Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our NatureThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Steven Pinker, 2011

I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” and it only took me ten months to do so. To be fair, I read several books in that same period and it’s a nearly 800 page tome not including the end notes. It is one of the very best books I’ve ever read, and perhaps the most important; I’d put it right up there with Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”

Intuitively, the thesis of this book, that violence has dramatically declined over the course of human history and has never been less than today, strikes people as not only false, but obviously so. They are wrong, and while I do not have space here to elucidate the myriad reasons (you should read the book), two come immediately to mind. First, we are bombarded every day with descriptions and imagery of violence from around the world. Access to information has shrunk the globe smaller than ever before, and news organizations, for several reasons, focus on the dramatic, sensational, and violent. Every time we turn on the television there is a riot, genocide, civil war, rape, and murder. It’s no wonder we feel unsafe. Second, our threshold for violence is relative to the amount of violence we experience. In previous centuries it was the height of entertainment to gather in the public square with family and friends to witness a hanging, or to visit the coliseum to watch criminals be torn apart by wild beasts and gladiators. Today, we abhor and are shocked and disgusted by much less.

This book is filled with lengthy arguments, historical anecdotes, and many statistics and analysis to bolster its thesis. It is important for several reasons. Convincing people of the progress we’ve made with respect to violence can offer hope to those of us who are without, who think the world is going to hell and the end times are near. An examination of the evidence shows exactly the opposite. More important, however, is that in this book Steven elucidates the psychological basis for not only violence, but its opposite. Our justice systems have historically been based on an absurd notion that we are all essentially operating on an equal cognitive and empathetic level playing field. The truth that this is not the case should be obvious, but in case you have doubt, Steven carefully dissects the human brain and offers numerous studies and experiments to give the reader plenty of evidence to support the intuition. Understanding the genetic, social, psychological, and cultural drivers of both violence and peace can help us to create policies, programs, and structures that can further reduce violence and allow us to continue the long and dramatic decline of violence. Furthermore, a factual understanding of the realities can give us hope in a seemingly hopeless world, which might be the greatest benefit of all.

Below is a dump of the highlights I made in the book while I was reading. There are a lot and they lack context, but I’m including them so you can get a feel for the style and content of the book. Please do read the book, though. It’s not easy or short, but it will be worth it. It will change your outlook on the world and your fellow humans, and for that its a small price. You’ll likely enjoy the journey, too.

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. Location 149

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. Location 160

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. Location 182

Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki. It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs. Location 516

Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority. Location 530

Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles. Location 536

Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few hours now than an eternity later. And silencing a person before he can corrupt others, or making an example of him to deter the rest, is a responsible public health measure. Location 645

The question is why they don’t, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. Location 654

The television programs had 4.8 violent scenes per hour; the nursery rhymes had 52.2.4. Location 750

living in a civilization reduces one’s chances of being a victim of violence fivefold. Location 1366

As Europe became more urban, cosmopolitan, commercial, industrialized, and secular, it got safer and safer. Location 1588

A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions. Location 1734

As the sociologist Charles Tilly put it, “States make war and vice-versa.” 3. Location 1775

a free market puts a premium on empathy. Location 1831

it’s easier to deter people from crime if the lawful alternative is more appealing. Location 1855

Another former British colony defies the pattern of English civility; we will examine this strange country in the next section. Location 2050

Note: @sapinker USA? Has to be. :)

Irish Americans in the 19th century, like African Americans in the 20th, were more pugnacious than their neighbors, in large part because they and the police did not take each other seriously.8. Location 2197

Note: Great word.

communities of lower-income African Americans were effectively stateless, relying on a culture of honor (sometimes called “the code of the streets”) to defend their interests rather calling in the law.8. Location 2213

Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Location 2227

Note: Very interesting. Explains why Europe has such a low crime rate without gun-toting bobbies.

