Saturday, March 2, 2013

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


The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker is a grand and all encompassing study in human violence as well as the trends that the author believes are driving it down. Pinker has succeeded in producing an extremely comprehensive work that provides the reader with a thought provoking and enlightening view of the big picture of this extremely important subject.

The book begins with one vital proposition that the entire work rests upon: over the course of human history, violence in all of its major forms has been declining. Pinker himself acknowledges that for many modern readers this may be a hard sell.

“In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.”

He subsequently devotes scores of pages to presenting volumes of statistics, analysis of statistics, as well as additional archeological, sociological and historical evidence in proving that the further back one delves into human history, the more violence one sees.

The author explores all major kinds of violence, including wars between states, civil wars, mass killings and genocides, crimes including murder and rape, corporal punishment, capital punishment, bullying, and more. He concludes that over the millennia, every single one of these practices has been on the downswing.

It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence

My assessment of this bedrock hypothesis is that Pinker is mostly, perhaps even close to entirely, correct. As noted, the book presents both comprehensive statistics as well as analysis of historical evidence to support his assertion. As someone who has pursued a lifelong interest in history, Pinker’s contention indeed fits with what seems to me to be an accurate view of historical patterns. In fact, I mostly agreed with the assertion that violence has been declining before reading this book. My problem beforehand was how to reconcile this theory into what many presume to be the most violent period in world history, that of the first half of the twentieth century. If violence is on a steady decline, how do we explain this era?

Pinker makes a relatively convincing case that the wars and mass murders that blackened the early part of the last century, while being among the worst incidents of this type, in terms of percentage of the world’s population killed, were not the absolute worst. He labels these horrendous events involving the intentional deaths of an enormous number of human beings as hemoclysms. The author argues that hemoclysms such as the Mongol conquests, as well as multiple very obscure events such as the Yuan Dynasty Wars, at the time, actually killed a larger percentage of the Earth’s population. Pinker sees the twentieth century calamities as the last in a series of terrible events that have occurred throughout world history, their frequency steadily diminishing.

Likewise, the violent crime waves that most Western societies began experiencing in the 1960’s, as well as the rash of civil wars and political and ethnic violence that have plagued Africa and other regions since World War Two, are shown be part of a long pattern of temporary, relatively small upward bumps that have always been part of the pattern. Furthermore, Pinker argues that both of these trends are past their peaks and are on the downswing. Deaths caused by terrorism, which has occupied so much of our attention over the past few years, are so relatively low, that they do not even appear as a blip in the statistics. Nevertheless, Pinker argues that the rates of terrorism are also on the decline.

If we put into perspective these temporary and less frequent upswings in violence, the picture of the downward slope in violence over time does become clearer. Pinker details what many perceptive students of history know; as bad as things seem today, the past, in virtually every society, was a place where wars, rape, torture, slavery, child abuse, animal cruelty, as well as countless other human evils were much more commonplace.

Next, Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor, turns his attention on neuroscience and tries to explain not only the neurological and evolutionary reasons for violence, but also the reasons for our “Our Better Angels” such as altruism, sympathy, cooperation, etc. He then attempts to connect these neurological phenomena to explain the trends and patterns related to the history of violence.

A good chunk of the book consists of Pinker attempting to explain why violence has been subsiding, as well as why there are often temporary but real setbacks in the trends. The book digs into the history, philosophy, psychology and sociology of humanity to find answers.

Pinker identifies five major trends over the course of history to explain this waning of violence. First, what he calls the “Leviathan effect”. That is the decline in violence that resulted as nation states became more and more organized (he comprehensively explores the countertrends that occur when such states wage wars as well as when they murder their own citizens). Second, “Gentle Commerce”, which is the gradual growth of commerce, trade and capitalism. Third, “Feminization” is the process where women become more and more empowered. Fourth, “Expanded Circles of Sympathy” by which sympathetic and empathetic feelings which humans originally reserved for family and tribe eventually expanded into larger and larger groups. Fifth, the “Escalator of Reason”, which is the ascent of reason over the centuries in opposition to irrational thought processes. According to the author, these forces have not just led to the reduction in violence, but to the betterment of humankind in innumerable ways.

At over 800 pages this is a massive work. Pinker journeys deeply into his contentions and does not give short shift to counterarguments. He tries to explore every angle of the subject. Readers of this blog will likely find some disagreements with these assertions. The arguments that I have laid out here are explored in such intricate detail in the book itself that I am not really doing them justice in this outline. There are so many avenues that the author ventures into that my synopsis overlooks really big parts of this work.

