In this book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, we look at the violent nature of humanity, the historical wranglings with it, and see ultimately that violence has indeed been in decline. The book's entirety seeks to explain why this is the case - why we are seeing historical reductions in violence and associated abuses. He supports his claims by looking at archeological and historical data points, psychology, sociology, and neurology sciences, as well as his own conclusions. And as far as the vastness of this book can attest, I am apt to agree with those claims.
While it may not be necessarily apparent how this book can provide insight that can benefit other human endeavors like a business, I argue that it could. Understanding humanity's propensity towards violence and its decline can help us further understand our nature - a nature that shapes all human endeavors.
This review could never do this book justice, but hopefully, an overview of some of the significant points could convince you to conduct a deeper dive yourself. Pages of dialogue support each concept, but I will keep it in a bullet point-like format for the sake of time.
The Decline Was A Series of Trends
Pinker discusses that humanity has been seeing a decline in violence throughout many millennia. He associates this decline as a series of downward lurches (trends) that have occurred alongside the development of larger and more complex societies—starting with the trend of early hunter-gatherers settling down into agrarian tribes and chiefdoms through city-states and kingdoms up to empires, nations, and international organizations. Also, humanity's ability to think in abstractions helped them perceive relationships in new ways outside of concrete experiences - empathy, commercial interests, etc.
He breaks it down to these following six trends, to which he goes into great detail in around 450-pages worth of data points, anecdotes, and historical analysis - which would have been boring if it were so filled with vivid imagery and compelling narratives.
- Pacification Process: Prehistoric hunter-gather communities in the process of establishing larger groups outside immediate family and friends. They were sometimes associated with the development of agrarian cultures and multi-family tribes. In doing so, they removed humanity from a state of nature to one in which early collectivist concepts were being seen. An apparent "fivefold decrease" in violence was noted.
- Civilizing Process: The consolidation of tribes, chiefdoms, and city-states into larger feudal kingdoms. Bringing all within the boundaries of the kingdom under the rule of law. We see death rates via homicide drop another 10 to 50 times, depending on the historical data you are looking at.
- Humanitarian Revolution: Coming about during the Enlightenment Era, which followed the printing press's development and the sciences. As the intellect of the aristocracy and the peasantry increased, so did their ability to think in abstractions. Empathizing with others outside their race, sex, religion, and class.
- Long Peace: The period after the Second World War in which the major economic powers didn't go to war with each other. An overall reduction in interstate conflict due to a mixture of open trade and the consequences of nuclear war.
- New Peace: The post-cold-war era, and an extension of the Long Peace. A reduction in all forms of conflict from civil-wars, terrorism, and ethnic strife.
- Rights Revolution: Was a non-combat related period concurrent with the Long and New Peace period, which saw the increased emphasis on extending human rights to others.
Why Violence Is Used, And Why It Has Declined, Can Be Explained By Motives
Pinker discusses human beings' internal motives, aspects that have evolved to provide advantages to our species in a state of nature. In spite of these motives, or because of them, humanity has been able to shift away from our more violent past to a more cooperative present.
“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… 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 [Preface].”
Inner Demons (that lead to violence)
Predatory/Instrumental Violence - the intent to take from others the things you need and using force to make it happen.
Dominance - when posturing won't work, you use violence to dominate and ensure relative positions are created, or threats are destroyed.
Revenge - retribution and justice to right a perceived wrong through the use of force.
Sadism - using violence to produce suffering for the pleasure of it.
Ideology - a belief system that doesn’t permit compromise and permits violence in pursuit of existential goals.
Better Angels (that lead to cooperation)
- Empathy - perceiving the feelings of others and understanding their hardships.
- Self-Control - understanding the short and long-term consequences of our actions and acting according to our long-term interests.
- Moral Sense - establishing sets of norms and taboos that help guide a group towards advantageous outcomes.
- Reason - understanding the grand scheme of things and working out beneficial courses of action using analysis and logic.
