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Synopsis of The Better Angels of Our Nature

By Steven Pinker

A Foreign Country

The Civilizing Process

  • [On the decline of European violence] Europeans increasingly inhibited their impulses, anticipated the long-term consequences of their actions, and took other people’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. A culture of honor – the readiness to take revenge – gave way to a culture of dignity – the readiness to control one’s emotions. [Page 72]
  • The historian Pieter Spierenburg has provocatively suggested that “democracy came too early” to America. In Europe, first the state disarmed the people and claimed a monopoly on violence, then the people took over the apparatus of the state. In America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms – which, as the Second Amendment famously affirms, they reserve the right to keep and bear. [Page 99]
  • [On the taming of the West of the USA] The West was eventually tamed not just by flinty-eyed marshals and hanging judges but by an influx of women. As the women arrived, they used their bargaining position to transform the West into an environment better suited to their interests. They insisted that the men abandon their brawling and boozing for marriage and family life, encouraged the building of schools and churches, and shut down saloons, brothels, gambling dens, and other rivals for the men’s attention. [Page 105]

The Humanitarian Revolution

  • [On religion and religious persecution] A broader danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means. People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. 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. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them—or worse, who credibly rebut them—they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful. The human toll of the persecution of heretics and nonbelievers in medieval and early modern Christendom beggars the imagination and belies the conventional wisdom that the 20th century was an unusually violent era. [Page 140]
  • Of the 53 extant European countries today, all but Russia and Belarus have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes. (A handful keep it on the books for high treason and grave military offenses.) Even the American death penalty, for all its notoriety, is more symbolic than real. In present-day America, a “death sentence” is a bit of a fiction, because mandatory legal reviews delay most executions indefinitely, and only a few tenths of a percentage point of the nation’s murders are ever put to death. [Pages 150-151]
  • [On the power of information] Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852) depicted a wrenching episode in which mothers were separated from their children, and another in which the kindly Tom was beaten to death for refusing to flog other slaves. The book sold 300,000 copies and was a catalyst for the abolitionist movement. According to legend, when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe in 1862, he said, “So you’re the little woman who started this great war.” [Page 155]
  • [On empathy as a reason…] An interesting question is what inflated the empathy circle. 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. As we shall see, "empathy" in the sense of adopting someone's viewpoint is not the same as "empathy" in the sense of feeling compassion toward the person, but the first can lead to the second by a natural route. Stepping into someone else's vantage point reminds you that the other fellow has a first-person, present-tense, ongoing stream of consciousness that is very much like your own but not the same as your own. It's not a big leap to suppose that the habit of reading other people's words could put one in the habit of entering other people's minds, including their pleasures and pains. Slipping even for a moment into the perspective of someone who is turning black in a pillory or desperately pushing burning faggots away from her body or convulsing under the two hundredth stroke of the lash may give a person second thoughts as to whether these cruelties should ever be visited upon anyone. Adopting other people's vantage points can alter one's convictions… [Page 175]