An example of just one of dozens of important points that Pinker makes here that I think is of particular consequence: the author talks about a number of immense significance to every human being alive.  It is a number that I have been cognizant and thought about over the years long before I had even heard of this book. That is the number zero. Zero is the number of direct major power violent conflicts that have occurred on Earth since 1952. It is a historically unprecedented span of time without such a war. It would have left informed citizens of past ages incredulous. Those who predicted such a period in times past were labeled as naive and foolish utopians. If it continues, it bodes well for the future.

Pinker is ultimately championing knowledge, rationality, and modernity. According to the author, behind all of the five major forces lay an increase in the dissemination of knowledge and/or the continued development of rational thinking. Contrary to the stereotype of cold and soulless logic, the text lays out a convincing premise that rational viewpoints and analytical thinking encourage such virtues as empathy, altruism, cooperation, nonviolence, etc.  The author even contends that such rational and critical cognitive processes encourage the propagation of non-violent and humane religious- based morality over exclusory, discriminatory and violent theologies.

Pinker’s line of reasoning is more or less in line with my views. I am a big advocate of rationalism as a driver of much that is good in the world.  There are such an enormous number of contentions and theories presented in this book that any thinking reader will find at least a fair amount to disagree with. However, in my opinion the author gets it mostly right.

I believe that this is a vitally important work. It is what I like to call a “big picture” book that is a key to understanding where humanity has been and where it is going as a species. As Pinker puts it,

The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”

In a world of nuclear and other potential doomsday weapons, if Pinker is wrong then we are certainly doomed. If he is right, and if we can overcome an environmental calamity, we will likely make it as a civilization.  This is my conclusion, not Pinker’s.

Pinker is no utopian. He acknowledges that to some degree violence will always be a human problem. He faces up to what are clearly the downsides of modernity. He also concedes that predicting future trends is difficult. However, if his conclusions are correct, what he describes as the “arrow of history” is headed in a direction that promises somewhat better days ahead.

34 comments:

Miguel said...

I've read four books by Pinker in the past, so I'm eager to read this one too. Still for now this seems like a good example of how to lie with statistics. So in terms of percentages ours isn't such a violent era? I'm sure the victims of 20th century genocides will like to know that.

Also, what does this mean? "Zero is the number of direct major power violent conflicts that have occurred on Earth since 1952." There have been dozens of destructive conflicts since 1952.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I do not think that Pinker is lying with statistics. His point is that no matter how bad the twentieth century atrocities have been, at least since 1952 they pale compared to what has been done in the past. For instance, we rightfully pay enormous attention to things like Dafur,or Pol Pot's crimes, yet in previous centuries such things were much, much more frequent and there were a lot less attention paid to them (one reason for the decline is that we do pay so much attention to these horrors as opposed to people in past ages).

Pinker takes great pains to point out that he is not minimizing or unsympathetic to the terrible suffering that people have experienced in the twentieth century. He is just trying to identify trends and patterns both long time and short time. Of course if a murder rate in a city drops from 100 to 20 per year over the course of a decade it is important but of little consolation to one of the twenty victims.

Though ones definition of major power conflicts may vary, Pinker does use somewhat involved criteria involving economic power, size of militaries, etc., for what a major is that I believe to be reasonable. At this moment in time I think the list would be something like the USA, Russia, China, the UK, France, India, Brazil, maybe one or two more. He does show that historically such conflicts have been the worst in terms of loss of life. Their have been no such direct military conflicts since 1952 and this is just one reason for the decline.

I would love it if you gave this a read and posted some commentary up on it.

Lucy said...

This post was really good - thanks! I always seem to pick up this book in bookshops, and the prospect of it is so interesting. I always like reading about how civilisation/culture/society has changed over time.

I think I may well give it a read; I'll let you know what I think of it if I do :) However, at 800 pages long this could take a while!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lucy - This was indeed a long undertaking to read.

The constant change over the years in human culture and civilization may be the most important subject that we can ponder!

beautyisasleepingcat said...

Hard to comment as I have not read this book and am not familiar with Pinker but my reaction is very close to Miguel's. Not sure victims among the Hutu and the Tutsi would agree about zero major violence. It wasn't global, yes but still. Overall how does he explain the higher crime rates? I wonder what he calls violence? Rape is violence and at least where I an living the rates rise. Not drastically but they do rise.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I may have been a little unclear about concept of major power conflicts. It is direct war between nations that are defined as "major powers" which I explained a little in my reply to Miguel. Pinker shows, and it fits with my previous beliefs that no matter how bad other types of wars are, this kind of conflict has historically been more severe when it comes to loss of life. I would argue (not Pinker's point) that had there been such a conflict in the last 30 years with our current weapons that humankind might be extinct or civilization would have ceased to exist.


