Greta Kent-Stoll

Brooke Porter


Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate. New York, NY: Viking.

Chapter 16


In this chapter, Pinker discusses the connection between different intellectual conceptions of human nature, and how these translate into political ideologies ranging from the far Left to the far Right. He makes it clear that there does indeed exist a definite connection between how human nature is conceptualized philosophically and one’s political association. Specifically, he explains that evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and aspects of cognitive neuroscience have been seen as corresponding with a politically right view, which can be damning in a modern university.

            Pinker specifies two political hot buttons that are related to the link between conceptions of human nature and politics. The first is how the concept of ‘society’ is conceptualized. Two philosophical traditions are specified: the sociological and the economic or social contract. The sociological philosophy views people as social by nature and to function as parts of a cohesive organism. Some thinkers who have endorsed this view include Plato, Hegel, Weber, and postmodernists in the humanities and social sciences. Conversely, the social contract philosophy explains society as being formed by individuals that agree to sacrifice some of their autonomy in exchange for security and other benefits that result from a reciprocal relationship between autonomous individuals. Thinkers that have endorsed this philosophy include Hobbes, Locke, Roussueau, and Smith.

            It is of interest to note that modern evolutionary theory concurs with the social contract tradition. Reciprocal altruism, in fact, is a form of social contract in biological terms. Group formations only last as long as the benefits of social cooperation exceed the costs. Thus, humans are willing to sacrifice for others, as long as the benefits that they receive are greater than what they have to give up. This is how social organizations evolve, and how adaptations that support social organizations prevail.

            The sociological and the social contract philosophies are linked with the political right and left, though loosely so. Political leftists are generally more likely to support the sociological viewpoint, while those on the political right are more likely to support the social contract theory. However, these parallels are not unanimous. For instance, Pinker mentions Locke, who was a believer of the social contract theory, but is also considered the patron saint of liberalism. Similarly, Durkheim and Parsons were conservatives and simultaneously believers in the sociological tradition. Thus, there is definite clash between the sociological and the social contract ideologies, though this clash is not a as clear as the outright head-butting of the political left and right, because the political associations linked with each ideology are somewhat fuzzy and open to variation.

            In the remaining bulk of the chapter, Pinker addresses the second political ‘hot button’: why various beliefs about human nature that may initially seem unrelated tend to cluster into predictable classifications that are generally labeled as either left or right. Pinker suggests that this polarization of beliefs may be partially explained by an alliance to one of two very different visions: the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision.

            The Tragic Vision describes human as inherently limited in several respects, including: knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. For social arrangements to function, these limitations must be recognized and accounted for. Conversely, the Utopian Vision believes that we should not allow our psychological limitations to hinder our view of what human beings are capable of. This is because these limitations come from the social arrangements, not from out inherent nature. The Utopian Vision explains that we are capable of overcoming restrictions that are placed upon us do to the limitations imposed upon us by the traditions of society.

            The Tragic Vision believes that human nature has not changed. Traditions that have lasted because they take into account the short-comings of human nature, and allow us to work with them. For instance, family lasts not because it is a perfect societal arrangement, but because it functions despite our numerous human weaknesses. Furthermore, the Tragic Vision views human nature as being selfish at its core that is based on the individual’s concern for his/her own well-being. In order to better society, those that the support he tragic vision would most likely say that we should make incremental changes, and that these changes will be adjusted according to their consequential benefits or rewards. It is useless to try to change society from the ‘top-down’ because this implies subjecting humans to conforming to an unrealistic utopian ideal that will inevitable result in failure.

            The Utopian Vision, on the other hand, views tradition as fluid and changeable, and without inherent value. Human nature changes with social circumstance, and as human nature changes, traditions are likely to change as well. Evidence to this viewpoint is seen in failed traditions such as the stigma against premarital sex and racial segregation. Supporters of the Utopian Vision describe traditions as mere remnants of the past, that we must re-evaluate according to their moral status.

