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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Paperback – Illustrated, September 25, 2012
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A provocative history of violence—from the New York Times bestselling author of The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, and Enlightenment Now.
Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history. Exploding myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.
From the Publisher
—Bill Gates (May, 2017)
A Mark Zuckerberg "Year of Books" Pick
"My favorite book of the last decade is [Steven] Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a long but profound look at the reduction in violence and discrimination over time."—Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft
"For anyone interested in human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor. . . . A supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement."—The New York Times Book Review
"An extraordinary range of research . . . a masterly effort."—The Wall Street Journal
"Better Angels is a monumental achievement. His book should make it much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future. Whether war is an ancient adaptation or a pernicious cultural infection, we are learning how to overcome it."—Slate
Praise for THE STUFF OF THOUGHT
“The majesty of Pinker’s theories is only one side of the story. The other side is the modesty of how he built them. It all makes sense, when you look at it the right way.”— The New York Times Book Review“Packed with information, clear, witty, attractively written."—The New York Review of Books
“Engaging and witty …Everyone with an interest in language and how it gets to be how it is—that is, everyone interested in how we get to be human and do our human business—should read THE STUFF OF THOUGHT.”— Science
Praise for THE BLANK SLATE
“An extremely good book—clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating.”—Colin McGinn, The Washington Post
“Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read…also highly persuasive.”—Time
About the Author
- Publisher : Penguin Books; Illustrated edition (September 25, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 832 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0143122010
- ISBN-13 : 978-0143122012
- Item Weight : 1.6 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.99 x 1.66 x 8.99 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #47,102 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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This is a marvelously detailed book with vast numbers of details about the decline of violence over the past centuries. For someone who wants to try to understand why violence occurs among humans, at any level from genocide to suicide, this volume is a phenomenal place to start. The dozens and dozens of graphs themselves are worth the price of admission. But, expect to be overwhelmed with detail, much of it very speculative and largely irrelevant, so overwhelmed that no clear themes will ever become apparent. You will leave this book vastly better informed but overloaded with information and utterly confused. Pinker acknowledges his debt to Peter Singer, who in his book," The Expanding Circle, advanced a theory of moral progress in which human beings were endowed by natural selection with a kernel of empathy toward kin and allies, and have gradually extended it to wider and wider circles of living things, from family and village to clan, tribe, nation, species, and all of sentient life. The book you are reading owes much to this insight." However this debt is largely lost in the mass of many irrelevant details that follow.
After reflecting on the book for a while, as both a psychologist and a historian, and a student of genocide, I am both extremely impressed by the incredible depth of detail offered in this volume across a huge range of relevant domains, and quite annoyed at the absence of synthesis, as if he researched any topic to great depth but offered us only the results of that research in the order and sequence that he found them. Of course that is an impressive feat, and I am very grateful, but... Now that he has done this research, it would be quite pleasurable and transformative to read a much smaller volume that synthesized what he found in some accessible format; perhaps even in a magazine article.
Pinker spends much of his time deriding the notion of "empathy" and it is pretty obvious why: it offers a simple and direct explanation for the decline of violence that reduces the complexity of his book enormously. It would be hard for him to find a way for us to plow through his mountainous work of scholarship if things were this simple: The world was ruled by psychopaths and sadists for millions of years, but gradually the silent majority of decent, caring people found a voice through democratizing and civilizing influences of empathy and compassion, overcoming xenophobia, selfishness, and revenge, and violence has declined dramatically with the gradually broadening sense of community in (increasing order) villages, duchies, nations, and now global interdependence. Outline of story with many wonderful details to be filled in, but requiring much less voluminous discussion. Any theoretician needs to be aware of how seductive complexity is, and try to reduce it. Occam's razor needs much sharpening here.
