March 2, 2012

The better angels of our nature by Steven Pinker

The better angels of our nature by Steven Pinker
Why violence has declined.

[Author lists Empirical data that exhibit a darker picture of
the past generations where people got killed more often for variety of reason -genocide, war, witchcraft ... Including religious reference where such killing were orchestrated and promoted]

The better of angels is a tale of six trends, five inner demons, four better angels and five historical forces.

There are six trends are
1. The first took place on the scale of millennia was the transition from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary
history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and gov, beginning around 5000 years ago.

2. The second transition spanned more than half a millennium and is best documented in Europe. In his classic book ‘The civilizing Process’ Norbert Elias says the reasons due to the consolidation of
a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce

3. The third transition unfolded on the cale of centuries and took off around the time of the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenments in the 17th and 18th centuries. It saw first organized
movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishments, and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism (this period is also called by historians as ‘the humanitarian revolution’

4. Fourth transition took place after the WW II. The two thirds of a century since then have been witness to a historically unprecedented
development: the great powers, and developed states,, have stopped waging war on one another. (This period is called by Historians as ‘the blessed state of affairs the Long Peace’

5. The fifth transition took place after the cold-war - organized conflicts of all kinds - civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic gov., and terrorist attacks - have declined throughout the world.

6. Universal declaration of Human rights in 1948 has been a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals.

Five inner Demons:
Predatory or instrumental violence
(violence deployed as a practical means to an end)

Dominance (urge for authority, prestige,
glory, and power)

Revenge (fuels the moralistic urge toward retribution, punishment, and justice)
Ideology (shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia)

Four Better Angels:
Moral sense
Faulty of reason

Five historical forces:
Leviathan - a state and judiciary with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, can defuse the temptation of exploitive attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties believe they are on the side of the angels.

Commerce - a positive-sum game in which everybody can win; as technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distance and among larger groups of trading partners
Feminization - the process in which cultures have increasingly respected the interests and values of women Cosmopolitanism - such as literacy, mobility and mass media can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them

Escalation of reason - force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others and to reframe violence as a problem to be
solved rather than a contest to be won.

Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey are considered the first great works of Western literature. Though these narratives are set at the time of the Trojan war around 1200 BC, they were written down much later (between 800 & 650 BC)are thought to reflect life among the tribes and chiefdoms of the eastern Mediterranean in that area. Menelaus launches the Trojan war when his wife Helen, is abducted. Agamemnon brings disaster to the Greeks by refusing to return sex salve to her father and when he relents, he appropriates one belongs to Achilles, later compensating him with 28 replacements. When Odysseys return to his wife after 20 years, he murders the men who courted her while everyone thought he was dead. When he discovers that the men have consorted with the concubines of his household, he has his son execute the concubines too. The tales of massacre and rape are disturbing even by the standards of modern war documentaries.

Like the work of Homer, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was set in the late 2nd millennium BC but was written more than 500 years later. Most translated book and revered today by billions of peoples the source of their moral values and even the president touches it when taking the oath of office. Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence.

Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki. It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles & dialects. The oldest part of the Bible probably originated
in the 10th century BC. Today their (Jews & Christians) reverence for Bibles purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent tests (the Talmud among Jews & New Testament by Christians) or discreetly ignored. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

Like Old Testament, the New Testament is also riddled with contradiction, uncorroborated histories and obvious fabrications. Indeed that era the story of Jesus was by no means unique. A number of pagan myths told of a savior who was sired by a god, born of a virgin at the winter solstice, surrounded by 12 zodiacal disciples, sacrificed as a scapegoat at the spring equinox, sent into underworld, resurrected amid much rejoicing and symbolically eaten his followers to gain salvation and immorality.

The most famous means of Roman death was crucifixion, the source of the word excruciating.

The early Christians also extolled torture as just deserts for sinful. Most people have heard of the 7 deadly sins standardized by Pope Gregory I in 590 AD. Fewer people know the punishments in hell that was reserved for those who commit them.

Pride: Broken on the wheel
Envy: Put in freezing water
Gluttony: Force-fed rats, toads, and snakes
Lust; Smothered in fire and brimstone
Anger: Dismembered alive
Greed: Put in cauldrons of boiling oil
Sloth: Thrown in snake pits

The duration of these sentences was infinite.

While Europe was becoming less murderous overall, certain patterns in homicide remained constant. Men were responsible for about 92 percent of the killings (other than infanticide) and they were most likely to kill when they were in their twenties. Another historical change was
that homicides in which one man kills another man who is unrelated to him declined far more rapidly than did the killing of children, parents, spouses and siblings. This is a common pattern in homicide statistics, sometimes called Verkko’s law: rates of male-to-male violence fluctuate more across different times and places than rates of domestic violence involving women or kin.

