Harvard evolutionary psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has always been deeply curious about how humans work. In a series of best-selling books, he has argued that our mental faculties — from emotions to decision-making to visual cognition — were forged by natural selection.
In his newest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker investigates one of the most primal apects of life: Violence. He argues that violence has fallen drastically over thousands of years — whether one considers homicide rates, war casualties as a percentage of national populations, or other measures.
After laying out significant evolutionary, historical and philosophical trends that have led to a decrease in violence, Pinker argues that alongside “practical” (necessary), sadistic, and ideologically-driven types of violences, there exist, too, the “better angels of human nature” — empathy, self-control, moral sense and reason. With our human ability to reason and to express ourselves verbally, we are better able than any other species to negotiate our way through situations of conflict.
Despite the bloodiness of the last century, it was not, argues Pinker, the most violent period in the history of humankind. He claims that historians and researchers tend to magnify the present and distort past events which contained considerably more violence and genocide than all the 20th-century wars combined. Feminization, the civil rights movements, the fight for animal rights, the movement for the preservation of minorities’ rights, and democracy, are all indications that we are on the right track in reducing global violence.
According to Pinker, a good deal of the decline in violence has to do with the genetic evolution of the human animal, and more recently, with the evolution of our society and the ways in which societies socialize their members. He enumerates Five Major Historical Forces that are moving us in more peaceful directions:
The Leviathan: Individual violence is increasingly reigned in by state force (police, employers, schools, and other institutions);
Gentle Commerce: There are economic incentives for cooperating and maintaining peaceful terms with partners;
Feminization: The evolution of women from mere propagators of the species to intellectual equals and partners to men has tempered the behavior of the latter, who tend to be more violent;
The Expanding Circle: Growing information networks bind us together amd increase empathy for ever-wider classes of people (cosmopolitanism);
The Escalator of Reason: The increasing application of reason and empathy to human affairs is leading to a growing recognition that violence, in most circumstance, is not the best way to achieve one’s ends.
Critic David Everling “Skipper”: “Though consistently dispassionate in tone and bearing throughout… this book betrays its emotional impact: optimism for humanity.”
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n.b. The phrase “the better angels of our nature” stems from the last words of Lincoln’s first inaugural address.