By Karl Arnold Belser
24 October 2014

I read the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker.  Because the book is very long and detailed, I will let the Wikipedia article summarize the book.

The study shows a steady decline in violence and war so that today we (especially in the west) live in probably the safest environment in history.  Here is a short excerpt from Wikipedia describing the demons and Angels:


Here, Pinker rejects what he calls the "Hydraulic Theory of Violence" – the idea “that humans harbor an inner drive toward aggression (a death instinct or thirst for blood), which builds up inside us and must periodically be discharged. Nothing could be further from contemporary scientific understanding of the psychology of violence.” Instead, he argues, research suggests that “aggression is not a single motive, let alone a mounting urge. It is the output of several psychological systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal, their neurological basis, and their social distribution.” He examines five such systems.

    Predatory or Practical Violence – that is, violence “deployed as a practical means to an end.”
    Dominance – The “urge for authority, prestige, glory, and power”; Pinker argues that dominance motivations can be found
                          within individuals and coalitions of “racial, ethnic, religious, or national groups.”

    Revenge – The “moralistic urge toward retribution, punishment, and justice.”
    Sadism – The "deliberate infliction of pain for no purpose but to enjoy a persons suffering..."
    Ideology – A “shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, that justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good …”


Pinker here examines four motives that “can orient [humans] away from violence and towards cooperation and altruism.” He identifies:

    Empathy – Which “prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own”;
    Self-Control – Which “allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to inhibit them accordingly”;
    The Moral Sense – Which “sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people in a culture";
                        these sometimes decrease violence but can also increase it “when the norms are tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical”;

    Reason – Which “allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.”

In this chapter Pinker also examines and rejects the idea that humans have evolved in the biological sense to become less violent.[2]

My intuition is that these historical facts are NOT a leading indicator for future pacifism in the world.  I think that the better angels may be what one might expect from an advanced Judeo-Christian society, and that Pinker is making a case to confirm his own beliefs, which is confirmation bias. Further, I think that the relative peace we have today is because of the economic and military dominance by western civilization, and this dominance is on the decline.

I think that the current behavior of Islam is completely and totally counter to the better angels conclusion. Further other civilizations like that of China may change the course of history.

I cite the article in Foreign Affairs (1993) titled  The Clash of Civilizations? which adds religion as a factor which has to be accounted for when judging human behavior. The intention of Iran, as stated by a former president of the country, is that Islam intends to destroy the culture of the west. This is why there should be a great concern if Iran ever gets nuclear weapons. Also the recent behavior of ISIS in Syria and Iraq illustrates lack of empathy, lack of self-control, lack of "moral sense", and lack of reason which westerners might consider bazaar. The Islamic religious imperative is a considerable threat because a large percentage of the world's population are Islamic. Hence, I don't expect a religious epiphany to occur any time soon.

To make matters worse the world is on the cusp of a global extinction of life as described in the book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kobert.  This is a great book because it just gives data without some sort of "solution" to the coming extinction. The change in habitat on earth and the fact there are not enough resources such as water and food supply to support the current world population do not bode well for lower strife in the future, which strife might well arouse the demons that Pinker talks about.

The short story, The Scarlet Plague, by Jack London, written more than 100 years ago, illustrates how quickly advanced civilization can be reduced to privative violence when one of the trends described in  The Sixth Extinction occurs.

In short, there are a number of Black Swan possibilities lurking in the unstable nature of the world today.
Last updated November 20, 2014
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