            Due to the vastly different viewpoints of human nature that are held by those with the Tragic Vision and those with the Utopian Vision, the two groups naturally prescribe to very different views of how society should be arranged. The Tragic Vision believes that systems that benefit society as a whole are preferable, such as a capitalist economy and property rights. These systems function because individuals are given incentives to work, and reciprocity between individuals exists. Thus, great virtue on the part of the individual is not required. Instead, the systems function due to a simple equation of give and take, punishment and reward.

            The Utopian Vision seeks to implement policies that that benefit the individual, such as equalizing racial inequality, working to preserve the environment for the health of the people, and attacking economic inequality so that less individuals have to suffer in poverty. The Tragic Vision points out that these policies often fail, however, due to the selfish nature of people who will inevitably find ways around such policies in order to better their own personal gains.

            Another key difference between the Utopian and Tragic Visions are that the Utopian Vision offers readily available solutions to social problems because this Vision is characterized by trust in human intelligence and wisdom. Thus, dilemmas such as violence can be fought by combating ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, and disease. This is because the Utopian Vision sees human nature as changeable. It is not our inherent human nature that causes violence. It is various inequalities present in the social structure. If these inequalities can be altered, then various human vices can in fact be eliminated.

            The Tragic Vision would treat an issue such as violence very differently. It would explain violence as a natural human function. Hence, any attempt to entirely eliminate this natural human behavior will prove fruitless. The Tragic Vision would propose that the government should instead impose punishments to at least discourage violence, and make those who engage in it unjustly pay for their actions. The Tragic Vision would also support strict parenting because it would teach and reinforce the contingencies that are involved with violence early in life.

            The recent discoveries on evolutionary biology and behavioral genetics seems to undermine the Utopian Vision and support the Tragic Vision because these modern sciences propose the idea of the selfish gene and that individuals act out of self-interest rather than the interest of the community. The Utopian Vision argues that the evidence presented by these modern sciences can only teach us what humans have achieved thus far. It does not tell us what we are capable of. Nonetheless, there are particular aspects of the discoveries on human nature that indicate that perhaps humans are more predictable and limited by their biology than the Utopian Vision and extreme leftists would like to believe. Pinker lists several factors, including: the universality of dominance and violence that exists among all human societies; the partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness, and antisocial tendencies; the presence of human defense mechanisms; and biases of the human moral sense.

            Pinker also cites historical evidence to the short-comings of the Utopian Vision. Various revolutions that were inspired by the Utopian Vision failed miserably, such as the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. These attempts to create a renewed society resulted in blood baths and the execution of leader after leader, as each successive ruler failed to meet the expectations of the people. Thus, both scientific and historical evidence point out the holes on the Utopian Vision.

            Pinker goes on to explain the nature of modern day democracy in terms of the two visions. The modern liberal democracy coincides well with the Tragic Vision because this imperfect system allows for the preservation of the individual, as well as security and relative control over disease, pollution, famine, and war against other democratic nations. This government system recognizes that the individual desires the opportunity to further his/her own interests. The state serves to protect the rights of those who wish to do just this. The goal of a peaceful society is to develop and enforce laws and standards that encourage reciprocal altruism, so that individuals avoid the use of dominance to obtain what they desire. Policies such as free trade allow both parties to benefit and for reciprocal altruism to take place.

            This recognition of the selfish nature of humans can also be seen in the creation of checks and balances in the United States government. The framers of the Constitution recognized that humans who are given power are apt to become corrupt and to abuse their power in order to gain dominance and esteem. As Pinker explains: “Checks and balances were instituted to stalemate any faction that grew too powerful. They included the division of authority between federal and state governments, the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, and the splitting of the legislative branch into two houses” (Pinker). Thus, even before the discoveries of evolutionary biology and behavior genetics, our founding fathers were aware of the likely dilemmas that our country would likely face due to our limited and flawed human nature. Our own country was not born out of a Utopian Vision, but instead the Tragic Vision that foresaw our susceptibility to corruption and deceit. This belief allowed our framers to create a national contract that would, essentially, protect ourselves from one another. This explains why the American Revolution is sometimes given the nickname, the ‘conservative revolution.’ It was not based on ideals of a new Utopian nation, but was characterized by staunch realism.

