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Speaking Of Abraham Lincoln Quotes: "the Better Angels Of Our Nature" .


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First time in a long time that a book has changed my outlook on life....in this case regarding violence. I hear many people say (here, and in real life)...."what is this world coming to", "things have never been this bad", people are so f'ed up to one another that it is proof that the world is about to end, etc

The author: Steven Pinker puts forth the theory that we are actually living in almost a state of utopia. Pinker makes the bold claim in its first pages that human violence has not only declined (in relative terms) throughout the modern era, but has done so in virtually every measurable category, from war, to homicide, to non-fatal acts of aggression, to punishment of crime, to attitudes about acceptable behavior. This sounded like far fetched bs to me at first. What about the World Wars? The Holocaust and other genocides? Terrorism? Serial killers? All the horrible crimes on the news?

However, with an abundance of statistics and historical anecdotes, Pinker makes a persuasive case that wars and mass exterminations, on average, really do kill fewer people than in the past, even taking into account the 20th century's major cataclysms (which he sees as exceptions to the overall trend). Other forms of aggression have also subsided considerably, the shocking events captured by the modern media notwithstanding. Pinker dispels the PC notion that man lived as a peaceful "noble savage" in pre-modern times, and provides a free-ranging tour of the history of violence, as understood by historians, economists, anthropologists, behavioral psychologists, primatologists, and evolutionary biologists. Few stones are left unturned in a quest to seek not only if and why violence has declined, but what causes human beings to be violent against each other in the first place.

If you're wondering, Pinker attributes the decline to three major causes. One is the "Leviathan" proposed by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th Century, a state with the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. It seems intuitive to me that people would behave better towards each other when there's a "parent" figure to mete out justice, forestalling the cycles of revenge that occur when humans seek their own justice, and Pinker makes compelling arguments that this is true. As centralized states with complex economies formed, it became an imperative to the ruling class to cut down on internecine warfare that disrupted its own interests, and aggression became a less rational choice to everyone else invested in the system, as well.

Another major cause that Pinker identifies is a change in cultural attitudes. As certain forms of oppression, violence, or cruelty became unacceptable, this put pressure on others. The formation of "rights" in a society, not surprisingly, opens the door to other rights, as the progressive-minded call attention to inconsistencies in social or political norms. Then there was the rise in humanitarian empathy that followed widespread literacy, when novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin made it easier for people to step into the shoes of those outside their own circles.

While this is a somewhat long book, I was never bored with the wealth of detail. Pinker goes out of his way to anticipate opposing positions and respond to them. While I didn't agree with his reasoning on everything and was skeptical of some data points, I felt that he drew in enough support from different places to make an overall convincing case. He also gets credit for not playing too strongly to contemporary politics. While he's writing from the left and takes positions that are bound to annoy a few conservatives (e.g. we're overreacting to terrorism and Iran, medieval Christian churches tortured heretics out of genuine commitment to their faith), he goes after "politically correct" orthodoxies as well. For instance, he criticizes the view that "nurture" matters a lot more than "nature", goes after the notion that people behave aggressively because of low self-esteem (bullies are acting out natural dominance behavior and tend to have a high opinion of themselves), and observes that sadism is unfortunately not a "perversion", but a product of normal human tendencies that kick in when emotional counterbalances are removed.

I particularly enjoyed the last section of the book, which explores the psychological and evolutionary motives for violence, as well as aspects of human nature that resist it. In exploring the "demons", Pinker considers game theory, dominance behavior, alliance forming, our natural bias towards seeing our own bad behavior and that of others in very different light, and our unconscious tendency to go along with the crowd. If you aren't already familiar with the implications of famous social psychology experiments, such as Stanley Milgram's frightening demonstration of the human instinct for blind obedience, you will (and should) be. In the "angels'" corner are moral instincts, rationality, and empathy, which are explained in terms of the findings of other experiments. Fascinating stuff, if you're curious about how human behavior "works".

http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature/dp/0670022950/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

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Interesting.

That's sounds like something I might want to read. I'm fascinated by the "why" of human behavior.

It's interesting that he brought up Milgram's experiment on authoritarianism. They redid the study a couple of years ago and basically got the same results. So much for enlightenment. I guess we haven't really evolved morally that much in 40 years.

Edited by rounz
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Interesting.

That's sounds like something I might want to read. I'm fascinated by the "why" of human behavior.

It's interesting that he brought up Milgram's experiment on authoritarianism. They redid the study a couple of years ago and basically got the same results. So much for enlightenment. I guess we haven't really evolved morally that much in 40 years.

Human nature is human nature. We may want to deny it, but it will still rear it's ugly head when pressed.

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