The Better Angels of Our Nature:

Why Violence Has Declined

Bibliographic Content

Steven Pinker

2012

Penguin Group

Kindle, Paperback/Hardback (832 pages), Audible (36hrs:39min)

Synopsis from Author

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?


This groundbreaking book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.

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“No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it's hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built. [Preface].”

Summary of Book from War Is My Business

In this book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, we look at the violent nature of humanity, the historical wranglings with it, and see ultimately that violence has indeed been in decline. The book's entirety seeks to explain why this is the case - why we are seeing historical reductions in violence and associated abuses. He supports his claims by looking at archeological and historical data points, psychology, sociology, and neurology sciences, as well as his own conclusions. And as far as the vastness of this book can attest, I am apt to agree with those claims.


While it may not be necessarily apparent how this book can provide insight that can benefit other human endeavors like a business, I argue that it could. Understanding humanity's propensity towards violence and its decline can help us further understand our nature - a nature that shapes all human endeavors.


This review could never do this book justice, but hopefully, an overview of some of the significant points could convince you to conduct a deeper dive yourself. Pages of dialogue support each concept, but I will keep it in a bullet point-like format for the sake of time.


The Decline Was A Series of Trends


Pinker discusses that humanity has been seeing a decline in violence throughout many millennia. He associates this decline as a series of downward lurches (trends) that have occurred alongside the development of larger and more complex societies—starting with the trend of early hunter-gatherers settling down into agrarian tribes and chiefdoms through city-states and kingdoms up to empires, nations, and international organizations. Also, humanity's ability to think in abstractions helped them perceive relationships in new ways outside of concrete experiences - empathy, commercial interests, etc.


He breaks it down to these following six trends, to which he goes into great detail in around 450-pages worth of data points, anecdotes, and historical analysis - which would have been boring if it were so filled with vivid imagery and compelling narratives.
  • Pacification Process: Prehistoric hunter-gather communities in the process of establishing larger groups outside immediate family and friends. They were sometimes associated with the development of agrarian cultures and multi-family tribes. In doing so, they removed humanity from a state of nature to one in which early collectivist concepts were being seen. An apparent "fivefold decrease" in violence was noted.
  • Civilizing Process: The consolidation of tribes, chiefdoms, and city-states into larger feudal kingdoms. Bringing all within the boundaries of the kingdom under the rule of law. We see death rates via homicide drop another 10 to 50 times, depending on the historical data you are looking at.
  • Humanitarian Revolution: Coming about during the Enlightenment Era, which followed the printing press's development and the sciences. As the intellect of the aristocracy and the peasantry increased, so did their ability to think in abstractions. Empathizing with others outside their race, sex, religion, and class.
  • Long Peace: The period after the Second World War in which the major economic powers didn't go to war with each other. An overall reduction in interstate conflict due to a mixture of open trade and the consequences of nuclear war.
  • New Peace: The post-cold-war era, and an extension of the Long Peace. A reduction in all forms of conflict from civil-wars, terrorism, and ethnic strife.
  • Rights Revolution: Was a non-combat related period concurrent with the Long and New Peace period, which saw the increased emphasis on extending human rights to others.


Why Violence Is Used, And Why It Has Declined, Can Be Explained By Motives


Pinker discusses human beings' internal motives, aspects that have evolved to provide advantages to our species in a state of nature. In spite of these motives, or because of them, humanity has been able to shift away from our more violent past to a more cooperative present.


“Aggression is not a single motive, let alone a mounting urge. It is the output of several psychological systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal logic, their neurobiological basis, and their social distribution… Humans are not innately good (just as they are not innately evil), but they come equipped with motives that can orient them away from violence and toward cooperation and altruism [Preface].”


Inner Demons (that lead to violence)


  1. Predatory/Instrumental Violence - the intent to take from others the things you need and using force to make it happen.
  2. Dominance - when posturing won't work, you use violence to dominate and ensure relative positions are created, or threats are destroyed.
  3. Revenge - retribution and justice to right a perceived wrong through the use of force.
  4. Sadism - using violence to produce suffering for the pleasure of it.
  5. Ideology - a belief system that doesn’t permit compromise and permits violence in pursuit of existential goals.