To get another frustration off my chest, that constantly irritated me throughout the book: it is much too flippant. Take the quote above about a farmer castrating a horse. Surely we did not need to be affronted by this horrible image. What purpose did it possibly serve? It was not funny. As if Pinker was reduced to a juvenile prurience himself after being anesthetized with too much violence in his research. It seems part of the same issue: he provides flippant generalizations much too easily about many of the "facts" in this book, without the kind of reserve and care to provide alternative hypotheses that is the hallmark of careful science, at the admitted cost of dullness and impartiality. Even his criticism of empathy suffers from over generalization. For empathy he puts up roadblocks that he nowhere else raises for other processes. He portrays the understanding of empathy as ambiguous ("The problem with building a better world through empathy, in the sense of contagion, mimicry, vicarious emotion, or mirror neurons, is that it cannot be counted on to trigger the kind of empathy we want, namely sympathetic concern for others' well-being.") as if there were no ambiguity about what "civilizing" means! He also shoots down "mirror neurons" as a strawman for empathy; yet, there is a vast literature on "empathy" that requires no help from the pop psych of mirror neurons, or the equally pop psych of "rage" circuits. Pinker dabbles with neuroscience at best, and exploits its seemingly concrete explanations to a vast and unwarranted degree.
The most serious frustration with the volume is the discrepancy between its title and content: the better Angels of our nature are largely ignored in favor of the devils: murder, suicide, rape, genocide, hatred, revenge, dominance, torture, and aggression of all kinds. The mystery of religion is barely acknowledged. There is all too little talk of love, compassion, empathy, and community; yet, repeatedly he acknowledges these are equally important and essential to the hypotheses he does raise about the decline of violence. So, this book is really about violence, and not about the forces that restrain it and have created its decline. In that sense, it is quite disappointing. For instance, the discussion of dominance and revenge could just as easily have been about trust, forgiveness and contrition, especially in the section on the prisoner's dilemma, which has been used extensively for theorizing and extrapolating to real life cooperation and conflict. Of course, there should be many caveats: the simplistic domain of a prisoner's dilemma game is far removed from the complexities of real life. Life is not so simple that we can begin to understand it with primitive abstractions!
Another theme that I found annoying was the insistence on a final solution of the issues of decline in violence with an appeal to evolutionary forces that are as ideal and free of imperfection as any deity; which of course evolution is not: it leads to many blind alleys and dead ends (Mistakes!). I find the arguments about genes and evolution as sources of explanation for human cognition and emotion very unsatisfying. We have no understanding of how genes translate into human cognitive structures or emotions (or drives and instincts, to bring up some ancient and much ridiculed abstractions). The psychology of instincts has few adherents. Yes, genes control the structure of the brain, and various brain structures are involved in cognition and emotion, but the linkages to evolution are indistinct at best. Our brains are intimately like those of apes and even all mammals in general. To then argue that human kinds of dominance and frustration and aggression have been created by evolution seems ultimately empty. All too often evolutionary explanations are as ambiguous as Freudian ones: the "facts" are not reductive and can be used to explain anything.
I find that Frans de Waal's ( The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates ) attempts to clarify the sources of empathy and social networks in the examples of these cognitive structures in chimpanzees much more enlightening. Throughout his book, Pinker denigrates this approach to "hippy" instincts in humans as unfounded in a very off - handed way. His book would have been much improved with a more serious treatment of forgiveness, empathy, caring, concern, and compassion; that de Waal's approaches empirically provide. Of course there are many other attempts to understand empathy through social psychology, neuroscience, and other social sciences. While we have no serious understanding of how "instincts" and "emotions" are expressed in genes and cognitive structures, an analysis of the role of empathy, compassion, and social relations in general would have provided a seriously strong foundation for the democratization processes of civilization that have clearly driven the decline in violence. It would have set the context for this decline in violence as the triumph of the huge "silent majority" of humanity over the thugs and antisocial ogres who have led humanity to their own selfish ends and at the cost of enormous anguish in the lives of mankind. "Psychopaths make up 1 to 3 percent of the male population, depending on whether one uses the broad definition of antisocial personality disorder, which embraces many kinds of callous troublemakers, or a narrower definition that picks out the more cunning manipulators. 80 Psychopaths are liars and bullies from the time they are children, show no capacity for sympathy or remorse, make up 20 to 30 percent of violent criminals, and commit half the serious crimes. 81."