These Inner Demons and Better Angels, as he calls them, cover just around 200-pages worth of content. However, it is specifically "reason" that he claims to be the most significant contributor towards our shift to cooperation. To quote,
“Reason is up to these demands because it is an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with a basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interests of ever-increasing numbers of others. It is reason too that can always take note of the shortcomings of previous exercises of reasoning, and update and improve itself in response. And if you detect a flaw in this argument, it is reason that allows you to point it out and defend an alternative [Chapter 9].”
Five Pacifying Forces
While most of the book covers the history of violence, the shaping characteristic of human social development that lessened human conflict, and the motives that cause or hinder them - Pinker puts forth a conceptual understanding of the forces that shaped the history and decline of violence. The forces were created at the intersections of neurology, psychology, and sociology, which promoted our concepts of peace.
Leviathan - this is the authority of the society itself. Its laws, norms, and culture compel everyone to work together and not prey upon each other unless they are ready to risk the system's wrath. The author believes, backed by data, that one of the greatest contributors to the decline in violence is the authority of a powerful Levithan (state, nation, kingdom, etc.) keeping its citizens in check. It doesn't need to exert force all the time, but its influence must be felt.
"A state that uses a monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence-reducer that we have encountered in this book… If a government imposes a cost on an aggressor that is large enough to cancel out his gains… it flips the appeal of the two choices [predation vs. peace] of the potential aggressor, making peace more attractive than war [Chapter 10].”
Gentle Commerce - this comes with the understanding that there is more to be gained between individuals and societies through free and open trade than would ever be achieved through conflict. Even if the aggressor were to conquer all, the damage brought upon the enemy's institutions and industrial output would result in less gain for the aggressor than gained through a peaceful exchange.
“Though gentle commerce does not eliminate the disaster of being defeated in an attack, it eliminates the adversary’s incentive to attack (since he benefits from peaceful exchange too) and so takes that worry off the table [Chapter 10].”
Feminization - this particular category deals with a greater emphasis on values generally associated with females. Males are genetically more competitive due to the biological need to compete over females, and females desire greater stability for the rearing of offspring. This basic evolutionary imperative (competition vs. stability) extends into other aspects of society - including policy decisions. Therefore, increasing females' presence within a community (where there may be a sex-disparity) can lead to less aggressive policies and culture.
“Female-friendly values may be expected to reduce violence because of the psychological legacy of the basic biological difference between the sexes, names that males have more of an incentive to compete for sexual access to females, while females have more of an incentive to stay away from risks that would make their children orphans. Zero-sum competition, whether it takes the form of the contests for women in tribal and knightly societies or the contests for honor, status, dominance, and glory in modern ones, is more a man’s obsession than a woman’s [Chapter 10].”
The Expanding Circle - this deals with our ever-expanding sympathetic understanding of other human beings. A combination of those "better angels" of empathy, moral sense, and reason allows people to begin to see others that would have been traditionally unrelated as part of an ever-expanding and diverse group. First was family, followed by friends, then tribes, then races, religions, and cultures, to the point in which people see the humanity in each person more or less. Arguably, the circle has expanded outside our species by granting certain rights to protect animals under the greater category of living, conscious, feeling beings.
“Stepping into someone else’s vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own. It's not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains. Slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots way from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone [Chapter 4].”
The Escalator of Reason - this deals with human beings' ability to see the bigger picture, assess potential courses of action from differing viewpoints, analyze the possible consequences, and take advantage of our ability to think in the abstract.
“The expanding circles and the escalator of reason are powered by some of the same exogenous causes, particularly literacy, cosmopolitanism, and education. And their pacifying effect may be depicted by the same fusion of interests in the Pacifist’s Dilemma. But the expanding circle and the escalator of reason are conceptually distinct. The first involves occupying another person’s vantage point and imagining his or her emotions as if they were one's own. The second involves ascending to an Olympian, superrational vantage point - the perspective of eternity, the view from nowhere - and considering one’s own interests and another person’s as equivalent [Chapter 10].”