The Better Angels Of Our Nature Book Summary By Steven Pinker

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The Better Angels of Our Nature is an incredible and thought-provoking exploration into the history of violence in human society.

Written by renowned New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker, this book dives deep into why we sometimes use violence and how factors exist that increasingly restrain us from doing so.

Furthermore, it examines the way in which these forces have resulted in tremendous decreases in violent acts across the globe.

Overall, The Better Angels of Our Nature is an incredibly insightful read for anyone who wishes to better understand why people choose – or refuse – to use violence as a tool for change.

The Better Angels Of Our Nature Book

Book Name: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Why Violence Has Declined)

Author(s): Steven Pinker

Rating: 4.5/5

Reading Time: 37 Minutes

Categories: Society & Culture

Author Bio

The Better Angels of Our Nature was written by renowned Harvard professor, Steven Pinker.

An experimental psychologist, linguist and cognitive scientist, Pinker's research and findings have been the driving force behind some of his other acclaimed works such as How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought.

He has earned a worldwide reputation for being a scientific authority on language, mind, and human nature that few can match.

From researching how children learn to understanding the links between grammar and cognition, Pinker is truly an expert in his field.

The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Understanding Why We Use Less Violence Today

Our Nature

Most of us, at least once in the last year, have fantasized about killing someone.

It’s an intuitive capacity that is built into our genes as a crude way of getting what we want.

But contrary to popular belief, humanity is actually becoming less and less violent as it develops.

So why is it that we’re more peaceful than ever? The answer lies in understanding both the primal motivators behind our propensity for violence (our “inner demons”) and the other motivators that encourage us to refrain from violence (“the better angels of our nature”).

For instance, our five inner demons can explain why exacting revenge on someone might feel like taking cocaine – whereas the four other reinforcers can help us understand why teenagers today are far less violent than they were in 1920.

What’s more, six major historical shifts have contributed drastically to reducing levels of violence – thus making headbutting a cat no longer wholesome, fun entertainment.

We need to continue fighting against violence by nurturing and promoting the better angels of our nature in order to make a difference – but despite this, there’s no denying that humanity has come a long way since its primitive days when it comes to becoming more peaceful.

The Roots Of Human Violence Traced To Our Inner Demons And Evolutionary Urge

Predation is the use of violence in order to gain an advantage.

This type of violence is rooted in the aspect of natural selection, where organisms compete with one another for their survival.

It is a simple and straightforward way for humans to get what they want; through physical force they can secure resources or dominate a situation.

However, even though it may be instinctual, predation is a crude form of violence and it comes at a risk.

Engaging in battle can lead to injuries or even death which would mean losing the chance to pass on ones genes.

In addition, sacrificing family through predation might not be worthwhile as they carry the same genetic traits within them.

So although predation can be seen as a simple way to get what we want, it’s both risky and crude – ultimately humans strives towards restraint when using violence as part of their evolutionary journey.

How Evolution Made Us Generous And Loyal To Our Loved Ones

When it comes to gaining access to resources and mates, violence can be a risky strategy.

But that doesn’t stop some social species from utilizing this option!

They do so by establishing dominance hierarchies, which determine who would win if a confrontation were to occur.

The hierarchies are based on size and strength, favoring males because males tend to be larger or stronger than their female counterparts.

This means that the male’s position in the hierarchy is crucial for securing access to females, with those at the top being able to mate with as many females as possible.

It’s clear that this need for status still exists today in humans; men continue to pursue women more often than vice versa, while they also prioritize prestige and respect higher than women do.

But when hunter-gatherer tribes emerged around 1 or 1.5 million years ago, things changed drastically.

Females became more interested in finding husbands who could provide for their families over those who pursued mating with multiple partners alone – largely due to the fact that men had become responsible for hunting food back home after their trips.

This shift in priorities led us to eventually develop generous and loyal behavior towards our loved ones – something integral in helping us become successful as a species!

The Complexmotivations Behind Our Desires For Revenge

Desires For Revenge

The desire for revenge is a major and almost universal motivator of violence.