“For the cowboy to become a symbol of the American experience required an act of moral surgery. The cowboy as mounted protector and risk-taker was remembered. The cowboy as dismounted drunk sleeping it off on the manure pile behind the saloon was forgotten.”9. Location 2318

This so-called culture war, I suspect, is the product of a history in which white America took two different paths to civilization. The North is an extension of Europe and continued the court- and commerce-driven Civilizing Process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that sprang up in the anarchic parts of the growing country, balanced by their own civilizing forces of churches, families, and temperance. Location 2394

The idea that a man and a woman should devote their energies to a monogamous relationship in which they raise their children in a safe environment became a target of howling ridicule. Location 2513

an orderly environment fosters a sense of responsibility not so much by deterrence (since Groningen police rarely penalize litterers) as by the signaling of a social norm: This is the kind of place where people obey the rules.17. Location 2793

now that norms of nonviolence are entrenched, we can let up on particular inhibitions that may be obsolete. In this way of thinking, the fact that women show a lot of skin or that men curse in public is not a sign of cultural decay. On the contrary, it’s a sign that they live in a society that is so civilized that they don’t have to fear being harassed or assaulted in response. Location 2881

if the ancients believed in gods, as most people do, then human sacrifice could easily have been seen as offering them that advantage. “Their primitive world was full of dangers, suffering, and nasty surprises, including plagues, famines, and wars. It would be natural for them to ask, ‘What kind of god would create such a world?’ A plausible answer was: a sadistic god, a god who liked to see people bleed and suffer.”13 So, they might think, if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, why not be proactive about it? Better him than me. Location 3019

One possibility is that the combination of a literate elite, the rudiments of historical scholarship, and contacts with neighboring societies gives people the means to figure out that the bloodthirsty-god hypothesis is incorrect. They infer that throwing a virgin into a volcano does not, in fact, cure diseases, defeat enemies, or bring them good weather. Location 3029

Once you start rummaging around in the realm of the unverifiable there is considerable room for creativity. Location 3049

Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Location 3113

and moral change: a shift from valuing souls to valuing live. Location 3194

Note: I wonder if this is why my own father has had such a difficult time with my leaving the Mormon church.

The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Location 3194

The French scholar Sebastian Castellio led the charge by calling attention to the absurdity of different people being unshakably certain of the truth of their mutually incompatible beliefs. Location 3204

In view of the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself. Location 3209

The emergence of modern science proved that deeply held beliefs could be entirely false, and that the world worked by physical laws rather than by divine whims. Location 3214

The goal of the judicial system should be to rehabilitate wrongdoers rather than harming them. Location 3287

At the same time, many politicians and preachers defended slavery, citing the Bible’s approval of the practice, the inferiority of the African race, the value of preserving the southern way of life, and a paternalistic concern that freed slaves could not survive on their own. Location 3426

Blaise Pascal (1623–62) imagined the following dialogue: “Why are you killing me for your own benefit? I am unarmed.” “Why, do you not live on the other side of the water? My friend, if you lived on this side, I should be a murderer, but since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just.”11. Location 3635

The third condition for perpetual peace is “universal hospitality” or “world citizenship.” People from one country should be free to live in safety in others, as long as they don’t bring an army in with them. The hope is that communication, trade, and other “peaceable relations” across national boundaries will knit the world’s people into a single community, so that a “violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world.. Location 3691

The recent failure of democracy to take hold in many African and Islamic states is a reminder that a change in the norms surrounding violence has to precede a change in the nuts and bolts of governance.12. Location 3722

The arguments may not only persuade the people who wield the levers of power but infiltrate the culture’s sensibilities by finding their way into barroom and dinner-table debates where they may shift the consensus one mind at a time. Location 3730

were these people feeling? And why don’t we feel it today. Location 3740

Note: Both excellent and interesting questions.

The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an exogenous change that helped set off the Humanitarian Revolution. Location 3830

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. Location 3839

Exposure to worlds that can be seen only through the eyes of a foreigner, an explorer, or a historian can turn an unquestioned norm (“That’s the way it’s done”) into an explicit observation (“That’s what our tribe happens to do now”). Location 3849

reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights. Location 3877

There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years . . . : jet travel, direct-dialing telephones and the Xerox machine…. As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox machine, and a conference grant fund, you’re OK, you’re plugged into the only university that really matters—the global campus.14. Location 3899

Cosmopolitan cities can bring together a critical mass of diverse minds, and their nooks and crannies can offer places for mavericks to seek refuge. Location 3926

The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. Location 3958

The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. Location 3976

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. Location 4010

Note: What is morality?

