A review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
One-Sentence Summary: Human violence at all levels and timescales has substantially declined due to a set of forces which have subdued our destructive impulses while promoting our peaceful tendencies.
For such a positive idea, the central premise of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angles of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is remarkably controversial. Whenever I dare to mention that the 21st century is the most peaceful in history, I am greeted not by shouts of joy but by a chorus of vehement opposition. Is it not only that people do not believe this concept, but that they seem to not want to believe that humanity is really getting better all the time. The idea runs counter to all popular narratives and is so shocking that it requires altering one’s entire mindset about the world in order to acknowledge it. Initially, I found it difficult to accept as well, but after enough exposure to the concept, I have been convinced that humans are indeed treating each other better now than ever before. As a result, I have gradually become a rational optimist, and while I still have concerns about our society, I sleep a little better at night knowing that when viewed through the lens of history, we are on the right track. Pinker’s 832-page masterpiece exhaustively covering this topic has been by far and away the most influential work in the shifting of my outlook.
Before Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard University, can explain why violence has declined, he needs to convince us that conflict levels really have fallen, a difficult task in the negativity-dominated media culture of today. Unlike a news broadcast though, Pinker does not need to rely on anecdotes because he can draw on statistics from hundreds of studies conducted all over the world. Amidst all the statistics is one dominant theme: violence on all scales has declined throughout the course of human history. Pinker breaks up this long gradual decrease into six distinct movements. At one end, on the level of entire human civilizations and millennia, is the Pacification Process, characterized by the transition from hunting/gathering to permanent agricultural societies beginning roughly 12000 years ago. This era saw at least a five-fold reduction in rates of violent death as feuding tribes coalesced into the first cities and states with central governments which provided a check on the chronic raiding and wars that had been a daily part of life. At the other end of the spectrum, on the scale on individual humans, is the movement Pinker calls the Right Revolutions, beginning in the decades since World War Two and continuing through today. The past 60 years have seen a decline in personal violence such as abuse against spouses, children, and animals, and expanding rights and freedoms for previously denigrated minority groups. To cite a single figure, in this period, rape declined by 80% and went from a topic that barely even acknowledged as an issue to a cause that is seen as the responsibility of our society to address. In between the large civilization-wide and the small personal scale are four intermediate trends that illustrate how genocide, interstate conflicts, civil wars, homicides, domestic abuse, child abuse, bullying, and torture have all decreased to historical lows.
It is not only that strife itself has declined, but also that our attitudes towards violence have undergone a substantial shift. What were once considered everyday or even amusing acts are now so horrible as to be beyond comprehension. A 15th century Englishman could entertain himself by watching a public execution, terrorizing a prisoner in the stocks, cheering as a bear chained to a stake was torn to pieces by hunting dogs, or observe the trial of a witch which always ended in a bonfire (and not the kind you would want to roast marshmallows on). Prisoners, political dissenters, and religious heretics were tortured in an endless variety of manners (it is no coincidence that the Christian Church has adopted an instrument of torture as its symbol). Life was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Less value was placed on each individual life, which made it much easier to justify carrying out terrible acts or taking a life. In contrast, today, even the animals that we eat have their own lobbying groups, and a child making a gun signal at school is cause for uproar. We may argue about political correctness run amok, or the needless sheltering of our children, but this is a necessary price to pay for the peaceful society we enjoy. The mere fact that we value our children enough to prevent them from bullying each other shows how much progress we have made from times when infanticide was common and children were more or less disposable. The heightened aversion to violence in modern society can occasionally seem over the top, but Pinker argues it is a sign of how precious life has now become. Our recognition of and sensitivity to violence may have increased in recent years, but that is an indicator of the emphasis we now place on preserving and bettering all human lives.
Pinker is clearly a proponent of lists. Besides the six trends of declining violence, he outlines five inner demons that drive humans to conflict, four “better angels of our nature” which lead us to commit fewer violent acts, and five historical forces that have favored our peaceable motives. (The title of the book comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural address which ends with “The mystic chords of memory… will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” ) Lists can oversimplify complex topics and leave little room for nuance, but Pinker does a fantastic job of using lists to condense the most importance information into easy-to-remember sections. The most intriguing part of the book is the five historical forces that promote our peaceful nature and it is worth briefly outlining them in order to answer the question: “Well, why has violence decreased?”
