Pinker’s book The Angels of Our Better Nature starts with Manual Eisner’s data. He then sets out to explain the changing trend. (His book is a model of rigorous analysis. He explores an idea, comes to a conclusion and then looks at the reasons why he may be wrong. He repeats this several times over. No stone is left unturned). The book deals with five influences, and I have added a sixth.

1. An overwhelmingly powerful strong state (Hobbes). The state took over conflict resolution. Until relatively recently, an insult could result in a duel. Today, any serious dispute is dealt with by the state, by the police, prosecution services, the courts and their punishments. They deter bad behaviour, not only for you but also for your enemies.

2. The civilising process (Elias). Once the chances of your neighbour killing or injuring you receded, the value of good manners increased. Elias charts changes in the way we eat, how we dress, our cleanliness, and how we behave in public. He concludes that the upper classes developed the first rules of social etiquette, and that these spread outwards following the rules of contagion described in the last session. Books on social etiquette were very popular until relatively recently.

3. Gentle commerce (Montesquieu). As Pinker explains in the lecture, plunder is a zero-sum game. One person’s gain is another’s loss. Commerce is a positive sum game, the vendor and the buyer gain. This exchange depends on trust. I do some work for you. I trust that you will pay me. If I don’t trust you (or you don’t trust me) we don’t work together. Trust and commerce go hand in hand.

4. The expanding circle of empathy (Appiah). My primary obligation is to my genes, and therefore to my children. As a species, and particularly in the last three centuries, these obligations have widened, to include family, neighbours, fellow citizens (of a shared state) and then the planet. Kwame Anthony Appiah shows how mutual respect is fundamental to dealing with the competing beliefs held by citizens across the world. (A reminder of why the retreat to nationalism is such a threat).

5. Escalation of reason (Flynn). The Flynn Effect is named after the New Zealand political scientist, whose exhaustive studies conclude that as a species, on average, we are getting smarter. Tests of intelligence change. But when groups from this generation sit tests taken by the previous generation, they usually score higher than their predecessors. Our extra cognitive capacity extends to the world beyond our direct experience. When the Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria asked rural farmers used to seeing brown bears what colour they thought bears in the artic would be they typically answered, ‘I don’t know, I would have to go there to find out’. Today, they would be able to reason the answer. Here is Flynn taking about his work:

6. Civil society capacity (Ostrom). This ability to reason has seeped into our ability to live with one another. Nobel Laureate Lin Ostrom was interested in how people manage scarce resources. Much economic analysis of this kind of problem uses game theory, for example the tragedy of the commons. Ostrom took a different tack. She studied in depth how people negotiated an economic game in real life. We will come back to this in future meetings. It is a story of sharp empathy made possible by our limited recourse to violence and increased reasoning powers.

Here is the lecture we watched given by Steven Pinker reflecting on the book.