On The Better Angels of our Nature

I recently finished reading The Better Angels of our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined – by Steven Pinker.

Below are excerpts from this book that I found particularly insightful:

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history…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.

Systemic cruelty was far from unique to Europe. Hundreds of methods of torture, applied to millions of victims, have been documented in other civilizations, including the Assyrians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans, Chinese, Hindus, Polynesians, Aztecs, and many African kingdoms and Native American tribes. Brutal killings and punishments were also documented among the Israelites, Greeks, Arabs, and Ottoman Turks. Indeed, as we saw at the end of chapter 2, all of the first complex civilizations were absolutist theocracies which punished victimless crimes with torture and mutilation.

He then outlined his three conditions for perpetual peace. The first is that states should be democratic. Kant himself preferred the term republican, because he associated the word democracy with mob rule; what he had in mind was a government dedicated to freedom, equality, and the rule of law…Kant’s second condition for perpetual peace was that “the law of nations shall be founded on a Federation of Free States”—a “League of Nations,” as he also called it…The third condition for perpetual peace is “universal hospitality” or “world citizenship.”

An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. And a good candidate is the expansion of literacy.

The vulnerability to civil war of countries in which control of the government is a winner-take-all jackpot is multiplied when the government controls windfalls like oil, gold, diamonds, and strategic minerals. Far from being a blessing, these bonanzas create the so-called resource curse, also known as the paradox of plenty and fool’s gold. Countries with an abundance of nonrenewable, easily monopolized resources have slower economic growth, crappier governments, and more violence.

Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition…Another causal pathway is an increase in invitations to adopt the viewpoints of people unlike oneself.

Dangerous ideologies erupt when these faculties fall into toxic combinations. Someone theorizes that infinite good can be attained by eliminating a demonized or dehumanized group. A kernel of like-minded believers spreads the idea by punishing disbelievers. Clusters of people are swayed or intimidated into endorsing it. Skeptics are silenced or isolated. Self-serving rationalizations allow people to carry out the scheme against what should be their better judgment.

On a closing note:

Yet while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, that species has also found ways to bring the numbers down, and allow a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.

A highly recommended read in the areas of sociology and psychology.