Better Angels (that lead to cooperation)


  1. Empathy - perceiving the feelings of others and understanding their hardships.
  2. Self-Control - understanding the short and long-term consequences of our actions and acting according to our long-term interests.
  3. Moral Sense - establishing sets of norms and taboos that help guide a group towards advantageous outcomes.
  4. Reason - understanding the grand scheme of things and working out beneficial courses of action using analysis and logic.


These Inner Demons and Better Angels, as he calls them, cover just around 200-pages worth of content. However, it is specifically "reason" that he claims to be the most significant contributor towards our shift to cooperation. To quote,


“Reason is up to these demands because it is an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with a basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interests of ever-increasing numbers of others. It is reason too that can always take note of the shortcomings of previous exercises of reasoning, and update and improve itself in response. And if you detect a flaw in this argument, it is reason that allows you to point it out and defend an alternative [Chapter 9].”


Five Pacifying Forces


While most of the book covers the history of violence, the shaping characteristic of human social development that lessened human conflict, and the motives that cause or hinder them - Pinker puts forth a conceptual understanding of the forces that shaped the history and decline of violence. The forces were created at the intersections of neurology, psychology, and sociology, which promoted our concepts of peace.


Leviathan - this is the authority of the society itself. Its laws, norms, and culture compel everyone to work together and not prey upon each other unless they are ready to risk the system's wrath. The author believes, backed by data, that one of the greatest contributors to the decline in violence is the authority of a powerful Levithan (state, nation, kingdom, etc.) keeping its citizens in check. It doesn't need to exert force all the time, but its influence must be felt.


"A state that uses a monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer that we have encountered in this book… If a government imposes a cost on an aggressor that is large enough to cancel out his gains… it flips the appeal of the two choices [predation vs. peace] of the potential aggressor, making peace more attractive than war [Chapter 10].”


Gentle Commerce - this comes with the understanding that there is more to be gained between individuals and societies through free and open trade than would ever be achieved through conflict. Even if the aggressor were to conquer all, the damage brought upon the enemy's institutions and industrial output would result in less gain for the aggressor than gained through a peaceful exchange.


“Though gentle commerce does not eliminate the disaster of being defeated in an attack, it eliminates the adversary’s incentive to attack (since he benefits from peaceful exchange too) and so takes that worry off the table [Chapter 10].”


Feminization - this particular category deals with a greater emphasis on values generally associated with females. Males are genetically more competitive due to the biological need to compete over females, and females desire greater stability for the rearing of offspring. This basic evolutionary imperative (competition vs. stability) extends into other aspects of society - including policy decisions. Therefore, increasing females' presence within a community (where there may be a sex-disparity) can lead to less aggressive policies and culture.


“Female-friendly values may be expected to reduce violence because of the psychological legacy of the basic biological difference between the sexes, names that males have more of an incentive to compete for sexual access to females, while females have more of an incentive to stay away from risks that would make their children orphans. Zero-sum competition, whether it takes the form of the contests for women in tribal and knightly societies or the contests for honor, status, dominance, and glory in modern ones, is more a man’s obsession than a woman’s [Chapter 10].”


The Expanding Circle - this deals with our ever-expanding sympathetic understanding of other human beings. A combination of those "better angels" of empathy, moral sense, and reason allows people to begin to see others that would have been traditionally unrelated as part of an ever-expanding and diverse group. First was family, followed by friends, then tribes, then races, religions, and cultures, to the point in which people see the humanity in each person more or less. Arguably, the circle has expanded outside our species by granting certain rights to protect animals under the greater category of living, conscious, feeling beings.


“Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own. It's not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains. Slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots way from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone [Chapter 4].”


The Escalator of Reason - this deals with human beings' ability to see the bigger picture, assess potential courses of action from differing viewpoints, analyze the possible consequences, and take advantage of our ability to think in the abstract.


“The expanding circles and the escalator of reason are powered by some of the same exogenous causes, particularly literacy, cosmopolitanism, and education. And their pacifying effect may be depicted by the same fusion of interests in the Pacifist’s Dilemma. But the expanding circle and the escalator of reason are conceptually distinct. The first involves occupying another person’s vantage point and imagining his or her emotions as if they were one's own. The second involves ascending to an Olympian, superrational vantage point - the perspective of eternity, the view from nowhere - and considering one’s own interests and another person’s as equivalent [Chapter 10].”

