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What You Need to Know About Bill Gates’ Favorite Book

Want to read the book that Bill Gates considers the ideal graduation present? Yeah, you do. Here’s a little look at what it’s about.
by Caitlin Schiller | Oct 10 2018

Steven Pinker’s 700-page masterpiece on the history of violence is maybe not what you’d call a beach read, but it’s hard to come away from it without feeling at least a little refreshed.

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Published in 2011, it reentered the bestseller list last summer after Bill Gates recommended it as a graduation present, calling it “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” He also picked it as a book he’d take with him to a desert island on BBC’s long-running and much-loved Radio 4 show, Desert Island Discs.

With so much pleasure, wisdom, and reassurance to be gleaned from its pages, it’s easy to see why this is one Gates wants to hold onto — and endorse. If you’re interested but not yet sure whether you want to add it to the stack on your nightstand, allow us to cut through hundreds of pages to give you the need-to-knows.

Of course, there’s no substitute for reading an entire book — particularly one as thoughtful and encompassing as Pinker’s — but let us give you the outline so that you can enjoy coloring in the rest with sumptuous detail. Read on for a 5-minute, in-depth overview.

Bill Gates’ Desert Island Read: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

What’s it about?

Violence. Baked into the genes of both ballerinas and bullies, violence helps us survive and get what we want. And despite what the nightly news shows you, humanity is actually using less violence as it evolves.

The Better Angels of Our Nature limns the history of violence in human society, explaining our motivations to use it as well as the factors that increasingly restrain us from doing so. Over the course of the 700 pages, Pinker introduces the “inner demons” – the five primal motivators behind violence – and the “better angels of our nature” – four other motivators toward peacefulness. He also traces six major historical shifts that reduced violence drastically. Along the way, you’ll get a complete picture of the history of violence.

Who wrote it?

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Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker, professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard and previously in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He’s an expert on language and cognition, contributes to publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and has written a bevy of his own books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, and most recently, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

3 Things You Should Know

1. The 5 Inner Demons that move us toward violence

Predation: this is a species’ inborn urge to compete – often tooth and claw – for the survival of its genes.
Dominance: those tooth-and-claw fights can be a risky strategy for getting your way, but an initial act of dominance is worth it in order to attain dominance. Establishing dominance is a worthy prize for any organism, as it permits it to get better food or mates without having to fight anew.
Revenge: unfortunately, revenge feels really good. Studies of lab rats found that taking revenge creates a pleasurable response in the brain, somewhat similar to that caused by cocaine or chocolate.
Sadism: turns out, inflicting pain on others can be pretty enjoyable, too. Do it enough and it can become addicting.
Ideology: the tendency to form ingroups (an exclusive collective that shares an interest or identity), get stuck in groupthink (the practice of decision-making in a group) and be social conformists (people who adapt to accepted behavior or social mores) for the sake of ideology has spawned horrific amounts of violence. Say, the Holocaust.

2. The 4 Better Angels of our Nature that move us away from violence

Empathy: altruistic concern for the well-being of others curbs that natural tendency toward busting patellas.
Self-Control: the ability to reign in urges helps us resist violent impulses and it can be strengthened or weakened with practice.
The Moral Sense: the difference between what’s societally “right” and “wrong” can direct us toward or steer us away from violence.
Reason: reason only develops in creatures who, due to natural selection, value their own life and welfare. To that end, they are more likely to use reason to pursue their aims, not violence. Reason is also an effective method for debunking superstitions which incite violence – like the belief that witches cast spells and must be burned at the stake.

3. Who’s winning, and how we know

Score one for the good guys! It’s the angels – and history proves it. Pinker explains that the move away from violence began 5,000 years ago, when mercenary hunter-gatherer collectives formed into agricultural states that depended on peaceable participants. Successful trade also requires peace and reason, a fact that led to violence becoming a less-preferred method for negotiation. Enlightenment philosophy that dictated government focus on the wellbeing of its citizens and the Rights Movements did their part in dialing down violence, too.

Bottom line: across 5,000 years of historical change, our benevolent traits have proven more beneficial to survival, helping assure the better angels’ victory.

Drop this smart fact from Better Angels:

There’s actually been a decline in terrorism.

Political terrorism was frequent in the 1960s and 1970s, through organizations like the Black Liberation Army, the Jewish Defense League and the Weather Underground. While the number of terrorism-related deaths peaked in the early 1980s, at about 0.2 deaths per 100,000, by 2009 that figure had halved. This decrease was driven by the end of the Cold War and the support given to terrorists by Cold War parties. Happily, there have also been recent signs that since 2007, support for terrorism is also on the decline in the Muslim world.

Drop this fun fact from Better Angels:

Life in the Middle Ages was a bloodbath. Castle politics were brutal and knights were pretty rough on one another, but what was going on in the village square wasn’t all maypoles and pies, either: one of the popular sports of the time found players with hands tied behind their backs competing to kill a cat nailed to a post. How? By battering it to death with their heads – even at the risk of their cheeks being ripped open or eyes scratched out.

If you remember only one thing, make it this:

Despite what most people think, we are not living in particularly violent times. Violence is actually at a historical all-time low because the motivators which keep us from committing violence are increasingly gaining ground on the more primitive, brutal motivators which encourage us to commit violence. This dynamic has resulted in ever-decreasing conflict between countries and between groups of people.

Now, when you hear people buzzing about The Better Angels of Our Nature you can get in on the conversation, too. It’s important to note that this is only the beginning. Pick up the whole book for deep research on evolutionary and behavioral psychology, plus historical documentation, that paints a complete picture of the human impulse toward violence and where we’re headed. And in case you run into Zuck next time you’re standing in line for your morning coffee, you’ll have something to talk about!

Pick up Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature in full, or get a more thorough overview of the 5 inner demons, the 4 better angels, and the historical events that have gotten us to where we are now in about 25 minutes with Blinkist.


Image Credit: Steven Pinker 2011 by Steven Pinker – Rebecca Goldstein. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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