            Interestingly, Pinker switches from associating each Vision with a particular political ideology, by explaining how, in fact, the Utopian Vision is being laid to rest by those on all ends of the political spectrum. Pinker explains that the Tragic Vision can in fact coexist with political views ranging from left to right. He explains how this can occur due to the flexibility and capacity for growth and learning that is a part of our human nature: “For all its selfishness, the human mind is equipped with a moral sense, whose circle of application has expanded steadily and might continue to expand as more of the world becomes interdependent” (Pinker, 2002). Thus, though we have an inherent human nature, which for the most part is quite selfish, we still are gifted with the cognitive capacity to make logical choices and to learn from our mistakes. In this way, the Tragic Vision can encompass both left and right political ideologies.

            However, leftists may find themselves wrestling with their beliefs in light of the recent discoveries of modern science. They may find it impossible to deny certain innate aspects of our nature, yet find it difficult to abandon their ideals. Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive, as Pinker suggests, though some downsizing of lofty ideals may be needed. The work of Chomsky may give leftists some hope. Chomsky defends an innate cognitive endowment that entails an inborn language faculty, as well as a desire for community and a drive for creative expression. These components of human nature imply that despite our desire for self-preservation, we may have an equally powerful desire for community and peaceful expression. This is one example of how the left can embrace modern science and aspects of the Tragic Vision, without completely abandoning all of its optimistic beliefs about human nature.

            At the same time, though, it is in our interest to realistic about our limited capacity for virtuous judgment as human beings. For instance, economist Robert Frank points out the poor judgment that people usually exercise over matters of personal spending. As Pinker describes: “But economists repeatedly find that people spend their money like drunken sailors” (Pinker). Thus, it is actually in the individual’s best interest to have some type of controls over his spending in order to compensate for his lack of financial savvy. Furthermore, Frank explains how most people are endowed with a craving for status, which compels them to spend money in ways that can display their status, even if this gouges their long-term financial assets.

            Pinker suggests that people are likely to willingly engage in reciprocity, and therefore are not entirely selfish beings. He brings to light the work of Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Darwinian economists who claim that people are neither “antlike altruists nor self-centered misers” (Pinker). We are willing to share with others, as long as we are granted our share of the pie. This explains people’s willingness to pay higher taxes for measures of social insurance. People are willing to support welfare programs for victims of bad luck. We are willing to aid those in need as long as they did not get there by mere laziness. The refusal to work, however, would imply the failure of the individual to uphold his/her end of the social bargain.

            By explaining the complex nature of various political beliefs and how they coincide with the two Visions in diverse ways, Pinker makes strides in demonstrating that traditional political alignments are apt to change as our scientific knowledge bank grows. Political viewpoints need not be set in stone. Our political views will inevitably evolve as our conceptions of human nature become increasingly sophisticated. 


Chapter 17

            In this chapter Pinker discusses violence and it’s presence throughout human history. He also discusses different theories on why humans are violent and why they exhibit violent behavior; he presents opposing arguments and provides excellent examples for each. He also delves into understanding violence and Hobbes’s three principle causes of violence, as well as opportunities for conflict resolution.

            Throughout human history, violence and violent behavior has been evident. Archeological records show skeletons that have been skinned, axed, and shot with arrowheads. Weapons with no hunting value such as tomahawks we made and used, showing that humans had certain weapons that were used to kill each other. Pictures in caves depicted warfare against groups of people, and there is even evidence that certain groups of humans practiced cannibalism. Evidence of human on human violence is even present in our everyday lives (even at our own university). Crossed adorned with a crucified Christ are evidence of the cruelties humans have inflicted on one another. We also have torture vocabulary: “to crucify”, to “draw and quarter”, to “stone”, etc.