A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. Location 4016

to an approach to politics that is more sophisticated than either. Location 4088

Note: I should add “The Blank Slate” to my reading list.

recrudescenc. Location 4168

for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocutions, falls, and drownings.1. Location 4232

tendentiousl. Location 4251

Does it never strike you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious to kill ten thousand?”3. Location 4377

Military conscription represents the application of force squared. Location 5479

the proportion of the population that a nation puts in uniform is the best indicator of its ideological embrace of militarism.16. Location 5494

of more than 9 military personnel per 100,000 people in 1988. Location 5499

Note: Typo?

The 2004 train bombing in Madrid by an Islamist terrorist group, far from whipping the Spanish into an anti-Islamic lather, prompted them to vote out the government that had involved them in the Iraq War, an involvement many felt had brought the attack upon them. Location 5598

no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever fought in a war. Location 6117

In a village, the fortunes of other people are immediately felt. If the village is the natural size of our circle of sympathy, then perhaps when the village goes global, the villagers will experience greater concern for their fellow humans than when it embraced just the clan or tribe. Location 6255

If we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programming policy “If it bleeds it leads” will feed the cognitive shortcut “The more memorable, the more frequent,” and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity. Location 6330

when the numbers serve as propaganda for raising money and attention. Location 6825

Note: Exactly what a young Ethiopian CNA at the hospital told me.

Of all the varieties of violence of which our sorry species is capable. Location 6832

Categories allow us to make inferences from a few observed qualities to a larger number of unobserved ones. If I note the color and shape of a fruit and classify it as a raspberry, I can infer that it will taste sweet, satisfy my hunger, and not poison me. Location 6892

Politically correct sensibilities may bridle at the suggestion that a group of people, like a variety of fruit, may have features in common, but if they didn’t, there would be no cultural diversity to celebrate and no ethnic qualities to be proud of. Location 6893

Puritans in New England exterminated the Pequot nation in 1638, after which the minister Increase Mather asked his congregation to thank God “that on this day we have sent six hundred heathen souls to Hell.”13. Location 7123

“There is no better engagement for you than fighting on religious principles; and so there is no need for hesitation…. The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire…. [Therefore] you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief.”13. Location 7130

Note: What scares me most about religion is that it paints immoral moral. Geez! @sapinker

The number of deaths from terrorist attacks is so small that even minor measures to avoid them can increase the risk of dying. The cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has estimated that in the year after the 9/11 attacks, 1,500 Americans died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly to their destinations out of fear of dying in a hijacked or sabotaged plane, unaware that the risk of death in a plane flight from Boston to Los Angeles is the same as the risk of death in a car trip of twelve miles. Location 7370

The world contains an unlimited number of grievances, and as long as the perception that terrorism works stays ahead of the reality, the terrorist meme may continue to infect the aggrieved. Location 7478

Critics who are determined to misunderstand this theor. Location 7567

Note: LOL, @sapinker. :) #betterangels

suicide terrorism is a supremely idiotic tactic because it makes the target nation unwilling to tolerate members of the minority community in their midst, never knowing which among them may be a walking bomb. Location 7653

Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology or a regime, so we will never win the “War on Terror,” any more than we will achieve George W. Bush’s larger goal (announced in the same post-9/11 speech) to “rid the world of evil.. Location 7703

people are willing to pay more for flight insurance against terrorism than for flight insurance against all causes.26. Location 7911

plebiscites. Location 8373

Though the more blatant tropes of the women-as-property metaphor were dismantled in the late Middle Ages, the model has persisted in laws, customs, and emotions into the recent present.48 Women, but not men, wear engagement rings to signal they are “taken,” and many are still “given away” at their weddings by their fathers to their husbands, whereupon they change their surname accordingly. Location 8468

in the realm of the emotions, husbands and boyfriends often find themselves cruelly unsympathetic to their partners after they have been raped, saying things like “Something has been taken from me. I feel cheated. She was all mine before and now she’s not.” It’s not uncommon in the aftermath of a rape for a marriage to unravel.5. Location 8474

nor is it a chip in her brain that robotically controls her behavior. Location 8481

Note: Free will? The brain IS the chip.

we recognize rape as a heinous crime against the woman, represent a reweighting of those interests, mandated by a humanist mindset that grounds morality in the suffering and flourishing of sentient individuals rather than in power, tradition, or religious practice. Location 8485

