The Better Angels of Our Nature | Steven Pinker

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


Welcome to the world of ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’, where Steven Pinker explores one of humanity’s most intriguing traits: our propensity for violence. This book summary delves into the core motivations behind humanity’s violent tendencies, while also highlighting how our ‘better angels’ – empathy, self-control, morality, and reason – serve to counter these impulses. You will not only gain a deeper understanding of the historical forces that have shaped our violent behaviors, but also observe the trends that have gradually led to reduced violence over time.

The Evolutionary Basis of Violence

Violence is not just an erratic behavior, for humans, it’s a natural tendency that can be traced back to our ancestors and evolution. Violence is an instrumental behavior that helps organisms secure resources, and humans’ violent tendency is commonplace and even seen in young children. This violent streak seems to be neurologically hardwired in humans, but our instincts for violence need to be restrained because acting on them can prove harmful to our gene survival. Humans tend to use violence selectively, but our urge for it persists, and progressing our society relies on our ability to keep this tendency in check.

Violence in Social Species

Violence is a dangerous strategy for getting what you want. Social species avoid unnecessary battles by establishing dominance hierarchies. Males tend to dominate due to their relative size and strength, which determines their access to females. Violence is used by males to secure resources and gain a higher position in the hierarchy. However, females’ preferences changed when hunter-gatherer tribes were established, leading to loyalty and generosity being a crucial part of our evolutionary success.

The Power of Revenge

Why is the desire for revenge so ubiquitous? This book excerpt suggests that it is a universal phenomenon, with almost all cultures advocating for blood vengeance. Revenge doesn’t always refer to immediate retaliation, but also the tendency to hold grudges and seek retaliation long-term. Despite revenge not having material benefits, it creates a pleasurable response in the brain, similar to that of cocaine or chocolate. Revenge can be viewed as a deterrent, making would-be attackers consider the potential long-term costs of their actions. Our sense of morality also plays a role, as we tend to believe that bad actions should be reciprocated.

Sadism: A Monstrous Instinct

Deliberately inflicting pain on others for pleasure sounds grotesque. Sadism once featured in ancient Rome and medieval times, where public executions provided entertainment. Sadism often gets coupled with other forms of violence like revenge. However, pure sadism is rare in modern times. It takes time to develop a taste for it, but once it’s acquired, such behaviors can become addictive. It’s unclear how important sadism was in human evolution, but it may have developed as a survival instinct that aids in extremely violent conditions. Sadism seems inherently objectionable, making it puzzling how it can become enjoyable. Nonetheless, the phenomenon is terrifying and thankfully rare in today’s age.

Ideological Violence

This book snippet explores how ideologies can be the driving force behind violence. Ideological violence aims to achieve a utopian ideal and can influence groups of people to act against their better judgment. Humans tend to separate into groups and develop hostility towards outgroups, making them susceptible to dangerous ideologies, even letting toxic ideologies go unchallenged because of groupthink. However, while these motivators can paint a grim picture of human nature, as we will see in the next parts, we also have tendencies that can lead us away from violence.

Empathy: Our First Better Angel

Empathy is the first better angel of our nature that reduces our violent tendencies. It developed to encourage us to care for our kin, especially our children, promoting altruistic concern for the well-being of others. Empathy helps us form mutually beneficial relationships with non-relatives and learn to extend our empathy to others. Evidence suggests empathy can be boosted by drawing attention to similarities and learning about others’ unique perspectives. However, empathy can have a dark side, leading to unfairness. In a study, subjects showed empathy for a sick ten-year-old girl, allowing her to skip the line for medical treatment, passing those in more urgent need.

Willpower and the Brain

Studies show that our impulses and our resistance to them come from different parts of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The former is responsible for our self-control, or willpower while the latter sends impulses to seize immediate rewards, bypassing rational thinking. The prefrontal cortex must control such impulses so that we can make a rational decision. People who lack self-control tend to behave violently and have shrunken prefrontal cortexes, according to brain scans of violent people. However, willpower can be strengthened through practice, such as engaging in self-control exercises. Historical data shows that outlawing violence forces citizens to keep their aggressive impulses in check and strengthen their willpower leading to less violence. On the other hand, poor nutrition can also weaken willpower. Therefore, the overall improvement of nutrition in the world should lead to a decline in violence as self-control gets stronger.

The Dichotomy of Morality

Our moral sense has both encouraged and reduced violence throughout history. Four themes – communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing – guide our moral behavior. While they can promote peace and cooperation, they can also justify violence and persecution. The spreading of new ideas is helping shift our moral compass towards non-violent ways of being.

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