The Hutu and the Tutsi killings, as horrendous as they were had nothing to do with major power conflicts. This kind of genocidal violence while still happening is a lot less common then it was a hundred years ago, when it was less common the three hundred years ago, etc.



Pinker spends a lot of time on rape. He rightfully portrays it as one of the worst form of violence because of its prevalence. The way to look at rising violence rate on local scales is as follows, the rate of violence over the past ten thousand years has been on a downward slope. There often temporary, relatively small upward bumps. It is like a saw toothed scale curving down. The genocides and wars that happened during the first half of the twentieth century as well as the crime waves that occurred post World War II are examples of these bumps.


The post World War II crime bump, worldwide is long past its peak and crime worldwide is declining. There will likely always be localities where at a given moment in time crime is increasing.

He does spend a lot of time on whys of the post WWII crime waves. He relates them to the breakdown of certain cultural restraints.
His arguments here for me are some of the most problematical of the book.


One final note, if I sound like an unabashed supporter of Pinker's views it is because these were mostly my views before reading this book. Pinker has just supplied me with lots of information and food for thought.


JaneGS said...

What an interesting post about what appears to be a most interesting book. As a reader of history, I often comment that the world, in aggregate, is getting better, and that I would rather be alive now than at any time in the past. As a latent Victorian, I do believe that despite the problems that come with modernity, it is ultimately for the good. Learning to manage the detritus of modernity continues to be something we still have to work on.

Excellent post--I would love to read this book.

Suko said...

I agree that more thoughtful, rational thinking lead toward non-violence; this does sound like a "vitally important work". Excellent review!

Miguel said...

Brian, off-topic, but I accidentally deleted your comment on Roger Fry when I was cleaning up some spam. My apologies.

Please post it again, I didn't even have a chance to read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - Ha Ha! I am always afraid of doing that myself. I will come by and re-comment.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I think that you hit it on the head with the "aggregate", as Miguel and Caroline pointed out there are still so many horrors out in the world. One really needs to compare the past and the present to see the positive.

The question of weather modernity has been a net positive or negative is such a giant and ubiquitous question that occupy so much of our thoughts! I think that I come down on the side of modernity. I still say think because if environmental calamity ( or war if Pinker is wrong) destroys our civilization, then we have gone down the wrong path.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - The thoughtful rational thing is interesting because it is sometimes associated with the cold and inhuman. Both Pinker and myself believe that often the opposite is true.

Book Dilettante said...

Nice to read that violence has declined overall, but the television and news tells us so much of what still happens. Hope for the future for more decline?

Sharon Henning said...

Good, thorough review, as always.

Very interesting. I'm not quite sure what the author's point is. Is it to give people hope that things are getting better? Does he believe man is more rational today than in the past so things must improve? Does he have data to support that?

War and violence don't increase the mortality rate by one person.

If I live to a ripe old age, I'm still going to die. Then what?

I'm more interested in why I exist at all, what does my existence mean and what happens to me eternally.

I'm glad you reviewed this book because it helps me crystallize my own beliefs.

Take care, Brian!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - One point about the violence on TV I think. To our credit we pay more attention to and get more upset over violence then past ages. I think that this is one reason that violence has decreased.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - You raise an enormously good point that I have thought all. Everyone who has died as a result of violence would have died anyway. It does not increase mortality. I am going to go out on a limb and say that from my own point of view, I would, if i had to see other, both loved ones and strangers who I empathize with, die of natural causes. At the very least it causes less trauma and suffering for the survivors. Also if less people are perpetuating horrendous acts, less people have horrendous things going through their minds.

Pinker and myself do think that people have become more rational. I would say it has been agonizing slow progress and we still have a very long way to go!

Thanks for the thought provoking comments!

Take care!

Richard said...

Nice to hear more about this book, Brian, and I'm glad to see you spend more time in the comments explaining the definitions that Pinker used. I guess without having seen the specific data, though, I'm inclined to feel a little like Miguel and Caroline before me--to me it seems that violence appears to be increasing in the world though not in the large-scale way it was acted out in WWI or WWII. Whether this is actually true or not is beyond my ability to measure scientifically, but I wonder if Pinker ever addresses this sense that many people have that things are getting worse rather than better in terms of violence. Does he speak about this psychological disconnect at all regarding his premise?

Brian Joseph said...


