#3. A Summary of ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’ by Steven Pinker

‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’ by Steven Pinker (Viking Adult, 04/10/11)

Table of Contents

i. Introduction/Synopsis

PART I: OUR INNER DEMONS

1. Predation

2. Dominance

3. Revenge

4. Sadism

5. Ideology

PART II: OUR BETTER ANGELS

6. Empathy

7. Self Control

8. The Moral Sense

  • a. Communal Sharing
  • b. Authority Ranking
  • c. Equality Matching
  • d. Market Pricing

9. Reason

PART III: THE 6 HISTORICAL SHIFTS AWAY FROM VIOLENCE

10. The Pacification Process

11. The Civilizing Process

12. The Humanitarian Revolution

13. The Long Peace

14. The New Peace

15. The Rights Revolutions

  • a. Racial Violence and the Civil Rights Movement
  • b. Violence Against Women and the Women’s Rights Movement
  • c. Violence Against Children and the Children Rights Movement
  • d. Violence Against Homosexuals and the Gay Rights Movement
  • e. Animal Cruelty and the Animal Rights Movement

16. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

We are fresh out of a century that featured two world wars often considered to be the most destructive in history (not to mention numerous inter-state, civil and tribal wars and genocides), and are persistently submerged in news coverage that features more than its fair share of military conflict, terrorism, murder, gang violence, rape, domestic violence, child abuse and animal cruelty. As such, we may be forgiven for thinking that human beings are at least as violent as ever, if not more so. Indeed, many are persuaded that the onset of civilization some 5000 years ago has had none but a de-civilizing effect on the world and its people, and has led to an increasing level of violence as state hierarchies have grown in size and complexity, and military technology has advanced.

However, in his new book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’, the Harvard scholar Steven Pinker argues that, all appearances to the contrary, an in depth look at the evidence reveals that violence has in fact decreased world-wide and in virtually every category we can think of since civilization began (albeit unevenly in both time and geography, and with a few blips along the way). The evidence comes not only from anecdotal and narrative tales but from an exhaustive look at the statistics, which is altogether very convincing.

Specifically, Pinker cites 6 historical shifts or trends that have brought with them a reduction in violence: 1) The Pacification Process: the shift from traditional hunting and gathering societies to state-run societies based on agriculture, which saw a drop in lives lost by all violent means, including both warfare and homicide (when adjusted for population sizes); 2) The Civilizing Process: the rise of kingdoms and the increase of global commerce, beginning at the end of the Middle Ages and extending into the 20th century, which saw another massive drop in homicide rates and other violent crime; 3) The Humanitarian Revolution: the rise of science and enlightenment values in the 17th and 18th centuries, extending into the 20th century, which has seen decreasing trends in religious wars, superstitious killings, slavery, torture, corporal punishment (including capital punishment), and animal cruelty; 4) The Long Peace: The post WWII period, which has seen a massive decrease in wars fought by and between the world’s major powers; 5) The New Peace: the post cold-war period, which (despite popular perceptions) has seen drops in inter-state war, civil war, genocide, and terrorism; and finally 6) The Rights Revolutions: the civil rights era in many Western cultures over the past 50-60 years, which has seen drops in both forgiving attitudes and violence connected to racial and religious intolerance, homophobia, and violence against women, children and animals.

In addition to this historical survey, Pinker also tackles the problem of trying to explain why this reduction in violence has taken place (each of these enterprises could fill a book unto itself, hence the generous length of the work—roughly 800 pages in all, and 700 before notes). The first key to understanding why violence has declined is to understand why it exists in the first place, and has been a prevalent feature of our past (and continues to exist in the present). Violent behaviour, Pinker argues, is partly the result of certain aspects of our human nature which incline us to behave violently under certain circumstances. These biological inclinations towards violence were laid down over the course of our evolutionary past as a result of their success in helping our ancestors survive and reproduce in the environment in which they evolved. In other words, the natural inclination to push others around (under certain circumstances) in order to get the good things of life (from a biological perspective) proved to be a successful strategy for our ancestors, and so was passed down to future generations, and ultimately us.

Pinker identifies 5 distinct motivators in the name of which violence is committed, each of which with its own unique or overlapping biological backing. These are the so-called inner demons of our nature, and they are 1) Predation: the desire to attain certain ends in the most straightforward route possible (mainly biological resources, such as food, and mates); 2) Dominance: the desire for status and prestige; 3) Revenge: the desire to avenge past insults and injuries;  4) Sadism: the fascination and appetite to witness, and even inflict, suffering upon others; and 5) Ideology: a susceptibility to belief in ideologies (which are often understood as justifying the sacrificing of people that stand in the way of their fulfillment).