- The Leviathan: Here Pinker is referring to a strong, legitimate central government. Throughout history, as disparate bands of people were gathered together into societies united by a single government, violence between groups has fallen markedly. A central authority figure has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, thereby taking the role of justice out of the hands of citizens. Contrary to popular belief, less than 15% of murders are carried out for economic gain. Rather, the majority are motivated by personal revenge or the perpetrator’s sense of justice. When there is a system in place to punish those who carry out acts of violence, the cycle of revenge can be broken (consider the Hatfields and McCoys who took it upon themselves to mete out their own justice in a feud lasting three decades). Furthermore, people respond to incentives, and when carrying out a crime has a greater cost in terms of punishment than potential gain, there is little reason to take the risk. The role of government is therefore twofold: provide the correct incentives to encourage peaceful interactions between citizens, and if that fails, institute a system of justice which prevents people from needing to carry it out themselves. Pinker demonstrates the dual roles of the Leviathian through the lens of the “great crime decline” of the 1990s, in which rates of violent crime declined by more than 50%. There have been a number of theories put forth to explain this trend, but Pinker appeals to the simplest, that crime declined because policing and jail time for crimes increased. (This in itself is a controversial idea, but the other competing theory, first put forth in Freakonomics is even more so. The authors of that book argue that the decline in crime displayed the effects of the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1972. The children that would have been born had abortion remained illegal would have come of age in the 1990s and these children on average would have been more likely to grow up impoverished without a decent support system, two factors that have been linked to an increased crime rate. Unfortunately for this theory, Pinker shows that the numbers do not quite line up.) New York City serves as the main example, where mayor Rudy Giuliani instituted a tough-on-crime stance known as “broken windows policing,” which aimed to clean up neighborhoods by punishing even minor crimes harshly in order to prevent an increasing spiral of illegal activity. Therefore, the city provided both the incentive (in this case disincentive) to reduce crime by increasing the likelihood that a crime would end in jail time, and the strong police presence needed to enforce the law. The idea that a strong police force and more individuals in jail means lower crime rates is intuitive and can be extrapolated to the level of nations with international bodies such as the United Nations, which enforces economic sanctions to disincentivize conflicts. Governments, when led by despots, have been among the worst practitioners of violence, but the order imposed by a well-balanced authority can drive down rates of violence both within and between nations.
- Gentle Commerce: The second historical force comes down to cold, sobering math: our neighbors are worth more to us alive than dead. War is a zero-sum game and the gains of the victor are exactly cancelled out by the suffering of the defeated, resulting in no net gain for humanity. Trade, in contrast, is a positive-sum game with both sides coming out of an exchange better off than before. Our modern interconnected world is built upon this very idea. Why would we be so foolish as to kill our neighbors if we depend on them for food? (We are not going to start a war with China because we cannot celebrate July 4 without flags and fireworks made in China). The extent of trade has increased in lockstep with the increase in the speed of transportation, and countries, particularly democracies, are so interlinked that a disruption in one part of the supply chain will have global repercussions. When it is cheaper to buy a resource rather than plunder a nation for it, economics will prevail.
- Empowerment of Women: It seems too simplistic to say that as women have gained leadership roles at the national level (although not nearly at acceptable rates), they have pacified nations because of their feminine nature. However, Pinker does not shy away from admitting there are physical and psychological differences between men and women that leads women to be less violent and less likely to act on their impulses. When was the last great or even minor war started by two women? Throughout history, women have been a civilizing force. In fact, Pinker makes the claim that the wild frontier of the American West was finally civilized once women were able to make their way west (in the words of Pinker: “Nature abhors a lopsided sex ratio.”) It is not just the presence of women in power roles that falls under the category of empowerment of women, but also increased access to birth control. As Bill Gates and others have noted, no country has significantly reduced its poverty rate without expanding access to contraceptives. Birth control, especially when the decision to use it rests solely with women, allows mothers to have fewer children, leading to a greatest investment in time and resources in each child. Furthermore, birth control allows women to plan when to have children allowing them to be an integral part of the workforce. The empowerment of women has been a theme I have run across in many works lately, and I now view it as one of the most effective methods for improving standards of living around the world. Pinker would add reducing violence to the list of benefits that arise from the inclusion of women in power structures and giving women control of the reproductive cycle.
- The Expanding Circle of Empathy: Up until the very recent past, most humans never made it more than a few miles from their birth place and rarely, if ever, interacted with someone outside their tribe on a peaceful basis. Contrast that with today when cheap air travel has made it possible to travel across the country on a day’s wages or fly around the world in 24 hours. This ability to experience a larger slice of the world has drastically increased the diversity of cultures and humanity that we are exposed to on a daily basis. Rather than highlight our differences, this exposure has led us to see the common humanity that we all share. We observe that like us, people from all over the world have hopes, fears, emotions, and everyone is motivated by the same basic desire to see the world become a better place. This exposure to others cultures and viewpoints has come about not only because of physical travel, but also through all types of media and the telecommunications revolution. It might seem like the fantasy of a high-school literature teacher, but the claim that fiction can allow us to take the views of others and increase our empathy has solid psychological evidence behind it. Studies have shown that people put themselves in the position of someone they hear described in a story and will even sympathize more with the characters in a well-told fictional story than other people in real life. The ideals of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, particularly humanism, with its beliefs that all people have inherent worth and share common values, was spread through literature that was available to a larger percentage of the population than ever before. Modern television, social media, and communications have made it simple to immerse one’s self in a different culture or temporarily adopt a different viewpoint. As the number of people and ways of life that we can experience increases, our circle of empathy expands to include ever more individuals and our xenophobic tendencies are tamped down. Instead of relying on what our national leaders tell us about the people of a nation we are about to invade, we can perform a simple search and within seconds read an article which shows that these people are not savages, but humans just like us. If you ever need another reason to watch a movie or read a blog, simply say “I’m expanding my circle of empathy and making the world a less violent place” and no one will say you are wasting your time.
