The Better Angels Of Our Nature

the_better_angels_coverMany years ago in Iran, my friends and I were discussing an interesting subject. Has mankind really improved over the course of history? Our discussion quickly evolved into the evolution of violence as the biggest threat to our well-being. I had a gut feeling that as an Iranian woman I was definitely better off living in the 21st century under the rule of Islamic Republic, than living as a peasant wife or daughter in the 12th century. I thought it was less likely for me to be killed, beaten or raped in my current state and time. Most of my friends didn’t share this view and thought I was underestimating the threat of modern warfare, crime and terrorism.

Imagine my delight when I  read this  book by Steven Pinker and recommended by Bill Gates, in which he demonstrates the decline of violence through scientific analysis and statistics. From chimps behavior to the great wars of our recent history,  I enjoyed  finding answers to my questions from this well-structured extensive account of human violence.

This book is long(800 pages), as the subject demands, but well worth reading for anyone interested in social science and humanity. I’ve listed a selection of my favorite parts below as well as the book’s outline so you can get an idea.

A selection of my favorite learnings:

  • Religion and violence

Pinker explains the moral rationale behind the horrible tortures of the Inquisition. “If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth, is doing him the biggest favor of his life.

But why don’t modern fervent Christians practice the same kind of violence and call for burning heretics? Their holy texts to which they express unconditional loyalty imply that it would serve the greater good. “The answer is that the people in the west compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess the faiths that have barely changed in 2000 years, but when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and tolerance. A benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful.”

The problem with Islamic version however is that majority of Muslims are still confused about this. In practice, the majority has  banished those customs advised by the holy book 1,400 years ago. They don’t own slave concubines or cut one’s hand for stealing, but they can’t let go of the idea that Sharia law should rule the society, which leads to the emergence of “True Caliphates” like Isis.

  • The Hobbesian Trap:

Imagine you live in a farm that has the main source of water in the area. Your neighbor doesn’t have a water source, but owns a small patch of forest that can be a great source of fuel. You  fear that the neighbor is going to initiate an attack to acquire your resource and so does he. That inclines you to eliminate him by a preemptive strike and so does he, even if you are both very peaceful people. How to avoid such dilemma?

“The most obvious way is through a “policy of deterrence”: a) Don’t strike first b)Be strong enough to survive the first strike c)Retaliate against any aggressor in kind”.

” The key to the deterrence policy though is the credibility of the threat that you will retaliate. If your adversary suspects that you are going to be wiped out in the first strike, he has no fear of retaliation. And if he thinks that once attacked you would rationally hold back from retaliation, because at that point it’s too late to do any good, he might exploit that rationality and attack you with impunity.”