Hi Richard - Pinker does address the issue that just when violence began to decline was when folks thought it was increasing. One major factor is that, thankfully, we pay a lot more attention, and get upset more often, in regards violence these days. Cataclysms such as the Rwanda or Darfur genocides occurred with much higher frequency in the past but not a lot of attention was paid to them. Pinker not just shows statistics to back this up, but my own life long reading of history bears this out.

Lets take the actions of the American government, many including myself found US actions in Iraq unconscionable. Even if one disagrees with the morality, the bottom line is that the US engaged in a war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Indeed this was a terrible event, But lets compare it to what the US government and society was doing 200 years ago. By any measure it was much, much worse. A mostly "successful" Genocide was being committed against the native American peoples. Over the course of several decades millions were murdered, raped and tortured. Scores of civilizations and cultures were annihilated. Simultaneously millions of African Americans were enslaved. Of this course this enslavement involved countless cases of murder, torture and rape. People did object to this genocide and enslavement, but such criticism was muted for decades.

In fact a US President, Thomas Jefferson kept a woman, Sally Hemings, as a slave concubine. Hemings may have endured a lifetime of rape. Though this fact has been recently "rediscovered" during genetic testing it was actually known by many people at the time and only caused Jefferson minor embarrassment.

Speaking of rape, of course the frequency of rapes in the world today are at horrible levels. Pinker sites lots of statistics that it has dropped dramatically over the centuries. But if we just think of it in historical terms it makes sense. A little over a hundred years ago in most societies rape WAS considered a crime, but a crime against a woman’s husband or farther. Three hundred years ago rape was considered a civil tort punishable by a fine in most of Europe. A rapist could often avoid the fine by marrying the victim who forced to accede to the marriage. Historically rape was also an accepted military tactic. Society (or at least the men who dominated it) was just was not that concerned about rape.

The fact that we pay so much more attention to horrors such as genocide and rape now, making these things seem more common, is NOT criticized by Pinker. To the contrary, it is one of the reasons that these outrages occur less frequently. Yes I must say again all too often! And yes, this is little consolation to the victims.

Sorry about my long - winded response, there is just so much to this subject! I probably should have done a series of posts on it!

Brian Joseph said...

PS - to add to the above there was a nasty, seemingly short term bump in violent crime throughout much of the world. This bump os well on its was to dissipating in most, but not all places. I think this has also distorted people's perception of violence

I kust want to also add that I am very mindful that things that I am referring to as "Bumps" and curves involve real human death and misery to actual individuals. I just think that the only way to get to the truth is to discuss such things in such terms.

Andrew Blackman said...

This book sounds fascinating. It certainly goes against what most people think, myself included. But it does sound as if he presents very solid statistical evidence for his case. I'd like to read this, although I don't think I have time right now to do it justice! Will look out for it in future, though, when I'm not so busy.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - The thing about the statistics, is that as Miguel mentioned above, they can be very misleading. For me they just back up what seems to be true when I really think about history. Of course as I mention in the post, the entire first half of the twentieth century was a puzzle for. That is where statistics provide enlightenment for me.

stujallen said...

Brian this seems very well researched and important book about violence ,I have heard mention of it before I think on a npr podcast ,must see if it is out in the uk ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - Indeed at 800 pages plus it is well researched! I also think that if Pinker is correct this may be one of the most important books that one can read in order to understand the world.

Naida said...

I really hope Pinker is right, and that better days are ahead with violence on the decline. This sounds like a thought provoking book and a well researched one at that.
It's hard to imagine violence is on the decline though, especially as we see it glorified on film and video games so much. Then again, that's not real life, but it can effect our youth and how they view violent acts.
Wonderful review as per your usual!

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the previous comment because of typos. Lol.)

Hi, Brian!

Very interesting commentary! The subject matter of this book is quite profound, although I must confess to feeling some initial skepticism regarding Pinker's findings. On the other hand, we do nowadays have a legal system and laws in place, that, while not perfect, do protect most of us from the barbarities of the past, so I can see his point.

Still, a niggling doubt persists...what does Pinker say regarding the Holocaust, which killed six million Jews? What does he say about Stalin's massive purges?

I think Pinker might be referring more to violence in reference to individuals within a society, and not to genocides, per se. Individual rights in previous centuries were non-existent, for the most part, unless, that is, you were a rich and powerful white male.

I find it very interesting that the book cover shows the sacrifice of Isaac, as depicted by the great artist, Rembrandt. The Old Testament, ironically enough, is full of violence. Disturbingly, quite a bit of it is originated by God Himself...

Anyhow, I will definitely put this book on my TBR shelf at Goodreads AND Shelfari, as well as on my Amazon wish list. It definitely sounds like an absorbing read!

