important part of that is attitude shifts: we tend to go from acceptance of brutality to discussions about it, to reducing the incidence, to finding what remains completely unthinkable. The statistics on infanticide are, to me, the defining example. It used to be common for newborns to be killed or abandoned for any number of reasons, and nobody talked about it. The shift -- uneven across cultures, but downward over the whole world -- makes a study of interest to everyone, and Pinker gives us plenty of detail. But he does that for every category of nastiness, and that adds up to a large, well-written, very readable book.
You do not have to be all that well educated, or any sort of specialist, to appreciate this book. In fact, I recommend it to pretty literally everyone.
25 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2011
Pinker's new book encompasses a prodigious collection of disparate lines of evidence and I would recommend it. However, I just wanted to comment on a technical point about research on the so called "Warrior Gene", which Pinker mistakenly dismisses (monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). Pinker writes:
"[A]n association between the gene and aggression has not been found in non-European populations, perhaps because they have evolved other ways of regulating their catecholamine levels. (Genes often act in networks regulated by feedback loops, so in populations in which a particular gene is less effective, other genes may step up their activity to compensate.) For now, the Warrior Gene theory is staggering around with possibly fatal wounds."
The mistake Pinker makes is that this is based on a paper by Widom and Brzustowicz which does not control for Gender. As the gene does not seem to affect female behaviour the study isn't helpful for looking at ethnic differences.
Pinker is apparently completely unaware that studies have found that MAOA influences aggression in non-europeans (see Weder et al). Kevin Beaver's research on MAOA's effect on gang membership and weapon use also helps support this association.
Finally, Pinker repeats a mistaken figure on the representation of MAOA in Chinese populations, stating:
"[T]he low-activity version of the gene is even more common in Chinese men (77 percent of whom carry it), and the Chinese are neither descended from warriors in their recent history nor particularly prone to social pathology in modern societies."
A study by Lu et al found that 42 Taiwanese men, or 55% of their 77-subject control sample, had the 3-repeat allele of MAOA. Lea and Chambers copied the information incorrectly. Then, an editorial against MAOA research by a doctoral student repeated the falsehood. Now, Pinker has repeated it too.
164 of 220 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2011
Pinker is as ever brilliant, and I found much intriguing and enlightening in this collection of cherry-picked psychological research in support of a sociological thesis: stated simply (my words, not Pinker's): However unpleasant they may be from time to time, elites are necessary if society is to function properly. For one example among many of Pinker's selectivity, he includes cutting edge evolutionary psychologist David Buss's work where it supports his own argument, but ignores his seminal inferences concerning reciprocal altruism, which differ in important ways from Pinker's. Buss is far less convinced than Pinker that violence defines man more than the urge to connect. Attachment theory doesn't even appear in the index. When Pinker suggests that one reason for the correlation between modernism and relative peacefulness is because power increasingly controls who can and cannot be violent, which he considers not such a bad outcome, he enters the domain of the famous Frankfurt School sociologists and the postmodernists who followed. However, he carefully avoids dialogue with renowned thinkers dating from Gramsci to Foucault who illuminated how power renders people passive, depressed, uninformed and authoritarian through techniques of propaganda, misdirection, and cooptation. Thus, non-physical, but profoundly destructive methods of social control cast no shadow on Pinker's view of modern Western elites as in the main, progressive. In sum, this seems less a comprehensive study than a scholarly polemic. Having said this, much of the material is absolutely fascinating.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2013
This book represented a crowning achievement in research. While lengthy, Pinker does not deviate from his argument that we are living in a less violent world than in the past. This book should be required reading for those concerned about the state of violence in the world, how humans have changed in response to violence, and the contrasts for how violence has changed in the past and the present.
47 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Steve Pinker is an joy to read. Few writers have his in-your-face intellectual confidence to invite your skepticism by telling you in the introduction that he intends to make a sweepingly radical point, then list in advance the evidence he will present to convince you. Not only does his thesis defy conventional wisdom and the most common intuitions from the evening news, his conclusions carry enough moral charge to provoke howls of protest from a wide range of people with a vested vision of a radically different human history and our future. Plus, he has the writer's chops to make these points with a breathtaking eloquence, brevity and a rock-solid erudition.
