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The Better Angels of our Nature

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…by Steven Pinker (Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University)

I’m simply writing to everyone to make a recommendation that if you’re at all interested in a brief history of civilization and human psychology, please read this book: The Better Angels of our Nature, Why Violence has Declined.  It’s not a quick read but it is phenomenal!  It is a dense, cogent presentation on why and how violence has declined over the span of human history.  And how history, psychology, and evolution have affected our (human) tendencies toward – and away – from violence.

Additional reading is also here at Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 2017 Letter.  It will give you a sense of where the world stands today in terms of human progress.

Another mind-blowing book is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.  You can see Harari’s interview here with Chris Anderson of TED, where he concludes that we should take heart in the fact that the world is much less violent than it was 100 years ago: “More people die from eating too much than eating too little; more people die from old age than infectious disease; more people commit suicide than are killed by war, terrorism and crime,” he says. Or, as he wryly sums up, “You are your own worst enemy.”

The book is not gory.  Nor does it get deeply into any actual, specific violence.  What Mr. Pinker does is provide an incredibly insightful look at how violence has declined over time and how historical, cultural, scientific, academic, nationalistic, religious, political, evolutionary, and psychological forces have contributed to this decline.

Mr. Pinker reminds us that through the media mindset of “If it bleeds, it leads,” we’ve been duped into thinking the world is unsafe.  The real story is that we’ve never lived in a more safe or stable time in human history.

Mr. Pinker takes us on a journey through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Hebrew Bible, Medieval times, modern European and United States history to show how “total” war actually was in 1200 BCE, the religious irreverence for human life, and how non-chivalrous knights were.  In the Pacification Process we get a Hobbesian and Darwinian look at the origins of violence and the “adaptive logic of violence and its predictions for the kinds of violent impulses that might have evolved” in us.  In this chapter we also get a first look at some numbers such as the amount of deaths in warfare.   In 2005, as a percentage of ALL deaths in the world, the number of violent deaths was 17,400.  These are directly attributable to war, terrorism, genocide, and killings by warlords and militias.  As a percentage of all deaths, this is .0003 (three hundredths of a percent) of all deaths in the world.  Across the entire 20th century, there were approximately 40 million battle deaths over that 100 years.  As a percentage of the 6 billion people that dies in total, this is .7 percent of the world’s population died in battle.  By contrast, from 10,000 BCE to more modern day hunter-gatherer societies, there was a death-in-warfare rate of an average of 15 percent of the world population, and with some rates as high as 60 percent.  The lowest rate of death-in-warfare of the studied and recorded time period was about 2 percent.  Just a 2 percent death-in-warfare rate would have more than doubled the battle deaths in the 20th century.

What we see in the Pacification Process chapter of the book, and by the end of the book, is that Hobbes theory of a Leviathan is a major contributor to a massive decrease in violence over time.  It is perfect? Not by any stretch!  However, the movement from non-state to state, Leviathan-like, society began an unprecedented pacification process in human history.

In the Civilizing Process we learn why good manners doesn’t allow us to use a knife to move peas onto a fork (Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process).  And why this matters in the history of violence.  In short, we learn the entire history of homicide and the massive decline in killings.  And why!  We learn why and when a culture of honor began to give way to a culture of dignity – the readiness to control one’s emotions.  It comes later in the book in full force but Mr. Pinker starts a discussion of the faculty of mind that psychologists call self-control, delay of gratification, and shallow temporal discounting, which all contribute to the Humanitarian Revolution.  In the Civilizing Process, once the Leviathan was in charge, the rules of a state change.  We also get an economic revolution in history and commercial stability (relatively).  Warriors become courtiers and a “gentle commerce” sets in.  With it comes the Humanitarian Revolution.

Today, the Enlightenment is often mentioned with a sneer but it was exactly the Enlightenment that ushered into history the American Declaration of Independence (1776), the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and cascade of Rights Revolutions.  These documents and movements have been the basis of a remarkable humanitarian revolution in society.  This revolution directly contributed to the eradication of one of history’s most common motives for revenge among hunter-gatherer and tribal societies: witchcraft.  The Humanitarian Revolution has also nearly eradicated violence against blasphemers, heretics, apostates, and blood libel, capital, and cruel and unusual punishment.

We also get a look at the universality of reason, and the influence of philosophers such as Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant.  We see how the foundations of morality influenced history and their contribution to human flourishing.  However, not all was well, and the forces of the counter-enlightenment tried very hard to arrest humanitarian progress.  The counter forces at play were, militant nationalism, romantic militarism, Marxist socialism, and the idea that history is a glorious struggle between races.  Before the Long Peace would set in, these forces would produce tremendous suffering across the world.