            Pinker presents several different theories on why humans are violent. A highly debatable theory is that violence is learned. Several researchers say that violence is learned, and it is behavior taught by a specific culture. Specifically, this theory tends to be mostly discussed within the context of American culture. One argument made is in regards to childhood abuse. It is argued that children who are abused have a higher probability of becoming abusers themselves. Supporters of the social learning theories will say this is due to the fact that they have earned to behave in this matter, therefore, they will. Along the lines of childhood abuse is the notion that aggressive parents will have aggressive children.  However, this “cycle of violence” is looked at by these supporters as being learned. But what if it is an inborn characteristic to be violent?

            Another argument for the learning theory of violence is the idea of American Individualism. Journalist Alfe Kohn commented on the motivations of Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Oklahoma City building: “We have a cultural addiction to competition in this country. We’re taught in classrooms and playing fields that other people are obstacles to our own success” (pp. 309). It’s also noted that some people attribute the motivations for the bombing on American symbols.

            A recent theory attributes violence in men to the “American Maleness”. Some say that the American conception of the roles of males is learned in childhood, and the male learns that he must be a “real man”; stifle their emotions, separate from their mothers, behave violently, etc.   

            Media has always been thought to influence people’s thought, actions, and behaviors. Supporters of  the learning theories have said that the violence portrayed in American media teaches people to behave violently. Three different associations testified before Congress that over 3,500 studies have investigated the connection between violence in the media and American violent crime, and found that all but 18 did have a connection. However, psychologist Jonathan Freedman took a look for himself with 200 studies; and he only found less than have to have one. This extreme conflict of interest raises several questions, including questions on where they obtained their data, and what constituted a “connection”.

            Pinker brings up a good discussion on the other “scapegoats” for violence: guns, discrimination, and poverty. He states that guns do make it easier to kill people, but guns don’t make people kill people. It reminds me of the saying: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. To blame violence on guns is to give the people who pull the trigger a get out of jail free card. It shifts the blame from the person to an object, which in my opinion, is not right. Pinker notes: “The Israelis and Swiss are armed to the teeth but have low rats of violent personal crime, and among American states, Maine and North Dakota have the lowest homicide rates but almost every home has a gun” (pp. 311).  As for the other two, poverty and discrimination, he states that it is very hard to find and show a direct cause and effect relationship.

            Another theory of why humans are violent is a biological one. There is evidence that the human species may have evolved mechanisms for violence. Pinker first comments on aggression: how aggression is not a random act, but rather it is a goal directed, organized function. It is ingrained. Next he discusses parts of the human body and brain which are signs that they may be designed for aggression:

The larger size, strength, and upper-body mass of men is a zoological  giveaway of an evolutionary history of violent male-male competition. Other signs include the effects of testosterone on dominance and violence, the emotion of anger, the revealingly named fight-or-flight response of the autonomic nervous system, and the fact that disruptions of inhibitory systems of the brain can lead to aggressive attacks, initiated by the limbic system (pp. 316).


            It is at this point that Pinker mentions his opinion on the matter, which is that we can’t understand violence by looking at just one side of things, i.e. just biology or just society. It is a matter of a combination of several factors.

            Pinker then begins to discuss the logic of violence, and examines Hobbes’s three principle causes of quarrel: competition, diffidence, and glory. He explains competition as such: if an obstacle stands in the way of something an organism needs, it should neutralize the obstacle by disabling it or eliminating it. This, therefore, would include another human being if that human being was in the way of what the other human needed. Examples of this are: a human who is monopolizing food, a man who is monopolizing women, etc. This competition can be violent because if an organism is on it’s way to not surviving, or reproductive failure, it will be willing to risk death to try and survive. The next one, diffidence, has to do with self-defense and the distrust of others. You may have something another human wants. You are an obstacle that they need to overcome in order for them to obtain what they want. You now must be prepared to defend yourself. This is where most people fall into what Pinker calls the “Hobbesian trap” – mutually distrustful people are tempted to inflict a preemptive strike to avoid being invaded for gain. Neither side may want to strike or attack, but both are so afraid of the other coming to get them, they may strike anyway. The third cause is glory, but more accurately, honor. People fight over national honor, personal honor, etc. Tempers flare and often times people fight over really nothing. They fight over their pride or their egos.