"Now, I have nothing against empathy," he says. The perfect sentence that reveals that he does in fact think that empathy's role in peace and cooperation is much exaggerated. However, his reasoning about this is not very clear, while his attitudes are all too clear. "But empathy today is becoming what love was in the 1960s-- a sentimental ideal, extolled in catchphrases (what makes the world go round, what the world needs now, all you need) but overrated as a reducer of violence." Calling the kettle black: the number of catch phrases about the sources of violence in this book is astronomical.
Instead of compiling empirical evidence, here is his "devastating" destruction of any believability in empathy: "When the Americans and Soviets stopped rattling nuclear sabers and stoking proxy wars, I don't think love had much to do with it, or empathy either." And yet, has he changed his mind when he says: "This chapter is about the better angels of our nature: the psychological faculties that steer us away from violence, and whose increased engagement over time can be credited for declines in violence. " Thorughout the book he argues for subtle but persistent influences of human attitudes and emotions on the grand sweep of history; yet, when it comes to empathy he derides this nuanced approach.
He seems to devalue empathy because he can find no center for empathy in the neuroscience literature, and the richest areas of mirror neurons does not correspond to the pathways. He further denigrates the value of the concept (or deconstructs it, in his unimitable semantic phrase) because it is connected to a primitive hormone, oxytocin, not the pinnacle of humanity's cortex (he derogates it with "hormonal plumbing", an unfortunate phrase. ) This seems a short sighted reason.
AT another point he says that sympathy (a kind of empathy) is not automatic, as if that weakens its effects. But of course sympathy is automatic, and beyond our control, if the conditions are right: if we have communal relations with a person; if they are in need; and if it will make us look good to help them. This is true of any drive, instinct, or emotion; so why he emphasizes if for empathy and not for dominance or revenge or other "angels", which are all affected by context and meaning (or cortical control, to capture his biases), is a mystery.
Part of the book's appeal, and its underlying weakness, is his fondness for grandiose and sweeping generalizations that are largely unfound and poorly thought out. Here's just one: "Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process or in an international system regulated by agreements and norms. Anything that deflates the concept of dominance is likely to drive down the frequency of fights between individuals and wars between groups. That doesn't mean that the emotions behind dominance will go away-- they are very much a part of our biology, especially in a certain gender-- but they can be marginalized."
In contradiction to this view, a good case can be made for hierarchies in social institutions as control structures for violence to reduce its spread throughout society: one of the truly civilizing influences. Besides, what would our societies look like without hierarchies in our social institutions. They are built on them: the Prez in govt; the Pope in religious institutions; CEOs in business; down to the lowest scout troop leader. If anything these hierarchies reduce conflict, not foment it. As any ethologist will tell you, a chimp troop with a clear established hierarchy has many fewer fights then one in which a challenger upends the natural order.
So what is to be made of all these inconsistencies: I suggest they are the product of a very creative but uncontrolled mind, an unscientific one that has had its brilliant ideas go unchallenged and is unconstrained by scientific rigor and skepticism. Self criticism, autocritique as Binet called it, is the cornerstone of intelligence, and the free flow of random ideas makes for interesting reading but a frustrating intellectual experience. More synthesis, please.
One good piece of synthesis is his conceptualization of the Moralization Gap. People consider the harms they inflict to be justified and forgettable, and the harms they suffer to be unprovoked and grievous. This bookkeeping makes the two sides in an escalating fight count the number of strikes differently and weigh the inflicted harm differently as well. It makes people hold grudges and seek revenge. It would have been informative to try to explore the source of this gap: why do we do this? Of course the basis for the generalization is derived from just one excellent study that has a fundamental ambiguity: the gap is caused by discrepancies in understanding; yet the incidents by both victims and perpetrators were chosen exactly because they each saw no discrepanc ies. What incidents would have been chosen if they had been asked to relate narratives where both victim and perpetrators had become aware of the discrepancies in perspectives: would they have reconciled and apologized? would there have been no anger? There is a long history of cognitive consistency, famously carried by Leon Festinger as a salient proponent, and historically begun by Bartlett's memory task, that could be invoked to help explain this phenomenon, but is not (neither by Pinker nor his source, Baumeister.) Widespread semantic frames ( which Pinker should be very familiar with) that are different for "victim" and "perpetrator" could already hold the major features of these stories, as they are selected from memory or stored for future use. Even empathy and its limitations could be invoked to help understand this "moralization gap" if it indeed exists.