It seems that rape may be the one thing that you can’t put into a video game…. Killing scores of people in a game, often brutally, or even destroying entire cities is clearly worse than rape in real life. But in a video game, allowing someone to press the X-button to rape another character is off-limits. The “it’s just a game” justification seems to fall flat when it comes to rape…. Even in the virtual world of Role Playing Games, rape is taboo. Location 8545

one of the most “natural” things a human being can do is voluntarily kill its own offspring when faced with a variety of stressful situations.10. Location 8831

The solution to Milner’s puzzlement lies in the subfield of evolutionary biology called life history theory.107 The intuition that a mother should treat every offspring as infinitely precious, far from being an implication of the theory of natural selection, is incompatible with it. Selection acts to maximize an organism’s expected lifetime reproductive output, and that requires that it negotiate the tradeoff between investing in a new offspring and conserving its resources for current and future offspring. Location 8833

Edward Tylor, who wrote, “Infanticide arises from hardness of life rather than hardness of heart.”11. Location 8862

There is nothing so imperfect, so helpless, so naked, so shapeless, so foul, as man observed at birth, to whom alone, one might almost say, Nature has given not even a clean passage to the light; but, defiled with blood and covered with filth, and resembling more one just slain than one just born, he is an object for none to touch or lift up or kiss or embrace except for someone who loves with a natural affection.11. Location 8867

postpartum depression is only loosely tied to measured hormonal imbalances, suggesting that it is not a malfunction but a design feature. Location 8882

Female infanticide is a kind of social parasitism, a free rider problem, a genealogical tragedy of the commons.12. Location 8947

(Exceptions were exuberantly made, of course, for heretics, infidels, uncivilized tribes, enemy peoples, and transgressors of any of several hundred laws. And we continue to deliberate on the value of statistical lives, as opposed to identifiable lives, every time we send soldiers or police into harm’s way, or scrimp on expensive health and safety measures.. Location 8989

The very act of holding the sacredness of life up to the light to examine it appears to be monstrous. Location 8992

The victim’s mind is not sufficiently developed to enable it to suffer from the contemplation of approaching suffering or death. It is incapable of feeling fear or terror. Nor is its consciousness sufficiently developed to enable it to suffer pain in appreciable degree. Its loss leaves no gap in any family circle, deprives no children of their breadwinner or their mother, no human being of a friend, helper, or companion.13. Location 8996

A council among the men was held to see what should be done with her. My father wanted to take her along; others wanted to kill her and put her out of her misery. Father said that would be willful murder. A vote was taken and it was decided to do nothing about it, but to leave her where we found her. My mother and my aunt were unwilling to leave the little girl. They stayed behind to do all they could for her. When they finally joined us their eyes were wet with tears. Mother said she had knelt down by the little girl and had asked God to take care of her. One of the young men in charge of the horses felt so badly about leaving her, he went back and put a bullet through her head and put her out of her misery.14. Location 9010

Though we engage in similar reasoning when we put an aging pet or a horse with a broken leg out of its misery, we place humans in a sacred category. Trumping all calculations based on empathy and mercy is a veto based on human life: an identifiable human’s right to live is not negotiable. Location 9016

But like all taboos, the human life taboo is incompatible with certain features of reality, and fierce debates in bioethics today hinge on how to reconcile it with the fuzziness of the biological boundary that demarcates human life during embryogenesis, comas, and noninstantaneous deaths. Location 9023

Modern sensibilities have increasingly conceived moral worth in terms of consciousness, particularly the ability to suffer and flourish, and have identified consciousness with the activity of the brain. The change is a part of the turning away from religion and custom and toward science and secular philosophy as a source of moral illumination. Location 9080

That tells us that adult personality and intelligence are shaped by genes, and also by chance (since the correlations are far from perfect, even among identical twins), but are not shaped by parents, at least not by anything they do with all their children. Despite these refutations, the Nurture Assumption developed a stranglehold on professional opinion, and mothers have been advised to turn themselves into round-the-clock parenting machines, charged with stimulating, socializing, and developing the characters of the little blank slates in their care. Location 9400

In 2008 the nine-year-old son of the journalist Lenore Skenazy begged her to let him go home by himself on the New York subway. She agreed, and he made it home without incident. When she wrote about the vignette in a New York Sun column, she found herself at the center of a media frenzy in which she was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom.” (Sample headline: “Mom Lets 9-Year-Old Take Subway Home Alone: Columnist Stirs Controversy with Experiment in Childhood Independence.”) In response she started a movement—Free-Range Children—and proposed National Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day, intended to get children to learn to play by themselves without constant adult supervision.21. Location 9448

