If this is your first Steven Pinker book, then you are in for a treat.
I have read several of his work and they all make me learned something new.
As this is a long book. I would do it section by section.
First section: Prefix
This is more like an overview when Steven explains his intention of writing this book, and what he set out to convince his readers on the decrease of violence in the human race.
Started off with the discovery of ancient men who lived thousands of years ago. Plus added CSI of the cause of death, which shown us that they were killed by other human.
Then moved on with written literature that reflected the level of violence tolerated at that period of time. Ulysses is a good example.
Then he moved on to the Bible and how the writers at that period, generally accept genocide, rape of women, slavery, stoning, blinding and other violent acts.
He pointed out the OT god would punish persons by death for not putting in the right incense, but killing children and raping women do not violate god's moral code.
Steven also used this coffee ad to demonstrate how domestic violence used to be tolerated but not any more in modern society.
Chapter 1 is done and a whole of information of how human become less violence over the years. Now he is about to prove it.
For those who want to know more, here Steven Pinker speak on Ted.com
Chapter 2 link the reduction of homicide from 14 century till recent history. The reduction is surprising and is counter to the "myth" that society become more violence. Also, the man to man violence is of the greater decline while domestic violence reduce seems less in comparison. Still 92% of homicide is committed by men. Go figure.
OK. The merchants and traders want to trade instead of killing off potential customers. Upper class would live under the law and use the law to settle dispute, rather than fight to the death. The middle class wants to be upper class and model behaviors after them. Therefore, the demographic of person to person violence (mostly men) in reduced 18 century.
I like graphs. So, the graph helps my mind to see the reduction of violence.
Chapter 3 has a long but interesting section of America. The US has two different way of civilizing the population. The raise of violence in the 60s is real. The North and East part of US follows the European path of civilizing process, while the South and West emerge slowly from self justice way to be domesticated by wife and family, and external reinforcement from superstition with church going and such time wasting nonsense. (My word, not Pinker, he is way more political correct)
The de-civilizing of the American youth in the 60s have more to do with man hanging out with other man instead of being drawn into domesticated family lives. The social economic factor has nothing to do with violence as shown by the figure.
Freak economics already stated one of the factor on the later decline in violence in the 80s deal to the fact that women who are not ready to be mothers could choose abortion that to raise children on their own. That is only one of the important factor on the decline. That's not it, to my surprise. Actually, women who choose abortion usually have better grade, more mature than those fuckheads who choose to give birth to baby they could not afford (aka dumb bitches). So, it has little to do with driven down crime rate.
So, what is it? A few things. Incarceration of the most violent criminals who really help to drive down violent crimes rate. That make sense.
Also, cleaning up the city, civil rights movement, feminist movement, gay rights movement all help to change social norm to a more law abiding society. Plus the increase of number of police to patrol the streets, dealing with lesser crimes also give off the law abiding city vibe.
On the inner city, where police is being mistrusted, street gang type of self help justice is more predominant. That lead me to think how important it is, for the police to act professionally at all time.
The average men become less polite without fearing of retribution, violent television, music and video games still dominate the culture in America. People do not take these cultural trends or themselves too seriously. The best example is a punk in the train, calling out to people to give up seat for an elderly lady.
Going to Chapter 4.
The first part is on extreme cruelty and killing in the hands of Christians and Catholics. Burning people alive for theological difference, drowning women to test if they were witches, were all part of the bloody Christian history.
What is surprising, is that how much cruelty it is, for a religion to inflict on a population and how it was acceptable because the opponent were likely to be tortured to death with the okay by the governing state. Why isn't this mentioned more often when Christians talked about their history? The studying and teaching of Christianity obviously didn't enlighten the minds of the faithful or discourage to act our their cruelty. Has the teaching change that much in the last century? I think not.
The humanitarian movement was solely secular and when people become more aware of their own standard of living, their comfort and discomfort, they shown more empathy toward other human being and animals.
Religion either slow down the humanitarian movement, as Christianity opposition to slavery, or delaying it as a norm as in some of the failed democratization in Islamic countries.
