It can be quite difficult to stay focused while reading a relatively long book, especially with regards to maintaining the coherence of the story, or the overall thesis in the case of non-fiction. The challenge is obviously heightened when reading less frequently. When I read infinite jest, which clocks in at 1,079 pages, it took me close to 6 months at the rate I was reading. This definitely affected my overall experience with the novel, which although was still positive, I feel like I lost sight of the overarching thematic elements at times. It feels like at some point you are just trying to consume pages to get you closer to completion, without really appreciating or thinking about what you are reading. This sort of reading is not how I want to enjoy books, so I'm glad I have carved out more time in my day for reading. I can more consistently progress through a novel and I feel like I am not rushing to finish as much as possible in each "session". This is why reading The Better Angels Of Our Nature, which is not a short story by any means, felt like a richer experience for me.

The Better Angels Of Our Nature, which henceforth I will refer to as "Better Angels", is a non-fiction book by Steven Pinker which explores the history of violence in humanity. It is certainly an expansive topic, with a multi-faceted and complex lineage. Pinker certainly does a fair amount of exploration over the course of 90X pages; the bulk of the book is a fairly chronological look at the role of violence and how it's changed throughout human history. Pinker makes stops along the way to investigate significant changes in society, technology, or psychology that he correlates with reductions in violence. He also attempts to define and describe the overall forces and processes which our human nature has been shaped by. And finally, Pinker examines what he believes are the "better angels of our nature"—unique features of the human condition which propel us towards peaceful benevolence.

All in all, I feel like Better Angels was informative, introspective, and safe from overreaching causal conclusions about violence in humans. I think Pinker presents a lot of data to the reader, yet does a fair job at not forcing too many conclusions on the reader. He certainly spends time discussing many possible relationships, but I felt like the language he uses is careful and he often presents counter-arguments too many ideas.

Better Angels book cover

I have taken the time to read a critical review of Better Angels, because I think different perspectives are important on topics such as this. The author, Edward S. Herman, essentially posits that Pinker's work is apologist propaganda for Western (specifically American) violence and the military-industrial complex it's built on. One of his main criticisms is Pinker's frequent use of per-capita statistics to justify falling rates of violence, which Herman describes as "vague and misleading". I did not agree with much of what Herman wrote, mostly because I feel it was written with aggressive and condescending language   in order to coerce the reader into believing Herman's objections; on their own I don't think his arguments held much weight. Additionally, Herman is the author of various nightmare-inducing bedtime stories such as "The Terrorism Industry" and "The Politics of Genocide". To me, it seems like someone who may have a vested interest in having a thesis like "we are living in the most peaceful age in the history of humanity" proven wrong.

I feel like I've written quite a bit already, but with a book of this length I think I will benefit from writing a longer piece on it. As with all non-fiction reviews I've done so far, I've decided to just highlight some excerpts from the book I found interesting, thought-provoking, or just humorous, and talk briefly about them. Hence why this is called the "highlights" series. Without further ado...

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain. And she again bare his brother Abel. And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.

— Steven Pinker, "The Better Angels of Our Nature" pg. 43

The first chapter of Better Angels  starts the examination of human history by looking at religious texts, especially the Bible. I wouldn't necessarily call it a scathing review, since Pinker is essentially just listing Bible passages that concern violence (of which there are numerous)  - it's pretty unfiltered however. There are undoubtedly some quite gruesome and horrific events described in the Holy Bible, that much I learned.

Despite the voracious subject matter, I think it's one of the more light-hearted chapters in the book, example being the passage describing Genesis above. I think because Pinker, along with most people, understand at this point that the Bible is very hyperbolic, and may not be the most accurate historic text to draw conclusions from.

Institutionalized torture in Christendom was not just an unthinking habit; it had a moral rationale. If you really believe that failing to accept Jesus as one’s savior is a ticket to fiery damnation, then torturing a person until he acknowledges this truth is doing him the biggest favor of his life: better a few hours now than an eternity later.

— Pinker, pg. 70

This is from one of the following chapters, which was still mostly about religion, but from later years where one can look at the role religion played in society. The short answer is really that society WAS religion for most of modern history. Religion influenced every aspect of one's life, from government to dietary habits.

Due to this tight integration of religion and life, people were much more invested in their particular faith as well as it's proliferation and long-term success. I also believe this is because humans in this period still held onto a stronger form of tribal mentality, which discouraged individualism and dissenting opinions.

Thus, I found the quote above quite interesting in that it rationalizes torture performed in the name of religion, which to me always seemed hypocritical. But it really is a perfectly rational explanation, if you accept the premise of eternal happiness in heaven.

In his book The Selfish Gene, which explained the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology with genetics and game theory, Richard Dawkins tried to pull his readers out of their unreflective familiarity with the living world. He asked them to imagine animals as “survival machines” designed by their genes (the only entities that are faithfully propagated over the course of evolution), and then to consider how those survival machines would evolve.

