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Better Angels of Our Nature, The: Why Violence Has Declined

Better Angels of Our Nature, The: Why Violence Has Declined

4.5 22
by Steven Pinker, Arthur Morey (Read by)

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We’ve all asked, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. In fact, we may be living in the most peaceable era yet.

Evidence of a bloody history has always been


We’ve all asked, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. In fact, we may be living in the most peaceable era yet.

Evidence of a bloody history has always been around us: the genocides in the Old Testament and crucifixions in the New; the gory mutilations in Shakespeare and Grimm; the British monarchs who beheaded their relatives and the American founders who dueled with their rivals.

Now the decline in these brutal practices can be quantified. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse — all substantially down.

How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed?

Pinker argues that the key to explaining the decline of violence is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.

Editorial Reviews

Peter Singer
…for anyone interested in understanding human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor…The Better Angels of Our Nature is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline.
—The New York Times Book Review

Bad news doesn't just travel fast; it sticks. Day after day, we shield our heads from unceasing media barrages of shocking crimes and genocide. Well-reported news of bloody wars, terrorism, torture, and homegrown violence feed into a sense that things are getting worse. Famed cognitive scientist and popular science author Steven Pinker (The Stuff of Science; The Language Instinct) Steven Pinker thinks that we're reading the evidence wrong. In this counterintuitive, heartening book, he argues persuasively we are in fact living in the most peaceful era in our species' history. Presenting his case in empirical terms, he shows how warfare, slavery, racial extermination, rape, riot, massacres, child abuse, and animal cruelty flourished in previous ages in ways that we would think almost unimaginable. A major author; a timely topic; certain to be widely reviewed.

Publishers Weekly
In the perennial debate over nature versus nurture, Steven Pinker has established himself as the pre-eminent contemporary spokesman for biology as destiny. Every few years, Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, publishes a doorstop-sized, improbably readable tome that swiftly generates controversy. Pinker’s thesis is that the human condition is, in effect, coded into the human genome. We have about two dozen basic cognitive and emotional systems operating between our ears. They are the product of evolution. Our capabilities as a species (for example, language) as well as our all too obvious limitations (say, the penchant for aggression) have eons of momentum behind them. Thus human nature, while somewhat flexible, is, for the most part, fixed. So it proves mildly surprising to consider the subtitle of Pinker’s new book. The very claim that violence has declined seems counterintuitive. After all, the 20th century obliged us to invent new terms such as “genocide” and “concentration camp”—while this one has been plenty bloody so far. But rather than claiming that some homicidal imperative is hard-wired into us as organisms, Pinker maintains that we’ve grown less bloodthirsty over the course of recorded history. Through historical shortsightedness, we’re prone to underestimate just how pervasive routine violence was in previous eras. But Pinker’s graphs—and the evidence he harvests from anthropologists, historians, criminologists, and experts of many other kinds—suggest that the percentage of the population killed in warfare or everyday mayhem has declined, from century to century. The number of executions has gone down, and routine public displays of viciousness (such as torture and lynching) have grown less socially acceptable. By Pinker’s account, our evolutionary inheritance includes a tendency for dominance—as well as a knack for rationalizing violent actions as “provoked, justified, involuntary, or inconsequential.” But we also have capacities for self-control and empathy that become reinforced when societies undergo what the great sociologist Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process” of establishing a central, rational authority. Alas, that process has failed to pacify “the lower strata of the socioeconomic scale, and the inaccessible or inhospitable territories of the globe.” (The latter phrase evidently refers to the Third World, rather than Antarctica.) Better Angels is a fascinating and deeply irritating book—full of thought-provoking data, but also prone to bursts of dismissive sneering toward researchers whose work runs counter to Pinker’s current of thinking. He effectively reinvents Victorian notions of “the dangerous classes” and “lesser breeds without the law.” But his vision of “civilized” societies triumphing over humanity’s murderous impulses would be more credible if highly developed countries had not developed so many weapons capable of destroying all life on Earth several times over. Scott McLemee writes the weekly column Intellectual Affairs for Inside Higher Ed.
Library Journal
Drawing on a wealth of data and multidisciplinary research, Pinker (psychology, Harvard; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature) reaches the highly counterintuitive conclusion that we may be living in the most peaceful era in history. He defines violence broadly to include acts ranging from war, crime, and torture to bullying, battering, and abortion. The book is organized around six historical periods from prehistory to the post-World War II "Rights Revolution." The author explores the neurobiology of violence, including urges that fuel aggression and countervailing faculties like reason and self-control. Historical forces that have fostered peace and cooperation, like commerce and the rise of the modern state, are also analyzed. While supportive statistics for earlier times and non-Western nations are predictably less compelling than comparable current data for Western societies, and sweeping generalizations (e.g., decline of child abuse) are sometimes based on limited data, the book's thesis is well argued. VERDICT Scholarly yet readable, this book is recommended for readers interested in history, human evolution, and psychology. A stimulating volume that tackles a big issue with an unusual combination of intellectual rigor and optimism. [See Prepub Alert, 4/18/11.]—Antoinette Brinkman, M.L.S., Evansville, IN
Kirkus Reviews

Frightened of your own shadow? Worried about lone gunmen and psycho killers? Pinker (Psychology/Harvard Univ.; The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, 2007, etc.) encourages readers not to fret so much.

Recognizing that the world can be a dangerous place, the author sets out as his overarching thesis the fact that violence has steadily declined in human society over the generations—"today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species's existence." For those who consider humans to be simply well-armed chimpanzees, Pinker argues that there would seem to be nothing innate about "coalitional violence"—that is, the savage raiding that so characterizes chimpanzee society on one hand and what ethnologists used to call primitive human societies on the other. Yet, he adds, neither is there much reason to believe that we evolved to be peaceniks on the putative model of bonobos, who, in nature, turn out not to be the hippies of the primate world but who nonetheless cause less mayhem than their (and our) chimp relatives. In other words, our behavior is more situational and provisional than hard-wired, for which reason, as Pinker writes, the rate of violence (at least, of the non-coalitional sort) in most parts of the world is steadily declining. As evidence, he cites the steady disinvestment of many world powers in military enterprises, as well as the complex statistics in rates of death in warfare in state and nonstate societies (for the Aztecs, about 250 per 100,000; for America during the Vietnam era, about 3.7 per 100,000). Pinker ranges widely, citing the literature of neuroscience here and the poems of Homer there, visiting vast databases of statistics while pondering the wisdom of Thomas Hobbes' conception of human life as "nasty, brutish, and short," and analyzing such weighty matters as "the adaptive logic of violence" and "pathways to self-control."

Classic Pinker, jammed with facts, figures, and points of speculative departure; a big, complex book, well worth the effort for the good news that it delivers.

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Meet the Author

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer finalist and the winner of many prizes for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers. He lives in Cambridge.

Brief Biography

Boston, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
September 18, 1954
Place of Birth:
Montreal, Canada
B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979

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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
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
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.
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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