While evolution may have equipped us with these motivations, as well as the inclination to use violence to attain them (under certain circumstances), evolution has also equipped us with other motivations and faculties that incline us away from violence, and towards peace and cooperation (again, under certain conditions). These are the so-called better angels of our nature and they are: 1) Empathy, in the sense of having sympathy and compassion for others; 2) Self-control: the ability to control our impulses; 3) A Moral Sense, which includes not just an innate appreciation of the golden rule, but other facets as well, such as a susceptibility to beliefs regarding purity, authority, and in-group cohesion. (It is important to note that not all expressions of the moral sense contribute to more peace (hint: see #3 & #5 in the ‘inner demons’ section above); and finally 4) Reason, meaning the capacity to remove ourselves from our own parochial interests, and recognize each individual’s interest as being fundamentally equivalent; and also the capacity to identify violence as a problem to be solved, rather than a game to be won, and the ability to offer up solutions with regards to how the problem might in fact be minimized.

The evidence that both our inner demons and our better angels are a part of our biological nature come from evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and a host of very intriguing psychological experiments, and is once again very convincing.

With regards to explaining why violence has decreased, Pinker points to the idea that in each of the historical shifts away from violence, some historical force (or forces) has acted to enhance the influence of our better angels at the expense of our inner demons. In other words, various environmental forces have worked to elicit the more peaceable side of our nature, and suppress the more violent one, thus leading to less violent behaviour.

Pinker identifies 5 historic forces here. They are: 1) Leviathan: the monopoly of violence by the state, which has decreased the rewards of private individuals to resort to violence themselves, and whose efficacy improves as governments become less corrupt and more just towards their citizens; 2) Commerce: the increase in global commerce, which increases cooperation and reduces hostility between states; 3) Feminization: the increasing influence of women in the realms of politics and economics (as women are, by nature, less violent than men) 4) Cosmopolitanism: the increasing accessibility to new ideas and other peoples afforded by increased mobility, literacy and media, which decreases parochialism, and increases the range of people for whom each of us feels sympathy; and which also allows for the progress of ideas, which leads us into the final historic force; 5) The Escalator of Reason: the ever accumulating body of knowledge and good judgement afforded by the application of human reason to our questions and problems, which has lessened our tendency to privilege our own interests over that of others; and which also allows us to see that the cycle of violence is destructive, and provides us with ways of reducing it.

Pinker proceeds by way of beginning with a preliminary look at our human nature, then follows this up with an exhaustive look at the 6 historical shifts away from violence, then returns to a more in depth look at first our inner demons, and then our better angels, and then concludes with a more thorough discussion of the 5 historical forces that have helped move us away from violence. In order to streamline the argument, however, I will begin with a discussion of our inner demons and better angels (split into 2 separate parts), and then turn my attention (in part 3) to the 6 historical shifts away from violence, wherein I will address how the 6 historical shifts are connected to the 5 historical forces, which are themselves connected to our better angels.

What follows is a full executive summary of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.

PART I: OUR INNER DEMONS

1. Predation

In order to understand why violent tendencies exist in humans, let us begin with the rationale as to why we would expect to see (and do see) violent tendencies in nature. This requires a brief review of some of the basics of biology and evolution, which is where Pinker begins (apologies in advance to those who are well versed in these areas). To start off with, we may follow Richard Dawkins in thinking of an organism as a survival machine that has been designed by its genes (since it is an organism’s genes that provide the blueprint for its body and brain structure). Only when an organism lives long enough to reproduce does it pass its genes on to the next generation. Therefore, natural selection favours those genes that are effective in designing an organism whose body and behaviour allows it to survive and reproduce. Meaning those genes that are successful in this regard (and the body and behavioural traits that are connected to them) are passed down to future generations, while those that are not are not.

As it turns out, an organism’s efforts to survive and reproduce are sometimes met with opposition from other organisms, including organisms from other species as well as one’s own species, as for instance when one organism represents another’s next meal, or when one organism represents competition for another’s next meal or reproductive partner. One very clear and effective way of overcoming this opposition is through physical force, and therefore, we would expect natural selection to favour traits such as the inclination and proficiency in using force as a means of attaining these goals: “survival machines that can elbow their competitors away from finite resources like food, water, and desirable territory will out-reproduce those competitors, leaving the world with the survival machines that are best suited for such competition” (p. 33).

And indeed the inclination and aptitude in using violence instrumentally is seen in virtually all animals, including chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, and, of course, humans. Some familiar examples of humans using violence in an instrumental way are provided by Pinker himself: “Romans suppressing provincial rebellions; Mongols razing cities that resist their conquest; free companies of demobilized soldiers plundering and raping; gangsters whacking a rival, an informant, or an uncooperative official; rulers assassinating a political opponent or vice versa; governments jailing or executing dissidents; warring nations bombing enemy cities; hoodlums injuring a victim who resists a robbery or carjacking; criminals killing an eyewitness to a crime; mothers smothering a newborn they feel they cannot raise. Defensive and pre-emptive violence—doing it to them before they do it to you—is also a form of instrumental violence” (p. 510). And of course the list could go on and on.

