History · Nonfiction

Review: “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker

This is a combined summary and review of an enormous freakin’ book we read in International Relations class, based in large part on response essays I wrote. Like the book, it is super long, so I won’t be offended if you skim. I’m just saying, it’s totally faster to read this summary than read the whole book yourself! I’ve taken the liberty of including subheads for the chapters and main topics. I highly recommend this book for general interest, historians, and political scientists. Also, this book would be invaluable for a fantasy or science fiction writer — anyone dealing in the creation of societies, and the stuff about motivations for violence could apply to any villain.

The Better Angels of Our Nature cover

The central thesis of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature is that, contrary to popular belief, violence in the world has actually decreased over time. In the first four chapters, he seeks to prove his point as well as discuss possible reasons and mechanisms for this change. It’s a 900-page book, but the mechanisms can be boiled down to government, commerce, and education. The importance of social norms is woven through all these points.

1: Examples of accepted violence

The first chapter contains anecdotal examples of how violent people were in the past. Anecdotal evidence can only go so far, but the rest of the chapters will contain detailed statistics and analysis to prove the point. Instead, these anecdotes illustrate not only that the past was violent, but that attitudes toward violence have changed dramatically. We no longer think it reasonable or commonplace to rape enemy combatants’ wives by the hundreds, enslave others, torture criminals as part of their executions, tell children fairy tales about amputation and murder, or duel to the death over insignificant insults. We don’t have ads with men spanking their wives for buying the wrong products. We’re repulsed by these things, and Pinker uses that repulsion to great effect, illustrating that a profound cultural change really has occurred.

Thereafter, Pinker quite reasonably chooses to perform this analysis using rates and percentages rather than plain numbers, since the size of Earth’s population would otherwise skew the research. (The moral question of “Which is worse, millions of deaths in a modern war, or a few bloody deaths at a time in prehistory,” is just that: a moral question. It doesn’t really speak to the factual question of whether we’re getting more or less violent. Basically, Pinker is calculating a person’s chances of dying a violent death in a given place and time, regardless of how many other people there may be in the world.)

2: The Pacification Process (Government)

In Chapter 2, Pinker moves from anecdotes to a discussion of why violence occurs and whether it occurs more often in rural, tribal societies, or in modern urban civilizations. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes proposed a theory in which a government, once formed, pacifies quarrels between its subjects to preserve its own interests in limited collateral damage. The government takes control of revenge, removing one of the most common reasons for violence. Pinker terms this the Pacification Process. Of course, state violence becomes an issue once there’s a state, but there are proportionally fewer deaths by violence in a complex society than in a tribal one, because a complex society has an interest in maintaining the peace.

3: The Civilizing Process (Urbanization — commerce and infrastructure)

The Civilizing Process describes in more detail how an urbanized society discourages violence. Such a society evolves safer norms, since people are forced to live in close proximity to each other and thus will benefit from mutual support. Urban people will be engaged in commerce with each other, and it benefits a merchant to consider the wishes of his clientele and solicit their favor, rather than to murder them. There’s a reason the term “cosmopolitan” exists. Such a society will probably have a more stable government that’s capable of imposing the law and dispensing favors, so people have less incentive toward violence and more incentive to court favor with the government. Basically, such a society puts a higher premium on self-control and rationality.

Chapter 3 also contains an interesting discussion of instances when these social norms have not caught on or have worked backwards, as in the 1960s-1980s counterculture, or the American South where violence is still at a higher level.

homicide rates in the US mapBasically these cultures don’t value self control, and/or they missed out on some of that urbanization. Historically, places in the mountains or otherwise on the fringes didn’t get the same rule of law from the government in the beginning, think the Wild West, and some places still maintain that mindset. I believe in the South, especially, there’s still a perception that the government should be kept out of our personal affairs, or (in the case of city gang violence, etc.) that the government can’t or won’t help, so people resort to self-help justice. Religion and morality can play a part, if these places have entrenched moral sensibilities that entail conformity.

