…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.
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.
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
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.