The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature

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Why Violence Has Declined


1. Violence—Psychological aspects. 2. ViolenceSocial aspects. 3. Nonviolence—Psychological aspects

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 1061 p
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 7,949 KB
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 PDF format
 Steven Pinker, 2011 

What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and
error, the glory and the scum of the universe.
—Blaise Pascal

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human
history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined
over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our
species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought
violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable
development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the
spanking of children.
No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very
different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard
to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them
are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.
The historical trajectory of violence affects not only how life is lived but how it is
understood. What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a
conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left
us better or worse off? How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity—of the
erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism,
cosmopolitanism, reason, and science? So much depends on how we understand the
legacy of this transition: whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism,
genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by
unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.
The question of whether the arithmetic sign of trends in violence is positive or negative
also bears on our conception of human nature. Though theories of human nature rooted in
biology are often associated with fatalism about violence, and the theory that the mind is a
blank slate is associated with progress, in my view it is the other way around. How are we
to understand the natural state of life when our species first emerged and the processes of
history began? The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has
contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has xxi decreased suggests that
we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble
direction, one in which we can hope to continue.
This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has
gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism,
incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we
live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword
“If it bleeds, it leads.” The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from
the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be
beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old
age.1 No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers
there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of
violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.
Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has ever recruited
activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, and bearers of good news
are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they lull people into complacency. Also, a
large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit that there could be anything good
about civilization, modernity, and Western society. But perhaps the main cause of the
illusion of ever-present violence springs from one of the forces that drove violence down
in the first place. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in
attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. By the
standards of the mass atrocities of human history, the lethal injection of a murderer in
Texas, or an occasional hate crime in which a member of an ethnic minority is intimidated
by hooligans, is pretty mild stuff. But from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as
signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.
In the teeth of these preconceptions, I will have to persuade you with numbers, which I
will glean from datasets and depict in graphs. In each case I’ll explain where the numbers
came from and do my best to interpret the ways they fall into place. The problem I have
set out to understand is the reduction in violence at many scales—in the family, in the
neighborhood, between tribes and other armed factions, and among major nations and
states. If the history of violence at each level of granularity had an idiosyncratic trajectory,
each would belong in a separate book. But to my repeated astonishment, the global trends
in almost all of them, viewed from the vantage point of the present, point downward. That
calls for documenting the various trends between a single pair of covers, and seeking
commonalities in when, how, and why they have occurred.
Too many kinds of violence, I hope to convince you, have moved in the same direction
for it all to be a coincidence, and that calls for an explanation. It is natural to recount the
history of violence as a moral saga—a heroic struggle of justice against evil—but that is
not my starting point. My approach is scientific in the broad sense of seeking explanations
for why things happen. We may discover that a particular advance in peacefulness was
brought about by moral entrepreneurs and their movements. But we may also discover that
the explanation is more prosaic, like a change in technology, governance, commerce, or
knowledge. Nor can we understand the decline of violence as an unstoppable force for
progress that is carrying us toward an omega point of perfect peace. It is a collection of
statistical trends in the behavior of groups of humans in various epochs, and as such it
calls for an explanation in terms of psychology and history: how human minds deal with
changing circumstances.
A large part of the book will explore the psychology of violence and nonviolence. The
theory of mind that I will invoke is the synthesis of cognitive science, affective and
cognitive neuroscience, social and evolutionary psychology, and other sciences of human
nature that I explored in How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought.
According to this understanding, the mind is a complex system of cognitive and emotional
faculties implemented in the brain which owe their basic design to the processes of
evolution. Some of these faculties incline us toward various kinds of violence. Others
—“the better angels of our nature,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words—incline us toward
cooperation and peace. The way to explain the decline of violence is to identify the
changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the
upper hand.
Finally, I need to show how our history has engaged our psychology. Everything in
human affairs is connected to everything else, and that is especially true of violence.
Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better
educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in
trade. It’s not easy to tell which of these happy traits got the virtuous circle started and
which went along for the ride, and it’s tempting to resign oneself to unsatisfying
circularities, such as that violence declined because the culture got less violent. Social
scientists distinguish “endogenous” variables—those that are inside the system, where
they may be affected by the very phenomenon they are trying to explain—from the
“exogenous” ones—those that are set in motion by forces from the outside. Exogenous
forces can originate in the practical realm, such as changes in technology, demographics,
and the mechanisms of commerce and governance. But they can also originate in the
intellectual realm, as new ideas are conceived and disseminated and take on a life of their
own. The most satisfying explanation of a historical change is one that identifies an
exogenous trigger. To the best that the data allow it, I will try to identify exogenous forces
that have engaged our mental faculties in different ways at different times and that thereby
can be said to have caused the declines in violence.
The discussions that try to do justice to these questions add up to a big book—big
enough that it won’t spoil the story if I preview its major conclusions. The Better Angels of
Our Nature is a tale of six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical
Six Trends (chapters 2 through 7). To give some coherence to the many developments that
make up our species’ retreat from violence, I group them into six major trends.
The first, which took place on the scale of millennia, was the transition from the
anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent
most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and
governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. With that change came a
reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and