Through Hobbes’s analysis we see that violence isn’t a primitive, irrational urge, but the dynamics of self-interest.

            Hobbes also comes up with means of preventing violence. Pinker goes into these human conflict resolutions extensively, but for the sake of time and energy, here’s a short list: submit to the rules of the law; figure out a way for both sides to back down without losing face; acknowledging the possibility of one’s own self-deception;  and accepting the equivalence of one’s own interests and other people’s. Pinker finishes off the chapter by stating that many people try not to acknowledge this evolutionary approach to the logic of violence, because there is the fear that if the approach is accepted, then we are accepting or even approving the occurrence of violence.



                                           Critical Review of Chapter 16


            Pinker brings to light some fascinating and complex issues that are core to how we view our human nature, and thusly, what we do with those conceptions. One key point that Pinker makes regards the separation between the political right and left. He points out that although there is an obvious clustering when it comes to the diverging views of liberals and conservatives, there can indeed exist variations of political association and ideology. He accredits the separation between right and left to an underlying belief in either the Tragic Vision or the Utopian Vision. Yet, he points out that the differentiation is not absolute. There is substantial crossover between left and right and the two Visions.

            Another strong point that Pinker makes is that although selfishness and the desire for self-preservation are inherent components of our human nature, evidence exists to suggest that the desire for community and a degree of communication and cooperation is a part of our nature as well. He cites the work of Chomsky, particularly in the area of linguistics, to support this claim. Thus, there is hope for humans even if we do not support the notion of the Blank Slate (or if, in fact, that notion is proven impossible through science).

            The third argument that Pinker made that is particularly stimulating is that our politics are capable of changing as we become more advanced in our conceptions of human nature. The old paradigms for viewing human nature are based on outdated scientific knowledge. As we discover new information, we should feel free to re-adjust our views on human nature, and therefore our political paradigms as well.

            Though Pinker brought up several insightful arguments, we found that some of his logic was inconsistent, or not well explained. Firstly, let me summarize my understanding of his line of reasoning regarding politics and he two Visions.  I believe he states that there is a clustering of views to either the right or the left of the political spectrum. He goes on to question what the underlying reason is for this clustering of beliefs because these beliefs may seem unrelated on the surface. He suggests that the separation can be understood by an underlying belief in one of two visions: the Tragic or the Utopian. Then, he explains later in the chapter that there is actually significant crossover between the political right and left and alliance to the two Visions. According, to this logic, it seems that Pinker has entirely contradicted himself.

            Our first question is whether or not there is indeed a true ‘clustering’ of beliefs on either end of the spectrum. What about the great number of political moderates that would be categorized as liberal in some arenas and conservative in other arenas? Perhaps the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are just names that we give to people in order to have an organized political system and an alliance between those that are like-minded.

            This leads us to then question if perhaps the views that Pinker describes as being logically unrelated do, in fact, possess a degree of logical cohesion. Pinker would say that that there is a somewhat random connection between liberal views on sex and a desire to create economic equality (two views that are classified as ‘left’ or ‘liberal’). However, perhaps the connections are more logical than Pinker claims. For instance, in the latter example, an individual may support both beliefs because of a commitment to personal freedom.

            Lastly, we question if Pinker is accurate in explaining the political polarization by an underlying alliance to either the Tragic or the Utopian vision. If there is so much political crossover between the two Visions, then how can this theory explain the clustering? It doesn’t. If there is an underlying reason, maybe it is not a result of supporting one of the two Visions.


Critical Review of Chapter 17


            Pinker makes several interesting arguments in this chapter. We feel that this chapter has been one of the most interesting chapters we’ve read thus far. One of the shorter but more strong arguments is against the use of the “usual suspects” as scapegoats for human decision. People have always blamed everything but themselves for violence. Much emphasis has been put on guns, poverty, and discrimination. As previously noted in the summary, Pinker makes a quick but strong arguments against these. Especially with guns, he shows statistics that basically prove the theories wrong.