4: The Humanitarian Revolution (education)

Chapter 4 tracks what Pinker calls the Humanitarian Revolution, essentially a change from rampant torture as a public spectacle to empathy for others and valuing of human life for its own sake. He tracks worldwide declines in torture, human sacrifice, religious persecution, capital punishment, slavery, and political murder, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. One suggested cause is the explosion of novels as popular entertainment, which pushed people into sympathy with others. (I’ve been saying it for months, but I WILL post more on this when I get some more shit together. It’s a possible senior thesis topic so I’ve got a lot of research on this going on, and it’s kind of like spinning plates).

Pinker situates this progress toward empathy in Enlightenment Humanism and increasing vitality in the marketplace of ideas. He contends that reasons to not be violent are legitimate moral discoveries, and intellectuals in search of the truth can be expected to come to increasingly less violent conclusions. He also mentions on several occasions that when you start conducting business, you learn that you want to please your customers. It doesn’t help you to go around killing people. Instead, you want to learn how to put yourself in their shoes and learn how to sell them things. You learn how to accomplish goals in ways other than violence, you have other goals, you learn how to work a government system, you have social mobility to access to an urban culture that doesn’t brook with violence. So, education ups empathy levels in several direct and indirect ways.

5: The Long Peace (international wars in the last fifty years)

We’re moving away from these overall processes and into more specific historical periods now. Chapter 5 discusses the Long Peace the world has been experiencing since the end of World War II. Conventional wisdom holds that wars have been increasingly violent over time, or that wars occur in cycles, but Pinker debunks both these ideas. Wars obviously begin for historical reasons, but the timing is entirely random. There are no cycles, no building pressures for release, and no real consequences, at least in terms of the next war’s likelihood. Some historical reasons carried over from World War I to World War II, but it was not a case of lust for war escalating. In fact, Pinker’s analysis reveals that larger (more destructive) wars happen less frequently small ones, in a mathematically predictable relationship.

Poisson process - wars at random

Time on the bottom, severity on the side — those two in the top right are the two World Wars. This shows a random Poisson process.

probabilities of wars

The most severe wars are the least probable.

The mathematical discussion is dense, but the takeaway is that the same dynamics are at work in sparking interstate wars of all sizes, and although wars are timed randomly, the probability of wars occurring is going down. Pinker suggests several explanations, including the presence of nuclear weapons as a deterrent and the spread of democracy. (Liberal democracies don’t go to war with each other. Like, not just “a well-behaved democracy shouldn’t do such a thing,” it’s a literal thing that liberal democracies really just don’t do it. People aren’t exactly sure why.) But the main purpose of the chapter is just to demonstrate the reduction in the number and intensity of wars.

I do think it may still be more concerning than Pinker implies, because even if a catastrophic nuclear war is very unlikely, it still only takes once. But the numbers are interesting.

6: The New Peace (other types of war)

Colonial wars, civil wars, genocides, and terrorism can also be termed “wars,” and in chapter 6 Pinker explains how even these kinds of violence have been reduced in the decades since the Cold War. Specifically, “In absolute numbers, annual battle deaths have fallen by more than 90 percent, from around half a million per year in the late 1940s to around thirty thousand a year in the early 2000s” (page 302). There’s a lot more analysis of exact numbers, percentages, and definitions, but the trend is clearly downward. Some forms, such as colonial war, have been completely eliminated.

Post-Cold War is a very small span of time to be talking about, and Pinker acknowledges that, but it’s worth talking about even if it’s just a strange fluke. Following the terminology of the Long Peace, Pinker calls this post-Cold War era the New Peace. He pins it mostly on the spread of democracy, since anocracies (dysfunctional governments) are the most likely to harbor civil wars, and totalitarian governments carry out most of the genocides. Terrorism is a special case in which people perceive a great danger and high death toll, but in fact very few people are killed by terrorists, and most terrorist groups fall apart quickly.

