The Better Angels of Our Nature

Author: Stephen Pinker
  Viking Press, 2011

Stephen Pinker is a Professor of Cognitive Science (study of how the mind works) at Harvard University.

Pinker has skeptics concerning his book. He is comparing violence today with eras back into history, and he complains that many people do not know history well enough to make good comparisons with the present.

Pinker isn't pulling his opinions out of assumptions or a sugar-candy disposition. He draws a lot from the quantification that historians strive for and have been doing a lot of in recent decades, and Pinker draws from forensic archeology.

His hour and one-half presentation on this book is on C-SPAN2 Book TV video, here.

Pinker compares warfare violence in hunter gatherer and other pre-modern societies with 20th century industrialized societies. He speaks of the "gruesome massacres and atrocities" and high war death tolls, but his point is for a perspective on the intensity of the violence, war deaths have to be compared with population size.

He draws from the Human Security Report Project, 2008, p.29 and its chart indicating violence in terms of rates of death per year in warfare for each 100,000 persons in that society. Pinker writes that the old-style pre-state societies averaged 524 deaths per 100,000; that Aztec society (a state society and often at war) had a death rate about that (around 262 per 100,000?); that Germany's wartime death rate in the 20th century was 144 per 100,000, Japan's 27, and the Soviet Union's 135. And for the U.S. through its various wars during the 20th century the rate was 3.5 per 100,000.

In other words, wars in pre-modern societies killed a greater percent of the population.

Writing of violence within societies, quantified by number of murders, Pinker describes the diminishing of such violence that came with a modern state applying central authority over small groupings of people, for example Australia's authority during its empire – Pax Australiana, from 1945 to 1995 – over people in New Guinea. Pinker writes:

As an Auyana man living in New Guinea under the Pax Australiana put it, "Life was better since the government came because "a man could now eat without looking over his shoulder and could leave his house in the morning to urinate without fear of being shot." (p. 56)

Drawing from anthropologists Karen Ericksen and Heather Horton, Pinker writes of a reduction of lethal vengeance with colonial authority:

In a survey of 192 traditional societies, [Ericksen and Horton) found that one-on-one revenge was common in foraging societies, and kin-against-kin blood feuds were common in tribal societies that had not been pacified by a colonial or national government, particularly if they had an exaggerated culture of manly honor. (p. 56)

No wonder Pinker's Harvard colleague Niall Ferguson (who thinks that British imperialism was beneficial) likes this book. Pinker continues:

One of the tragic ironies of the second half of the 20th century is that when colonies in the developing world freed themselves from European rule, they often slid back into warfare, this time intensified by modern weaponry, organized militias, and the freedom of young men to defy tribal elders. (p. 56)

Pinker discusses the "civilization process." Authoritarian rulers imposed order on previously ungoverned people the same as farmers kept their cattle from fighting one another. Trade, better transportation and commerce helped people learn more about each other. So too did literacy. And seeing others as more like oneself help people refrain from enjoying seeing others disemboweled, for example. (Today, Germans know the French better than they did in 1914. There is more cross-border travel and more cosmopolitanism – the cosmopolitanism and other super-nationalists like Hitler disliked.) With the rise of communication people were less inclined to believe nonsense about others: Jews poisoning water supplies, witchcraft and the like. There greater understanding of reality (and diminishing superstition).

People were better able to develop the "better angels of their nature" --a phrase Pinker borrowed from Abe Lincoln. Human nature had not changed. There were still primitive impulses, but gradually here and there people abandoned leaving their actions to impulse (murders declined) and applied more self-control. A greater respect for reason than existed in the Middle Ages developed. And people's natural capacity for empathy remained.

How does Pinker explain the terrible attitudes in Germany during the Third Reich? He does so and well. Thanks to Pinker, In 2012 I'll expand my narrative on Germany in the 20th century.


Steven Pinker exposes historical development against the myth that it's all repetition produced by human nature. When I was studying at UCLA in 1963 I found psycho-historians trying to describe historical development from an unchanging human psychology, mainly in accord with Freud. Pinker's corrects this. He describes historical development as changing attitude. He puts together attitude, human psychology and history in a way that will give his work big recognition and unusual influence.

Copyright © 2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.