Thanks for another of your terrific reviews!! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Thanks!

I think that one constant about the decline in violence is that there have always been countertrends. i think that the extreme violence in films and video games is an example of this. I do think that such imaginary violence is bad for society and may even make the real thing worse. However, this imaginary violence may slow the decline of real violence, but I do not think that it will stop it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Great comment as usual. Pinker addresses the entire Violence in the New Testament. One of his points is that it is a good example of of how peoples of the past tolerated looked upon things like Genocide as no big deal.

The Rembrandt work is indeed marvelous!

Much of this book is about Genocide and other mass killings, the entire early twentieth century cataclysm that included WW II, the Holocaust, Stalin, etc. was always my big obstacle to this theory which I mostly subscribed to before I read this book. Pinker identifies those events as the last (but not the worst) of a series of horrible spikes in human genocide and war related violence.

Take care!

Rachel Bradford said...

Thanks for that fascinating summary. I've not read a Steven Pinker book yet, but I just bought a copy of The Blank Slate recently. If I like it, I'll certainly take a look at The Better Angles of Our Nature next. I love books about the psychology/sociology of ethical issues.

Séamus Duggan said...

I've watched talks by Pinker and find him fascinating, as he somewhat counters my innate pessimism. The one issue I have with the theory is that, even if it is right, the growth in our efficiency at delivering wide scale violence may counter the gains made through renouncing violence in our collective unconscious.
It is also possible to link the decline in violence to the growth of material well being in the most powerful nations, and the inability of even quite large countries to wage any sort of war on the major power.
There is also the violence being perpetrated against other species and the environment, which have the potential to send material well being into a tailspin which would lead to future wars for ever scarcer resources. These wars may, like the conflicts between the major powers since WW2, be conducted by proxies.
(As an aside to previous commenters, major death events may reduce the overall number of mortalities as a number of people who would have been born weren't, therefore reducing the number of mortalities if not the rather frightening 100% mortality rate which still seems unchanged)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seamus - Good points.

I agree that the enhancement of material wealth along with the avoidance of war between the major powers as a result of the destructiveness in nuclear weapons are factors in the big picture. Pinker discounts the nuclear weapons as peacemaker theory but I am not so sure is his right about that.

I also agree as to efficiency and destructive killing powers of our tools growing. However there is much evidence of all sorts that something positive ids going on. It may be that with the mind boggling destructiveness of weapons technology has been in a race with our better tendencies and that we just barely "made it" as a species. Admittedly this is speculative and one last "bump" in major power violence could still end it all.

Pinker tries to argue that environmental destruction and resource scarcity will not bring more violence. I am not totally convinced on this argument though he may be correct. Time will tell.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - I have not read it but The Blank Slate looks really good. I believe that its topic looks more at individual people rather then the book picture.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on it.

Séamus Duggan said...

I've been thinking more about this, Brian. Perhaps I should read the book! In modern western society the gap between the rich and poor tends to be geographic and ameliorated by some forms of income support for those at the bottom. However, reading someone like Galeano on the violence prevalent on the streets of some of the larger South American cities suggests that where people are locked out of the materialist dream which they are bombarded with daily they will resort to violence.

Historically, across most societies there were huge discrepancies in wealth and little access to advancement for much of the population which led to a disconnect from society. Increasing scarcity of resources could lead us back to this scenario.There is already a significant trend since the early eighties of the concentration of a far higher proportion of wealth amongst the few at the top in the US and elsewhere.

And I don't think it is just the nuclear arsenals that are affecting the ability of nations to wage war. US superiority in conventional weapons also means that what would once have been a major war is now just a turkey shoot with potential allies of regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan etc looking on and quietly pulling their armies back into their barracks.

On the plus side, there is a growing sense of being a member of the wider human race rather than purely tribal, religious and nation based identities. This will hopefully underpin the growth of rights based laws across the globe. I hope Pinker is right but will never know. This is a question that will be answered over generations rather than in our lifetimes.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seamus -
Pinker does look at the income equality issue in advanced industrialized and post industrialized nations compared to the remainder of the world. I think that I agree with him that things are getting better, however progress is slow and there are setbacks.

I stress the words "I think". Though I read these books and try to get my head around it all, in the end it is all so very complicated and difficult to puzzle out!

Good point about the US conventional weapons superiority. On the other hand there has not been a war between Russian and China for some either. In addition war between powers such as the UK and France are inconceivable, which is really an unprecedented development if we look at world history.

Thanks for the great comments. Take care!

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