In the first chapter of the book, he lays out what he's going to do:
- He's going to convince us that all types of violence have been declining precipitously, with curves looking like reverse hockey sticks.
- He's going to explore explanations for this fact.
One interesting point, someone might object, but what about the genocides we still have going on? The word "genocide" did not even exist until the war crime trials after WW2. Throughout most of history, genocide was basically "OK". Now, we still have them in decreasing numbers, but we recognize them as bad.
We forget how, prior to say the US Bill of Rights, cruel and unusual punishments were the norm rather than the exception. There are some chilling descriptions of instruments and techniques of torture. And, while we may have stepped backwards somewhat in now justifying torture, at least it is now generally considered to be bad. We forget that public executions used to be festive events to which you took your children. And that dueling, bear-baiting and other blood sports were also very popular.
The thing that Pinker finds to best correlate with the declines is the invention of the printing press, and the Enlightenment that followed. He also speculates that part of the reason for the Middle Eastern Islamic countries' backwardness is that they banned Arabic printing presses well into the 18th century for a variety of reasons.
Also during this time, the Rule of Law, implemented by strong central governments (named Leviathan by Hobbes) became stronger and stronger as true national governments were created. And "gentle commerce" also had a civilizing effect.
The final chapter of this section, chapter 7, looks at the Rights Revolutions: from Civil Rights for blacks, to Women's Rights, to Gay Rights, and to Child and Animal Rights. Each one learned strategy and tactics from the earlier ones. I've been so pleasantly surprised at how the whole Gay Rights thing has just kind of passed a tipping point and now seems to be pretty much a done deal -- except of course for red state foot-dragging, which I am sure will continue indefinitely.
Ha ha, he defines a scale of societies that goes from Western European to blue states to red states to 3rd world dictatorships.
Other interesting FFTKAT:
- Most of the "icemen" found preserved from 10s of 1000s of years ago have some kind of injury likely inflicted by another human.
- The notion that medieval knights were anything vaguely resembling chivalrous is totally disabused.
- Prior to World War 1, there was much writing and sentiment on the nobility of war and martial virtues. A lot of these writers were Romanticists. The senseless carnage of WW1 put an end to that.
- The 60s did represent a step backward in decreasing violence as many societal strictures were loosened. But things started moving in the right direction again in the 90s. The Romantic movement of the late 19th century was also a step backward.
- Pinker disagrees with the "Freakonomics" theory that violence started downwards 18 years after Roe vs Wade because there were far fewer unwanted (male) children born to enter their violent years at age 18. Several other statistics show that the math doesn't work.
- Pinker feels that the protection of children may have gone too far. He seems to have enjoyed dodgeball as a kid, and is sorry that is now mostly being banned :-(
- Surprising to me, since the 90s people have mostly quit spanking children.
Getting into actual brain structure, we are shown:
- the Rage circuit;
- the Seeking system -- I think this would formerly have been the Pleasure system;
- the Fear circuit;
- the Intermale Aggression or Dominance system. These 4 systems are in all mammals.
- the frontal cortex, which receives input from the components of all 4 systems above, and also has some control over these systems.
- Predation. Violence as a means to an end.
- Dominance. Not confined to just males.
- Revenge. Lots of discussion of The Prisoner's Dilemma here. Also a discussion of practical steps to end long running real world conflicts.
- Sadism. Apparently an acquired taste??? Torturer's initially want nothing to do with it, but grow a taste for it???
- Ideology. This is the one that really drives the body counts through the roof. The Nazis, the Communists in Russia and China both killed millions or 10s of millions.
Chapter 9, "Better Angels", looks at the parts of our mind and culture that control and mitigate the sources of violence in the previous chapter. These are:
- Empathy. Pinker says that the recently discovered mirror neurons don't really play that big a part here. FFTKAT, "empathy" the word has only been around since 1904, and didn't really start meaning "sympathy" and "compassion" until the 1940s
- The expanding circle of sympathy: from kin to babies, fuzzy animals, to the needy.
- Self-control. It's actually a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And it can become tired from its being used. Self-control and deferred gratification are strongly correlated with every measure of individual success.
- Oxytocin -- the "cuddle hormone".
- Moral sense; this is one of the more interesting discussions, see below.
Three different organizations of moral concerns are presented. The first by Schweder:
- Autonomy -- the rights of individuals;
- Community -- the responsibilities of the individual to tribes, clans, families, etc.
- Divinity -- the world has a divine essence, so we must protect bodies from degradation and contamination.
- In-group Loyalty;
- Communal Sharing or Communality; resources, ceremony, myths shared; oxytocin based.
- Authority Ranking; your basic hierarchy/pecking order; testosterone based.
- Equality Matching; tit-for-tat and the silver and golden rules; based on many high order brain functions.
- Market Pricing/Rational-Legal; civilization and the Rule of Law.
So regardless of the grouping, morality consists of following the rules and conventions of that domain. Weird is the case where you apply one relational model to a resource ordinarily governed by another. Rather than being perceived as wrong, it would be perceived as shocking or disingenuous -- "like a diner thanking a restaurateur for an enjoyable experience and offering to have him over for dinner at some point in the future (treating a Market Pricing interaction as if it were governed by Communal Sharing)." Taboos come from resources that are considered sacred, which may not be traded for anything -- like someone offering to buy your child. Three kinds of tradeoffs:
- Routine -- occurring within a single relational model;
- Taboo -- pitting a sacred value in one model against a secular value in another;
- Tragic -- pitting 2 sacred values against each other, i.e., Sophie's Choice.
Pinker discounts any recent biological evolution in the decline in violence. The Warrior Gene hypothesis -- that a low activity version of a gene that controls MAO-A (which breaks down neurotransmitters in the brain) makes people more violent -- is shown to be pretty weak.
The Flynn Effect -- that IQs have been increasing by 3 points a decade for as long that they have been measured -- is identified as a helpful influence. Studies of it have shown that the increase is mostly in abstract reasoning. 100 years ago, people would refuse to think abstractly -- they were too grounded in the real things around them, in their farms or villages. Plus, the average person now understands and uses dozens or 100s of abstract concepts that used to be confined to academia. Pinker wonders, could there be a moral Flynn Effect?
Ha ha, a study is cited that shows that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives. Well, of course!
Finally, chapter 10 (phew!). Factors that have not contributed to decreasing violence, or that could have increased violence but did not are discussed. Then there is a big discussion with the Prisoner's Dilemma transformed into the Pacifist's Dilemma. At face value, preemptively attacking your neighbors wins, game theory-wise. The factors opposing this: Leviathan; gentle commerce; feminization (women in more positions of power); the expanding circle of sympathy (books really help this, and surprisingly fiction more than non-fiction); and the increasing use of reason.
He finishes up refusing to make any predictions for the future, but the outlook is definitely one of optimism. So, as in the title, good news! I highly recommend this book. Despite its length, it really is a very easy read.