  • Sharp decline of homicide rate in the US, After 1993
In 1993 crime in New York City and the rest of the US dropped by 45%, and has stayed low ever since.What changed? Not poverty and racism.
  1. The positive movements of the 1960s like women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights and children’s rights began to consolidate power in 1990s as the baby boomers became the establishment and turned them into laws.
  2. “Some of the goofier ideas of 1960s lost their appeal. the collapse of communism and the recognition of its economic and humanitarian catastrophes, took the romance out of the revolutionary violence and cast doubt on the redistribution of wealth at the point of a gun. A greater awareness of rape and sexual abuse, made the ethos “if it feels good, do it”, seem repugnant rather than liberating.”
  3. Increased number of police force and incarceration.
  4. One of the effective changes was an innovative urban police policy of punishing petty crimes like free rides on the subway, urinating in public and aggressive panhandling. New York City in particular took extreme measures to remove vandalism, i.e repainting subway trains everyday after they were covered with Graffiti. Finally graffiti kids gave up. These are the principles of the ” Broken Window” theory :”An orderly environment indicates that the police and the citizens are dedicated to keep the peace, while a vandalized and unruly one is a signal that no one is in charge.”Both correlation of crime drop with this phenomena, but also further independent studies validates the theory.
  • The list of deadliest events/governments ranked by number killed(includes deaths in the battlefields and indirect deaths of starvation and war triggered disease). Note that absolute numbers doesn’t account for population increase. For example the An Lushan revolt is the deadliest event of all times in which 1/6 of the world population was killed.
  1. Second world war,20th century: 55 Million
  2. Mao Tse Tung government caused famine, 20th Century: 40 Million
  3. Mongol conquests, 13th Century, 40 Million
  4. An Lushan Revolt, 8th Century, 36 Million
  5. Fall of the Ming Dynasty,17th century, 25 Million
  6. Taiping Rebellion, 19th Century, 20 Million
  7. Annihilation of native Americans, 15th through 18th Centuries, 20 Million
  8. Joseph Stalin rule, 20th Century, 20 Million
  9. Mid-East slave trade, 7th- 19th centuries, 19 Million
  10. Atlantic slave trade, 15th-19th Centuries,18 Milion
  11. Timur Lang, 14th and 15th centuries, 17 Million
  12. British India, preventable famine, 19th Century, 17th Million.
  13. First world war, 20th Century, 15 Million
  14. Russian civil war, 20th century, 9 Million
  15. Fall of Rome, 3rd-5th centuries, 8 Million
  16. Congo free state, 19th and 20th centuries, 8 Million
  17. 30 years war, 17th Century, 7 Million
  18. Russia’s time of troubles, 16th and 17th centuries, 5 Million
  19. Napoleonic wars,19th century, 4 Million
  20. Chinese civil war, 20th Century, 3 Million
  21. French wars of religion, 16th century, 3 Million

The Book’s outline:  

Five “historical forces” that have driven the decline of violence:

  • The Leviathan – The state’s monopoly to use legitimate force in order to resolve individual conflicts.
  • Commerce – Trade becoming more favorable than conquest, or the positive sum game.
  • Feminization – Increase in respect and consideration for female values, stemming from women’s evolutionary tendency to favor compassion and care over aggression.
  • Cosmopolitanism – Literacy, mobility, and mass media, enabled people to “take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.”
  • The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to re-frame violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.

Six trends of declining violence:

  1. The Pacification Process
  2. The Civilizing Process
  3. The Humanitarian Revolution
  4. The Long Peace
  5. The New Peace
  6. The Rights Revolutions

Five Inner Demons:

  1. Predatory or Practical Violence:
  2. Dominance
  3. Revenge
  4. Sadism
  5. Ideology

Four Better Angels:

  1. Empathy
  2. Self control
  3. Moral sense
  4. Reason





I heard about this controversial book as a teenager. Being a precocious reader, I asked my mother what this book was about. She reluctantly answered it was about an older guy falling in love with a young girl, because she reminds him of his childhood love. Although she didn’t mention the eroticism, it was pretty obvious from her tone of voice that there was something wrong about the book in her opinion. I forgot about it until I read Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” and her interesting comparison between Humbert and the Islamic Republic captivating female youth. Azar’s review of the book was indeed very intriguing and I decided to watch the old Lolita movie,which I wasn’t crazy about.

Only after I listened to the unabridged audio book, read skillfully by Jeremy Irons, I realized what the fuss was about. The literary genius of this book is all based on the first person unreliable narrator, which is not possible to replicate in a movie. (An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whose credibility has been seriously compromised). Lolita’s narrator, Humbert Humbert, fascinates the reader with the intensity of his obsession and appalls her with great lengths he goes to satisfy it.

Humbert never tries to justify his crime. He informs us early on that he is a pedophile and he is only interested in a very specific female age range and characteristics, called “Nymphets”. “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets. It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see ‘nine’ and ‘fourteen’ as the boundaries—the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks—of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea.”

