Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature
I've just finished reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, an extraordinary book that I think deserves wider attention. I want to write a full review, but this book is far too vast (696 pages!) and too broad in scope to do it justice in a single post, so I plan to split my review up into several installments over the coming weeks. This post is just to serve as a brief overview of the book and a few of its more startling data points.
The book's thesis is that humanity is becoming less violent over time, and that in recent decades this pacification has accelerated. Since the 20th century witnessed some of the most destructive wars and brutal genocides in memory, the idea that this is the least violent generation in history seems outrageous at first. But as Pinker argues, this commits the fallacy of misleading vividness. World War I and World War II seem so horrendous, in part, because they're so thoroughly documented. But past eras had their own wars and genocides which were, if anything, proportionally even more destructive - killing or maiming a greater percentage of the population than our world wars did - but because there wasn't a global media then to report on them, we've forgotten most of the bloody details. In some cases, there was no effort to record them because no one viewed them as unusual!
To support his case, Pinker provides a list, compiled by the combined effort of many statisticians, historians and anthropologists (as well as a self-dubbed "atrocitologist"), of the proportionally most destructive conflicts in human history. If you're like me, you'll be surprised by how many of them you've never even heard of, and even more surprised by how deadly they really were. For example, World War II, with all its horrors, with all the modern technology deployed in the service of genocide, killed no more than about 5% of the population of the warring nations. But some past conflicts, like the European Wars of Religion, killed 30% or more. Going even further back, there have been hunter-gatherer cultures that were so warlike, as many as 50% of their people could expect to die from intertribal violence.
But it's not just war that's in decline, although the last few decades have borne witness to a historically unprecedented Long Peace. At the same time, something else strange and wonderful is happening. Brutal punishments like torture and execution, once the norm for even minor crimes, have all but vanished, and far from surging in response, crime rates are plummeting throughout the developed world. Public executions and animal torture, once thought of as uproarious popular entertainment, have faded as they've universally become targets of shame and contempt. The same has happened for other violent and once-commonplace customs like dueling. More recently, an accelerating cascade of "rights revolutions" has engendered sympathy for racial minorities, women, children, gays, animals, and other groups that previously fell outside the boundaries of our moral concern.
All these trends happening at once, all these arrows aligning to point in the same direction, cry out for an explanation. To provide one, Pinker delves into our evolutionary history, reflecting on what causes natural selection to favor violence, versus what circumstances favor the evolution of cooperation. With this evidence in hand, he surveys the psychological roots of violence - the "inner demons" that drive us to rampage and kill - and the "better angels" of the title, the mental faculties that incline us toward cooperation and peace. Weirdly, these are sometimes the same mental circuits in both cases.
To explain how and why the better angels of our nature have gradually gotten the upper hand (without resorting to circular explanations like "Violence declined because people got less violent"), Pinker identifies exogenous cultural developments that tilt the scales toward peace. Among other things, he cites the Enlightenment's cosmopolitanism and widespread literacy, which enabled people to engage in a serious effort to imagine life from other perspectives for the first time in history. He also points to the law-making power of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan [note: link has autoplay video] to pacify violent cultures of honor, the peace-promoting effects of trade, the increasing cultural and political power of women, and the "escalator of reason", a rational awakening to the wastefulness and stupidity of violence, which by its very nature is universal and constantly propels our moral sympathies outward in wider and wider circles.
None of this is to say - and Pinker very definitely does not say - that the world has become a utopia or will inevitably become one in the near future. Iraq and Afghanistan, the 9/11 atrocities and other terrorism, civil wars and autocracies in developing countries, all remind us that savage violence is a reality for millions and an ever-present threat for millions more. History has no predetermined direction. Rather, his purpose is to identify a real historical trend - that wars and violence have decreased - and to explore what causes could be responsible. Armed with this knowledge, we'll be better able to consciously promote the continuation of this trend.
For all my praise, I did find the book to have some weak parts. I think that at times he's too reliant on an overly simplistic model of evolutionary psychology, particularly when it comes to explaining why rape and violence are predominantly committed by young men. I also think he stumbles when trying to explain the brief upsurge in crime rates during the 1960s, which seemed to me to rely on the kind of question-begging cultural arguments he elsewhere rejects. But that aside, Better Angels as a whole is a work of grand ambition and impressive scholarship, distilling a striking trend from thousands of data points scattered across all of human history. Its heft makes it intimidating to the timid or casual reader, but it amply rewards the effort, and I believe that even people who are inclined to reject Pinker's conclusions will sooner or later have to grapple with his arguments.