But, we may object, most of us living in modern societies virtually never resort to violence in order to get what we want (despite the fact that there is still plenty of crime around), so how do we know that the traits behind the behaviours listed above are not just those of a few bad apples in the bunch, but do in fact reflect species-wide characteristics? Pinker points to a number of pieces of evidence here, of which I will highlight just a few. To begin with, the author cites a study done by the psychologist Richard Tremblay who measured rates of violence throughout the lifespan. Tremblay found that the most violent period in the lifespan was not adulthood, or even teenage-hood (as most believe), but toddlerhood, centering around the life stage aptly referred to as the terrible two’s: “a typical toddler at least sometimes kicks, bites, hits, and gets into fights, and the rate of physical aggression then goes steadily down over the course of childhood” (p. 483). The study prompted Tremblay to comment that while researchers had spent the last 30 years trying to understand how children learn to aggress, the better question might be how they learn not to aggress.

*For an excellent documentary on the subject of aggression in toddlers, and how and why it tends to lessen over time (that also makes mention of Tremblay’s research), I recommend the episode of The Nature of Things entitled “Origins of Human Aggression” available here:

And while violent behaviours may decrease with the lifespan in most of us, the inclination and/or temptation to act out aggressively may remain just beneath the surface. For instance, have you ever fantasized about killing someone? When the researchers Douglas Kendrick and David Buss asked this question to university students (a demographic not particularly known for their violent tendencies) they found that between 70% and 90% of men, and between 50% and 80% of women admitted to at least one homicidal fantasy in the previous year! With motives including, among others, “a lover’s quarrel, a response to a threat, vengeance for an act of humiliation or betrayal, and family conflict, proportionally more often with step-parents than with biological parents” (p. 484).

Finally, while most of us are successful in suppressing any violent thoughts we may have, this does not stop vast numbers of people from gaining immense pleasure from the vicarious experience of meting out violence in video games, or seeing others meting it out in books, television and movies (p. 484).

The evidence extends even to neurology. To start with, researchers examining the brains of cats used electrodes to activate a part of the brain named the Rage circuit, known to be active when these animals behave aggressively. Here is how one researcher described the cat’s behaviour: “within the first few seconds of the electrical brain stimulation the peaceful animal was emotionally transformed. It leaped viciously toward me with claws unsheathed, fangs bared, hissing and spitting. It could have pounced in many different directions, but its arousal was directed right at my head. Fortunately, a Plexiglas wall separated me from the enraged beast…” (p. 485). Now, the human brain is essentially a mammalian brain with an inflated cortex together with a few specialized modules for specific tasks, such as language. The Rage circuit found in cats and other mammals is one of the features of the human brain that has been carried over from our evolutionary ancestors. Following the feline fiasco, researchers performing brain surgery on human patients (that remained conscious) used an electrical current to activate the part of their brain that corresponds to the Rage circuit in cats and elicited the following response: “The most significant (and the most dramatic) effect of stimulation has been the eliciting of a range of aggressive responses, from coherent, appropriately directed verbal responses ([such as] ‘I feel I could get up and bite you’), to uncontrolled swearing and physically destructive behaviour…” (p. 486). (Unfortunately, I was unable to track down video of this experiment, but I was able to locate a clip of the experiment involving the cats, which I have linked to below. This clip also includes a story about a man who developed a cyst in the part of the brain from which aggression emanates, and how this affected his behaviour):

So evolutionary logic provides a convincing rationale as to why the inclination to resort to violence should evolve, and evidence from human behaviour, thoughts, fantasies and brain wiring would indicate that it has in fact evolved in our species, along with many others.

Of course, human society does not break down into unfettered mayhem, since, as was hinted at above, while people may have violent inclinations, they also have certain checks on these inclinations. And just as evolutionary logic helps explain why the inclinations to resort to violence exist in the first place, it also helps explain why we should expect to see these checks. The checks themselves come not only from our better angels (which we will explore in greater detail later), but also from the nature and inner workings of our violent tendencies.

To begin with, some members of one’s species are close kin, and any inclination to harm these people would be positively disastrous from the point of view of evolution, since any gene that inclined one to harm one’s kin, would, in effect, be a gene that would have a high probability of harming a copy of itself inside that relative (p. 32); a self-defeating propensity that we would not only expect natural selection to weed out, but to replace with its outright opposite (which we do in fact see in the form of familial, and especially maternal, feelings [more on these later]).