Another paradox is that human beings are simultaneously rational, moral agents and organisms that are part of nature red in tooth and claw. Something in me objects to the image of a hunter shooting a moose. But why am I not upset by the image of a grizzly bear that renders it just as dead. Location 10053

As if biology didn’t make things bad enough, the Abrahamic religions ratified some of our worst instincts with laws and beliefs that have encouraged violence for millennia: the demonization of infidels, the ownership of women, the sinfulness of children, the abomination of homosexuality, the dominion over animals and denial to them of souls. Location 10070

Yet in every issue touched by the Rights Revolutions—interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals—the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals. Location 10087

If I were to put my money on the single most important exogenous cause of the Rights Revolutions, it would be the technologies that made ideas and people increasingly mobile. The decades of the Rights Revolutions were the decades of the electronics revolutions: television, transistor radios, cable, satellite, long-distance telephones, photocopiers, fax machines, the Internet, cell phones, text messaging, Web video. They were the decades of the interstate highway, high-speed rail, an. Location 10113

the jet airplane. They were the decades of the unprecedented growth in higher education and in the endless frontier of scientific research. Less well known is that they were also the decades of an explosion in book publishing. From 1960 to 2000, the annual number of books published in the United States increased almost fivefold. Location 10116

perfidious. Location 10124

It is also an intellectual agility—literally a kind of intelligence—which encourages one to step outside the parochial constraints of one’s birth and station, to consider hypothetical worlds, and to reflect back on the habits, impulses, and institutions that govern one’s beliefs and values. Location 10135

Individuals or civilizations that are situated in a vast informational catchment area can compile a moral know-how that is more sustainable and expandable than even the most righteous prophet could devise in isolation. Location 10152

peripateti. Location 10176

Among these parts is a network of regions that has been called the Rage circuit. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp describes what happened when he sent an electrical current through a part of the Rage circuit of a cat: Within the first few seconds of the electrical brain stimulation the peaceful animal was emotionally transformed. It leaped viciously toward me with claws unsheathed, fangs bared, hissing and spitting. It could have pounced in many different directions, but its arousal was directed right at my head. Fortunately, a Plexiglas wall separated me from the enraged beast. Within a fraction of a minute after terminating the stimulation, the cat was again relaxed and peaceful, and could be petted without further retribution.1. Location 10283

We lie to ourselves so that we’re more believable when we lie to others.2. Location 10409

Evil is the intentional an. Location 10517

gratuitous infliction of harm for its own sake, perpetrated by a villain who is malevolent to the bone, inflicted on a victim who is innocent and good. Location 10517

The evildoer is an adversary—the enemy of good—and the evildoer is often foreign. Hollywood villains, even if they are stateless, speak with a generic foreign accent. Location 10526

Because the standpoint of the scientist resembles the standpoint of the perpetrator, while the standpoint of the moralizer resembles the standpoint of the victim, the scientist is bound to be seen as “making excuses” or “blaming the victim,” or as trying to vindicate the amoral doctrine that “to understand all is to forgive all.. Location 10528

to condemn much is to understand little.. Location 10530

equipoise. Location 10675

The people who deduce that it’s all right to smother the baby show greater activation in the dorsolateral cortex. Location 10751

The chasm between the perpetrator’s perspective—amoral, pragmatic, even frivolous—and the victim’s is nowhere wider than in our predation of animals. It’s safe to say that the bass, if given the chance, would not reciprocate the fisherman’s affection, and most people would not want to know the opinion of a broiler chicken or a live lobster on whether the mild pleasure we get from eating their flesh rather than a plate of eggplant justifies the sacrifice they will make. The same incuriosity enables coldhearted predatory violence against humans. Location 10797

Hundreds of studies have shown that people overrate their health, leadership ability, intelligence, professional competence, sporting prowess, and managerial skills. People also hold the nonsensical belief that they are inherently lucky. Most people think they are more likely than the average person to attain a good first job, to have gifted children, and to live to a ripe old age. They also think that they are less likely than the average person to be the victim of an accident, crime, disease, depression, unwanted pregnancy, or earthquake. Why should people be so deluded? Positiv. Location 10841