Empathy, like love, he argues is not all you need. True enough, but then he seems to reduce its effects too much from the mix of what is necessary. That seems too extreme.
Pinker spends a lot of effort on self control, but it should be mentioned that the science of self control is barely a science, and the assessment of self-control is fraught with difficulties, hardly the stable trait he makes it out to be. The measurement of self control is haphazard and unreliable. The very low correlation with intelligence at 0.23 is as much a reflection on the low reliability of measurement of self control as it is on the relationship. On the other hand intelligence is the most thoroughly studied human trait in psychology, with absolutely the best measures. Instead of wasting abstractions on self control, it would have been much more productive to focus on intelligence, and not just the Flynn Effect. Instead we are given essays on reason, which may or may not have much to do with intelligence and knowledge. While intelligence probably has not changed much in the past millennia, its application has, and the amount of knowledge and understanding about the world has multiplied immeasurably. This increased understanding of our place in the world might have had an effect way beyond anything that self control could possible effect. Slovenly food and personal habits that have been improved for health reasons also have raised the value of life and longevity, and so increa sed our compassion and empathy. We don't believe in witches any more; there are fewer ignorances that lead to xenophobia; we understand each other better; here are many more opportunities for empathy and forgiveness. He then draws out a long chain of speculative links between self control and violence, any one of which has minimal correlational support. This may be an exercise in empirical futility. The link between intelligence and violence is much more direct and manifold. Of course, his final section on reason is really about intelligence, although for some reason he is loathe to use this time honored and important word.
I find his reification of a "moral sense" to be overdone. While there may be many psychological processes that contribute to moral judgments, it is a stretch to unify them into anything as concrete as a "moral sense". Of course, the same critique could apply to any of his "angels". These are all conceptual structures with varying degrees of coherence and consistency. However, the analysis of this moral sense into relational models of community, dominance, and fairness suggests it could have been much more foundational in the analysis of the civilizing process than Pinker makes it out to be. The analysis does not provide a level of detail that makes it possible to connect empathy with this moral sense in a review, yet many connections seem apparent.
The summary section on religion is also a bit mystifying. "Speaking of ideologies, we have seen that little good has come from ancient tribal dogmas. All over the world, belief in the supernatural has authorized the sacrifice of people to propitiate bloodthirsty gods, and the murder of witches for their malevolent power." While this may be true to an extent in the blood thirsty past, it is an extreme exaggeration to say that little good has come of it. It is undeniable that recent religious activities help the poor and starving masses in the world; and deal effectively with the aftermath of genocides. The mystery of religion and its role in the world is as impenetrable as ever. Perhaps his elevation of the importance of reason prevents him from a fair assessment of religion, as much as it does of empathy.
The next summary section on "Gentle Commerce" raises many hackles as well in this era of the 1% dominating financial benefits and government, exploiting their intelligence and social networks to inflict countless harm on the 99%. Violence has come to have a different face today, but its effects are just as inimical.
Probably no section is as effective a support of the power of empathy as the section on Feminization. If all the rational forces of peace are so powerful, how can this section's devastating analysis of the disruptive and violent power of young males hold?
But finally, once again, the truth of so many theses in this book are undeniable, none more so than the overriding importance of the decline of violence in the improvement of human lives: "The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species. Its implications touch the core of our beliefs and values-- for what could be more fundamental than an understanding of whether the human condition, over the course of its history, has gotten steadily better, steadily worse, or has not changed?"
His closing comment is worth repeating: "For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible." Those forces of sympathy and compassion, with the intellect to make them triumph, are alive within us today.
