Pinker on TED and the “Better Angels of our Nature”

In this 2007 TED talk the Developmental Psychologist and Linguist and Steven Pinker previews his 700 page monster of data and perspective published in 2011:
Pinker in the opening phrases of his talk:
“Our ancestors were far more violent than we are, (that) violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably living in the most peaceful times in our species existence”

He admits immediately that questioning the standard belief, the cultural assumption of each generation that the current times are the worst imaginable and only going to get worse (my emphasis): the eternally pessimistic and foreboding view upheld mainly by organized religion especially Conservative Xiansanity (TM) is utterly wrong in light of the data.

Pinker again:
…a statement like that might seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene, but am going to try to convince you that that is the correct picture”

He then demonstrates using the data that the typical view promoted by the religious is exactly wrong. We are living in the safest, most peaceful times in millennia and this moral advance is largely due to the Enlightenment and continued secular advance of human rights through the centuries.
Few people consider that the risk of enslavement, torture, robbery, rape, imprisonment and murder were constant threats, a normal aspect of daily life for most humans throughout history from hunter gatherer times to only recently in the latter 20th and now 21st century. One could be jailed and tortured for petty crimes or religious indiscretions, taken into slavery or indentured servitude, beaten and robbed by highwaymen with no recourse, no retribution.

Nowadays most of the world’s citizenry enjoy the safety of multiple layers of police and armed forces protection, torture and capital punishment are nearly universally outlawed and slavery illegal worldwide. Deaths from wars and genocides since the two World Wars have dropped precipitously as well, a fact few understand until they see the data. The horrific political ideologies of the past (Stalinism, Nazism, Maoism) have been recently replaced by the rise of democracies across the globe and most religions no longer kill for apostasy and torture for coercion routinely as was the norm for much of the past two millennia. We live in an incomparably less violent world.

The TED talk is an excellent 20 minute summary of the voluminous information and thrust of the book. The data and arguments amassed in “Better Angels” are impressive to say the least.
To me, it represents the best of modern scholarship and to my mind utterly refutes the standard negative views so falsely and smugly upheld by religions. Religionists (particularly our Conservative Xian friends and neighbors) don’t bother with facts, they make shit up and make sure it is negative and full of warning to repent and join the fold, the end is near: and man is inherently wicked and cannot advance without divine guidance and obedience to religious claims. Conservative Xians notably seem to be chock full of dire warning that we are doomed and in a state of precipitous, inevitable and continuing decline.

And that’s a crock. We have improved the lives of countless humans in the most recent decades and can do even better continuing with the knowledge that we have done so in spite of religious divisiveness and phony claims of innate depravity and impending doom. These old ideas only get in the way.
Pinkers TED video is a gem and the book itself is an encyclopedia of moral progress and the expansion of rights and safety and lack of violent threat to the vast majority of the folks on the planet today.
Once again religion is wrong and but an impediment to progress.
end religion now.





5 thoughts on “Pinker on TED and the “Better Angels of our Nature”

  1. Thank you Waz. You’ve added to my list of books worth reading. I have Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and Rome’ as next cab off the rank and then to the ones you’ve recommended.

    At the moment I have a few great courses lined up for the next few months. One science & philosophy, one ethics and one on ‘Big History’. My other groups are still running as well. Where do I get the time? Luckily I like to keep occupied.

    • sounds like great courses!! I went to the first Big History conference a couple of years ago, maybe you have seen Dave Christians TED video on Big History? An Aussie I believe, one of the founders of the movement. Every human on earth should be, no Ill be optimistic: despite current religious roadblocks someday every kid on earth will get a Big History course in grade school and hi school! Maybe you saw this post, I got nearly 300 of them now and damn i will totally forget that I blogged on something a year ago or more: Check it out. It has the link to Dave’s TED talk and other Big History info in case you havent seen it. I have a whole lecture series of Dave’s (8 hours?) on CD from the Great Courses company that I listened to on trips to and from KY…seems like ancient history now…no pun intended

      • David Christian is an Australian and he is the one giving the talk. Next year he’s running the series of lectures. I plan to join up as soon as it’s announced. I love the concept of an integrated approach in contrast to the current set of discrete areas as it is now. I believe some schools are running this already. Good for them!

        Anyway, back to Pinker and his angels. I recommended his book to a serious potential reader on Tuesday. I really try to spread the word in this instance because the world abounds with misconceptions . We may as well get things right IMHO.

  2. ‘Better Angels’ is my most frequently referenced book! It was great! I can’t speak highly enough! It took some reading as its lengthy, dense and has a myriad charts and graphs; but it’s a worthwhile read for all those interested in the ‘real’ state of affairs as opposed to the ‘perceived’ state of the world.

    Maybe Pinker has some competition now with ‘The Moral Arc’.

    • Yeah, I was amazed at first that Shermer even did the book, or could, Pinker already did it, I thought. But Shermer credits Pinker for inspiring him and Shermer takes slightly different tack, concentrating even more on the moral side and how it happened and not just the decline of violence. They are actually complementary tomes on how the world has changed providing an utterly different view of moral progress and enlightenment due to science and the rights revolution versus the bleak phony picture the religious moralists paint year after year after year. Tim Ferris’ Science of Liberty is xclnt and much shorter and heads down the same path. And I think Peter Diamnadis’ Abundance and Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist provide a realistic and clearheaded optimistic view to consider the future…Ive blogged on all these b4 so forgive me if Im repeating myself…The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup final in storybook fashion last nite in front of 22,000 fans at home and I dont know how many millions watching on TV. You couldnt have scripted it better…And we were out at a bar with screaming fans that made the experience 100 times more exciting than watching at home. Im exhausted but start 2 new Summer classes today, 6 hours of lecture with an hour lunch break in between…good thing I LOVE my job.

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