It turns out that as a percentage of the world population, the 20th century was not “the bloodiest in history.”  As a percentage of the total population of the world, the Second World War, Mao Zedong induced famine, First World War, and the Russian Civil War (all 20th century “atrocities”) rank 9th, 11th, 16th, and 20th respectively in numbers of lives lost measured from the 7th century through today.  What century produced the most human deaths? The 13th through 17th centuries hold ranks 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, and 7th, adjusted for world population.

In the Long Peace chapter, Mr. Pinker gives us the book’s first deep dive into other human forces affecting the history of violence.  He does this by describing how biology led to endless wars of succession, through inheritance.  He also takes another tact and shows us how pre-World War I literature still largely glorified war.  After WWI, history gets a new “genre of bitter reflections” on war.  The battlefield was no longer seen “as glorious, heroic, holy” but rather as “immoral, repulsive, uncivilized, futile.”  Up  to this point in the book, Mr. Pinker gives many statistics on war and he reveals the most startling one: zero.

Across “an astonishing collection of categories of war during the two-thirds of a century” since the end of the deadliest war of all time, the Second World War:

  • nuclear weapons have been used zero times
  • Cold War superpowers fought each other on the battlefield zero times
  • zero great powers have fought each other since 1953
  • zero interstate wars have been fought between countries in Western Europe
  • zero interstate wars have been fought since 1945 between major developed countries (the 44 with the highest per capita income)
  • zero developed countries have expanded their territory since the late 1940s (I’m not sure if Russia’s annex of Crimea counts here)
  • zero internationally recognized states have gone out of existence since WWII

In the next two chapters, the New Peace and the Rights Revolutions, Mr. Pinker discusses “low intensity conflicts,” the new wars, “the age of genocide,” and how a human rights focus brought us a “measurable and substantial decline in many categories of violence.”  Unexpectedly, he also presents why he believes there is an “overshooting” of parental protectionism and political correctness.  He of course gives full credit to the human suffering attached to both new wars and genocide but aims to also show scope and size of these conflicts relative to history.  He also shows how the revolution of the rights of people, supported by historical giants such as Marin Luther King Jr., nearly guarantee that the arc of the “moral universe…bends toward justice.”

With the chapter, Inner Demons, Mr. Pinker moves into the world of psychology to help explain our human tendencies toward violence.  He shows us how we “are wired for violence, even if in all likelihood we will never have an occasion to use it.”  He uses cognitive science and evolutionary biology to explain our Rage circuits, why much of human violence is cowardly violence, the doctrine of the Noble Savage, cognitive dissonance, and the workings of the HPA (hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal) axis.  We get a cascade of analysis of Roy Baumeister’s research on evil and evil actions “perpetrated by people who are mostly ordinary, and who respond to their circumstances.”

In Better Angels and On Angels’ Wings, Mr. Pinker wraps-up the book by spending twenty pages questioning how large an effective there is from human emotions such as empathy, sympathy, and altruism.  He gives much more credit to the idea of a circle of rights – a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation.  He takes a very deep dive into the science, biology, and economics of self-control.  We also get a crash course into the decision-making functions of the brain and the relationship among stimulus, context, episode, and response.  Also surprising to me was that after 608 pages, Mr. Pinker finds time to talk about some very specific physical (fitness) relationships to self-control.  He also takes us on a short Apollonian  (thinking, self controlled, rational) and Dionysian (feeling, passioned, instinctual) journey to show the different types of people in these two societies and why environments matter.  Mr. Pinker brings the book to a close with a conversation about weaponry and disarmament, resources and power, affluence, and religion.  He also summarizes his entire hypothesis using the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma model but calls it the Pacifist’s Dilemma and modifies the scoring mechanism.

What we learn in Better Angels of our Nature is that the “forces of modernity – reason, science, humanism, individual rights – have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction” but the nostalgic romantics can no longer pull the moral card that says violence has increased in modern society.  Enjoy tomorrow and the next day.  We’re safer today than at any other time in human history!

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1 Comment

  1. Hold Fast
    March 28, 2017 at 10:26 am — Reply

    Why aren’t you the Dean of Leadership at Navy. This needs to happen. Hope you and the Ruiz family are awesome.

    Ready, Clint

    “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” – D. Burnham


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