Overall, this is a magnificent resource, but to be provocative I have given it a one-star rating to emphasize how poorly it has synthesized the vast literature it has so scholarly compiled.
In fact, Pinker has written a shorter article in October 2011 in Nature: [...]
whose heading is (more appropriately than the subhead of the book): Taming the Devil Within Us. Rather than providing a trenchant summary of the book, it wanders along the same channels and muddles to a conclusion about reason and the Flynn Effect that seems as unsatisfying as the book. It says that we are getting smarter, and as a result the world is becoming more peaceful. In it he rightfully acknowledges "empathy" as the most famous "better angel" source of this decline in violence, but once again says it is not enough. Similarly he debunks the "moral sense" as creating more violence than inhibiting it. Instead he agrees with Peter Singer (without ever referencing him in the article!): "The most important psychological con- tributor to the decline of violence over the long term may instead be reason: the cognitive faculties, honed by the exchange of ideas through language, that allow us to understand the world and negotiate social arrangements." I would say they are equally important, but cannot disagree with him on the importance of our intellect.
I have no idea why he later throws in this seemingly self-conradictory comment about contradicting Hume: "Reason can also lead people to want less violence. This may seem to violate Scottish philosopher David Hume's dictum that "reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions" . Reason, by itself, can lay out a road map to peace or to war, to tolerance or to persecution, depending on what the reasoner wants." Personally, I think his arguments about reason, by itself, without a basis in empathy, reducing violence are very weak. It stems largely from one meta-study of SAT scores and the Prisoner's Dilemma experiment, that is fundamentally flawed. In any event, in the only world we know, it is clear that empathy, as Hume held, is the driving force for the intellectual creation of institutions of peace and harmony.
He then quotes from the final chapters of his book: "They prefer to live rather than die, keep their body parts intact and spend their days in comfort rather than in pain. Logic does not force them to have those prejudices. Yet any product of natural selection -- indeed, any agent that has endured the ravages of entropy long enough to be reasoning in the first place -- is likely to have them." As Spock would say, it is so logical!, but any scientist knows that logic is not enough to be convincing about empirical truth.
He then goes on to give a quick and somewhat mis-informed snapshot about the Flynn Effect, and concludes that we are getting smarter, and so with a paean to a glorious future, proclaims that these improvements in our conceptions of humanitarian sympathies are all a bright product of reason, which, with some hiccups, will lead us into an ever better future. While I am as optimistic as he is, I still agree with Hume, and perhaps so does Pinker in a nagging way, understand that this explanation is not quite logical.
Many complex life forms have used a life strategy of cooperation, and this has been especially true of socially disposed Homo sapiens. A theory of mind, moral sense, intricate emotion package, superior forethought--all , combine to make humans a complex social being capable of avoiding the zero sum character of violence . Add with these attributes a civilizing process-- and a generous portion of gentle commerce, a dash of democratic government, and a thick slice of Enlightenment ideas through the published word--and one forms a ready recipe for a non violent world. With such, western civilization gradually made humanitarian reforms: gloved fist and blunted foil replaced gladiatorial battle axe; Adlerian therapy sessions for the criminal replaced breaking him on the wheel. Indeed, although still as wired for violence as ever, the better angels of our nature--empathy, self-control, moral sense, fairness, reason--have overtaken our more negative makeup.
At least, so says Steven Pinker's, much discussed book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In this stout 800 page book--full of graphs and figures and 200 pages of notes-- he reveals to the scoffer, who suffers from historical myopia, how violence has drastically declined over history.
Pinker sets the process out through several sections. After presenting a perceptual contrast between present peaceful times and the profoundly violent archaic times of non-state societies, he examines six major declines of violence: The Pacification Process, The Civilizing Process, The Humanitarian Revolution, The Long Peace, The New Peace, The Rights Revolution. I will let the earnest reader discover for himself the fascinating particulars and engrossing historical details that Pinker devotes 700 pages, but some important points from the book can be stated and given interesting comment. I'll begin with a few contributors to non violence and conclude with couple of things that keep it going:
*Civilization and the consolidation of central states were important steps toward lessening violence.