Around the end of Chapter 4, the Enlightenment period have greatly reduced cruel practice and violence. There are anti-Enlightenment period that romanticize war and culture, celebrate irrationality and faith. Of course, people get more violence base on this kind of bullshit. Not all philosophy is good. Philosophy that is not ground in reality and science, is still bullshit.
Chapter 5 the long peace.
The feeling that 20th century is the bloodiest, is false. It is brought on by having people living through the wars, having better records of death. The minor wars or conflicts before the 2th century were not even been recorded properly.
So, no. 20th century is int the bloodiest. Violent death is still on the decline.
The long peace include a lot of statistics and analyze the effects of small and big wars. It also shared that how probability is anti-intuitive.
It takes about the drastic attitude change in the world, especially in Europe. The setting up of UN, the frozen of national border make it close to impossible to invade another country to increase its territory. The exception of the rule is Israel, and Iraq. For Israel, the magic line is drawn and it is backing out of occupied territory. For Iraq, looked what happened when internal military joined force.
The solider themselves have changed. Americans are "cowboys" and German are "surrender monkeys". They no longer glorify war, but really don't want to get into it. Fighting among themselves in Europe is now more unthinkable than ever.
Liberal Peace is still mythical. Someone suggested Capitalist Peace which is more fitting.
Chapter 6 The new peace
The New Peace. Is the UN peacekeeping really work. According to this book, it is working because no one strike out of fear of being attacked first, Hobbesian trap. As there is a third party involved, and this 3rd party is backed by a bigger gun, it helps to keep peace.
During war time, because the death of armed militants decreased, comparatively, civilians death became a bigger proportion of casualty of war. The death toll is greatly overestimated. Humanitarian action is effect to combat the most preventable death during an arm conflict, namely, vaccination, antibiotic, sugar water and portable food for children. I didn't know vaccination has saved 20 millions lives, and that is another strong support point for hating anti-vaccination bullshit.
The New Peace is quite recent. It is the years when little genocides occurred in human history.
So, ideology like Islamism and Marxism is link to genocide in the mass scale. Scary.
Terrorists created fear more than actual body counts. This chapter also touched on why Islamic world are more violence and oppression. Religion is not separate from state power making a lot of limitation for people to advance themselves. The easily offended because the religion, instead of a "part of life" has blooded into life itself. Arab world has less export and translated books even compare to South Korea. The different is obvious.
Chapter 7 Rights Revolutions
The right revolution touched on some very serious non fatal violence. Rape.
Rape is not only common, but was being accepted as part of the men control over his property, or as spoil of war.
The rape law has reflect the change from rape being offended the woman's husband (tort) to criminal law viewing the rape victim as the one who's rights has been violated.
The story on the sexual assault being taken seriously, not only by court but by law enforcement as well is the good sign.
The not so political correct thing about rape is, beside being a power thing, rapist want sex from the victim and just took it by force. That's in the mind of rapist, the target consent or refusal to grant consent is not important enough to prevent his action. That require a bit more enforcement of law to drive home this point.
The world has great reduction in infanticide. But what is reason behind infanticide and why is it mostly gals.
Gay rights also show human progression towards tolerance.
"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. A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs, such as that members of other races and ethnicities are innately avaricious or perfidious; that economic and military misfortunes are caused by the treachery of ethnic minorities; that women don't mind to be raped; that children must be beaten to be socialized; that people choose to be homosexual as part of a morally degenerate lifestyle; that animals are incapable of feeling pain. The recent debunking of beliefs that invite or tolerate violence call to mind Voltaire's quip that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."
Chapter 8 Inner Demons
Could it possible that some religious extremists are psychopaths?
The trends are there.
They might see them (victims) as existential threats and threat them with hatred, the emotion that, as Aristotle noted, consists of a desire not to punish an adversary but to end its existence. When extermination is not feasible and perpetrators have to deal with their victims, either directly or with the participation of third parties, they may threat them with anger. The predators may respond to the defensive reprisals of their prey as if they were ones under attack, and experience a moralized wrath and a thirst for revenge. Thanks to the Moralization Gap, they will minimize their own first strike as necessary and trivial while magnifying the reprisal as unprovoked and devastating."
