Better Angels of our Nature notes

Part 1 of 5

I just started reading Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  I’ve read two reviews of the book and heard one podcast review that each point to the flaws of his argument.  I figured, I would take notes on the book to help me better understand what his actual points are.  I will try not to argue for or against his point of view (though I would probably be inclined to agree as I studied Evolutionary Psychology at UT Austin.)  I’m just going to be taking notes using this blog.  I’ll summarize what I think are the points he is making in each chapter in an effort to better understand the text myself.  So here we go.

Chapter 1 – A Foreign Country

The title of this chapter refers to the fact that our past is so dissimilar to our present to seem like a foreign country.  Our past is a place with weird customs and unusual behaviors.  The premise of this chapter, and of the book as a whole, is that the past is a much more violent place than the present.  This chapter sets up that premise, not so much with evidence (the statistical kind), but with anecdotes.

The earliest fully preserved human remains all show signs of physical violence committed by other humans.  In fact, one early caveman was obviously murdered.  Pinker does mention that we have so few remains that you can’t say that violence was really high, for it could just be that those people that suffered violence were more likely to have their remains preserved, but the correlation is there.

For further evidence of the violent nature of the past, he uses texts.  The Iliad and The Odyssey and other texts are rich with violence.  And the violence described is quite bad, and perfectly acceptable.  Killing men for stealing women, rape, violence for perceived slights, etc. are all shown.  And the “Good Book”, the bible, is filled in the Old Testament with entire generations being wiped out, patricide, fratricide, war, etc.  It’s a really violent text when you think about it.

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that those times were violent, or that they glorified violence.  Perhaps these texts are just the Michael Bays and John Woos of their time period.

But the crucifixion of Jesus was not some one time event.  It was a common method of execution.  Then after the time of Jesus, the Christian empire waged war and tortured people in the name of God.  Other religions waged war in the name of battling evil.

When you get to the middle ages and the times of Knights, we generally think of them as honor bound people.  Not like the reality of the world, which was exceptionally violent.  In the story Lancelot, written in the 13th century, there are heads split, limbs torn off, women abducted and raped, and much more of the same as we saw in the times B.C..

Pinker takes us all the way up to our recent history of Charles Atlas and the kid with the sand kicked in his face and print ads that showed a man spanking his wife.  As recently as 50 years ago violence against women was a mildly socially acceptable thing in our society.

This chapter wasn’t about the hard and fast numbers that show the past was violent, it presents the first bits of evidence for the idea that the past is a much more violent place and glorified violence as much, or more, than we do now.

Chapter 2 – The Pacification Process

This is the chapter where Pinker gives us the philosophical foundation for understanding the reasons for why he thinks violence has declined.  The reasons for violence among men is laid out via Hobbes’ writing.  There are basically 3 reasons that men fight

  1. competition (fight for land, women, resources)
  2. diffidence (to defend your gains or property)
  3. glory (perceived slights, defend your name)

What Hobbes’ proposed is a Leviathan, “a monarchy or other government authority that embodies the will of the people and has a monopoly on the use of force.”  This means that when someone steals your property, instead of getting our gun and a group of friends to get it back, you call the cops or a lawyer.

This is when he begins to use numbers to make his case.  He compares state and non-state societies to show that violence (per capita) is a lot lower in a big city than a small hunter-gather society.

In his use of  numbers he got me thinking about one of the major rebuttals of his book, that we’re engaged in wars right now.  America, until the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, had troops in two countries engaged in active fighting.  How can you say we’re less violent?

Well, as some have pointed out, the U.S. military is made up of only 1% of our population.  According to Wikipedia we have 1.4 million active duty personnel and the same in reserve units.  The population of the United States is 312 million.  That is quite literally 1% of the population.  And since not every soldier dies in battle, you as a citizen of the United States, has much less than a 1% chance of dying in war.  Compare that to if you lived in a tribe of 100 people and a neighboring tribe wanted your land.  You’d be much more likely to die in battle or be injured in the fighting.

And that’s just what I came up with.  Pinker makes a much better argument in this chapter.

So that’s the first two chapters, I’m currently on the 3rd and when I finish the fourth I’ll post again.

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