Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

4.5 22
by Steven Pinker

ISBN-10: 0670022950

ISBN-13: 2900670022952

Pub. Date: 10/04/2011

Publisher: Viking Adult

Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year

The author of The New York Times bestseller The Stuff of Thought offers a controversial history of violence.

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet

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Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year

The author of The New York Times bestseller The Stuff of Thought offers a controversial history of violence.

Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?

This groundbreaking book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.

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Viking Adult
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Table of Contents

List of Figures xvii

Preface xxi


1 A Foreign Country 1

Human Prehistory 2

Homeric Greece 4

The Hebrew Bible 6

The Roman Empire and Early Christendom 12

Medieval Knights 17

Early Modern Europe 18

Honor in Europe and the Early United States 21

The 20th Century 23

2 The Pacification Process 31

The Logic of Violence 31

Violence in Human Ancestors 36

Kinds of Human Societies 40

Rates of Violence in State and Nonstate Societies 47

Civilization and Its Discontents 56

3 The Civilizing Process 59

The European Homicide Decline 61

Explaining the European Homicide Decline 64

Violence and Class 81

Violence Around the World 85

Violence in These United States 91

Decivilization in the 1960s 106

Recivilization in the 1990s 116

4 The Humanitarian Revolution 129

Superstitious Killing: Human Sacrifice, Witchcraft, and Blood Libel 134

Superstitious Killing: Violence Against Blasphemers, Heretics, and Apostates 139

Cruel and Unusual Punishments 144

Capital Punishment 149

Slavery 153

Despotism and Political Violence 158

Major War 161

Whence the Humanitarian Revolution? 168

The Rise of Empathy and the Regard for Human Life 175

The Republic of Letters and Enlightenment Humanism 177

Civilization and Enlightenment 184

Blood and Soil 186

5 The Long Peace 189

Statistics and Narratives 190

Was the 20th Century Really the Worst? 193

The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, Part 1: The Timings of Wars 200

The Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, Part 2: The Magnitude of Wars 210

The Trajectory of Great Power War 222

The Trajectory of European War 228

The Hobbesian Background and the Ages of Dynasties and Religions 231

Three Currents in the Age of Sovereignty 235

Counter-Enlightenment Ideologies and the Age of Nationalism 238

Humanism and Totalitarianism in the Age of Ideology 244

The Long Peace: Some Numbers 249

The Long Peace: Attitudes and Events 255

Is the Long Peace a Nuclear Peace? 268

Is the Long Peace a Democratic Peace? 278

Is the Long Peace a Liberal Peace? 284

Is the Long Peace a Kantian Peace? 288

6 The New Peace 295

The Trajectory of War in the Rest of the World 297

The Trajectory of Genocide 320

The Trajectory of Terrorism 344

Where Angels Fear to Tread 361

7 The Rights Revolutions 378

Civil Rights and the Decline of Lynching and Racial Pogroms 382

Women's Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering 394

Children's Rights and the Decline of Infanticide, Spanking, Child Abuse, and Bullying 415

Gay Rights, the Decline of Gay-Bashing, and the Decriminalization of Homosexuality 447