Surveys of personal values in men and women find that the men assign a lopsided value to professional status compared to all the other pleasures of life.108 They take greater risks, and they show more confidence and more overconfidence.109 Most labor economists consider these sex differences to be a contributor to the gender gap in earnings and professional success.11. Location 10960

obstreperous. Location 10991

Our fitness depends not just on our own fortunes but on the fortunes of the bands, villages, and tribes we find ourselves in, which are bound together by real or fictive kinship, networks of reciprocity, and a commitment to public goods, including group defense. Within the group, some people help to police the provision of public goods by punishing any parasite who doesn’t contribute a fair share, and they are rewarded by the group’s esteem. These and other contributions to the group’s welfare are psychologically implemented by a partial loss of boundaries between the group and the self. On behalf of our group, we can feel sympathetic, grateful, angry, guilty, trustful, or mistrustful with regard to some other group, and we spread these emotions over the members of that group regardless of what they have done as individuals to deserve them. Location 11073

Developmental psychologists have shown that preschoolers profess racist attitudes that would appall their liberal parents, and that even babies prefer to interact with people of the same race and accent. Location 11093

Heading in the other direction are European countries like Holland, Sweden, and Denmark that stopped playing the preeminence game in the 18th century and pegged their self-esteem to more tangible if less heart-pounding achievements like making money and giving their citizens a pleasant lifestyle. 140 Together with countries that never cared about being magnificent in the first place, like Canada, Singapore, and New Zealand, their national pride, though considerable, is commensurate with their achievements, and in the arena of interstate relations they don’t make trouble. Location 11127

The machinery of government is often rubegoldbergian, with complex arrangements of devolution and special status and power-sharing and affirmative action, and the contraption is held together by a few national symbols such as a rugby team.145 People root for clothing instead of blood and soil. It is a messiness appropriate to the messiness of people’s divided selves, with coexisting identities as individuals and as members of overlapping groups.14. Location 11153

Sexism ultimately arises from the genetic incentive of men to control the behavior, especially the sexual behavior, of women. Tribalism arises from the incentive of groups of men to compete with other groups for access to resources and mates. Location 11162

the better a society treats its women, the less it embraces war.15. Location 11205

Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process or in an international system regulated by agreements and norms. Anything that deflates the concept of dominance is likely to drive down the frequency of fights between individuals and wars between groups. Location 11211

Another deflationary force, I think, is the progress of biological science and its influence on literate culture. People have increasingly understood the drive for dominance as a vestige of the evolutionary process. Location 11223

lit up in proportion to the men’s stated desire for revenge. Location 11296

Note: Free will is dumb.

not just vengeance, but also forgiveness and contrition, are necessary for social organisms to reap the benefits of cooperation. Location 11371

subsets of players who are stuck with playing against each other—say because they are neighbors who cannot move—tend to be more forgiving than ones who can pick up and choose another neighborhood in which to find partners. Cliques, organizations, and other social networks are virtual neighborhoods because they force groups of people to interact repeatedly, and they too tilt people toward forgiveness, because mutual defection would be ruinous to everyone. Location 11375

This indirect reciprocity, as game theorists call it, puts a tangible premium on reputation and gossip.18. Location 11380

In real-world disputes the misperception comes not from an illusion of the sense of touch bu. Location 11436

from an illusion of the moral sense, but in both cases the result is a spiral of painful escalation. Location 11437

The law may be an ass, but it is a disinterested ass, and it can weigh harms without the self-serving distortions of the perpetrator or the victim. Location 11440

the government’s monopoly on force prevents the loser from doing anything about it, and it gives him less reason to want to do something about it, because he is not conceding weakness to his adversary and has less incentive to carry on the fight to restore his honor. Location 11441

Even if we were certain that the perpetrator of a heinous crime would never offend again, nor set an example for anyone else, most people would feel that “justice must be done” and that he should incur some harm to balance the harm he has caused. Location 11449

bafflega. Location 11454

(Social scientists believe that civic norms make up a large part of the social capital of a country, which is more important to its prosperity than its physical resources.. Location 11496

The key question for understanding the decline of violence is whether sympathy can be pushed around exogenously. Location 12480