The Long Peace

  • [Was the 20th century really the worst?] There are reasons to suspect that the bloodiest-century factoid is an illusion:
    1. While the 20th century certainly had more violent deaths than earlier ones, it also had more people.
    2. Historical myopia: the closer an era is to our vantage point in the present, the more details we can make out. [Page 193]
    3. Availability bias: more information (records) exist today [Page 194]
  • There is a table of “(Possibly) The Twenty (or so) Worst Things People Have Done to Each Other”. When adjusted for their mid-20th century equivalents, the order changes, making the worst atrocity of all-time the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War, an eight-year rebellion during China’s Tang Dynasty that, according to censuses, resulted in the loss of two-thirds of the empire’s population, a sixth of the world’s population at the time. [Pages 194-195]
  • Who is the most important person of the Twentieth Century? Gavrilo Princip. Who the heck was Gavrilo Princip? He was the nineteen-year-old Serb nationalist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary during a state visit to Bosnia, after a string of errors and accidents delivered the archduke to within shooting distance. Here’s a man who single-handedly sets off a chain reaction which ultimately leads to the deaths of 80 million people. With just a couple of bullets, this terrorist starts the First World War, which destroys four monarchies, leading to a power vacuum filled by the Communists in Russia and the Nazis in Germany who then fight it out in a Second World War. Some people would minimize Princip's importance by saying that a Great Power War was inevitable sooner or later given the tensions of the times, but I say that it was no more inevitable than, say, a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Left unsparked, the Great War could have been avoided, and without it, there would have been no Lenin, no Hitler, no Eisenhower. Princip is one of the few individuals ever to make history. “Only one European really wanted war – Adolf Hitler.”
  • Had Adolf Hitler gone into art rather than politics, had he been gassed a bit more thoroughly by the British in the trenches in 1918, had he, rather than the man marching next to him, been gunned down in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, had he failed to survive the automobile crash he experienced in 1930, had he been denied the leadership position in Germany, or had he been removed from office at almost any time before September 1939 (and possibly even before May 1940), Europe’s greatest war would most probably never have taken place. [Page 208]
  • The upshot of literature was that war was no longer seen as glorious, heroic, holy, thrilling, manly, or cleansing. It was now immoral, repulsive, uncivilized, futile, stupid, wasteful, and cruel. [Page 247]
  • Zero is the number of…
    • ...times that the two Cold War superpowers fought each other on the battlefield. To be sure, they occasionally fought each other’s smaller allies and stoked proxy wars among their client states. But when either the US or USSR sent troops to a contested region (Berlin, Hungary, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan), the other stayed out of its way.
    • ...times that any of the great powers have fought each other since 1953. The war-free interval since 1953 handily breaks the previous two records from the 19th century of 38 and 44 years. In fact, as of May 15, 1984, the major powers of the world had remained at peace with one another for the longest stretch of time since the Roman Empire.
    • ...interstate wars that have been fought between countries in Western Europe since the end of WWII. It is also the number of interstate wars that have been fought in Europe as a whole since 1956, when the Soviet Union briefly invaded Hungary. Keep in mind that up until that point European states had started around two new armed conflicts a year since 1400.
  • [More on technology] Where an army previously would have blasted its way in to the militants’ hideouts, killing and displacing civilians by the tens of thousands as it went, and then ultimately reducing whole towns and villages to rubble with inaccurate artillery and aerial bombing in order to get at a few enemy fighters, now a drone flies in and lets fly a single missile against a single house where militants are gathered. Yes, sometimes such attacks hit the wrong house, but by any historical comparison the rate of civilian deaths has fallen dramatically. So far has this trend come, and so much do we take it for granted, that a single errant missile that killed ten civilians in Afghanistan was front-page news in February 2010. This event, a terrible tragedy in itself, nonetheless was an exception to a low overall rate of harm to civilians in the middle of a major military offensive, one of the largest in eight years of war. Yet, these ten deaths brought the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan to offer a profuse apology to the president of Afghanistan, and the world news media to play up the event as a major development in the offensive. [Page 267]

The New Peace

  • [On the humor of blaming the present and admiring the past] This assumes that 5,000 Americans dying is the same thing as 58,000 Americans dying, and that a hundred thousand Iraqis being killed is the same thing as several million Vietnamese being killed. 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. [Page 296]
  • It’s a little-known fact that most terrorist groups fail, and that all of them die. Israel continues to exist, Northern Ireland is still a part of the UK, and Kashmir is a part of India. [Page 348]

The Rights Revolutions

  • In school district after school district, dodgeball has been banned. Yes, the fate of dodgeball is yet another sign of the historical decline of violence. [Page 379]

Better Angels

  • Myopic discounting – preferences flip with imminence in time. For example, when we fill in the room service card at night and hang it on the hotel doorknob for the following morning’s breakfast, we are apt to tick off the fruit plate with nonfat yogurt. If instead we make our choices at the buffet table, we might go for the bacon and croissants. Many experiments on many species have shown that when two rewards are far away, organisms will sensibly pick a large reward that comes later over a small reward that comes sooner. For example, if you had a choice between $10 in a week and $11 in a week and a day, you’d pick the second. But when the nearer of the two rewards is imminent, self-control fails, the preference flips, and we go for smaller-sooner over larger-later: $10 today over $11 tomorrow. [Page 595]