7: Rights Revolutions

Chapter 7 returns to the idea of the Humanitarian Revolution to explain why we have also seen interpersonal and discriminatory violence being reduced. Women’s rights, African American rights, gay rights, children’s rights, and animal rights have all been part of the Rights Revolutions of the twentieth century. (Pinker has data here and elsewhere in the book about how violence against these groups is going down as well). The proponents of rights made moral arguments, but more importantly, they brought minority viewpoints into the public consciousness. Their moral arguments were themselves products of the worldwide shift toward empathy and nonviolence. Concern for animal welfare is one of the most powerful examples of how nonviolent the world is really becoming, since animals are not capable of arguing for themselves, and giving them better treatment offers no reciprocal benefit to humans.

Jeremy Bentham animal quote

(The intersection of animal and children’s rights is another frontrunner for my senior thesis, based on some references in this book that I thought were interesting. Animal rights activists actually came first. Around 1900, the first instance of removing a child from an abusive home was based on reasoning that had been used for animal rights, because there were no laws protecting children at that time. The lawyer arguing that first case ended up founding the New York Society for the Protection of Children, the first protection organization for children in the world. The same thing happened in England.)

8: Inner Demons

(At this point, we’re transitioning to psychological and neurological talk. How do people function, and why are they now functioning less violently? These are the most theoretical chapters).

Before enumerating the Inner Demons, the internal factors that push people toward violent behavior, Pinker delves into the human brain and its reasoning. He describes the brain’s physical pathways to anger and violent behavior, but the most significant contribution is his explanation of self-serving bias. People generally perceive their own actions as accidental and minimally hurtful to others, but when others harm them, the action is perceived as purposeful, deeply harmful, and unforgettable. This contributes to spirals of violence, as each side believes itself to be suffering disproportionate harm.

Pinker also talks about how taking the victims’ point of view makes violence look like mindless total evil, but there are actually many motivations for violence. These motivations are the Inner Demons: Predation (practical or exploitative violence), dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideology. Each category is being counteracted in a different way. Predatory violence in particular is characterized by the lack of inhibiting factors, so the presence of empathy or a rational reason to pursue nonviolent methods has an impact on this type of violence. Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy and revenge is a form of self-help justice, so the presence of a functioning government deters both.

Sadism seems to be the most generically evil motivation, but Pinker’s historical analysis reveals that people actually develop tastes for sadism, so societies can cut it off at the root. The more people engage in violence, the more sadistic they become. (This is why people could burn cats and torture people for public entertainment in the middle ages, but now, enjoying such a thing is extremely aberrant behavior). Ideology is perhaps the most destructive Inner Demon, as it is particularly related to large-scale international violence, but open and democratic societies help prevent negative or violent ideologies from taking hold, perhaps helping to explain the previously-noted peacefulness of liberal democracies.

9: Better Angels

Pinker concludes Chapter 8 by emphasizing that the motivations for violence have always been present. It is the waxing and waning of inhibiting factors that really change rates of world violence. In Chapter 9, he elaborates on those inhibiting factors: empathy, self-control, morality, and reason. He concludes empathy and self-control are both contributing factors, but not overwhelming ones. (I tend to disagree with this, but I’m biased). Pinker also mentions recent human evolution as a possible contributor, but there is no conclusive evidence for it at this time, although the studies are certainly interesting. (He cites several journals, and the books The 10,000 Year Explosion and A Farewell to Alms).

He makes the provocative allegation that “The world has far too much morality” (622). What he means is that for the purposes of this discussion, morality is a “crazy angel” — certain kinds or definitions of morality can ease rates of violence, but moral sensibilities can also drive people to violence if the moral system demands cleansing or punishments for heretics. Remember that ideology is the most pernicious inner demon.

Pinker believes reason is the most significant factor in the equation, underlying all the other factors. It allows people to develop sophisticated systems of government and trade, which encourage peace. It correlates with self-control in individuals, it disperses irrational moral ideas, and rational arguments create the expanding circle of empathy. (Society tends to turn the old practices into taboos, and forget there was ever an intellectual debate over torture or slavery, but according to Pinker’s evidence, those intellectual debates did in fact precede humanitarian taboos).