The delayed influence is what researchers in persuasion call a sleeper effect. When people are exposed to information that changes their attitudes in a way they don’t approve of—in this case, warmer feelings toward murderers—they are aware of the unwanted influence and consciously cancel it out. Later, when their guard is down, their change of heart reveals itself. Location 12545

the cognitive process of perspective-taking and the emotion of sympathy must figure in the explanation for many historical reductions in violence. Location 12588

The tradeoff between empathy and fairness is not just a laboratory curiosity; it can have tremendous consequences in the real world. Great harm has befallen societies whose political leaders and government employees act out of empathy by warmly doling out perquisites to kin and cronies rather than heartlessly giving them away to perfect strangers. Not only does this nepotism sap the competence of police, government, and business, but it sets up a zero-sum competition for the necessities of life among clans and ethnic groups, which can quickly turn violent. The institutions of modernity depend on carrying out abstract fiduciary duties that cut across bonds of empathy. Location 12599

To hope that the human empathy gradient can be flattened so much that strangers would mean as much to us as family and friends is utopian in the worst 20th-century sense, requiring an unattainable and dubiously desirable quashing of human nature.7. Location 12608

The Old Testament tells us to love our neighbors, the New Testament to love our enemies. The moral rationale seems to be: Love your neighbors and enemies; that way you won’t kill them. But frankly, I don’t love my neighbors, to say nothing of my enemies. Better, then, is the following ideal: Don’t kill your neighbors or enemies, even if you don’t love them. Location 12612

What really has expanded is not so much a circle of empathy as a circle of rights—a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation. Location 12615

The ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary. Empathy, like love, is in fact not all you need. Location 12620

Choices that dangled the possibility of immediate gratification in front of a participant lit up the striatum and the medial orbital cortex. Location 12717

the more self-control people have, the better their lives are. Location 12795

pretty much every psychological trait has turned out to be partly heritable.10. Location 12829

self-control, like a muscle, can become fatigued. Location 12849

just about any task that requires an exercise of willpower can impede performance in any other task that requires willpower. Location 12869

Several placebo-controlled studies have suggested that providing prisoners with dietary supplements can reduce their rate of impulsive violence.12. Location 12994

Short-term oriented societies foster virtues related to the past and present such as national pride, respect for tradition, preservation of ‘face,’ and fulfilling social obligations.. Location 13049

Behavioral genetics confirms that aggressive tendencies can be inherited, and that gives natural selection material to work with in shifting the average violent tendencies of a population. Location 13166

The world has far too much morality. Location 13296

The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. Location 13299

An asocial relationship thus sets the stage for the predatory violence of conquest, rape, assassination, infanticide, strategic bombing, colonial expulsions, and other crimes of convenience. Location 13563

social liberals are at the leading edge of changes in attitudes that eventually drag along social conservatives as well. Location 13595

Why might a disinvestment of moral resources from community, sanctity, and authority militate against violence? One reason is that communality can legitimize tribalism and jingoism, and authority can legitimize government repression. Location 13603

The micro-geography of liberalism suggests that the moral trend away from community, authority, and purity is indeed an effect of mobility and cosmopolitanism.20. Location 13695

Reason appears to have fallen on hard times. Popular culture is plumbing new depths of dumbth, and American political discourse has become a race to the bottom.206 We are living in an era of scientific creationism, New Age flimflam, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines, and resurgent religious fundamentalism. Location 13734

For all their foolishness, modern societies have been getting smarter, and all things being equal, a smarter world is a less violent world. Location 13747

Case studies reveal that at critical moments in an individual’s life (such as a woman’s decision to have an abortion), or at critical moments in a society’s history (such as the struggles over civil, women’s, and gay rights and the nation’s participation in war), people can be consumed in agonizing reflection and deliberation. We have seen many historic moral changes that originated in painstaking intellectual briefs, which were in turn met with furious rebuttals. Once the debate had been settled, the winning side entrenched itself in people’s sensibilities and erased its own tracks. Location 13783

Joshua Greene’. Location 13789

Note: I met Joshua Greene at a debate in which Steven Pinker was the facilitator.

Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth. Location 13820

For Singer, it is hardheaded reason more than softhearted empathy that expands the ethical circle ever outward. Location 13884

Beginning to reason is like stepping onto an escalato. Location 13885

General intelligence, moreover, is highly heritable, and mostly unaffected by the family environment (though it may be affected by the cultural environment). Location 13965

We have several grounds for supposing that enhanced powers of reason—specifically, the ability to set aside immediate experience, detach oneself from a parochial vantage point, and frame one’s ideas in abstract, universal terms—would lead to better moral commitments, including an avoidance of violence. Location 14042

people with a high “need for cognition”—the trait of enjoying mental challenges—have less punitive attitudes toward criminal justice, even after taking into account their age, sex, race, education, income, and political orientation.25. Location 14063

when the complexity of the leaders’ speeches declined, war followed.28. Location 14290

Ironically, the decrease in sophistication in presidential debates may be the product of an increase in the sophistication of political strategists. Televised debates in the waning weeks of a campaign are aimed at a sliver of undecided voters who are among the least informed and least engaged sectors of the electorate. They are apt to make their choice based on sound bites and one-liners, so the strategists advise the candidates to aim low. The level of sophistication cratered in 2000 and 2004, when Bush’s Democratic opponents matched him platitude for platitude. This exploitable vulnerability of the American political system might help explain how the country found itself in two protracted wars during an era of increasing peace. Location 14317

Consider a different scenario. This time you are presented with a choice: you can lose your little finger, or a hundred million Chinese will be killed. Would you sacrifice a hundred million people to save your little finger. Location 14349

man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. —Charles Darwin, The Descent of Ma. Location 14364

lugubriou. Location 14370

The history of genocide shows that people can be slaughtered as efficiently with primitive weapons as they can with industrial technolog. Location 14414

nuclear weapons may have made little difference to the course of world events, given their uselessness in battle and the massive destructive power of conventional force. Location 14418

what matters most to the incidence of violence is whether one person wants another one dead. Location 14422

When people are rapacious or terrified, they develop the weapons they need; when cooler heads prevail, the weapons rust in peace. Location 14426

For better or worse—usually worse—people are often willing to trade off material comfort for what they see as spiritual purity, communal glory, or perfect justice. Location 14482

Religion. Speaking of ideologies, we have seen that little good has come from ancient tribal dogmas. All over the world, belief in the supernatural has authorized the sacrifice of people to propitiate bloodthirsty gods, and the murder of witches for their malevolent powers (chapter 4). The scriptures present a God who delights in genocide, rape, slavery, and the execution of nonconformists, and for millennia those writings were used to rationalize the massacre of infidels, the ownership of women, the beating of children, dominion over animals, and the persecution of heretics and homosexuals (chapters 1, 4, and 7). Humanitarian reforms such as the elimination of cruel punishment, the dissemination of empathy-inducing novels, and the abolition of slavery were met with fierce opposition in their time by ecclesiastical authorities and their apologists (chapter 4). The elevation of parochial values to the realm of the sacred is a license to dismiss other people’s interests, and an imperative to reject the possibility of compromise (chapter 9). It inflamed the combatants in the European Wars of Religion, the second-bloodiest period in modern Western history, and it continues to inflame partisans in the Middle East and parts of the Islamic world today. The theory that religion is a force for peace, often heard among the religious right and its allies today, does not fit the facts of history. Location 14483

the beliefs and practices of religions, despite their claims to divine provenance, are endogenous to human affairs, responding to their intellectual and social currents. Location 14515

Not all of the accommodations are as naked as those of the Mormon church, whose leaders had a revelation from Jesus Christ in 1890 that the church should cease polygamy (around the time that polygamy was standing in the way of Utah’s joining the Union), and another one in 1978 telling them that the priesthood should accept black men, who were previously deemed to bear the mark of Cain. Location 14517

It is when fundamentalist forces stand athwart those currents and impose tribal, authoritarian, and puritanical constraints that religion becomes a force for violence. Location 14521

the few moments of drive reduction experienced by a rapist are obscenely out of proportion to the suffering he causes his victim. Location 14544

The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species. Its implications touch the core of our beliefs and values—for what could be more fundamental than an understanding of whether the human condition, over the course of its history, has gotten steadily better, steadily worse, or has not changed. Location 14798

the way we should view modernity—the transformation of human life by science, technology, and reason, with the attendant diminishment of custom, faith, community, traditional authority, and embeddedness in nature. Location 14805

And here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all. Location 14832

Discovering earthly ways in which human beings can flourish, including stratagems to overcome the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression, should be purpose enough for anyone. Location 14878

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