As civilization emerged, tribes coalesced into chiefdoms and villages grew into city-states. Rulers, annoyed and hampered by domestic aggression and feuding, implemented their own brand of criminal justice and attempted to monopolize the violence. Justice, uniformly administered and consistently enforced, allowed for efficient governing while cutting down the causes of violence--predation, self defense, revenge. (These 3 causes come from Thomas Hobbes' book, Leviathan, and Pinker gives a good discussion of these.) The consolidation of petty states and fiefdoms into central states brought long stretches of relative peace. These "paxes" allowed centralized states to build an infrastructure of commerce, finance, and transportation improvements. Economic systems with smooth operating commerce and trade meant those involved had to give consideration to the intentions and desires of the other. Certainly, one would not exploit someone he must deal with routinely and expect good business from them. Moreover, these improvements, along with the nationalizing of jurisprudence, made plunder more risky and less profitable than trade.
* The Enlightenment and ease of printing was a significant step towards non violence.
Ideas from The Age of Reason and The Enlightenment flourished with the catalyzing effects of publishing. After Gutenberg's invention of mechanical movable type, printing became easy and books multiplied. Ideas began to spread like never before, and the reader so influenced changed habits of thought and action. On the scene came new or improved forms of literature: the Montaigne type essay, scientific treatise, political pamphlet, the novel. Of these, notable was the sentimental novel, which became endemic in the age of Reason, where the captivated reader might tremble in fear, shudder in disgust, and snigger out loud with the lead character's experience. Make believe or not, people sympathize with the individuals as the pages turn and the plot unfolds. So, the novel as a literary genre fostered habits of taking others position--perspective taking. Many came to the realization that folks outside family, friends and community are just like them.
The published word, along with widespread trade, made a variety of views available, and made cosmopolitism prevalent and fashionable. (People noted the cultural values of people east of Christendom). Soon enough, Europe witnessed the end of the slave trade, and carried out humanitarian reforms such as the abolition of judicial torture. Humanitarianism like this required a shifting in moral relational foundations.
The effect of cosmopolitism and the influence of the philosophe was a moral trend away from Divine authority and sanctity, while success of the individual and self-sufficiency grew in emphasis. Together with democratic views, the "Republic of Letters" (as the starring Enlighten establishment were also known) promoted science and the application of reason to all questions. Religious experience and authority was found suspect and it was criticized. Few were atheists, many were Deists, but nearly all harbored an existential worldview which emphasized living and that dismissed concern for the soul and the hereafter. This emphasis led to a greater regard for the suffering sentient being, and humanitarian reform soon marched onward--ever taking the high ground--reaching the Rights Revolution and beyond.
*The cultural morality and taboo structure that guide ethical belief and behavior has retracted from traditional spheres to produce a reduction of violence.
Pinker discusses, at some length, Shweder's Ethics, Haidt's Moral Foundations, and Fiske's Relational Models. People within a culture have universal traits including moral. Yet, a people's moral repertoire follows a structure that guides the "super-ego" and molds the mentality of taboo. It tells one what immoral acts are disgusting and sets what infractions are punishable. A tribal society from Old Testament times can be examined to illustrate a culture where the moral relational model encourages violent ways--typical of most cultures until recently. These were a herding people that felt guided by the dictates of a sacred God. The authority of God and the patriarchal head was held in sanctity as well as the In-group loyalty to family and clan. These were collective societies, hierarchical in structure, where members were hair-wired sensitive to questions of honor. Highest regard was given first to the family head, then, the Patriarch's brothers--then his sons. Considered property and possessing little as far as rights, were the female members of the community. In Fiske's relational models, this tribal morality structure is labeled Communal sharing. Their circle of empathy was a narrow one, and if one is not of their kin, violation of moral codes is especially tough and unforgiving. Wars were chronic and severe and those involved were prone to committing heavy carnage on the outside group. Presently, the Islamic fundamentalist found in "the war on terror" epitomizes this Communal Sharing/Authority Ranking model.