Intellectual debate isn’t always a prerequisite, though. For instance, we never really had a big societal discussion about whether people should keep dueling to the death over minor insults. Younger generations just started realizing it was ridiculous and making fun of it. (Humor and mockery come up as a mechanism in several sections, actually).

Duel

Drawing of a duel fought with foils in the Bois de Boulogne in 1874, from Wikimedia Commons.

Pinker provides IQ-test evidence to demonstrate that humans are getting smarter in tandem with the reduction in violence. I think it’s reasonably convincing, but he’s certainly aware that it’s not the only factor here.

10: Conclusion

At this point in the book, Pinker’s thesis that the world is getting less violent has been well made. Chapter 10 does not belabor the point, but simply recaps the various factors he has covered, including the psychological elements he discussed in the final chapters. With a topic of this magnitude, no firm conclusions about the causes can be reached, but Pinker presents a strong thesis with many viable explanations for its existence. One of the most convincing things about this book is that it’s not simple. It’s huge. It encompasses a multiplicity of elements. If he came up with one single answer as to why this happened, I wouldn’t trust it at all, but he doesn’t do that.

I also appreciated how it’s clearly Pinker speaking, he has a somewhat conversational tone and is clearly making his own interpretation, but it’s very grounded in the presentation of facts, even those that might challenge his thesis. I think that’s the best way to go about things — be open about your own bias and don’t try to conceal your presence in your writings, but don’t make it all about you. Make it about the facts, and be honest when you don’t know something.

Of course, plenty of people take issue with various parts of Pinker’s opus, and many of those criticisms are valid. See the FAQ for the book on his site, or these interesting posts from Utopia or Dystopia: A Utopian Reading of Pinker’s Better Angels Of Our Nature, Pinker, Foucault and Progress, and Waiting for World War III. If nothing else, Pinker can be a bit flip about the severity of modern-day violence. Just because it’s better now doesn’t mean it’s okay. I kind of get it though, I mean, if you’re writing a book about atrocities, sometimes you have to be a bit flip to cope.

For me, the sheer size of this thing, and the vast number of sources it incorporates, is a mark in its favor. It’s not just one study that Pinker performed or one dataset, it represents a huge swathe of research from many people. There may be some biases and oversights, but overall this is an extremely interesting and viable thesis with a lot of evidence that must be explained somehow, one way or the other. I liked that he showed his work in that regard, that he included the relevant graphs and whatnot. I don’t know how he does it — I’ve also read his book The Language Instinct, and it’s just as huge, and he’s written more. A book like this would be my life’s work, and he’s done it multiple times.

I enjoyed reading a book this comprehensive and being forced to slow down and really try to understand everything, even if the math was over my head. Too often I just power through a book and don’t really process the nuances. For me personally, I’m encouraged, and I’m pretty much sold on his thesis that the world is, in fact, less violent now than in the past. If the trend continues, it will be less violent in the future.

So, whatcha think of all these arguments? Discuss.

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17 thoughts on “Review: “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker

  1. Thanks for this review. I’m a huge fan of this book.

    I’ve been in a weekly book group for six years and after one year of my salesmanship and heartfelt convincing they agreed to read Pinker’s exploration of the decline of violence. I’ve debated the contents for the past three years in person and online with liberals and conservatives. They have knee-jerk criticisms that they tend to maintain no matter how much data one puts forward. Of course, Pinker writes about a lot more than the data in his book. He has many theories and analyses that one can challenge. Many academically oriented people in my group did. My point is try and make sure lots more people are exposed to the overall fact that violence has declined. Then, we can listen to Pinker and others who may help us understand or formulate our own theories as to why this happened and what might be done to continue and even improve the trend.

    I’ve included a few dozen nice color charts related to the text here:

    https://persuademepolitics.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/now-most-peaceful-time-in-world-history/

    More can be found through an image search for “steven pinker better angels charts”.

