The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

by Steven Pinker

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Overview

“If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this—the most inspiring book I've ever read."
Bill Gates (May, 2017)

A provocative history of violence—from the New York Times bestselling author of The Stuff of ThoughtThe Blank Slate, and Enlightenment Now.

Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history. Exploding myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143122012
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/25/2012
Pages: 832
Sales rank: 44,997
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards 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.

Hometown:

Boston, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

September 18, 1954

Place of Birth:

Montreal, Canada

Education:

B.A., McGill University, 1976; Ph.D., Harvard University, 1979

Read an Excerpt

PREFACE

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.

The historical trajectory of violence affects not only how life is lived but how it is understood. What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off? How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity—of the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science? So much depends on how we understand the legacy of this transition: whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.

The question of whether the arithmetic sign of trends in violence is positive or negative also bears on our conception of human nature. Though theories of human nature rooted in biology are often associated with fatalism about violence, and the theory that the mind is a blank slate is associated with progress, in my view it is the other way around. How are we to understand the natural state of life when our species first emerged and the processes of history began? The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has xxi decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue.

This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword “If it bleeds, it leads.” The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.1 No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.

Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has ever recruited activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, and bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they lull people into complacency. Also, a large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity, and Western society. But perhaps the main cause of the illusion of ever-present violence springs from one of the forces that drove violence down in the first place. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. By the standards of the mass atrocities of human history, the lethal injection of a murderer in Texas, or an occasional hate crime in which a member of an ethnic minority is intimidated by hooligans, is pretty mild stuff. But from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.

In the teeth of these preconceptions, I will have to persuade you with numbers, which I will glean from datasets and depict in graphs. In each case I’ll explain where the numbers came from and do my best to interpret the ways they fall into place. The problem I have set out to understand is the reduction in violence at many scales—in the family, in the neighborhood, between tribes and other armed factions, and among major nations and states. If the history of violence at each level of granularity had an idiosyncratic trajectory, each would belong in a separate book. But to my repeated astonishment, the global trends in almost all of them, viewed from the vantage point of the present, point downward. That calls for documenting the various trends between a single pair of covers, and seeking commonalities in when, how, and why they have occurred.

Too many kinds of violence, I hope to convince you, have moved in the same direction for it all to be a coincidence, and that calls for an explanation. It is natural to recount the history of violence as a moral saga—a heroic struggle of justice against evil—but that is not my starting point. My approach is scientific in the broad sense of seeking explanations for why things happen. We may discover that a particular advance in peacefulness was brought about by moral entrepreneurs and their movements. But we may also discover that the explanation is more prosaic, like a change in technology, governance, commerce, or knowledge. Nor can we understand the decline of violence as an unstoppable force for progress that is carrying us toward an omega point of perfect peace. It is a collection of statistical trends in the behavior of groups of humans in various epochs, and as such it calls for an explanation in terms of psychology and history: how human minds deal with changing circumstances.

A large part of the book will explore the psychology of violence and nonviolence. The theory of mind that I will invoke is the synthesis of cognitive science, affective and cognitive neuroscience, social and evolutionary psychology, and other sciences of human nature that I explored in How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought. According to this understanding, the mind is a complex system of cognitive and emotional faculties implemented in the brain which owe their basic design to the processes of evolution. Some of these faculties incline us toward various kinds of violence. Others—“the better angels of our nature,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words—incline us toward cooperation and peace. The way to explain the decline of violence is to identify the changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.

Finally, I need to show how our history has engaged our psychology. Everything in human affairs is connected to everything else, and that is especially true of violence. Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade. It’s not easy to tell which of these happy traits got the virtuous circle started and which went along for the ride, and it’s tempting to resign oneself to unsatisfying circularities, such as that violence declined because the culture got less violent. Social scientists distinguish “endogenous” variables—those that are inside the system, where they may be affected by the very phenomenon they are trying to explain—from the “exogenous” ones—those that are set in motion by forces from the outside. Exogenous forces can originate in the practical realm, such as changes in technology, demographics, and the mechanisms of commerce and governance. But they can also originate in the intellectual realm, as new ideas are conceived and disseminated and take on a life of their own. The most satisfying explanation of a historical change is one that identifies an exogenous trigger. To the best that the data allow it, I will try to identify exogenous forces that have engaged our mental faculties in different ways at different times and that thereby can be said to have caused the declines in violence.

The discussions that try to do justice to these questions add up to a big book—big enough that it won’t spoil the story if I preview its major conclusions. The Better Angels of Our Nature is a tale of six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces.

Six Trends (chapters 2 through 7). To give some coherence to the many developments that make up our species’ retreat from violence, I group them into six major trends.

The first, which took place on the scale of millennia, was the transition from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. With that change came a reduction in the chronic raiding and feuding that characterized life in a state of nature and a more or less fivefold decrease in rates of violent death. I call this imposition of peace the Pacification Process.

The second transition spanned more than half a millennium and is best documented in Europe. Between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a tenfold-to-fiftyfold decline in their rates of homicide. In his classic book The Civilizing Process, the sociologist Norbert Elias attributed this surprising decline to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce. With a nod to Elias, I call this trend the Civilizing Process.