Chapter 9 Better Angels
Pinker explained that he doesn't buy empathy as the main reason for the decline of violence.
"I have nothing against empathy. I think empathy is--in general though not always--a good thing, and I have appealed to it a number of times n this book. An expansion of empathy may help explain why people today abjure cruel punishments and think more about the human costs of war. But empathy today is becoming what love was in the 1960s--a sentimental ideal, extolled in catchphrases (what make the world go round, what the world need now, all you need) but overrated as a reducer of violence."
"The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy, but it also owes to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-controlled, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights."
Empathy is not as many people believe, locate in the brain. Empathy, is Oxytocin pumping in our system. To make us feel more sympathy.
For the part regarding empathy. It works against justice sometimes. As people will empathize with an individual and give this person more resources even if it disadvantage another person in similar situation.
Self Control. We do have more self control. That's probably learned from being in a society. That's actually explain a lot about reduction of violence.
Flynn Effect on psychological evolution. Human are not more intelligent, but we are doing better on IQ test.
"Whatever the mystery factor in the environment may be, it is highly selective in the components of intelligence it is enhancing: not raw brainpower, but the abilities needed to score well on the subtests of abstract reasoning.
The best guess is that the Flynn Effect has several causes, which may have acted with different strengths at different times in the century. The improvements on visual matrices may have been fueled by an increasingly high-tech and symbol-rich environment that forced people to analyze visual patterns and connect them to arbitrary rules."
So, we are better at pattern recognition and reasoning. That's why we are less violence.
Another thing is on social liberalism.
"The trend toward social liberalism, then, is a trend away from communal and authoritarian values and toward values based on equality, fairness, autonomy, and legally enforced rights."
If you are not intended to take on such a big books with around 700 pages excluding all the notes at the end. You have to read this part.
"The Rights Revolutions too have given us ideals that educated people today take for granted but that are virtually unprecedented in human history, such as that people of all races and creeds have equal rights, that women should be free from all forms of coercion, that children should never, ever be spanked, that students should be protected from bullying, and that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. I don’t find it at all implausible that these are gifts, in part, of a refined and widening application of reason.
The other half of the sanity check is to ask whether our recent ancestors can really be considered morally retarded. The answer, I am prepared to argue, is yes. Though they were surely decent people with perfectly functioning brains, the collective moral sophistication of the culture in which they lived was as primitive by modern standards as their mineral spas and patent medicines are by the medical standards of today. Many of their beliefs can be considered not just monstrous but, in a very real sense, stupid. They would not stand up to intellectual scrutiny as being consistent with other values they claimed to hold, and they persisted only because the narrower intellectual spotlight of the day was not routinely shone on them."
You going love this man for speaking his mind, and backed it up with the data he presented, and not afraid of offending to draw his conclusion on it. In this case, he considered our recent ancestors to be morally retarded. I love it.
Chapter 10 On Angel's Wing
I will not try to make predictions; nor will I offer advice to politicians, police chiefs, or peacemakers, which given my qualifications would be a form of malpractice."
I like Steven Pinker for saying that. After all the stuff he presented in the books, all the data and analysis he linked to the decrease of violence as a historical fact, he would decline to give predication for the future, nor give advise. Much less learned men and women have done load of predication and advise armed with much less information and knowledge on the subject.
In the final chapter, he listed out in summary the reasons why violence has decline, and if the conditions that favored such decline, would continue to lead to a more peaceful world.
With that, he ended the book with his reflection, his thoughts about the waste of life, the cruelty behind the data.
My actual review.
This is a must read. Not an easy read as there are a lot of information to analysis, and a lot of theories to comprehend. But in the end, one would either be convinced by Pinker that indeed, we are moving away from violence. I like the way he take us through history, by presenting data that we could all looked it up for ourselves.
I like all his books. But this one is so far, my favorite.
Steven Pinker won the Richard Dawkins Award. Yeah.
See here for the announcement by Richard Dawkins.