How can we be more civilized? That was a few centuries old quest - people lived in the past were barbarians & uneducated to behave civilized. In 1530 the great scholar Desiderius Erasmus, one of the founders of modernity, wrote an etiquette manual called ‘On Civility in Boys’ which was a bestseller throughout Europe for two centuries. By laying down rules for what people out not to do, these manuals give us snapshot of what they must have been doing (to differentiate from the peasant class.

In the European Middle Ages, sexual activity too was less discreet. People were publicly naked more often and couples took only perfunctory measures to keep their coitus private. Prostitutes offered their service openly. During the transition to modernity, this openness came to be frowned upon a uncouth and then as unacceptable. This change happened to using bad words as prohibited as sign of modernity.

Two triggers of the Civilization process - the Leviathan and gentle commerce- are related. The positive-sum cooperation of commerce flourishes best inside a big tent presided over by a Leviathan. The two civilization forces, then, reinforce each other, are the centralization of state control and monopolization of violenc, the growth of craft guilds, and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals, all fit into an organic whole.

Superstitious Killing:

The most benighted form of institutionalized violence is human sacrifice. The torture and killing of an innocent person to slake a deity’s thirst for blood. Human sacrifice appears in the mythology of all the major civilization. Human sacrifice was eliminated in some parts of the world by Christian proselytizers such as Saint Patrick in Ireland and in others by European colonial powers like the British in Africa & India. Charles Napier, the British army’s commander
in chief in India, faced with local complaints about the abolition of suttee replied. “ You say that is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenter will build a gallows.You may follow your custom and then we will follow ours”.

Witchcraft is one of the most common motives for revenge among hunter-gatherer and tribal societies. People may also use allegation of witchcraft to recoup some of losses from a misfortune by holding
another party liable. In God father film, Vito Corleone is credited with the principle, “Accidents don’t happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult. I am a superstitious man. And if some unlucky accident should befall my son, if my son is struck by a bolt of lightning, I will blame some of people here”.

A great principle of moral advancement on par with “love your neighbor and all men are created equal (but shit happens).


For most of the history of civilization,the practice of slavery was the rule rather than the exception. It was upheld in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and was justified by Plato and Aristotle as a natural institution than was essential to civilized society. Some of the states did not abolish legal slavery until recently; Qatar in 1952l Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962 and Mauritania in 1980.

Most historians have concluded that Brittan’s policing of the abolition of slavery was driven by humanitarian motives. At the same time, many politicians and preachers defended slavery, citing the Bible’s approval of the practice. Even more influential was a work of fiction, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life among the Lowly (1852). The novel 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 salves. According to legend, when Abraham Lincoln met Stove in 1862, he said, “So you are the little women who started this great war”.

The biggest war that took more number of lives(today’s equivalent).

1. An Lushan Revolt - 8th century - 429,000,000
2. Mongol Conquests - 13th century - 278,000,000
3. Mideast Slave Trade - 7th-19th 132,000,000
4. Fall of the Ming Dynasty - 17th c 112,000,000
5. fall of Rome 3rd-5th 105,000,000
6 Timur lenk (Tamerlane) 14-15th 100,000,000
7 Annihilation American Indian 15-19th 92,000,000
10. Atlantic Slave trade - 15-19th 83,000,000
12. British India (most preventable famine) 19th 35,000,000
13 First world war 19th 15,000,000

The human mind has great difficulty appreciating the laws of probability. Gavrilo Princip who’s the ‘most’ important person of 20th century. A 19 year old Serb would not have thought that some historians would ‘in`fame’ him for 80 million peoples’ lives. He assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a state visit to Bosnia. This sets off a chain reaction resulted in First World War which destroys four monarchies, leading to a power vacuum filled by the Communist in Russia and Nazis in Germany who then fight it out in a Second World War.

Genocide was the other most killing factor during ethnic wars. Pakistan’s massacre in Bangladesh (1971, around 1.7 million people). In a passage from Bhagavad-Gita (written around 400 CE/AD), the Hindu god Krishna upbraids the mortal Arjuna for being reluctant to slay an enemy faction that included his grandfather and tutor.” 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 weapons nor burned by fire...Therefore you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief”.

The war of attrition is one of those paradoxical scenarios in game theory (like Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Tragedy of the Commons, and the Dollar auction).”Throughout the most of the history, rulers made news; in the 20th century, for the first time, it is the ruled who make the news” says, Chalk & Jonassphn.

Books referred in this book
Martin Daly & Margo Wilson’s classic
book in evolutionary psychology ‘Homicide’

William Feller Probability

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