The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

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  1. Graham H. Seibert says:
    552 of 612 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A tour de force, covering a huge topic quite well, October 5, 2011
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    Graham H. Seibert (Kiev, Ukraine) –
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    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…

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  2. R. Albin says:
    164 of 185 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    Uneven; 3.5 Stars, March 10, 2012
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    R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) –
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    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…

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  3. David Everling "Skipper" says:
    158 of 187 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    An analytical, methodical juggernaut of guarded optimism, October 8, 2011
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    David Everling “Skipper” (Palo Alto, California) –
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    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.

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