The third transition unfolded on the scale of centuries and took off around the time of the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries (though it had antecedents in classical Greece and the Renaissance, and parallels elsewhere in the world). It saw the first organized movements to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, and cruelty to animals, together with the first stirrings of systematic pacifism. Historians sometimes call this transition the Humanitarian Revolution.

The fourth major transition took place after the end of World War II. The two-thirds of a century since then have been witness to a historically unprecedented development: the great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another. Historians have called this blessed state of affairs the Long Peace.2

The fifth trend is also about armed combat but is more tenuous. Though it may be hard for news readers to believe, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, organized conflicts of all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks—have declined throughout the world. In recognition of the tentative nature of this happy development, I will call it the New Peace.

Finally, the postwar era, symbolically inaugurated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, has seen a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals. These spin-offs from the concept of human rights—civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights—were asserted in a cascade of movements from the late 1950s to the present day which I will call the Rights Revolutions.

Five Inner Demons (chapter 8). Many people implicitly believe in the Hydraulic Theory of Violence: that humans harbor an inner drive toward aggression (a death instinct or thirst for blood), which builds up inside us and must periodically be discharged. Nothing could be further from a contemporary scientific understanding of the psychology of violence. Aggression is not a single motive, let alone a mounting urge. It is the output of several psychological systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal logic, their neurobiological basis, and their social distribution. Chapter 8 is devoted to explaining five of them. Predatory or instrumental violence is simply violence deployed as a practical means to an end. Dominance is the urge for authority, prestige, glory, and power, whether it takes the form of macho posturing among individuals or contests for supremacy among racial, ethnic, religious, or national groups. Revenge fuels the moralistic urge toward retribution, punishment, and justice. Sadism is pleasure taken in another’s suffering. And ideology is a shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, that justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.

Four Better Angels (chapter 9). Humans are not innately good (just as they are not innately evil), but they come equipped with motives that can orient them away from violence and toward cooperation and altruism. Empathy (particularly in the sense of sympathetic concern) prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own. Self-control allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to inhibit them accordingly. The moral sense sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people in a culture, sometimes in ways that decrease violence, though often (when the norms are tribal, authoritarian, or puritanical) in ways that increase it. And the faculty of reason allows us to extricate ourselves from our parochial vantage points, to reflect on the ways in which we live our lives, to deduce ways in which we could be better off, and to guide the application of the other better angels of our nature. In one section I will also examine the possibility that in recent history Homo sapiens has literally evolved to become less violent in the biologist’s technical sense of a change in our genome. But the focus of the book is on transformations that are strictly environmental: changes in historical circumstances that engage a fixed human nature in different ways.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Better Angels of Our Nature"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Steven Pinker.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Figures xvii

Preface xxi

Chapter

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

What People are Saying About This

Colin McGinn

Praise for THE BLANK SLATE

“An extremely good book—clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating.”

Time

“Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read…also highly persuasive.”

The Wall Street Journal

"An extraordinary range of research . . . a masterly effort."

The New York Review of Books

 “Packed with information, clear, witty, attractively written …”

From the Publisher

A Mark Zuckerberg "Year of Books" Pick

"My favorite book of the last decade is [Steven] Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a long but profound look at the reduction in violence and discrimination over time."—Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

The New York Times Book Review

Praise for THE STUFF OF THOUGHT
“The majesty of Pinker’s theories is only one side of the story.  The other side is the modesty of how he built them.  It all makes sense, when you look at it the right way.”

Science

“Engaging and witty …Everyone with an interest in language and how it gets to be how it is—that is, everyone interested in how we get to be human and do our human business—should read THE STUFF OF THOUGHT.”

Slate

"Better Angels is a monumental achievement. His book should make it much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future. Whether war is an ancient adaptation or a pernicious cultural infection, we are learning how to overcome it."