Evidence of this can be seen in many places, from the cultural advocacy for “an eye for an eye” to the fact that 20 percent of world homicides are motivated by vengeance.

It’s also worth mentioning that when people imagine killing another person, the thought is often motivated by revenge.

But why has revenge evolved as a behavior? One explanation is that it provides a feeling of satisfaction, much like that experienced when eating chocolate or taking cocaine.

However, there may be greater significance in terms of our evolution – revenge could act as a deterrent to would-be attackers who fear both the immediate and long term costs associated with committing acts of violence against others.

It appears that our desire for revenge and retribution may also be driven by our moral understanding; at least on some level we think bad actions should receive an “eye for an eye” response too.

On a larger scale, this could explain why vengeance fuels so much violence around the world .

The Horrific Conundrum Of Human Sadism: How Could It Ever Become Habitual?

It’s rare and perplexing that sadism exists in our world today.

It’s an extremely concerning phenomenon which has been around for centuries, as can be seen by the sheer amount of prisoners who were tortured to death for no other reason than for the pleasure of a public audience in ancient Rome and medieval times.

Fortunately, however, instances of pure sadistic behavior are rare now, with most cases being coupled with other violent motivators like revenge.

Furthermore, it seems that this behavior has to be experienced or acquired before it becomes enjoyable.

We may even go so far as to say that it can become addictive.

At a base level, seeing another creature suffer generally feels wrong but when the revulsion is overcome by exposure to sadism, it can have its own twisted reward.

This still leaves us with the question: why did this instinct develop? Perhaps it was as an adaptive method of survival during more savage times when brutality was rampant?

Regardless of its origins, there’s no doubt that we should all be thankful that such a strange and disturbing occurrence remains uncommon in modern society.

Ideology: How Ideas Of A Utopian Goal Can Lead To Violent Extremism

Ideology provides a well-meaning motivation for violence: the goal of creating a better world.

All too often, though, these efforts have resulted in horrific levels of bloodshed instead.

It appears that humans have traits which make us susceptible to violent ideologies – such as our tendency to separate people into ingroups and outgroups and our desire to conform to groupthink.

This can lead to dangerous ideas being propagated and skeptics being sidelined or even punished if they don’t conform.

Such tendencies have driven terrible events in history like the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and many more atrocities.

Ideologies may be well-intentioned, but they should never cause so much suffering as we’ve seen throughout history.

Empathy: Our Primal Tool For Creating An Altruistic Society

Altruistic Society

Empathy has evolved in humans as a way of letting us care for our families.

But we can still learn to feel empathy towards other groups of people, not just those close to us.

Research shows that, due to the familial core of empathy, the easiest way to foster empathy outside our direct family is to draw attention to the similarities between different groups.

We are more likely to act with empathy towards those we have something in common with, so if you focus on what you share with someone there’s a greater chance of forming an empathic bond.

Furthermore, studying an individual’s unique world perspective can also help increase one’s ability to truly understand them and be able to empathize effectively.

The idea being that getting into someone else’s shoes provides a better understanding than exchanging resources alone.

It’s worth noting though that on occasion, even constructive acts of empathy lead to unfairness; a classic example being the case where subjects were more willing let Sheri (a ten-year-old girl suffering from a serious illness) skip the line for medical treatment despite her not needing it any earlier than someone else.

It’S Scientifically Proven That Willpower Can Help Us Resist Temptations And Become Less Violent

It’s a common analogy we use – the angel and devil on someone’s shoulder, with an impulse versus resistence to temptation.

But these two parts of our brain may be more accurate than you’d think: studies suggest that the impulses within us to act, and our ability to resist those impulses really do come from different parts of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex decision making and rational thinking, can help us make decisions about rewards, but sometimes it’s overpowered by the limbic system.

For example, if there’s a reward available immediately it sends out an impulse telling us to grab it quickly – even when this goes against our best judgment.

That’s where self-control comes in – the prefrontal cortex basically needs to be able to control these impulses so that we can make better decisions.

