The Better Angels of Our Nature: Review & Criticism

the better angels of our nature

In The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) author Steven Pinker explains that our world has been increasingly improving, moving towards peace and safety. But it’s not written anywhere it will keep on going the same way, and it’s up to each one of us to keep it on that positive trend.

Bullet Summary

  • We are both inherently violent and peaceful at the same time
  • The world has been increasingly moving towards a safer and safer place to be
  • The constant improvement is not a given though, and we must all contribute to keep the good trend

Full Summary

About the Author: Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard, and a popular author of science books, including “The Blank Slate“, “How the Mind Works“, and “Enlightnment Now“.

Violence Driver #1: Personal Gain (Predation)

Steven Pinker never defends or justify violence of course, however he does explain that it’s a natural part being a human.

Through natural selection all organisms evolved to compete. And competition sometimes requires the use of violence to acquire scarce resources or preclude competitors from getting those resources.

This type of violence is called predation.

Violence in Daily Life

The most violent stage of life is toddlerhood, and though most humans rein it back as they age, we still continue having violent thoughts.
A university survey showed that between 80% and 90% of college students fantasized about killing someone in the past year.

We Also Naturally Keep Violence in Check

However, we also have natural inborn mechanisms to keep that violence in check, says Steven Pinker.

Violence is risky, for example.
Violence doesn’t guarantee victory, and the person using violence might as well lose the battle. And even when winning, it’s rare that he will suffer absolutely no consequences.

Also violence against a kin harms our own genes.

Dominance Hierarchies Reduce Violence

Since violence is dangerous for each single individual of a species and can also be counterproductive for the group, humans evolved dominance hierarchies.

Steven Pinker says that dominance hierarchies are based on who would win a fight.
In humans the hierarchies tend to favor males who have an advantage in size and aggression.

The male at the top has access to more women and resources, which means that as hierarchies reduce violence, they also encourage it to reach the top position.

In men it’s not as crude as it is in other animals, but remnants can still be seen today.
Indeed, it’s men who still pursue women and value social status and prestige the most.

My Note: this is a very good point Steven Pinker mates.
However, it’s not completely true in all cases. When women outnumber men, men pursue very little and the need for competition diminishes among men while it increases among women. Also read: the science of dating.

This is something Jordan Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life talks about (and something this website often addresses).

Dominance Became Less Important

The author says that as humans developed into hunter gatherer societies women became more interested in commitment from men than simple sperm from the most dominant.

Indeed, since raising children costed lots of efforts and resources, women also wanted loyal men who would provide help. And tat increased male parental investment.
The author says that’s what produced our innate tendency to being generous and loyal to our loved ones (albeit not always loyal).

Violence Driver #2: Revenge

Steven Pinker says that the desire for revenge, including long term desire for revenge, is one of the major drivers for worldwide violence.

The author says that acting on our vengeful feelings make us feel good, but that doesn’t explain why the feeling even developed in the first place.

Steven Pinker says that most likely we developed the feeling of revenge as a deterrent. If an attacker knows that the victim or the parent of the will want to exact revenge on him, he will likely relent from his plans.

Violence Driver #3: Sadism

Sadism is the willingness some people to inflict pain on others for their own pleasure.

The author says sadism is a far less common motivator for violence, and it’s even less common in today’s society.

The author says that sadism is an acquired trait which can become addictive.

Violence Driver #4: Ideology

Ideology strives to create a better world.

But it’s actually similar to predation: we deploy violence to get what we want.

Steven Pinker says that we wired to fall prey of ideology because of our natural psychological biases:

  • Ingroup/Outgroup: we divide the world between the group we belong to and the others
  • Polarization: grouping together people with similar ideas increases extremism
  • Groupthink: when an ideology is adopted by the majority few people will question it
  • Social Conformity: disagreement within a group is often repressed through social pressure

Luckily, we also have many natural drivers for peace and love.

Peace Driver #1: Empathy

Empathy is the altruistic concern we have for others.

Steven Pinker says we developed empathy to take care of our children.
One corollary is that we tend to like more people who have baby-like facial features.

Empathy eventually expanded to also include non relatives, which further fueled the exchange of favors and resources.

Empathy can also lead to exploitation and unfairness.
People in line at a hospital, for example, were more willing to let a 10 year old girl skip the line when they were told she had a serious illness. However, that does not take into account that in the line there might be people who need attention even more urgently.

Peace Driver #2: Self Control

The limbic system, the most ancient part of our brain, drives to take advantage of an immediate opportunity even if the long term consequences don’t make it a good opportunity at all.

The prefrontal cortex instead, the area of the brain that governs complex decision-making and rational thinking, control the impulses to make more rational decisions.

The prefrontal cortex provides self-control and willpower.
Even when it comes to violence, the prefrontal cortex often reins us in, and we can strengthen our own self-control through practice.

Peace Driver #3: Morality

Morality can be a strong driver against violence.
For example, morality provides a driver for a more equitable society and for a fair system of law.
Morality also controls violent tendencies and promotes sharing and caring.