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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 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.
Gracelovsbks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Intense and convincing.
superant on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Better Angels of Our Nature is a very ambitious book. I admire the goal and premise of the book. Attempting to prove a premise like this is probably impossible at this time. The required additional models needed as proof are themselves on weak ground, so in order to reach the conclusions Pinker seeks, we must accept many other premises and conclusions. This is a common issue that confronts us on social and cultural challenges. The question seems straightforward: is there less violent death in the present century than in previous centuries. But this question depends on many other questions. Can we trust the demographic records at the present time and from previous times? Which deaths are considered violent deaths? Likely, more people die from disease in each war, than from stabbing or shooting. The populations have changed, so how do we adjust for numbers of dead? So while I applaud the intent of the book, I believe the weight of evidence depends less on charts, graphs and numbers and more on clearly defining models under which a valid answer can be obtained. Probably a good reason to read this book would be to see how this type of question can be approached and to encourage other people to take on these types of questions.
St.CroixSue on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Brilliant book combining psychology, history, sociology, cognitive science, and economics illustrating in a stunning fashion that the world of the past was violent and atrocious, and we are now living in the best of times. Long, fascinating and important book.
rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you can stand evolutionary psychology, this is a very interesting book arguing that violence, while still a huge problem, has declined substantially across many categories of behaviors, from wars to intimate violence to animal cruelty. Pinker argues that literacy and rationality have contributed to the decline: both lead us to put ourselves in other people¿s positions, and make it harder for us to explain why I should be able to hurt you just because I am me and you are not. He also suggests that cleanliness/health may have something to do with it too: it¿s very easy to make the fundamental attribution error of concluding that people who live in bad conditions are therefore bad. I wish I could write the essay about this book¿s perspective on human nature versus that of David Graeber¿s Debt, because Pinker seems to believe that money/market capitalism is the natural form of mutually beneficial exchange, when Graeber makes a strong case that reciprocal indebtedness without measurement is more firmly rooted in human history.
puttocklibrary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very dense book, but it is excellently written. It presents a theory that violence has declined from historical times through to the present, and presents a clear hypothesis for why this has happened. After reading this book, I am beyond grateful that I was born in the latter half of 20th century, rather than at any earlier point, after reading this book!
AsYouKnow_Bob on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was fully prepared to hate this, and didn't hate it.Pinker is controversial, if not an outright figure-of-fun*, but the case he builds here is not wrong on its face. I was leery of some of his sources (there's no excuse for giving citation juice to a hate website) , and some of his graphs are simply Crimes Against Tufte, but the case he makes is certainly well-supported. The thesis - which he's pretty coy about, and only reveals after about 650 pages - is that life is better today because people are smarter. Uh, OK: Pinker is a psychologist, and thinks that the grand sweep of historical progress is due to psychological factors. That's not wrong on its face, but I'd think he's slighting the material conditions that support the luxury of viewing competing human claims as equivalent. Hungry, desperate people are funny about seeing the validity of other's claims to resources. * (E.g.: In the course of the month I spent reading this, I ran a cross a review by one of the editors of the LRB, a review of three books about Google that had absolutely NOTHING TO DO with Pinker. And in the Oct 6th LRB, - out of a clear blue sky - there was an offhand observation made about the importance of citation-ranking on reputation:"Rankings based on citations aren't necessarily a measure of excellence - if they were, we wouldn't hear so much about Steven Pinker - but they do reflect where humans have decided that authority lies."Pinker is now a standing example of someone whose reputation is overrated.)
Capfox on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Better Angels of Our Nature falls into a category of book that I've come to think of as happy realization non-fiction. In these books, the author argues that despite what one may think due to exposure to regular media and conventional wisdom, matters in the world as they are now aren't nearly as bad as they're made out to be, and in fact are greatly improved from how they once were. Other examples, just off the top of my head, include some of Gregg Easterbrook's work, like the Progress Paradox or A Moment on This Earth. I like reading books like this as an antidote to much of the other non-fiction I read, which tends to argue that things are getting worse all the time, with the point usually being that it is now urgent to stand and fight or donate money for their cause, or change your life right away, or sometimes just realize that everything's already gone to hell in a handbasket and there's nothing further to be done.Pinker's specific argument is that, in contrast to what's usually reported, the world has grown less violent over time, and that the current age we live in is the most peaceful and safest ever. As Pinker himself admits at the beginning of the book, this is not a concept that most people cotton to particularly quickly, what with all the reported violence and the idea of the 20th century being the bloodiest ever, etc. Pretty much everyone who saw me reading the book and stopped to talk about it with me found it a bit odd.To convince us, then, Pinker marshals hundreds of pages of documentation showing that statistically, rates of violent death from large-scale wars on down through homicides, have been decreasing for a long while, over the course of centuries and then with further focus on decreases after World War II. He identifies four different periods over which the decline occurred, with different exogenous factors given for this change, such as the rise of the state, the emulation of courtly manners by the lower classes, the pacifying nature of commerce, the rising importance of the individual, etc. To me, the presentation of the statistics, and then the ideas behind them, are quite convincing. He also draws attention to how bad it really used to be, the casual cruelty and violence that used to occur regularly that we've lexified, but have forgotten what it means that torture and war were so commonplace that the terms made it in.After this attempt to convince us of the rightness of his central claim, Pinker turns to an examination of what leads to violence, presenting studies of the neurological bases for different types of violence (e.g. predatory, sadistic, etc.) and psychological studies looking at what can cause people to work along those lines. He then looks at the titular better angels (e.g. empathy, self-control) in the same fashion, and describes where each of these are set within the brain, how they're expressed in psychological studies, and how, to some degree, they may have come to have the upper hand over violence.Pinker is careful not to make any predictions about the continued lack of war between great powers, or the continuing fall of homicide, rape, and other violent crimes; he points out that only one leader who wants violence is necessary for such a war to occur, and when great power wars occur, they can often be incredibly costly. However, if our tendency towards violence has come to be more muted due to better self-control, to better abilities to take the perspective of others, to rises in symbolic intelligence, and I don't see these reversing course in the near future. That said, yeah, I wouldn't want to stake my reputation on it, either.The writing style of the book is pretty lucid for the amount of statistics and argumentation in it, and he returns to themes regularly enough for you to know which of the points he's trying to make he wants you to go home with. There was, of course, a lot of violence, and graphic descriptions thereof, but there were also some lighter, more humorous mom
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