    Through my many discussions on “Better Angels”, I’ve developed and revised multiple times an overview statement for the book along with attaching or copying many charts that Pinker put together. Here is my latest version:

    ——————————————————————–

    Much of the information below comes from Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. Terrible things like warfare, rape, murder, legal and illegal slavery, bullying, lynchings, racism, sexism and animal abuse are all in radical decline. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and afterward. By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior.

    Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving. That’s just not the case when it comes to acts of violence. There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it’s far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585. Through a very large range of historical narratives, archaeology and statistics, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks. On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common. According to the FBI, from 2001-2010, the crime rates went down in categories of violent crime (20%), forcible rape (13.8%), robbery (19.7%), aggravated assault (20.8%) and motor vehicle theft (44.5%).

    When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don’t top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th. Archaeological evidence from almost 40 pre-state societies of eras as far back as 14,000 years ago and up to those active today show an average of a 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%. The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%. That’s 500 times less than typical pre-state levels of brutality. Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of the American Wild West, where the percentages ranged up to 30% or higher in each town. England, for another example, now has a murder rate that is 35 times less than in the Middle Ages.

    The Wikipedia page about this book summarizes the proposed causes for the decline in violence:
    ——————————————–

    Pinker identifies five “historical forces” that have favored “our peaceable motives” and “have driven the multiple declines in violence.” They are:

    The Leviathan – The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent…self-serving biases.”

    Commerce – The rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”;

    Feminization – Increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”

    Cosmopolitanism – the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which“can prompt 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, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’s, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

    From – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature
    ——————————————–

    For an interesting video presentation/summary of the contents of this book, see this link:

    A great web site that can be used as a reference to double-check this data is Necrometrics.com, where typically a half dozen or more historians contribute their estimate on the death toll for each significant historical event. As far as I have been able to study, Pinker many (if not most) times chose one of the conservative numbers in the ranges.

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    1. Nice summary (and nice charts!) I’ve been evangelizing for this book too, although I haven’t had much success getting people to read a 900-page book. 🙂

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  2. I read this book a few years ago because I’m a huge History nerd who loves to contemplate human motivation. I fascinated with the idea of a decline in human violence because I’m an optimist who truly believes humanity is trying to make the world a better place.

    The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.–MLK

    I mostly agreed with Pinker with a couple of caveats and exceptions.

    Like the idea of genocide. Stable societies can engage in genocide ,but they have to work much harder to make the genocide appear legitimate or appear unlike what it actually is. The organizations that exist in such societies work hard to suppress this sort of behavior, so the genocide is slower and takes much longer, but with the right combinations of ideology and seemingly unrelated laws, the excess population of whatever group targeted can be reduced.
    The key is that it can’t look like genocide.

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    1. Good point. Some things can be more subtle in stable, complex, bureaucratic societies.

      Thanks for commenting! I’m dying of curiosity… How did you get to this post? I’m constantly having new people follow me and then end up on this post, and I have no idea how it happens! (Not that I’m complaining!)

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      1. I was notified on an email that you liked my Captain America piece, which is one of the hardest (and more emotional ) pieces I’ve ever written. I was really nervous about people’s reaction to it.

        The emails I get, when people like something I’ve written, always ask me to check out what the person is doing on their blog, if they have one, and offers suggestions for posts I might like. This post popped up under your name.

        I greatly enjoyed the book. I’m not a Historian but I’ve done a lot of historical reading and always believed that wherever humanity is right now, its still better, for the whole race as a whole, than any time in the past.

        No matter how you feel about either, from gladiators slaughtering each other for fun to just boxing each other, is still an improvement, no matter how small.

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        1. Interesting, maybe that’s how others are finding it as well. And the Captain America post was very, very good. 🙂

          Agreed. It’s a distinct change for the better, in my opinion. Even if the exact numbers need some work, the change in public perception is still very significant.

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