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The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes Hardcover – 6 Oct 2011


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane (6 Oct. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846140935
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846140938
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 5.2 x 24 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 234,146 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching, books, and scientific research, Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He also writes frequently for The New York Times, Time, The New Republic, and other magazines.

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Review

Brilliant, mind-altering...Everyone should read this astonishing book (David Runciman Guardian)

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 (Peter Singer New York Times)

[A] sweeping new review of the history of human violence...[Pinker has] the kind of academic superbrain that can translate otherwise impenetrable statistics into a meaningful narrative of human behaviour...impeccable scholarship (Tony Allen-Mills Sunday Times)

Written in Pinker's distinctively entertaining and clear personal style...a marvellous synthesis of science, history and storytelling (Clive Cookson Financial Times)

A salutary reality-check...Better Angels is itself a great liberal landmark (Marek Kohn Independent)

Pinker's scholarhsip is astounding...flawless...masterful (Joanna Bourke The Times)

Selected by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2011 (New York Times)

About the Author

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time and Slate, and is the author of six books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 58 people found the following review helpful By Dr. W. S. James on 9 Sept. 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a very big and dense book, and you'll need time and energy to get the most out of it, but it's well worth the effort. Don't believe the dismissive reviews by conservative romanticists and sectarian anthropologists; they've either not read it or are incapable of persuasion. In the first half, Pinker undertakes a monumental survey of the available evidence concerning the rates of violence (war, genocide, assault, murder, judicial killing, etc.) and exclusion (slavery, disenfranchisement, discrimination, etc.) from prehistory to the present, and across most parts of the globe. The tide of statistics tells a consistent, overwhelming and frankly uplifting story of progressive and accelerating improvement. As a tiny example, homicide rates in Europe have declined steadily by 100-fold over the last seven centuries, are continuing to decline rapidly, and are estimated to have been orders of magnitude higher in earlier millennia. World Wars, industrial genocide and regional famines notwithstanding, the trend that we are all likelier - much likelier - to live socially and economically engaged lives and die naturally in our beds than were each of the preceding generations. Clearly, as we individuals age, we tend to reminisce and view the present as a nastier world than the one we grew up in. But the data just as clearly show that this is a subjective error. In the second part of the book - and indeed, previewed repeatedly during the historical section - Pinker attempts to assemble an explanation of the processes that have driven this trend. He is at pains to point out that none of his explanations suggest that the process is irreversible, and that we cannot shirk our responsibility to hand on a better world to the next generation.Read more ›
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro on 11 July 2013
Format: Paperback
This is a book somewhat in the same genre as Hans Rosling's work, a cheerful message using statistics to show that things have, indeed, gotten better in our world, in this case that violence has been reduced to small fractions of their earlier levels, seen over the last few thousand years, and indeed even the last few decades. However, Pinker goes somewhat further than Rosling and tries to tease out the causes of improvement, on the assumption that probably they are not inexorable forces of nature, but the confluence of multiple factors, due to both human psychology and the social structures we have erected, and thus may revert if we do not consciously strive to retain those structures that have enabled--at least a part of humanity--to live in unprecedented peace.

Pinker has gathered all sorts of statistics of violence through the ages, and while he readily admits that some of the earliest statistics are based on estimates, he then proceeds to take them much at face value. I intensely dislike statistical plots that do not display error bars as it makes it impossible to tell if the, in this case, negative trends actually have statistical validity.

Pinker's writing is very clear and enjoyable, filled with various pop-cultural references--anyone who manages to work in a Paul Simon quote in a scientific argument gets a point in my book. However, the downside is that the cultural references are made from an almost exclusively Anglo-US perspective, Yiddish quips notwithstanding. That opens up for the counter-argument that Pinker's presentation of the western-style capitalist democracy as being the optimal structure of society may be just ethnocentrism, and this is a weak point.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By micah on 15 Jan. 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
An interesting perspective, to say the least. There are some "complex statistics" to back the presented data (if you consider line graphs on a logarithmic scale "complex) but there are a LOT of missing data points whose trends are interpolated post hoc. Anybody with even a high school understanding of statistics will roll their eyes at Pinker's "robust conclusions". While it may be true that there has been a "general" decline in violence rate, the data available does not support such a conclusion, particularly given the non-availability of so much data. But given Pinker's field, he is far more fond of making "premature extrapolations" than actually conducting real experiments.
I stopped reading after going through three quarters of the text because i) it is the same argument re-hashed in different chapters with the casuistry expected of a linguist, ii) its simply too cumbersome to complete and iii) is a feel-good book for the cherry-picking libertarian.
You don't have to be a specialist to write an excellent book on present social issues (e.g., "Behind the myths" by John Pickard is a much more engaging alternative) but Pinker is, in lack of a better term, simply boring.
I am amazed that he is an "experimental psychologist" although he has not ran a single "experiment" in a decade (or more than a handful of decent studies over a lifetime) and his training is as a linguist. Perhaps acquiring tenure with Harvard is simply a matter of coming to the interview with a thesaurus at hand...
In any case, Pinker's aptitude as a historian at least matches that of his career as an "experimental psychologist"
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