— Pinker, pg. 104

Shoutout to Dawkins. I read The Selfish Gene last year and I found it extremely fascinating. Albeit it is easy to be overcome with feelings of existential nihilism while reading it. As pointed out in the passage above, Dawkins is essentially saying that we are merely subservient vessels designed with the sole purpose of propagating our genes through to the next generation. Like mushy organic luxury cars for DNA designed over the course of millions of years. Kinda sucks to think that we are only here to procreate for our gene's benefit. At least procreation feels good I guess.

It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct.

— Sigmund Freud, "The Better Angels of Our Nature", pg. 171

So this is a quote of a quote, but I still liked it. I guess Pinker did too.It's a nice succinct idea that expresses the apparent paradox of civilization. Why do we all choose acquiesce to this construct which seems to restrict our freedoms and autonomy? 

I mean, if you think about it for a little while it's easy to come up with a laundry list of reasons why organized society has made all our lives better. Free health care is pretty great - I wonder if Freud ever thought about the benefits of free health care.

If our first nature consists of the evolved motives that govern life in a state of nature, and our second nature consists of the ingrained habits of a civilized society, then our third nature consists of a conscious reflection on these habits, in which we evaluate which aspects of a culture’s norms are worth adhering to and which have outlived their usefulness. Centuries ago our ancestors may have had to squelch all signs of spontaneity and individuality in order to civilize themselves, but now that norms of nonviolence are entrenched, we can let up on particular inhibitions that may be obsolete.

— Pinker, pg. 350

This builds upon the idea Freud proposed in the previous highlight—that society is a trade-off between our natural instincts and our collective quality of life. In similar words, Pinker asserts here that if our first nature is human instincts, then our second nature is the behaviors we've developed in order to coexist in a civilized society (a renunciation of our "first" instincts). 

Shifting forward into our modern day post-war society, Pinker believes we've now reached a third level, or abstraction, of our natural instincts. We have enough collective experience with these societal norms that we are now looking inwardly at our accepted behaviors and reflecting on their necessity. In a way, this is a form of feedback that is now allowing greater individualism and freedom of expression. 

I think that this is a fundamental and inevitable progression that is inherent to any human activity or skill that is practiced over many generations. Just as the son of the baker has a desire to build on the knowledge passed down to him, and to adapt and change to the environment around him—all humans have a desire for continual improvement, and this includes what should be considered acceptable conduct within one's society or culture.

I believe education is the core catalyst to this change and progression. Education teaches the self to ask "why", and to be a critical thinker. Societal norms should only be norms if they are beneficial to all, when adhered to by all. Otherwise, if their benefits are exclusive or if they impinge on the freedom of others, they have no place in a tolerant and educated society.

It began with a conceptual revolution. Instead of taking government for granted as an organic part of the society, or as the local franchise of God’s rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a government as a gadget—a piece of technology invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare. Of course, governments had never been deliberately invented, and they had been in place long before history was recorded, so this way of thinking required a considerable leap of the imagination. Thinkers such as Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, and Rousseau, and later Jefferson, Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams, fantasized about what life was like in a state of nature, and played out thought experiments about what a group of rational actors would come up with to better their lives.

— Pinker, pg. 432

Again, this is a direct example of looking at the state of things and asking "why". Even if the creation of structured government was an organic change which had no forethought or planning, it does not mean it is infallible or unchangeable.

As Mueller notes, “No longer was it possible simply and honestly to proclaim like Julius Caesar, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ Gradually this was changed to ‘I came, I saw, he attacked me while I was just standing there looking, I won.’ This might be seen as progress.”

— Pinker, pg. 452

This quote comes from a discussion of the changing perception of war in society, as well as the decline of certain related values like honour and glory. The romanticization of war had given way to the more realistic view that war was wholly destructive to all parties involved, win or lose.The political scientist John Mueller summarized this new pacifist attitude using an alteration of the famous quote by Julius Caesar ("Veni, Vidi, Vici"). I found it funny.

go to the mountains and grow beards, or do nothing and stay a modern country.

— Pinker, pg. 832

I loved this quote. This is paraphrased from an interview with former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili after Georgia lost a violent five-day war to Russia in 2008 over control of two small territories along their shared border. It is the choice he made when deciding whether to organize an insurgency against the Russian occupation. In Saakashvili's eyes, the idea of organizing a costly military effort would have been a "tremendous national burden". However choosing to abstain would be a vote for the benefits of modernism in Europe. Pinker states that this is an example of the common choice governments in the developing world have to make.

The cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has estimated that in the year after the 9/11 attacks, 1,500 Americans died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly to their destinations out of fear of dying in a hijacked or sabotaged plane, unaware that the risk of death in a plane flight from Boston to Los Angeles is the same as the risk of death in a car trip of twelve miles.
The payoff was not lost on Osama bin Laden, who gloated that “America is full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east,” and that the $500,000 he spent on the 9/11 attacks cost the country more than half a trillion dollars in economic losses in the immediate aftermath.

— Pinker, pg. 928

I found both of these passages interesting. After reading Thinking Fast and Slow, I learned that terrorism is effective because of a cognitive bias called "denominator neglect". Denominator neglect is the effect of weighing a low-probability event with a higher likelihood than it deserves - especially when the event involves a negative outcome, like being a casualty of a terrorist attack. Humans are not at dealing with extremely small probability events, and the presence of at least one example of an event in our mind will be given more attention in our decision making process than it may deserve.

This bias is amplified by a related effect called the "exposure effect" Our over-exposure to modern news and current-events has led to an inflation of the likelihood of extremely rare events like that of 9/11. The media circus that followed the events of 9/11 triggered an exaggerated response from both the actions of people and the decisions of government. Avoiding flying and deciding to drive to your destination, which is statistically much more dangerous, is an example of the consequences of these effects.

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd, but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first step, the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards.

— Pinker, pg. 1048

This is a description of Ruby Nell Bridges's first day of school. Bridges was the among the first four African-American children to attend a previously all-white school in Louisiana during the desegregation crisis of 1960.

I found it absolutely jarring when I thought about it. The idea that grown men and women would be so against the concept of black and white  children from attending the same school that they would take the time out of their day to come protest and threaten this little girl from entering the school. And not only that, parents unenrolled their children from the school, all teachers except one refused to teach Bridges all year, her father lost his job, her grandparents were stripped of their cropland, one woman threatened to poison the 7-year-old Bridges EVERY DAY on her way to school. Her safety was so much of a concern that four U.S grand marshals accompanied Bridges to school every day during her first year there.

I think of the scene outside that school's entrance that morning in 1960 and it seems so surreal. These men and women held such strong racist beliefs that they chose to become part of this nightnare- inducing scene for the smallest ,most innocent young girl, all because of her skin colour. We are truly capable of some heinous behaviour, especially when it is backed by a group of like-minded people.

Religious intolerance has been in steady decline as well. In 1924, 91 percent of the students in a middle-American high school agreed with the statement “Christianity is the one true religion and all peoples should be converted to it.” By 1980, only 38 percent agreed. In 1996, 62 percent of Protestants and 74 percent of Catholics agreed with the statement “All religions are equally good”—an opinion that would have baffled their ancestors a generation before, to say nothing of those in the 16th century.

— Pinker, pg. 1062

In a similar vein to racism, religious intolerance has been perhaps the most violent of all prejudices and the greatest motivator behind both individual and group atrocities in all of history. As the excerpt above asserts, religious intolerance has fortunately been in decline over the past several decades.

I find the final statistic the most intruiging, and also relieving personally. The fact that a good majority of both Protestants and Catholics agreed with the statement that "all religions are equally good" is a huge shift in mentality. It gives me greater hope that religion will be able to be more successfully integrated into post-modern society in the years to come. This sort of tolerance is absolutely needed if freedom of religion is truly going to be a virtue we want to uphold as a society.

It is no small feat that this gradual change has started to occur at all, if you think about it. A religion's existence is dependent on the unshaking belief, or faith, it's followers put into its core values and theology. To accept that the theology of another religion is equally "good" is an admittance of one's own fallibility, and the acceptance that they may be wrong.

I'm not sure exactly how a mentality like this has affected those who have shifted to this view, in terms of their relationship with their faith. I am not religious myself, so I have no direct experience to base an opinion on. Either way, my initial feeling is that this will be a good thing if this trend continues. Humility, and the acknowledgement that your faith is not more important than anyone elses, may make for a more tolerant and respectful global community.

As long as your exaggerations are not laughable, your audience cannot afford to ignore your self-assessment altogether, because you have more information about yourself than anyone else does, and you have a built-in incentive not to distort your assessment too much or you would constantly blunder into disasters. It would be better for the species if no one exaggerated, but our brains were not selected for the benefit of the species, and no individual can afford to be the only honest one in a community of selfenhancers.

— Pinker, pg. 1391

This comes from an assessment of self-exaggeration when speaking about ones qualities and accomplishments. Pretty much an example of the Lake Wobego LINK effect in that everyone thinks, or at least states publicly, that they are above average. And really, that distinction is the only part of the effect that is interesting to study.

To state that everyone exaggerates to some extent when discussing one's qualities, skills, or accomplishments should come as no great surprise to most people. I feel it's not constructive to consider the rebuttals from those who assert that they do no such thing, since the point of contention is whether they lie or it leads to some circular arguments.