He has done this successfully before. His 2002 book, The The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, in similarly demolished the "tabula rasa" model of human nature which had increasingly dominated all the social sciences throughout the 20th century. Like "Our Better Angels..." his logic was an irresistible force and the prose was electric with the ring of truth and studded with insights of wisdom lightly often disguised as pearls of wit. My obsolete view of human nature (acquired by osmosis) was swept away in the opening chapters I found myself amazed that a writer who makes important points so quickly and convincingly could sustain such a chain for 500-plus pages.
If this book were thinner I'd have read it in a single sitting, and though I haven't yet finished it, I've jumped impulsively ahead at random a dozen times and found myself hooked for pages every time before returning to the bookmark. This book is just over 800 pages and is, if anything, even better. It may raise less ruckus than the "Blank Slate" (there's no towering academic attachment to human violence comparable to its commitment to tabula rasa humanity) but there's a very good reason to read this book: it's the sort that can do more than just change your mind, the sort of book that makes reading into more than another learning experience. It's fun.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 2013
This book for me ranks as one of the most important books I have ever read. It takes a scientific approach to the analysis of violence in humans (and other primates) over the millennia. Pinker dives deep into facts regarding violence in pre-state and "civilized" societies and matches those norms and trends against our current understanding of psychology and shifting moral codes. The book is exhaustively referenced and he supports each argument with well researched data. Steven Pinker is one of those rare and brilliant thinkers who is able to discern motivators and trends in extremely complex data sets and relate those findings in a way that the rest of us can comprehend. The book should be required reading of every politician, teacher and religious leader if not every high school student because I believe its importance to society can't be overestimated. Because of its import, it is also a commitment. I found myself re-reading many passages in the book several times to fully comprehend its meanings; but its payoff in revelations is absolutely worth it.
A truly stunning achievement!
A more in depth review........
This is a brilliant and epic analysis of the history of violence in human societies and presents a compelling argument for why violence in all its ugly iterations has declined, though not smoothly, over the past 5,000 years and particularly in the past 60.
It's an exhaustively researched book with lots of credible data to back up its claims. It's one of those few books that challenge one's fundamental assumptions about what is fact and what is fiction about our selves, our nature and our history. It challenges long held beliefs about human behavior in family, groups, tribe, community, society, culture and nation. It demonstrates how specific identifiable forces, both innate and exogenous, have been at the root of violence over the ages. But it also shows how the "better angels of our nature" have worked to modulate those forces through a complex development of an increasingly higher social and emotional intelligence. Even with the recent epidemic of mass shootings in the U.S., the proliferation of weaponry and civil wars, Pinker makes a convincing argument that we've never lived in more peaceful times.
Pinker follows a fascinating trajectory of our social and moral evolution and demonstrates how far we've really come, especially over the past few centuries. Even with the horrors of the wars of the 20th century, the slope of violence and aggression in world societies has been on an accelerating decline. With a long and sordid history of war, genocide, murder, torture, infanticide, human sacrifice, witch burnings, corporal and capital punishment, slavery, child abuse, abduction, serial killing, violent crime, racism, discrimination and animal abuse, human civilization is indeed living in a different era.
He credits the increasing pacification of human civilization to a process of intellectual and social evolution that has driven us toward a more self aware, reason based, peacefully cooperative, morally fair existence. He shows that through the science of ideas, certain stabilizing forces and philosophies such as democracy, centralized government, open mass media, education, science, technology, feminism, trade and commerce have elevated the rights of the individual and expanded our circles of empathy making violence less sensical. He supplements this analysis with a look at the neuroscience behind human behavior via game theory and current psychological research demonstrating the physio and psychological mechanisms behind power, aggression, hatred, dominance, honor, revenge, social position, group think, cooperation and competition.