            Another strong argument made by Pinker was his outright opinion this time around. On several occasions Pinker seems to just present both sides of the arguments, but never really seems to give his own personal opinion outright.  This time he flat out just says it: “We will never understand violence by looking only at the genes or brains of violent people. Violence is a social and political problem, not jut a biological and psychological one” (pp. 317). We absolutely agree with Pinker’s statement, that one explanation alone can sum up the problems of violence.

            A third strength of the chapter is Pinker’s use of contemporary and understandable examples to relay his sometimes lengthy insights on topics. For example, he uses the Cuban Missile Crisis and the positions Kennedy and Khrushchev were in to portray being caught in the Hobbesian trap. To resolve the conflict, both leaders had to be aware that they were involved in this trap, and had to realize that they somehow had to both back down without losing face to solve their conflict.

            This time around, we didn’t find as many weaknesses as we have found in past chapters. We think that it goes without saying, but Pinker really does LOVE to write, and it seems that he loves to be overly extensive and flowery. We feel that his extensiveness sometimes took away from his arguments, as we sometimes felt that his points got lost within the language.

            Once again it seems also that his ideas are a little unorganized. He jumps around topics and at times it seemed a little hard to realize what he was talking about.

            Otherwise, when it comes to weaknesses, there really weren’t any other ones. With this chapter in particular, we felt Pinker was really dead on with all of his arguments. He backed all of his points with strong arguments and evidentiary support, and all of his arguments were feasible.


                                                Outline of Chapter 16


Intellectual conceptions of human nature lead to political ideologies ranging from right to left

            How is society conceptualized?

                        Sociological view:

People are social by nature, and they function as parts of a superorganism

                        Social contract:

                                    Individuals agree to sacrifice autonomy in exchange for security 

                                    (The biological equivalent is reciprocal altruism)


The association between political ideology of either right and left and these two conceptions of society is loose


The clustering of beliefs into either liberal or conservative: what is the underlying reason?


                        Can be associated with the Utopian Vision

Utopian Vision: our limitations come from social arrangements

 We do not have an inherent human nature (Blank Slate)


                        Can be associated with the Tragic Vision

Tragic Vision: humans are limited and selfish

Traditions last because they allow us to work around the flaws that are part of our nature

Different political beliefs result from the two visions

            Two examples:




The problem with the Utopian Vision

            Scientific evidence for an inherent human nature

                        Primacy of family ties

                        Universality of violence and dominance

                        Universality of ethnocentrism

                        Prevalence of defense mechanisms

Partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness, anti-social tendencies

Historical evidence for an inherent human nature

            Failure of the Russian, French, and Chinese revolutions

            All of these were attempts to establish a Utopian society


The U.S. Constitution concurs with the Tragic Vision

            Checks and balances in government

                        Measures to protect the people from corrupt rulers

                        Protecting the rights of the individual (and his desire to get ahead)

            Democracy is not perfect, but it is the best proven govt. system thus far

                        Freedom as well as security

                        Famines rare

                        Wars against other democratic nations rare

The Tragic Vision can coexist with various political views from right to left


                        Inborn language faculty: propensity to communicate

                        Natural desire for community and the drive for creative expression

Robert Frank

                        People tend to spend their money like ‘drunken sailors’

We would benefit from high consumption tax: dampen the drive to adorn  oneself with material luxuries to show status

Bowler and Gintis

People are neither “antlike altruists nor self-centered misers” (Pinker 2002)

We are willing to help others as long as they deserve it


Politics can (and should) change as our conceptions of human nature become increasingly sophisticated


Outline Chapter 17



“The story of the human race is war. Except for brief and precarious interludes there has never been peace in the world; and long before history began murderous strife was universal and unending” Winston Churchhill’s speculation about prehistory


Human violence


Historic evidence

            -Skeletons with scalping marks, ax-shaped dents, arrowheads embedded

            -Useless hunting weapons (tomahawks)


            -Cannibalism – human bones used for food, myoglobin on pot shards and in     

            human excrement

-Not just war: ethnic strife, turf battles, blood feuds, individual homicides

-History indicts our species: the crucifixion of Jesus

-Words in our vocabulary: to crucify, to draw and quarter, to flay, to press, to stone, the garrote, the rack, the stake, the thumbscrew.  


