When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that his second book-club pick was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, there was some snarking: it’s a weighty read filled with historical anecdotes, facts, and statistics—and it seems to go against all common sense. Pinker claims that our modern world is less violent than the past by orders of magnitude, despite what we see on television every day.
But here’s the deal: it’s a fantastic book, and it does a great job of selling its premise. Pinker sprinkles in enough humor and easygoing charm to make his densely informative material fun. He also lays out his argument clearly and powerfully. Several global forces (the monopoly on force in the modern state, the rise of commerce, deeper understanding of others and other cultures, increased respect for women, and the rise of science), combined with the “better angels” of human nature (empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason), have carved out a moment in history that is provably less dangerous and less violent than ever before, no matter what the nightly news or other media says. Here are five amazing things you can learn from this incredible book.
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The crucifixion of Jesus was shocking…but not for reasons you’d think.
Even non-Christians are familiar with the story of the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans—the cross, after all, remains one of the most-recognized symbols in the world. But if you think early Christians were shocked at the violence inherent in crucifixion, think again. It was common enough back then that no one thought much of it. What his followers found shocking was that Jesus was executed like (and alongside) common criminals. The actual horror of the method was kind of shrugged at.
Morality has nothing to do with justice.
You might think we have laws and courts and police because humans are inherently goodhearted and seek to make life less violent. But Pinker convincingly argues that the state administers justice for the simple, practical reason that it benefits the state. Think of it this way: if people feel free to solve problems by engaging in vendettas or private wars, it would make it very difficult for the state to collect taxes and impose its own authority. Its monopoly on violent force is, in fact, one reason Pinker sees for the decline of violence in general.
The rise of commerce made people too valuable to kill.
If the idea that justice is disconnected from morality bothers you, how about this: Pinker argues that the rise of trade and commerce—wherein people trade goods and services, freeing some of us from agriculture and other basic survival activities—raised the inherent value of most individuals too high for indiscriminate murder to be allowed. In other words, someone has to buy all those sneakers and video games, and therefore you’ve been spared the callous brutality our ancestors had to contend with.
A lot of ancient skeletons belonged to murder victims.
In discussing how violent the distant past was, Pinker offers a disturbing recitation of ancient remains found preserved in various ways around the world—Ötzi the Iceman, Kennewick Man, and Lindow Man, among others—who were brutally murdered. While it’s possible factors of circumstance or chance have skewed the findings, it’s chilling to realize that many of the corpses that have survived the centuries were murder victims.
Modern murder rarely has an economic component.
If prime-time television has taught us anything, it’s that most murders are committed by criminals for financial gain, either directly or indirectly. The facts and stats Pinker offers say otherwise. Only about 15% of all murders were clearly motivated by personal gain. The rest? Committed, Pinker argues, by people who don’t trust the state and its monopoly on force. In short: killers are generally taking matters of honor or justice into their own hands.
Pinker is careful to note that this remarkable moment of declining violence in all layers of life—from global warfare to your chances of being shot down in the street—may be temporary, and he does not predict the future. But after absorbing the surprising information in this book, you’ll never think about the evening news in the same way.