Contrastly, there is the modern European society, in Fiske's relational model it is labeled Equality Matching/ Market Pricing/ Rational Legal, where people believe in fairness and reciprocity, and they value the cultivation of kindness and compassion. Not surprisingly, they find aggression repulsive. Such societies are feminized (A world without testosterone would be a world that studied war no more.) Moreover, this moral relational model, as practiced by Europeans, place little stock in divine guidance or religious practice. The world, according to Pinker, is turning into the latter relational model. America, however, is a blend of several models, though it too is gradually retracting from the traditional spheres.
- Religious morality and political ideology often are deleterious to a peaceful world.
Morality and political ideology are packaged in their own scared belief system. Religion, Pinker suggests, is only partially conducive to creating a peaceful world. Often, it is the reason violence cycles onward. With the sway of religious authority behind them, the believer will see heaven as a paradise infinitely good, and one can justify any means to that precious end. If it gets the wayward soul to heaven to torture him or massacre his friends, it is worth the effort to do it. If in a war with a heretical or infidel country, one cannot compromise with the enemy because it would risk the chance of getting to the promise land. (So, war goes without end.) To commit martyrdom or suicide to get oneself and family to blessed eternity is worth the act. If you look at history, it is apparent that religious zealotry was the cause of many a conflict: religious war, crusaders, heretic abuse, inquisitions, burning at the stake and massacres.
Still, ideology has been more than equal to religion in killing and harming people. The Enlightenment, after the French Reign of Terror, sparked a reaction against it with the Counter-Enlightenment. Rationality was played down while emotion was played up. Political pursuit oriented toward seeking the perfection of man and the building of an utopia, and it was a goal worth everything. Like the religious zealots, they too desired to reach a heaven that was infinitely good--but, this one on earth. All persons in opposition were considered evil. Like the desperate worshiper, it was permissible to carry out any means to reach the goal. Eliminate those that bar the way but encourage the doubter to believe. Bloody Napoleonic Wars, Nazi and Stalinist death camps, Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution--all followed counter Enlightenment ideals--all sought utopia.
-Any loss of government administration or consistent application of law and order will quickly return a society to a world of violence.
One need only to see the anarchy of banana republics, or African countries that, just decades ago, broke from European colonization to see chronic civil wars, coup d'états, and chaos. Too, when sub cultures, such as criminal gangs, cannot turn to the state for enforcement of law, their isolated territory returns to the days of non-state societies: becoming rife with predation, preemptive attacks, retaliation and the seeking of dominance over an adversary. We are wired for violence and it takes little to reveal the devil in our nature.
I discussed just a small number of salient points composing the content of his book; but, far from being unsupportable speculation, the thesis stands the test of his evidence. Indubitably, the book is grounded on data that would interest the serious historiographer, social psychologist, and political scientist. Although I thought there were too many graphs and too few pictures, it was a wonderful read.
Top reviews from other countries
The premise is: is today's world less violent than the past? Steven Pinker makes the case this is true and takes us through historical, religious and contemporary texts and stories. This book might offend religious people but Steven is not out of stating religion is wrong (he is an atheist and he has different views); instead, he uses the stories from the Torah, Bible, Koran to illustrate that violence was perfectly normal and acceptable in the old days. It might also offend everyone else as he pops most balloons that people hold value to: "terrorism is a huge problem" - is it really? "Wars kill more people than ever" - the data shows differently. It is not a light read and in fact it is quite depressing, reading how humans posed some much suffering on each other for various reasons. Even Steven himself describes how the readings about genocide haunts him at night.
The book is long but it is an interesting read. As a species we have come a long way in getting less violent. Our descendants will look at us today as how we look to people from a century ago: less progressed and more violent. Having finished the book, I can conclude we still have a long way to go. While yes, the data shows from many different sources that we as a species are less violent than before; the violence is still there. While I might not experience much of it in the relative safe country I live in; we cannot say the same about the people that live in other places in the world. I really hope that one day we stop put all our energy and efforts in killing one and another and use it to the benefit of humankind. The data shows it will give a better life to everyone but for now that is just a hope.