He shows how evolutionary biology explains the logic of violence and its genetic motivators but also how we're wired for empathy and cooperation. He walks us through a long, detailed history of social custom, symbolism, male dominance ritual and conflict and through a scientist's lens exposes the culprits in our biological and social dynamic that have been at the roots of aggression over time. He also examines how concepts such as glory, honor, valor, national pride, holy land, mother land, eternal good, utopia, pure evil and religious ideology have wrought more misery on human lives than any other forces. Although he acknowledges the role some religions had in promoting civilizing forces such as marriage, moral compass, self-restraint and love-of-fellow-man, he believes the negative side effects of male dominant religious ideology and jealous-god worship outweigh its benefits in a rational society.
Through man's difficult and often horrific journey over 5 milennia Pinker illuminates key modifiers, pressures and motivators that seem to have played both positive and negative roles in our harrowing trip to modern times. Pinker states that "...aggression is the output of several psychological systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal logic, their neurobiological basis and their social distribution."
He shows how our nature as highly social animals plays a critical role in what we choose to value. Citing various psychological research he demonstrates how differently individuals behave while in a group, often acting in complete opposition to what they personally believe in order to fit in, be accepted or move the apparent goals of the group forward. He shows the mechanisms behind mob rule, group think, loyalty to family, tribe and god and shows how these innate human characteristics can be manipulated to accept shockingly inhumane behavior on the part of individuals, tribes, nations and ideologies.
Pinker cites some of the more significant breakthroughs in our moral development such as during Europe's Enlightenment period in the 17th and 18th centuries which brought forth philosophers, writers and artists who challenged traditional thought and through reason and and rational analysis introduced new ideas regarding the rights of the individual. He also cites mid 20th century acts such as the Declaration of Human Rights which led to a cascade of Rights Revolutions including civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, homosexual rights and animal rights which continue to unfold to this day.
Pinker believes that those who claim that the 21st century western world, especially the US, has degraded into a pool of permissive, licentious immorality have their heads where the sun don't shine. He calls out the Republican right in the US and their warped sense of traditional values and romantic notions of a more civilized past and shows how their value score card is an archaic vestige of a different and LESS moral society. He shows the correlation between intelligence (especially abstract thinking), access to information, cosmopolitanism and moral behavior. He shows how and why "red state America" holds onto these antiquated mindsets and why the coasts and cities of the US are considered "blue", vote Democrat, and are more progressive.
Pinker doesn't predict the future and states that it can all come unraveling in an instant due to the unpredictability of egomaniacs and the volatility of religious extremists in unstable regions of the world, but he remains optimistic. He believes there is enough positive momentum due to six decades of expanding empathy and cooperation due to technology, mass communications, education and global trade to put the odds in our favor. He also believes there's evidence that IQs are increasing worldwide, particularly abstract reasoning intelligence. He references several studies that show IQ score increases from 1901 to the present in dozens of countries. He credits cognitive environmental effects (literacy) and secondarily possible genetic selection effects.
Pinker asks point blank if it's fair to say that our ancestors were morally retarded and he answers emphatically Yes! "Though they were surely decent people with perfectly functioning brains, the collective moral sophistication of the culture in which they lived was as primitive by modern standards as their mineral spas and patent medicines are by the medical standards of today. Many of their beliefs would be considered not just monstrous, but in a very real sense, stupid. They would not stand up to intellectual scrutiny as being consistent with other values they claimed to hold and they persisted only because the narrower intellectual spotlight of the day was not routinely shone on them."
Pinker's thesis for why violence has declined along with his forward optimism is derived from his perspective on evolutionary biology and its sub discipline neuropsychology. He believes because of homo sapiens' unique sociability, intelligence and communication skills we've adapted beyond the need for pervasive violence; it makes less sense. But through his convincing indictment of the culprits within our makeup he warns that civilization needs to maintain elaborate regulators within our social systems to keep our lesser angels in check.