a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. I call this imposition of peace the
Pacification Process.
The second transition spanned more than half a millennium and is best documented in
Europe. Between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a
tenfold-to-fiftyfold decline in their rates of homicide. In his classic book The Civilizing
Process, the sociologist Norbert Elias attributed this surprising decline to the consolidation
of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an
infrastructure of commerce. With a nod to Elias, I call this trend the Civilizing Process.
The third transition unfolded on the scale of centuries and took off around the time of
the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries (though
it had antecedents in classical Greece and the Renaissance, and parallels elsewhere in the
world). It saw the first organized movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of
violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic
punishment, and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism.
Historians sometimes call this transition the Humanitarian Revolution.
The fourth major transition took place after the end of World War II. The two-thirds of a
century since then have been witness to a historically unprecedented development: the
great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another.
Historians have called this blessed state of affairs the Long Peace.2
The fifth trend is also about armed combat but is more tenuous. Though it may be hard
for news readers to believe, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, organized conflicts of
all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist
attacks—have declined throughout the world. In recognition of the tentative nature of this
happy development, I will call it the New Peace.
Finally, the postwar era, symbolically inaugurated by the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights in 1948, has seen a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales,
including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals.
These spin-offs from the concept of human rights—civil rights, women’s rights, children’s
rights, gay rights, and animal rights—were asserted in a cascade of movements from the
late 1950s to the present day which I will call the Rights Revolutions.
Five Inner Demons (chapter 8). Many people implicitly believe in the Hydraulic Theory
of Violence: that humans harbor an inner drive toward aggression (a death instinct or thirst
for blood), which builds up inside us and must periodically be discharged. Nothing could
be further from a contemporary scientific understanding of the psychology of violence.
Aggression is not a single motive, let alone a mounting urge. It is the output of several
psychological systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal logic, their
neurobiological basis, and their social distribution. Chapter 8 is devoted to explaining five
of them. Predatory or instrumental violence is simply violence deployed as a practical
means to an end. Dominance is the urge for authority, prestige, glory, and power, whether
it takes the form of macho posturing among individuals or contests for supremacy among
racial, ethnic, religious, or national groups. Revenge fuels the moralistic urge toward
retribution, punishment, and justice. Sadism is pleasure taken in another’s suffering. And
ideology is a shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, that justifies
unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.
Four Better Angels (chapter 9). Humans are not innately good (just as they are not
innately evil), but they come equipped with motives that can orient them away from
violence and toward cooperation and altruism. Empathy (particularly in the sense of
sympathetic concern) prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with
our own. Self-control allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses
and to inhibit them accordingly. The moral sense sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that
govern the interactions among people in a culture, sometimes in ways that decrease
violence, though often (when the norms are tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) in ways
that increase it. And the faculty of reason allows us to extricate ourselves from our
parochial vantage points, to reflect on the ways in which we live our lives, to deduce ways
in which we could be better off, and to guide the application of the other better angels of
our nature. In one section I will also examine the possibility that in recent history Homo
sapiens has literally evolved to become less violent in the biologist’s technical sense of a
change in our genome. But the focus of the book is on transformations that are strictly
environmental: changes in historical circumstances that engage a fixed human nature in
different ways.
Five Historical Forces (chapter 10). In the final chapter I try to bring the psychology and
history back together by identifying exogenous forces that favor our peaceable motives
and that have driven the multiple declines in violence.
The Leviathan, a state and judiciary with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can
defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and
circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties believe they are on the side of the
angels. Commerce is a positive-sum game in which everybody can win; as technological
progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger
groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead, and they
are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization. Feminization is the
process in which cultures have increasingly respected the interests and values of women.
Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move
away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures
of rootless young men. The forces of cosmopolitanism such as literacy, mobility, and mass
media can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to
expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them. Finally, an intensifying application of
knowledge and rationality to human affairs—the escalator of reason—can force people to
recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own
interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a
contest to be won.
As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different.
The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister. One starts to appreciate the small
gifts of coexistence that would have seemed utopian to our ancestors: the interracial
family playing in the park, the comedian who lands a zinger on the commander in chief,
the countries that quietly back away from a crisis instead of escalating to war. The shift is
not toward complacency: we enjoy the peace we find today because people in past
generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we
should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time. Indeed, it is a recognition of
the decline of violence that best affirms that such efforts are worthwhile. Man’s
inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that
something has driven it down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead
of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” We can obsess not
just over what we have been doing wrong but also over what we have been doing right.
Because we have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly,
it is.
Many people have asked me how I became involved in the analysis of violence. It should
not be a mystery: violence is a natural concern for anyone who studies human nature. I
first learned of the decline of violence from Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s classic book
in evolutionary psychology, Homicide, in which they examined the high rates of violent
death in nonstate societies and the decline in homicide from the Middle Ages to the
present. In several of my previous books I cited those downward trends, together with
humane developments such as the abolition of slavery, despotism, and cruel punishments
in the history of the West, in support of the idea that moral progress is compatible with a
biological approach to the human mind and an acknowledgment of the dark side of human
nature. 3 I reiterated these observations in response to the annual question on the online
forum www.edge.org, which in 2007 was “What Are You Optimistic About?” My squib
provoked a flurry of correspondence from scholars in historical criminology and
international studies who told me that the evidence for a historical reduction in violence is
more extensive than I had realized.4 It was their data that convinced me that there was an
underappreciated story waiting to be told.

Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page

Chapter 5 - THE LONG PEACE
Chapter 6 - THE NEW PEACE
Chapter 8 - INNER DEMONS
Chapter 10 - ON ANGELS’ WINGS



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First published in 2011 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.