The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

  1. Although it may not seem like it, violence has seen a steady downward trend over the last several hundred years and we may in fact be living in the most peaceful time in our history. This book describes why this has occurred
Key Takeaways
  1. Hard to make any real progress when you are constantly worried about being attacked and pillaged. Changes not only how life is lived but also how life is understood
  2. Decline in violence has been paralleled by changes in the perception and glorification of violence and brutality, letting “the better angels of our nature” shine through and gain the spotlight
  3. Humans are not innately good nor bad – we have inner demons and angels and, along with culture and history, these guide men in their use of violence
  4. 6 major trends
    1. Pacification process – Shift from anarchy of hunter gatherer to more organized, agricultural life.
    2. Civilizing process – consolidation of land into feudal territories with a central authority
    3. Humanitarian revolution – progress towards removal of group-wide violence such as slavery and despotism
    4. Long peace – after WWII, major world powers have stopped waging wars on one another
    5. New peace – organized wars of all kinds have been on the decline
    6. The rights revolutions – more and more groups are gaining undisputed universal rights
  5. 5 inner demons
    1. Predatory violence
    2. Dominance
    3. Revenge
    4. Sadism
    5. Ideology
  6. 4 better angels
    1. Empathy
    2. Self control
    3. Moral sense through culture
    4. Faculty of reason
  7. 5 historical forces which have driven decreasing violence
    1. The Leviathan – legitimate use of force is encouraged by the central power and makes people feel they are on the right side of the angels when they use violence
    2. Feminization – increased respect for women and women’s rights
    3. Commerce – exchange of goods and ideas allowed quicker spread of more enlightened culture and is not zero sum
    4. Cosmopolitanism – literacy, mobility and mass media allow people to absorb different cultures and move away from immediate surroundings
    5. Escalator of reason – force people to reframe violence and see it as something which we can reduce
  8. Describes in gruesome detail the violence and its common occurrence during the hunter gatherer and early agricultural times. Especially as it’s depicted in the Bible
  9. Honor is a strange thing in that it exists only because we believe others believe it exists
  10. The US has a much higher homicide rate than Europe and most other developed countries and southern US far higher than northern. The author says that a culture of honor which was passed down from herders is the reason. Most southerners descended from herders and herders have a quicker anger trigger and are more likely to retaliate because livestock is easy to steal whereas land, which is what most northerner’s wealth was tied to, isn’t.
  11. One universal constant of violence is that 15-30 year old men conduct most of it
  12. Nature abhors a lop sided sex ratio
  13. Government does not deter violence because its citizens feels like Big Brother is always watching but because there is a reliable and consistent system in place where there is a good shot that you’ll get caught and punished if you commit a crime
  14. As books became more abundant after the printing press, the “bubble of empathy” was inflated as people were more commonly learning about secular rather than only religious topics and able to take fresh perspectives through novels and travel books
  15. War has steadily been decreasing in number but increasing in its total damage
  16. Wars declined substantially in the 18th century as many of the world powers shifted from conquest to commerce.
  17. Democracy, trade and intergovernmental ties reduce violence due to intermingling and inter-reliance
  18. To kill millions, more than weapons, you need an ideology
  19. The author believes that the single greatest catalyst of the rights revolution was the increasing spread and usage of technology which fostered noble action.
  20. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of the most important ideas / explanations of the 20th century. It has found that the “tit-for-tat” strategy most often leads to the best outcomes. If you mirror what the other party does, you get the most cooperation and benefits. An even superior strategy, which could be taken advantage of if there are too many “defectors” or “freeloaders” is tit-for-tat with added forgiveness. Mirror what the other person/team/company/etc. does and if they make a decision once which hurts you, forgive them (once).
  21. Increasing self-control over the last several centuries is a key reason for the huge drops in violence we have seen. A culture of honor shifted to a culture of dignity where men were more respected for their self control than for lashing out for any offenses
  22. Intelligence and self-control are the best predictors of success and decreased violence in both individuals and states. Reason has shown to negatively correlate to violence and the Flynn Effect (increasing intelligence seen over periods of decades rather than generations) have helped decrease violence
What I got out of it
  1. A deep and fascinating book. Does a great job of taking a big picture historical overview to describe many trends which have led to decreasing violence