And surprisingly enough, data shows that violent offenders have smaller prefrontal cortexes which suggests that having more self-control would result in less aggressive behavior.

But what’s even better is that self-control can actually be strengthened through practice and other activities like physical exercise regimens!

All in all, as people become better at controlling their own impulses and strengthening their willpower, societies should become less violent as a whole result.

On the flip side of things though, poor nutrition has been linked to weakened willpower – meaning that if people don’t get enough nutrients in their diet then they could be more apt to act out violently.

Our Moral Sense Gives Us Both A Path To And Away From Violence: Exploring Four Modes Of Behavior

Our sense of morality plays an important role in violent behavior.

In some cases, it can lead to violence, such as the persecution of certain groups and even genocidal ideologies.

On the other hand, our moral sense has also been responsible for a reduction in violence, like our striving for racial equality.

At its core, much of our moral behavior revolves around four distinct modes: communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching and market pricing.

Each of these has the potential to both encourage or discourage violence due to how they motivate our behavior.

Fortunately though, increased mobility and the spread of new ideas are helping reduce any negative side-effects associated with these modes.

As a result, our overall sense of morality is leaning increasingly away from violence and towards peace and cooperation – something that humanity should be thankful for!

How Reason Helps Reduce Violence By Engaging Our Better Angels

Reduce Violence

The better angels of our nature—and by that, I mean our innate capacity for reason—are what drive us to seek out peace and nonviolence.

Reason has helped us move away from superstitions like burning witches at the stake, which have been known to incite violence.

It is an inherently impartial method of looking at things, so it promotes understanding and cooperation among people in order to achieve a common goal – the absence of violence.

What’s even more encouraging is the fact that our faculty for reason seems to be increasing over time.

This was confirmed by philosopher James Flynn in his discovery of the Flynn Effect, which found that IQ scores were rising by an average rate of 3 points per decade.

Studies have also shown that people with higher reasoning capacities are less violent, more cooperative and express political views that are peaceful.

Thus, as we become more adept with reason, we are naturally more prompted to avoid violence when addressing social issues and grievances.

Rise Of Agricultural States Brought About Reduction In Violence Through Monopolized Use Of Force And Increased Focus On Common Good

It was 5,000 years ago that the pacification process began.

This is when societies shifted from small hunter-gatherer groups to large agricultural states with formal government structures.

What this change brought about was a significant decrease in violence.

While it may seem counterintuitive, hunter-gatherers were not as peaceful as their reputation suggests.

In truth, these tribes had plenty of violent disagreements among themselves, settled by kidnappings and revenge attacks.

For example, statistics show that there were around 15% violent deaths in hunter-gatherer tribes compared to just 1% in state societies.

The difference lies in how violence was handled between two parties – by the state monopolizing violence, individuals would have been punished for using it themselves, thus creating a much safer environment for all citizens.

States understood this and enacted laws limiting violence both within and between states; they saw that high levels of conflict would take away too much time and resources from production, resulting in lost revenues to them too.

With time passing by, governments have become increasingly devoted to creating solutions that reduce violence for the well being of everyone involved.

The Civilizing Process: From Brutal Middle Ages To Trade-Fuelled Peace

Through the 15th century to present day Europe, states have become larger and stronger, leading to a process known as the ‘civilizing’ process.

The size of European states has grown from an estimated 5,000 independent estates to just 30 – resulting in increased power and reduced violence.

This was not only due to advances in military strategy enabling certain knights to gain more control over their domains, but also because of economic growth thanks to larger trade networks which were driven by technology and improved infrastructure.

As a result, honestly earning wealth became much more attractive than acquiring it through violent means.

As trading networks grew bigger and more profitable the opportunities for making money openly naturally outweighed those of taking it by force.

In addition, trade itself was reliant on reciprocal relationships so that putting someone you depend upon out of commission had a direct negative effect on your own ability to survive.

