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