Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Better of Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

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A review of the book The Better Angels of Our Nature by professor Steven Pinker of Harvard University

Is violence increasing at an accelerated pace? Is the future hopeless for humanity?

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At hindsight it may seem so, given the usual media narratives globally on the loss of lives due to wars, sectarian strifes, geopolitical issues etc.

But the issue that begs the question is this-

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Where is the evidence that humanity is doomed? that violence is increasing? that we are living in a violent age?

This is the point where usual heresay and the mass media and social media driven narratives fail.

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The fact that humanity hasn’t been doomed is evident from the brilliant 2011 book of Professor Steven Pinker-The Better Angels of Our Nature-Why Violence has declined

Middle Ages – Violence Personified

In the book Professor Pinker, who is a psychologist and a cognitive scientist writes in the first few chapters about how the belief that we are living in a violence filled age is completely misplaced.

The academic states that the middle ages of the world was the time when violence was all pervasive.

He notes that the middle ages were known for the extremely ghastly nature of punishments.

Some of these gruesome punishments were cruxificion, impalement, amputation, burning people alive etc.

The writer argues that the usual narrative about knights, who were considered chivalrous was not all the actual picture.

They were rapacious by nature and would settle every tussle with the sword.

What Caused This Change?

The author notes from the chapters 3-6 that events like the Humanitarian Revolution, Revolution of Letters played a crucial role in bringing down violence.

Another crucial phenomenon was the idea of ‘doux commerce or gentle commerce.

This is based on the perception that I stand to lose more if I fight or kill you in the name of ownership of some good or asset, and I stand to gain more if I trade with you.

Reduction of violence was also occurred to a large extent by Immanuel Kant’s revolutionary ideas.

In a 1795 essay he outlined the theory of perpetual peace. In that essay, the writer notes, he argued that violence is a systemic flaw in the human character.

He further asserted that humanity must establish a ‘confederation of democracies’ to tackle lawlesness and bolster prosperity.

Inner Demons and Angels

Being a cognitive scientist, Professor Pinker outlined, in the last few chapters of his book the concept of inner demons and angels.

Inner demons refers to the avaricious or the pernicious sides of the human character that doesn’t make us really human.

In contrast, inner angels refer to the good qualities of human nature that reaffirms that we different than other animals, we are compassionate animals who have a sense of right and wrong, injustice and justice.

Pinker states that among inner demons we have- greed, lust, sadism, otherizing mentality and among our angels we have-empathy, sympathy, goodwill and chivalry.

The book is backed by hard evidence and solid empirical analysis.


A crucial part of the book is that the exposition of what triggers a genocidal mindset among people.

The book also discusses why human beings, despite possessing a rational and critical faculty follow despotic leaders blindly.

He quoted Noam Chomsky, Charles Darwin and other well known social science experts.

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