The new version's battery has a shorter range and a price $4,000 lower than the previous starting price.
- Tesla's new version of the Model 3 costs $45,000 and can travel 260 miles on one charge.
- The Model 3 is the best-selling luxury car in the U.S.
- Tesla still has yet to introduce a fully self-driving car, even though it once offered the capability as an option to be installed at a future date.
We all know sleeping with your ex is a bad idea, or is it?
- In the first study of its kind, researchers have found sex with an ex didn't prevent people from getting over their relationship.
- Instead of feeling worse about their breakup after a hookup, the new singles who attempted sexual contact with their ex reported feeling better afterwards.
- The findings suggest that not every piece of relationship advice is to be taken at face value.
Want a happy, satisfying relationship? Psychologists say the best way is to learn to take a joke.
- New research looks at how partners' attitudes toward humor affects the overall quality of a relationship.
- Out of the three basic types of people, people who love to be laughed at made for better partners.
- Fine-tuning your sense of humor might be the secret to a healthy, happy, and committed relationship.
Tiny and efficient, these biodegradable single cells show promise as a way to target hard-to-reach cancers.
- Scientists in Germany have found a potential improvement on the idea of bacteria delivering medicine.
- This kind of microtargeting could be useful in cancer treatments.
- The microswimmers are biodegradable and easy to produce.
Metin Sitti and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany recently demonstrated that tiny drugs could be attached to individual algae cells and that those algae cells could then be directed through body-like fluid by a magnetic field.
The results were recently published in Advanced Materials, and the paper as a whole offers up a striking portrait of precision and usefulness, perhaps loosely comparable in overall quality to recent work done by The Yale Quantum Institute. It begins by noting that medicine has been attached to bacteria cells before, but bacteria can multiply and end up causing more harm than good.
A potential solution to the problem seems to have been found in an algal cell: the intended object of delivery is given a different electrical charge than the algal cell, which helps attach the object to the cell. The movement of the algae was then tested in 2D and 3D. (The study calls this cell a 'microswimmer.') It would later be found that "3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers increased more than twofold compared to their 2D mean swimming speed." The study continues —
More interestingly, 3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers in the presence of a uniform magnetic field in the x-direction was approximately threefolds higher than their 2D mean swimming speed.
After the 2D and 3D speed of the algal was examined, it was then tested in something made to approximate human fluid, including what they call 'human tubal fluid' (think of the fallopian tubes), plasma, and blood. They then moved to test the compatibility of the microswimmer with cervical cancer cells, ovarian cancer cells, and healthy cells. They found that the microswimmer didn't follow the path of bacteria cells and create something toxic.
The next logical steps from the study include testing this inside a living organism in order to assess the safety of the procedure. Potential future research could include examining how effective this method of drug delivery could be in targeting "diseases in deep body locations," as in, the reproductive and gastrointestinal tracts.
It's hard to imagine such a number. But these images will help you try.
The Mega Millions lottery just passed $1 billion for tonight's drawing.
What does that even look like, when represented by various currencies?
It takes just 6 numbers to win. You can only, however, purchase tickets up until 10:45 ET tonight.
Our modern-day Kafka on his new novel Lake Success and the dark comedy that in 2018 pretty much writes itself
- riding the Greyhounds of hell, from New York to El Paso
- the alternate reality of hedge fund traders
Here's why the school you went to is less relevant than ever.
- Learning agility is the ability to learn new things quickly and be aware of the trends that are emerging in your industry. It's the most important job skill hiring managers should be looking for and job seekers should be putting forward, says Kelly Palmer.
- Want to test your learning agility? Answer this practice interview question: "What did you learn last week?"
- Hiring people based on the school they went to is less relevant than ever. Why? Palmer explains: "If I asked you, "Tell me about your health," and you told me you ran a marathon 10 years ago, does that really tell me what your health is like? Not really." It's what you can offer now and how agile you are that matters.
- Kelly Palmer is the author of The Expertise Economy.
By 2022, there may be as many as three artificial moons floating above the city of Chengdu.
- Chinese state media announced plans to put an artificial moon in orbit by 2020.
- Just like the real moon, the artificial moon will reflect sunlight onto the Earth in order to cut down on electricity consumption.
- If the mission is a success, there are plans to launch three other artificial moons in 2022.
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