The Emergence Of Humanism In Europe: How An Invented Printing Press Increased Empathy And Reduced Violence

Humanism In Europe

The Humanitarian Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries brought about a profound reduction in violence across Europe, due to its philosophy of treating even those who had been despised by society before as worthy of humane treatment.

This revolution has helped bring about lasting changes in our attitude towards religion, slavery and criminals.

Religiously-inspired cruelty or persecution became a thing of the past after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia granted religious freedom and protection from persecution.

Similarly, torture and cruel punishments were abolished in criminal justice systems, while the prevalence of slavery began to decline as well.

The driving force behind these changes was humanism – a philosophy that values human life and happiness above all else, underpinned by reason and evidence-based thinking.

The invention of the printing press in the 16th century might have contributed to this movement by enabling people to learn more about each other’s perspectives; this increased understanding then allowed for empathy to develop which laid a solid foundation for humanistic thinking to grow.

It’S Not Just A Historical Coincidence: The Long Peace Is The Result Of Multiple Interconnected Factors

The Second World War was a brutal time for the world, yet something changed in its aftermath.

This change was known as the long peace, and it has revolutionized how we view conflict between nations around the world.

In fact, this long peace began a 500-year decline in international conflict that has left us with a much more peaceful globe today.

From 1945 to 1955, deaths caused by military conflict went down to an astonishingly low 17 per one million people.

Now, in the past decade alone this number has dwindled to just one death per one million people.

This is because major powers are engaging in warfare less and less, particularly against each other – a trend that can be seen over the last 500 years.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, great powers were involved in battle with each other 85 percent of the time!

However, by 1850-1950 that figure dropped drastically to 15 percent and hasn’t been above zero since!

What caused such a shift? Well for starters, as discussed earlier ‘the civilizing process’ saw fewer small states vying for power – rendering trade far more profitable than going to war.

Additionally religion lost its power as wars could no longer be deemed holy or justified by faith – something which separates church from state and puts emphasis on reason rather than glory of rulers.

Altogether these factors made war far less desirable and decreased incidents of mass scale violence dramatically leading up to our current long peace state of affairs post-WWII.

The Fifth Major Historical Shift: Decreasing Violence Across The World Post-Cold War

The Cold War brought a new period of peace to the world that has been felt up to the present.

As tensions between major powers decreased, so too did small-scale conflicts and wars.

Coupled with democratic reforms around the world, civil wars were also reduced significantly.

International support for these reforms and establishment of peacekeeping forces also ensured that any ceasefires were maintained.

In addition, ideologies which led to past genocides have become rarer, though some still unfortunately occur occasionally.

A further cause for this decline is due to democratic governments not engaging in such slaughter, which has come about through increased democracy globally.

Terrorism is another aspect that seems to fall with the end of the Cold War period, as political terrorism decreased by nearly half since its peak in the 1980s and support for it in many parts of the Muslim world has declined from 2007 onward.

Ultimately, thanks to fewer conflicts and a new period of peace following the Cold War, we are now seeing further reductions in conflict, genocide and terrorism.

The Rights Revolutions: A History Of Less Violence In A Post-Humanitarian World

Rights Revolutions

The Rights Revolutions of the 1960s, which emerged out of the civil rights movement, have been incredibly successful in decreasing violence against marginalized groups.

Thanks to these revolutions, the rights and safety of those historically oppressed and discriminated against have been greatly improved.

For instance, the civil rights movements diminished racial discrimination and racist attitudes, resulting in lower numbers of murders and assaults motivated by racism.

Furthermore, the women’s rights movement has furthered equality between the sexes and greatly reduced violence against women in all its forms.

Along with that, children’s rights also saw a boost with physical abuse of children nearly being halved in many parts of the world.

Additionally, violence towards homosexuals – earlier rampant and even government sanctioned – has also considerably decreased due to gay rights movements advocating for their safety and right to exist.

This revolution has led to homosexuality being decriminalized in almost 120 countries throughout the world.

Finally, animals are now more protected from abuse due to these revolutions affording them rights as well – something that can be seen in Animal Testing being curbed across numerous places.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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