However, morality has also been the causes of violence.
Let’s think for example of times when homosexuality was regarded as immoral and gay people were killed in the name of “decency”.

But Steven Pinker says that, on net balance, the effect of morality is more positive than negative.

Peace Driver #4: Reason

Reason could be used to increase our capabilities of destruction. And it has certainly been used that way.

However, sentient beings are more likely to pursue personal gain through common good, which ultimately benefits everyone.

Overall, the net effect of reason is that of decreasing violence and conflict.
Steven Pinker refers to the Flynn Effect when he says that reason is increasing in the world as global IQ also increases.

The overall increasing cognitive abilities involve abstract reasoning most of all, which is crucial in empathy because it helps us see things from other people’s perspective (also read: Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence 2.0).

Research shows that people who are good reasoners are more likely to hold cooperative stances on world politics and act less violently.

States and Governments Brought Peace

Steven Pinker settles the silly idea that nomadic tribes and hunter gatherers were peaceful at heart.
They were instead in constant warfare for hunting land and watering holes.

With the switch to agriculture around 5.000 years ago city states and governments began to form. That lead to a decrease in violence because government had a monopoly on violence.
Every legal system grants government the sole right to the use of force and violence. Private citizens instead are persecuted when they commit violence.

More State Power = Less Violence

As the states became more and more powerful, they could strengthen their monopoly on violence.
This was especially evident and accelerated in the 15th century as Europe emerged from the Middle Ages.

With Trade Honest Toil Paid More Than Violence

As states and governments spread and as society became less violent, a virtuous circle formed.
Trading in honesty and peace provided a better way to get wealthy than through the use of violence.

Humanitarian Revolution

The third big revolution came by in the 17th and 18th century.

The idea that began to spread was that everyone deserved to be treated with humanity. Even if of a different religion and even if suspected of witchcraft -while in the Middle Ages that meant burning on stakes-.
The humanitarian revolution also decreased the number and usage of slaves.

And it also improved the condition of criminals and outlaws. The rule of fair law started replacing the old eye for eye, tooth for tooth and torture, which once was common even for relatively smaller crimes, started disappearing.

Peace Among Powers

I found the statistics of The Better Angels of Our Nature to confirm something I had always suspected myself as a bit of a history buff: great powers have been progressively waging fewer wars.

In the 16th and 17th century the major European powers were at war 85% of the time. Between 1850 and 1950 that figure was down to 15% of the time.

And in the 1980s the great powers had been at peace for the longest time since the fall of the Roman Empire.

The author says that, overall, also smaller wars, genocides and terrorism have decreased (yes, even accounting for 9/11).

Rights Revolution

The author says that the rights revolution of the ’60s and ’70s also decreased the violence against minorities. Steven Pinker says the rights revolution could be seen as a continuation of the humanitarian movement.

The violence against minorities and their living conditions have improved across the board. For women, racial minorities and LGBT people of course.
But also corporal punishment against children has sharply decreased.

And of course, even animal rights and protection have been improved beyond the rosiest expectation.

the better angels of our nature

Real Life Applications

Don’t Believe Warped Statistics
Please stop looking at the news and think that life is dangerous “these days”. We are on a long term, upward wave that moves towards a better and better world.
Steven Pinker indeed makes the case that, in spite we’re living in a much safer world, most people’s perceptions is that we live in a more dangerous world.

Criticism

There has been plenty of criticism towards Pinker and his approach to data and science.
Let’s begin:

  • Partially Unscientific (But Presented As Scientific)

A book that reviews data from, well… Before there were even written records, is bound to be flawed when it comes to numbers.
And even when analyzing historical records, the author is always can really only analyze a small portion of reality. And when the data is available, the collection of that data is flawed for various reasons.
However, the author does not address these concerns and prefers instead to give a semblance of science to his own hypothesis (which, BTW, is a hypothesis I agree with).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness“, has convincingly refused Pinker’s methodology.

Pinker, in very un-scientist-like fashion, replied trying to shove one up Taleb in a response titled “Fooled by Belligerence”, and that wasn’t very pretty (note: there was a link but Pinker has taken down the page).
Frankly, I would have expected better from Pinker. Taleb attacked him ass-holish style, but that’s Taleb.
Pinker replies like a different type of bully: the “smart alec type” (also see: archetypes of dominance).
Sapolsky, in his wonderful book “Behave“, also criticize Pinker, both for his ideological stance, and for his (lack) of data analysis.

I also think Pinker’s numbers are unreliable.
However, even if I agree that Pinker’s methodology and numbers are unreliable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that his thesis on the decline of violence is also wrong.

  • Doesn’t Consider Nuclear Weapons 

Steven Pinker does not weigh strongly enough on what, in my opinion, is a major deterrent for wars among major power: the cost of war.
Nuclear war is the most used example.
But even without nuclear missiles war today would cost immensely more both in terms of life and financial costs than it ever has.

Review

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a great book.

It makes the case for a theory that I always had as a history student: that violence is decreasing and that we are progressively getting better.

However, if you want a more unbiased historical view, or if you want a more scientific approach, then it might not be the best book available.

Read more summaries or get the book on Amazon

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