Nevertheless, I think there is enough statistical evidence, of which a fair amount is presented in Better Angels, to warrant a strong likelihood of this being a fundamental component of the human psyche. With that in mind, the question is really whether we are consciously aware of this, or does our subconscious distort our perception of reality and skew our recollection of past experiences in our favour?

There were some findings shared in Better Angels from studies that attempted to answer this question. Apparently the findings suggest that people do have an undistorted version of their memories available to them, for when they need to analyze the actual facts of a past experience. It is only when speaking on their involvement in such memories that we see this inflation of their positive qualities. Therefore these findings seem to suggest the former hypothesis, that we are consciously exaggerating for our own benefit.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma has been called one of the great ideas of the 20th century, because it distills the tragedy of social life into such a succinct formula.183 The dilemma arises in any situation in which the best individual payoff is to defect while the partner cooperates, the worst individual payoff is to cooperate while the other defects, the highest total payoff is when both cooperate, and the lowest total payoff is when both defect.

— Pinker, pg. 1452

I've now read about the prisoner's dilemma in several books, sometimes cropping up in books I thought would have no relation to the concept at all. But I suppose that's what is interesting about the prisoner's dilemma - it's a condensed version of human nature, or more specifically human interaction.

So much analysis, and so many conclusions have been drawn from the study of this relatively simple theory. However I think the more interesting and complex version to look at is the iterated prisoner's dilemma, because it more closely models real human interactions. In most scenarios, we do not simply interact with someone once and then never again. This makes the initial conclusion drawn from the one-off prisoner's dilemma invalid, as defection against your partner will be remembered, and therefore you may be held accountable on subsequent "interactions". So this concept of statefulness is much more intriguing as you can now ask questions like: "what's the optimal strategy in finite, or indefinite, iterated prisoner's dilemma scenarios?"

The answer is that there are many answers. Analysis and simulation has revealed numerous interesting strategies which are usually given anthropomorphic names to represent the human behaviour that the strategy evokes. Just that fact alone suggests that this concept is much more grounded in reality, as we can literally project human qualities onto the simple sets of rules which define the various strategies.

The psychologist Paul Rozin has identified a syndrome of acquired tastes he calls benign masochism. These paradoxical pleasures include consuming hot chili peppers, strong cheese, and dry wine, and partaking in extreme experiences like saunas, skydiving, car racing, and rock climbing. All of them are adult tastes, in which a neophyte must overcome a first reaction of pain, disgust, or fear on the way to becoming a connoisseur.

— Pinker, pg. 1517

I love a good verbose description for why I enjoy eating spicy foods. "Benign masochism" is a great term and I can't wait to use it in conversation regularly.

In many surveys it turns out that every student, questioned privately, thinks that binge drinking is a terrible idea, but each is convinced that his peers think it’s cool.

— Pinker, pg. 1534

This is absolutely hilarious and it doesn't even need any more context.

Consider a different scenario. This time you are presented with a choice: you can lose your little finger, or a hundred million Chinese will be killed. Would you sacrifice a hundred million people to save your little finger? Smith predicts, and I agree, that almost no one would select this monstrous option. But why not, Smith asks, given that our empathy for strangers is so much less compelling than our distress at a personal misfortune

— Pinker, pg. 1843

I call this the "Chinese Finger Trap Thought Experiement".Jokes aside, I found this idea pretty enlightening in that it highlights something interesting about human character. Although I did not include the previous paragraph in this excerpt which really makes this intriguing, so I will explain it now:

If you wake up one morning and read in the newspaper (or on your Facebook feed more likely), that a gigantic earthquake struck mainland China and it is estimated that 100 million people have died, you would be pretty shocked. You would talk about it with coworkers regularly for days, or weeks, and you may even be compelled to donate some money toward relief. However, you still will go home that night and eat a nice dinner, maybe watch a comedy and then probably have a sound sleep. You get the point, it's not going to impact you personally.

However, if you woke up one morning and accidentally SLICED YOUR PINKY FINGER OFF, and then it fell down a manhole or something and you're never ever going to get it back...that would have a huge impact on your life! You would be very sad, probably in a lot of pain for at least some amount of time, you would have trouble doing a lot of regular things (especially if it was your dominant hand) and all in all it would definitely make some level of impact on the rest of your life.So that's the context, now re-read the question posed in the excerpt from above, and think about why most people (I sincerely hope most people) would choose to lose their pinky finger to save those millions of people on the other side of the planet that they most likely will never meet.

I mean, yeah it's easy to say "empathy", or that we would expect them to do the same for you etc., but really if you subscribe to any level of belief in Darwinian concepts of natural selection, then this choice really doesn't jive with that theory.

At its core, I think it shows how much our species has matured past the point of survival of the fittest. Our "circle of empathy" has been allowed to expand so wide that we can truly account for the well-being of absolute strangers on the other side of the planet. And this fact was a central thesis of The Better Angels Of Our Nature.