All his life, he hasn’t  dared getting close to a real nymphet, because he is completely aware of its immorality and criminal consequences. The “Long hairy hand of fate” however, brings him to the house of a widower and her 12-year-old daughter. In less than 3 months, the woman falls for him, marries him while Humbert creeps around the house watching and falling for the daughter, Dolores. While Lolita is in summer camp, her mother dies in an accident, and leaves the predator free to hunt down the prey. He picks her up from the summer camp and takes her on a year-long road trip around the US. His initial intention was to just drug her every night and fondle her in her sleep, but the very first night they are alone together, playful Lolita “seduces” him, by trying to play with him the sex games she had played with a young boy at the summer camp, which leads to Hum “Letting her have her way” but doing what he wants to her as well. “I’m trying to describe these things not to relive in my present boundless misery, but to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange awful maddening world, nymphet love.The beastly and beautiful merged at one point, and it is that border line I would like to fix, and I feel I failed to do so utterly. Why?”

And then follows a year Lolita being his orphan prostitute, having nowhere else to go. Humbert doesn’t tell the story as simple, of course. The year is described in intervals of Humbert’s mad love for Lolita’s beauty and her ways, followed by his frustration at her selfishness and their endless moves from town to town to remain inconspicuous. His beautiful words of adoration are intercepted once in a while with the reality of Lolita’s misery. She sobs every night, after Humbert feigns sleep. She collects change that she earns in exchange for her “non-basic” performances and hides them in cracks of the walls and books, which Humbert always finds. These rare clues are given in a matter of fact fashion, in the first 90% of the book, (before he loses Lolita) deceiving us into seeing her from his point of view. Only in the last chapter, overcome by grief and depression, Humbert confesses to the deeper damage he has caused to the child.

I think the absence of Lolita’s voice throughout the story is brilliant, because it relies on readers intelligence and conscience to hate Humbert before he gets miserable and remorseful himself. It is easy to judge a thick stupid rapist as criminal, but a witty criminal who does magic with word play? Not so much. You want to save an ounce of compassion for him to keep on reading his weird love story. Then you reflect on your feelings toward him and you feel guilty, because he is horrible. This is how smart Nabokov is and how good at language. And English is not even his native tongue!

The Corrections

The Corrections

The book is about a dysfunctional family from the imaginary town of St. Jude somewhere in the Midwest.

The story starts with the account of the parents, Enid and Alfred Lambert living their seemingly uneventful retired life. The lucid and life-loving Enid is concerned by her husband’s rapid downfall to dementia and Parkinson, trying in vain to interest him in life. Alfred who has always been emotionally unavailable to his wife, has worked for a Midwestern railroad company for decades, has made bad investment decisions due to his strict work ethics and loyalty to the company. Enid is ashamed that they have lost so many opportunities to be rich.

Then we hear about Chip, the middle child whose story shakes us up with its tragic and hilarious turns. Chip has taken a drug called “Mexican A” which makes its user incapable of feeling shame. The result of giving in to this magical drug is a 3 day long sexual relationship with his student, followed by his unemployment, and further failures. We learn all of these through flashback, while Chip is hiding a stolen salmon fillet in his jacket, hoping to cook a decent meal for his parents, who are stopping by his apartment on their way to a cruise trip. After getting dumped by his girlfriend on the same day, he meets the girlfriend’s husband, a Lithuanian politician and gets hired by him and flies out to Lithuania.

I am not going to give away all the other amazing plot twists of the novel, but they kept me awake at night. The writing is so smooth and amazing that all the bizarre events are totally believable. Characters are so real and dear that you feel like you have known them for ages. Franzen has done a fantastic job in writing Alfred’s paranoia and Enid’s relentless determination for a last family Christmas, making your heart overflow with love for them.

This is a very humane novel, in my opinion. Shame is the major affliction of the Lambert family, making Enid so judgmental and Alfred so angry. It is the reason for Denise’s crazy love experiments and Gary’s loneliness in his perfect family. And only through reunion and confessions of love and guilt to each-other, at least some of the Lamberts can find redemptions.

My brief rationalization doesn’t do justice to this beautiful book. Just read it if you like complex characters and intimate narrative.