Second, any organism that has evolved an inclination to use force against members of its own species is also part of a species whose other members have evolved an inclination to use force against it in similar circumstances, and who will defend themselves, quite viciously if need be, to prevent coming out on the wrong end of a fracas. And since coming out on the wrong end of a fight does not bode at all well for biological success, we should expect any organism who is inclined to use violence to get what it wants to be very careful about when and with whom it does so. In other words, wherever inclinations to use violence evolve, they should not evolve as an indiscriminate response to any and all situations, but as a strategic calculus of possible benefits and drawbacks (p. 32). This calculus may be biologically based, such as the hard-wired proscription to ‘always attack an organism that is smaller than you, and refrain from attacking one larger’, or, in a species that has evolved a more sophisticated intelligence, the calculus may be performed moment to moment based on any number of contingencies (such as the probability of being caught and going to jail, among many others) (p. 32).

So, we have good reason to believe that the inclination to use violence instrumentally evolved in our species, and also that this inclination did not evolve as a proclivity to use aggression in any and all circumstances, but as part of a cost-benefit calculus to be deployed only when the probable benefits outweigh the probable costs. However, as we saw in the introduction, Pinker maintains that the inclination to use violence did not evolve only as a direct means to the ends of survival and reproduction, but for four additional ends as well. Let us turn to them now.

2. Dominance

A second end for which the inclination to use violence evolved, Pinker argues, is for the purpose of establishing status and prestige. Among social species that are inclined to use violence against one another in competing for resources, access to these resources is normally determined not by fighting over every individual resource available, but by one’s position in a dominance hierarchy. The reason why dominance hierarchies tend to form among violent social species is quite straightforward. It stems from the fact that any fight between organisms is likely to result in harm not only to the loser, but to the winner, and therefore, there is an incentive for both parties to settle disputes not with actual force, but with an understanding by both parties of who would win should the affair come to blows. This can normally be established with a single fight, if not by simple displays, such as chest thumping, muscle flexing, and pissing contests (for a little comic relief here check out the following video, which captures only a slight exaggeration of the male concern with displays of dominance):

The result of these isolated bouts of aggression (or near aggression) can then be used to establish a dominance hierarchy within a community, with each member’s access to resources being determined by their relative position in the hierarchy. Since access to limited resources is now determined by one’s position in the hierarchy, there is selection pressure for each member to deploy violence not just as a direct means to resources, but to establish or maintain their position in the hierarchy. Thus we see how the inclination to use violence for the purposes of gaining status and prestige can evolve.

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

14 thoughts on “#3. A Summary of ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’ by Steven Pinker

  1. Well done on summarizing such a huge, but very important, book. I am such a slow reader I’ve only managed the Inner Demons chapter! Thanks.

  2. I can only echo what others have said and thank you so much for taking the time to produce this excellent summary of an important book. I had read the first few hundred pages, when my lending time ran out and I had to return the book to the library. I think I still should grab the book again to finish it, but this seems less urgent now that you have filled me in so thoroughly.

    I don’t know it it’s the custom to talk here about the book, but it’s remarkable that Pinker is able to provide so much information to support a thesis that most people, in my experience, would instinctively say is wrong–that is, that we live in a much less violent world than was the case even in our living memories. Although Pinker wisely doesn’t come off as an “all’s right with the world,” complacent type, he does deliver good news to people who can use some.

    • Thanks Bill. I’m happy you liked the article. I agree with you that Pinker’s book is an important one. You’re right, he’s not trying to say that we should be complacent about reducing violence further–there’s always room for improvement. Pinker’s main contribution is to reveal what, exactly, has caused violence to decline as it has, so that we may continue exploiting these means to decrease violence still more. Here’s hoping we may meet with still more success moving forward!

      Cheers,
      Aaron

  3. Wow Aaron, a lot summarized here. It must have taken you a long time. Thanks. I first discovered Pinker’s theory and the amazing amount of data that he uses to validate it on a TV Ontario broadcast of Ideas, where they presented a lecture he gave in Toronto.

    • Thanks Lindsay. I’m glad you liked the article. Most of my articles take about a week to write, but I’ll admit that I did spend more time on this one. I’ll have to try and find that lecture you mentioned–I’m a big fan of Pinker, and very much look forward to his books.

      Cheers,
      Aaron

  4. Corrections made from my original post.

    I must confess I did not read the entire article.
    The violence we see around us daily contradicts the proposition that violence has decreased. In fact, it appears to be exactly the opposite. I truly wish violence was decreasing but it does appear likely to happen in the foreseeable future. That said, I remain optimistic because of my belief in God. There are overarching and under-girding reasons for our lives and a glorious future ahead.

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