The Better Angels of Our Nature for Business

As I previously mentioned at the beginning, we can find some fundamental truths that can help us in any human endeavor by understanding humanity's nature. So what does Pinker tell us that is fundamentally human?


For one, we can see that motives indeed shape humanity. Many of these motives provided our ancestors advantages to their survival, and those that survived passed on these motives through their genes to their offspring. Following continuous tests of Darwinian evolution, we have survived and thrived in extreme environments, shaping our world around us and conquering many aspects of nature for our benefit. As we developed into more complex and populated societies, some of these very same motives see themselves played out on larger scales without necessarily providing the survival advantage they once did.


Humanity has developed the technology necessary to provide for everyone's survival, but people want more than to survive - they want to thrive. Resources get stretched thin compelling the acquisition of more resources, which puts people in conflict with one another. This occurred, even during our hunter-gather times, when competition for hunting and foraging grounds warranted conflict. Even now, with agriculture and industry providing for the needs and wants of scores more people, the resources are still ultimately finite, and confrontation over their limits rears its head the more it is strained. Competition for limited resources - be it food, water, materials, and even breeding partners - is still ingrained in our genes.


However, due to the benefit of other aspects of our genetics, we can think in greater abstraction. Make reasonable and logical decisions that allow us to plan ahead and work with others for mutually beneficial results. We don't necessarily need violence to get what we need or want anymore - we have other avenues.


In business, one of the foundational elements of this sector is the ability to enter into contracts for goods and services. In the past, if a nation needed weapons, they would need metals such as bronze and iron, in much the same way a tech developer may need rare earth elements and silicon for the production of chips. If others had them, you could take them by force, but often it is cheaper and easier to acquire them through contract - especially nowadays since that is internationally seen as illegal. Countering humanity's propensity to use violence for predation through the use of gentle commerce has helped ease tensions while opening up access to those things everyone needs or wants.


“Gentle commerce, the theory that the positive-sum payoff of trade should be more appealing than the zero-sum or negative-sum payoff of war. Though the mathematics of game theory would not be available for another two hundred years, the key idea could be stated easily enough in words: Why spend money and blood to invade a country and plunder its treasure when you can just buy it from them at less expense and sell them some of your own [Chapter 4]?”


Outside just the regular business-to-business engagements that exist directly because of the concept of gentle commerce, understanding the gambit of motives that promote or suppress violence also allows us a glimpse at ways to reduce potential conflict in the workplace or with consumers. By understanding the conditions in which people pursue violence - to predate, to dominate, or to seek revenge as examples - we can mitigate instances of these forms of violence.


For predation, naturally, we employ security measures to deter such action and defeat it if necessary. For domination, specifically as forms of posturing for status, we can use training to improve de-escalation techniques to equip everyone with the skills for creating peaceful resolutions. For revenge, we engage in the apparatuses that helped reduce homicides within the leviathan since their introduction in the 19th Century - police and civil court systems.

Conclusion

Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined provides the reader a greater understanding of human conflict and why it has been on a perpetual decline. He goes over the history, the motives, and concepts of human strife and peaceful pursuits. By providing data points to support his claims, he creates a perspective on violence that seems both logical and somewhat unassailable. He does, however, offer counter-arguments to those positions with which he can't claim certainty to give a well-rounded discussion of controversial topics.


By understanding our species’ history with violence, our propensity to engage in conflict, we gain a level of perspective that can bring hope to those that otherwise think we live in violent times. Is our present time more violent? The data would beg to differ, and Pinker gets you to believe it to be the case. To leave it off on one final quote...


“To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust, and immeasurable sadness… It would be terrible enough if these ordeals befell one person, or ten, or a hundred. But the numbers are not in the hundreds, or the thousands, or even the millions, but in the hundreds of millions - an order of magnitude that the mind staggers to comprehend, with deepening horror as it comes to realize just how much suffering has been inflicted by the naked ape upon its own kind… 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 [Chapter 10].”

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