Giving a new college graduate an 832-page book by a professor sounds like a terrible idea — except your gift will probably register when you say it’s on the recommendation of none other than Microsoft cofounder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates.
“If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this — the most inspiring book I’ve ever read,” Gates tweeted on Monday, attaching an image of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.”
Pinker’s extensively researched thesis is that global violence has decreased throughout human history, as wrong as that may feel given the 24-hour news cycle that came into being not long after two world wars and matured during an age of regular terrorist attacks and mass shootings.
Gates recommends the book as a way to keep the idealism of one’s early 20s alive in a world where news of violence is constantly available via TV and the internet. He tweeted that Pinker “shows how the world is getting better. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. This is the most peaceful time in human history. That matters because if you think the world is getting better, you want to spread the progress to more people and places. It doesn’t mean you ignore the serious problems we face. It just means you believe they can be solved.”
Business Insider spoke with Pinker back in 2015, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg included “Better Angels of Our Nature” in his book club.
Pinker told us he wanted to give readers “a different appreciation of the world from day-to-day journalism. Since there will always be incidents to fill the news, if you get your appreciation of the world from the news, you’ll get a systematically distorted picture.”
“By virtually every measure, the world has become less violent,” Pinker said. “Of course that doesn’t mean violence has disappeared, just that it occurs at lesser rates than it used to.”
To fully appreciate Pinker’s book, you’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time with it, but here’s a breakdown of its main points.
There are 6 major trends in human history’s retreat from violence
1. The Pacification Process
Around 5,000 years ago, humans made the transition “from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments,” Pinker wrote.
2. The Civilizing Process
Between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, homicide reduced drastically in societies, which sociologist Norbert Elias noted is best seen in European countries, in which there was “the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce,” Pinker said.
3. Humanitarian Revolution
Best understood in the Western world as starting with the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and lasting hundreds of years, it was the first time there were movements to abolish sanctioned forms of violence like “despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, and cruelty to animals,” as Pinker noted.
4. The Long Peace
At the end of World War II, the world’s most powerful and developed countries stopped waging war with each other.
5. The New Peace
Pinker wrote that some readers will be surprised to learn that “since the end of the Cold War in 1989, organized conflicts of all kinds — civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks — have declined throughout the world.”
6. The Rights Revolutions
Since the late 1950s, there has a been “a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales,” empowered by movements for “civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights.”
Humans are neither innately good nor innately evil, but have biological triggers that can orient them toward aggression or cooperation
Pinker’s 2002 book “The Blank Slate” argued that the evolution of the brain disproves the “blank slate” theory that lends total moral authority to nurture over nature.
In “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Pinker categorized “five inner demons” as psychological systems that can be triggered to release aggression, along with “four better angels” as motives that can bring humans toward cooperation and altruism.
Pinker clarified that even though many people have an implicit belief that aggression is something built up with the need to be released, “Nothing could be further from a contemporary scientific understanding of the psychology of violence,” he wrote.
There are 5 external factors that favor our ‘better angels’ and have made humans less violent
1. The Leviathan
A government and legal system with authority on the legitimate use of force compels individuals to refrain from acting on aggressive urges.
“[A]s technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead, and they are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization,” Pinker wrote.
Pinker argued that “since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men.”
Literacy, mobility, and mass media can allow individuals to empathize with people unlike themselves, Pinker said.
5. The Escalator of Reason
When humans increasingly prioritize reason, they can recognize the “futility of cycles of violence” and selfishness, and can “reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won,” he wrote.