- The Escalator of Reason: The final historical force that has led to a decrease in our violent tendencies has been the triumph of logic over superstition and belief. Rationality is what allows us to perform the calculations that show we are better off trading with our neighbor rather than killing him. In addition, through measured thinking, we can play out multiple future scenarios to observe that the one ending in conflict makes all parties suffer. Although current political discourse would seem to suggest otherwise, humans are becoming more rational. Researchers have noted that IQ scores have consistently risen nearly 3 points per decade or 10 points per generation, a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect. Taken at face value, this means that an average teenager in 2017 would have an IQ of 130 in 1917, placing them in the top 2% of the population. A closer analysis shows that where the greatest progress has been made is not general knowledge, but in abstract reasoning, or the ability to process complex ideas that do not have a physical grounding. Abstract reasoning is what we employ when we consider hypothetical scenarios or think through cause and effects. Through rational thinking we can take a step back and look at the larger picture which shows the destructiveness of cycles of violence and the futility of ideologies. Moreover, reason can overpower our baser human emotions such as vengeance or tribalism. Rationality is often portrayed as cold and unfeeling, but it is only through applying logical thought processes that we can engineer more peaceful civilizations and keep our natural human responses in check.
Together, these five historical forces have subdued our five inner demons — predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology — and promoted our four better angels — empathy, self-control, a sense of morality, and reason. Pinker believes it is necessary to identify external (exogenous) causes of the decline rather than say there is more peace today because humans have become more peaceful because that would be circular reasoning. Moreover, the premise of the book is not that we have evolved to become more peaceful, as evolution through the mechanism of natural selection is too slow to observe effects even on the timescale of hundreds of years. Instead, we have shaped our civilization in a manner that makes it easier to exercise some traits that evolution has provided us with and harder to exercise others. Furthermore, these historical forces are alive and well in the world today, and though violence is not guaranteed to decline, there is no reason to doubt that current trends will reverse themselves.
Why Should We Care?
The idea that the world is becoming less violent is one of the most important but least appreciated concepts of the 21st century. As Pinker points out, we have a disturbing tendency to denigrate modernity. The belief that peaceful, nature-loving people existed in harmony before the ruthlessly violent modern world came into existence is prevalent and can be seen in depictions such as Rousseau’s “noble savage.” Yet native peoples took as much advantage of their environment (often leading to their extinction) as we do in the modern world and treated each other far worse than we would even believe possible. This false belief in a more peaceful past leads to a nostalgia for a simpler age, or in the case of the United States, to return the country to the way it was 60 years ago. The past may have been simpler (in terms of the amount of information the average person had access to) but it was by no means better for the average citizen. Anyone who answers the question: “If you could live as an everyday individual at any time in history when would it be?” with an answer other than the present day is deluded. We are living in the Golden Age of Civilization, and there is no evidence to suggest that the state of the world will regress on a significant timescale. (Fortunately, the view that we are progressing is gradually becoming more common, at least among academics, with recent titles such as The Rational Optimist and The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People.) In addition to showing us why we should praise modernity (while reminding us that we should work to constantly improve the human condition), The Better Angels of Our Nature outlines the five most important trends driving the conflict decline which can inform policy makers and us voters as to the most critical issues to consider if we want to make society safer and healthier. Pinker has done the difficult work of identifying the positive trajectories, and now it is up to the rest of us to ensure that they continue, that for example, we increase access to birth control, or that we emphasize rational thinking in education. Once the fact that violence has declined is accepted, we need to realize that this is not by accident but rather through a series of forces that we can continue to support in our policies and individual choices. As Pinker puts it, we have come “to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won” and The Better Angels of Our Nature provides us with the framework to continue in our progress on this issue.
In order for me to recommend that someone devote the time necessary to finish a work of this size (the audiobook lasts for some 36 hours, or in my time measurement system, 288 miles of running) it has to be life-changing. While I believe the central idea of The Better Angels of Our Nature to be perspective altering, I don’t think the entire book is necessary to drive the point across. I found the work compelling from start to finish, but I realize that not everyone has the focus (or the time) to pay attention to lists of statistics and research results. It is enough to know that violence has declined and that there are hundreds of studies out there to demonstrate it. If you really want to absorb the critical part of the book, read Chapter 10 which outlines the five historical forces. Then, go and read the Wikipedia page, which has a thorough rundown of the six trends of declining violence, five inner demons, and four better angels. Together with Bill Gate’s review of the book, this will cover about 90% of the concepts and you can then feel confident that you can talk more knowledgeably on this subject than 99% of your fellow humans. And, if you are so inclined, 36 hours is a relatively short time to learn the full details of the most important trend in the existence of humanity.