Animal Rights and the Decline of Cruelty to Animals 454

Whence the Rights Revolutions? 475

From History to Psychology 480

8 Inner Demons 482

The Dark Side 483

The Moralization Gap and the Myth of Pure Evil 488

Organs of Violence 497

Predation 509

Dominance 515

Revenge 529

Sadism 547

Ideology 556

Pure Evil, Inner Demons, and the Decline of Violence 569

9 Better Angels 571

Empathy 573

Self-Control 592

Recent Biological Evolution? 611

Morality and Taboo 622

Reason 642

10 On Angels' Wings 671

Important but Inconsistent 672

The Pacifist's Dilemma 678

The Leviathan 680

Gentle Commerce 682

Feminization 684

The Expanding Circle 689

The Escalator of Reason 690

Reflections 692

Notes 697

References 739

Index 773

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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
eclipser More than 1 year ago
This book is fantastic, if you can tolerate a sober look at perhaps the most emotional of subject matter. Be prepared for some of your prejudices to be overturned. You will go on a journey through anecdotes of cruelty and tragedy, through social and psychological studies, and even through mapping the structure of the brain. Hundreds of pages long, this book will keep you reading and reading until you arrive at a cautiously optimistic endpoint. And far from heaps of speculation, nearly every page of the book cites at least one reference to the greater literature. This book has changed my thinking. That said, the eBook version has some serious shortcomings. The diagrams are nearly unreadable. The index at the back is useless without page numbers. What the heck? Get yourself a paper copy of this one, if you don't need to carry it around with you. -jw
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Exhaustive. Well researched. Fascinating. Not for the faint of heart, though, as some of the descriptions of violent acts can be pretty graphic. Wothwhile read for sure.
ConstantObserver More than 1 year ago
THE NOTION that in 2012 we live in the least violent times our species has ever known seems odd at first. The idea even makes one bridle in disbelief. Yet, that is the central idea in The Angels of Our Better Nature. Steven Pinker makes a good case—good enough that I frequently found myself examining ideas I previously held as settled fact to see if they might not be just settled prejudices. That's good writing. Any reader grows or learns only after reaching that point. Why take the trouble to look beyond what you 'know' unless something gives you reason to sense there might be more to be found. This is where Pinker shines. He is always there, the consummate guiding teacher, suggesting things to consider. This is encounter with the big picture though faithful attention to detail. He does not push, does not attempt to drag you his way with rhetoric. He neither blusters nor condescends. Instead, he guides and offers for your consideration. Then he always brings you back to your own life. You just understand it better. It is not recitation of fact and argument. It is conversation. There is a person in there. For sure, there is careful argument, with equally careful examination of counter-evidence and plausible synthesis of threads from many, many sources in science, history, math, logic and psychology—even art. He brings a reader not so much to acceptance of his point as to greater comprehension of it in the context of human life. “Draw your own conclusions.” he seems to say. His prose sparkles with clarity. This book has some passages that rely on analytical mathematics, things most of us don't deal with very often. I am interested in math but I am by no means a mathematician. I had to read some passages repeatedly, but I was rewarded. I didn't learn mathematics (well, maybe a little bit) but his presentation succeeded in giving me a clear sense of the mechanics of the phenomena described by the math. Without inflicting pain. That's a worthy achievement.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love Steven Pinker and everything he's ever written, and even when I disagree with him, he is always entertaining, enlightening and thought-provoking (all of which, btw, is certainly the case here, except for the disagreement). In a society slowly destroying itself from within, demeaning and depleting its own self-confidence, by believing, against all available evidence, that things have never been so bad and are getting worse. Huh? Such blatant, unreflective thinking (or lack thereof) badly needs the corrective and often counterintuitive ideas in this book. Thank God there are those like Pinker that refuse to accept the current scientistic/political orthodoxies, whatever they may be (read The Blank Slate for another brilliant example) and have the knowledge and wit to challenge, indeed demolish, that conventional wisdom, the common sense, which he loves to show is so often completely wrong. (I just wish he wrote more often). This is not just a great argument against the various alarmists forever proclaiming that the sky is falling (in this case, the commonly held presumption that we as a society are consumed by violence and war and are heading toward inevitable cataclysm), it's a wealth of fascinating information, full of surprises and somehow considering the subject, a true page turner. He, along with Terry Pratchett (and with the sadly deceased, but greatest genius of the second half of the last century, Richard Feynman) are my favorite authors, the best and wisest current (or nearly so) writers of philosophy, science and the intersection of both with cultural commentary I know, precisely, I suspect, because they don't claim to be philosophers (whose current professional incarnations, at least, seem to know as little about real philosophy, and even less about its foundation in science and history, as, for example, our artists and poets know or care for or even have any talent for art or poetry). I always feel a bit sad when I finish one of their books (and immediately can't wait for the next) both because they're so much fun, but also because I have the sense that I've gained so much from reading their each very distinctive works and wish they didn't have to end. They write with boundless imagination, wit and clarity, always managing to entertain, enlighten and provoke with their wonderful books.
FCVA More than 1 year ago
This book puts great math and rigor behind a really really important question ... are humans becoming more or less violent over history. If we watch the news and see today's latest horror of human evil, and feel it as if it happened to someone near us we'd probably think these are the worst of times. But the history and math tell a much more optimistic story and one that's really important to understand in terms of our whole approach to the world and history. With that said, Pinker's snark regarding religion is unhelpful and rather misses the Church's role in the fruit that Pinker so thoroughly documents. (See Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" for a much more helpful approach to a related questions). Additionally, the book is about 2/3ds longer than it needed to be. A good editor and distillation would have been quite welcome. Still, 4 stars for doing the heavy lifting on a really important question and explaining it well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dr. Pinker knows how to make history, psychology, anthropology and economics into a blended, cohesive and utterly fascinating text. This bok wil provoke countless discussions and i certainly plan to use it in my teaching as well. Truly brilliant and thoroughly researched. I give it a very strong recommendation for anyone who likes to think and learn.
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