When we think about the lives we live compared with the lives of humans in the distant past, we think of ourselves as smarter, more civilized, and all around better than those who came before us. We see people of the past as bigots, racists, and savages and we assume that we are free from the inner demons which drove humanity to atrocities of the past. But the reality is that we are not that far removed from the evils of human history and we have not had the time that nature would need to evolve our brains and thinking to be something different.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes, “the parts of the brain that restrain our darker impulses were also standard equipment in our ancestors who kept slaves, burned witches, and beat children, so they clearly don’t make people good by default.” Everything about our psychology that led to the Crusades, to the Holocaust, and to everything negative about our past is still present in our current selves. Evolution cannot have changed us so substantially in just a few dozen generations. Evolution needs tens of thousands of years to make changes so large.
What has changed is our culture, scientific understanding of ourselves and the universe, and the institutions we have built around ourselves. But even with advances in these areas which make us more civilized, smarter, and more peaceful, we have to remember that our inner demons are still there. Pinker continues, “the exploration of our better angels must show not only how they steer us away from violence, but why they so often fail to do so; not just how they have been increasingly engaged, but why history had to wait so long to engage them fully.”
We have to remember that we are not free from the things which made humanity commit evils in the past. We have to understand how our better angels won out and made the world a safer place and strengthened the aspects of our culture, our knowledge, and our institutions to help further the trend toward peace and civility. We are not a new type of superhuman who cannot commit evil, but we can build a world that better incentives good behavior, rewards people who advance knowledge and understanding, and create institutions which are more equitable, more fair, and less subject to bias and nonsensical beliefs. The more we can do these things, the more our better angels will win out and the less our inner demons will drive us to be violent.