If you are able to read through sometimes extremely graphic descriptions of acts of violence of especially the first six chapters I recommend it. It changes your view on what the media, politicians, governments and companies want you to believe to what is really happening compared to the past. I like that so many different resources were used to find out what the real narrative is. I can understand why some people will not want to read it: it's brutal at times and you should not take things personally that Steven writes; it's not meant like that.
If you are a regular consumer of news media you could be forgiven for thinking, "what decline in violence?" There seems always to be a war going on somewhere, our towns and cities are crime ridden, aren't they? The answer is yes war has not been and seems unlikely to be eliminated any time soon and violent crime is a daily fact of life in many places in this world.
When you take a cold hard look at the facts rather than the news headlines the conclusion is undeniable that the world is a less violent place today than its ever been. Starting with our hunter/gatherer ancestors where life was truly nasty, brutish and short, travelling forward in time through early civilisations to our modern era of nation states and global commerce there has been a huge decline in the odds of suffering injury and untimely death at the hands of a fellow human. This decline has not been steady or constant but has wavered up at times and down at others, and from place to place, but long term, the decline is very real. Pinker stacks up the evidence in a clear and digestible form, that can seem repetitive but makes the case for the long term decline of violence irrefutable by any reasonable mind.
The big question this book attempts to answer is "what are the causes of this decline?" This is a question that it is vital for us to grasp if we are to ensure that the "long peace" may continue into the future and the world continue to get less violent. That we have come to think that war and other violence is not a smart way to behave is a triumph of reason and rational action that we may take for granted but just a few generations ago many still believed in the honour of war and the necessity of defending one's honour by violently destroying your enemies.
The conclusions that Pinker arrives at seem entirely plausible. The decline in violence seems inextricably linked with a rise in education, the sharing of information, the ability to read and be transported into the lives of others, and the sympathy this engenders. The resulting rise in enlightened reasoning overtaking received dogma as a better way to organise ourselves. Democracy for all its faults does seem a force for peace. Democracies that function passably well don't go to war with each other. The positive changes in western culture in just my own life time have been quite remarkable. The universal declaration of human rights, the civil rights movement, the rise of women's rights, gay rights, animal rights, the downfall of communism and other ideologies and despots that diminished the rights of the individual. Glance a little further back into the past and things our ancestors gave little thought to, slavery, wife beating, child beating, torture, witch burning, infanticide, now fill us with horror. It is unthinkable that we could now accept such things as a part of civilised life in the 21st century.
It is no accident that the most peaceful and safe places to live in the modern world are those places with a well educated populace governed by a functioning democracy, policed by an impartial justice system, with open access to information. Conversely the least safe places in the world lack some or all of the above.
The ideas that were yesteryears liberal radicalism, women's rights for instance, have now become so mainstream that even the most conservative have embraced the inevitable and sometimes even claim it as their own idea.
The feminisation of world is also a force for peace. Violence is by no means exclusively male but it is overwhelmingly so. Most violence is perpetrated by young men. A fact that is beginning to haunt those parts of the world that have used modern methods (and old fashioned infanticide) to preferentially select for male offspring. The resulting large groups of young adult males, without the prospect of marriage and its calming influence on male testosterone fuelled behaviour, is the cause of much criminally or ideologically driven violence. The countries where violence within the family and wider communities is rife also happen to be the countries where women's rights and their influence is weakest.
The lesson I think I have learned from reading The Better Angels Of Our Nature is that whilst the future is by no means assured to be less violent than the past, we now have a fairly clear idea of how to steer ourselves in that direction. This is to embrace science and reason, reject ideology and dogma. We need functioning democracies, we need shared commerce and resources, we need impartial justice, we need open information and free discussion. None of those things can happen unless all the people are sufficiently educated to be able not only to read, write and do arithmetic but to be capable of abstract reasoning. We have to be able to walk a mile in another man's (or woman's) shoes.
Over a century ago Charles Darwin summed it up in The Descent Of Man.
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to men of all nations and races.