Some hypotheses on why humans are violent

             1. Learned, social

                        -Central dogma of a secular faith

                         -Violence has nothing to do with human nature but is a pathology     

      inflicted by malign elements outside of us

                         -Violence is a behavior taught by culture

-         Right-thinking people: “violence is learned behavior” (they believe that violence should be reduced).

-         Scientifically oriented researchers on violence: “Violence is a public    health problem.

-         Childhood abuse: people who have been victimized often become victimizers themselves 

-         Recent theory: American violence is due to the conception of maleness

-              Many say American culture is the cause as well as media violence


2. Biological, psychological

-         Seville Statement: it is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a violent brain or have undergone selection for violence

-         Evidence that we may have evolved mechanisms for discretionary violence

o       Large size, strength, and upper-body mass of men is a zoological giveaway of an evolutionary history of violent male-male competition

o       The effects of testosterone on dominance and violence

o       The emotion of anger

o       Fight-or-flight response

o       Disruptions of inhibitory systems of the brain can lead to aggressive attacks

o       Boys play rough and tumble


Pinker thinks: “…we will never understand violence by looking only at the genes or brains of violent people. Violence is a social and political problem, not just a biological and psychological one” (pp. 317). 



-         2 fears people have

1.      Examining the roots of violence in human nature consists of reducing violence to the bad genes of violent individuals

2.      If people are endowed with violent motives, they can’t help but being violent, or must be violent all the time

The logic of violence

            Understanding violence – 3 principle causes of quarrel (Hobbes)

1.      Competition

a.       Natural selection is powered by competition

b.      If an obstacle stands in the way of something an organism needs, it should neutralize the obstacle by disabling or eliminating it


2.      Diffidence

a.       Distrust, self-defense.

b.      If you have neighbors, they may covet what you have, in which case you have become an obstacle to their desires. You MUST be prepared to defend yourself.

c.       Hobbesian trap” – mutually distrustful people are tempted to inflict a preemptive strike to avoid being invaded for gain



3.      Glory

a.       Honor (ex: national honor, personal honor)

b.      Psychology of Southern Honor


Hobbes’s analysis shows that violence is not a primitive, irrational urge¸ nor is it a pathology . It is a near-inevitable outcome of the dynamics of self interested, rational social organisms.  

            Means of  preventing violence (Hobbes)

a.       governing body that has been granted a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (law inforcement)

                                                                                                                           i.      by inflicting penalties on aggressors, the governing body eliminates the profitability of invading for gain

b.      Intervention by armed authority seems to be the most effective general violence-reduction technique

a.       You can see this in it’s absence: when law enforcement is not present, all manner of violence breaks loose

b.      Lack of government leads to anarchy


c.       What about policing police?


Understanding when you’re caught in the Hobbesian trap

            -Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis

-The problem with violence is that the advantage of deploying it or renouncing it depend on what the other side does


-Game Theory: the best decision for each player individually is sometimes the worst decision for both collectively

            -Prisoner’s Dilemma

-The only way to win is to change the rules or find a way out of the game

            -WWI Soldiers: play repeatedly, apply a strategy of reciprocity, remember the other player’s last action and repay him in kind (not always an option)

            *Advances in human conflict resolution depend on the ability to be rational, and to realize that the mind is a combinatorial, recursive system: we have thoughts, thought about our thoughts, and thoughts about our thoughts about out thoughts. 

            *Acknowledgement of this unfortunately may be accepting violence or even approving of it. Intellectuals may be more accepting of the Noble Savage, in which “violence is an arbitrary product of learning or a pathogen that bores us from the outside” (pp.336).

            *Human nature is the problem but it is also the solution.