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The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes [Hardcover]

Steven Pinker
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 Oct 2011

This riveting, myth-destroying book reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent, over millenia and decades. Can violence really have declined? The images of conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. Extraordinarily, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and between societies - both murder and warfare - really has declined from prehistory to today. We are much less likely to die at someone else's hands than ever before. Even the horrific carnage of the last century, when compared to the dangers of pre-state societies, is part of this trend.

Debunking both the idea of the 'noble savage' and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a 'nasty, brutish and short' life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. He ranges over everything from art to religion, international trade to individual table manners, and shows how life has changed across the centuries and around the world - not simply through the huge benefits of organized government, but also because of the extraordinary power of progressive ideas. Why has this come about? And what does it tell us about ourselves? It takes one of the world's greatest psychologists to have the ambition and the breadth of understanding to appreciate and explain this story, to show us our very natures.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane; First Edition edition (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: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (109 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 111,428 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.

Product Description


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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
50 of 53 people found the following review helpful
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great but disagree with some of it 13 Feb 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I cannot agree more with the main thrust of the book. As a scientist, I am always astounded at the lack of numeracy in the humanities camp. Pinker grabs hold of the available data and it all points to an overall decline in violence and in the probability of falling victim to violence.
What made me gasp was some quite patronising stuff on for instance, women's' rights. Feminists would surely take issue with that.
I thought he made too much of a meal of blaming the 1960's hippy culture on the slight rise in violence in the 60's 70's and 80's.

I also note the complete absence of any consideration of 'violence' to the ecosystem. It's all very well having increasingly peaceful societies to live in, but not if they are about to be overwhelmed by ecological catastrophe.

Finally I note the absence of any comment on the Israel - Palestine situation. It represents an anomaly in that it is the only example since 1945 of the forced takeover of territory and eviction of populations carried out by a 'Western democratic' power, and with the consent of the western dominant powers.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound, Magisterial and Wonderfully Written 23 Jun 2013
Stephen Pinker has long been a writer whose works I've enjoyed. At his best, he combines an effortless command of the latest scientific research with a warm and engaging style. He is impartial when considering the evidence, but pulls no punches when it comes to spelling out the implications of the facts.

This book is Pinker at his best, and then some.

Better Angels of Our Nature examines the extra-ordinary decline in violence of every kind over the course of human history. This decline is seen in every sphere and in every timescale (notwithstanding short-term variability, of which the world wars of the 20th century were a horrific example). His hopeful claim may seem counter-intuitive to many, and so it is one Pinker evidences extensively. Along the way, he dynamites some truisms dear to ideologues across the political spectrum; including the myth of the noble savage, the supremacy of free will over the influence of society, and the notion that human nature must be intrinsically good, or intrinsically evil. The latter third of the book is then spent examining possible reasons for this decline in violence. Wonderfully, Pinker finishes without discussing the ramifications of this staggering truth. He leaves that to the reader.

Better Angels is a long book, and heavy on data. The subject material is so fascinating, however, and Pinker's prose so gripping that it never becomes dull. There are some lengthy asides, but it is difficult to begrudge Pinker these; all are relevant, and sparkle with interest. Many of other ideas touched upon are as fascinating (if not as profound) as his central thesis, and could easily fill books of their own. Pursuing his quarry, Pinker ranges not only across the landscape of political science but sociology, psychology and probability theory.
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75 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dazzling Tour de Force 16 Oct 2011
By F Henwood TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Good news, folks. Violence has been declining. We are getting kinder and gentler as a species. That doesn't just go for us in the West. Critics who have accused Pinker of only focusing on advanced countries are mistaken. He shows the decline of violence is across the board: war, genocide, terrorism, riots, and homicide. The trend was and is led by Western Europe but wasn't and isn't confined there. It is not a uniform progress and regression has, can and will happen but just because journalists have missed it, that doesn't mean it isn't so.

Pinker has noticed it and others have, too. But for the first time we have a book that has compiled and interpreted the works of anthropologists, political scientists, historians, neuroscientists, psychologists and many others to tell a story that is as gripping as a murder-mystery, albeit one in which the mystery is why the bodies are not piling up.

It is impossible to do this book justice in a review. The argument is nuanced and works on many levels. A variety of factors account for this decline, but to summarise: humans living in a state of nature (i.e. before the state) were not necessarily brutish, but led lives that short, and led lives far likelier to be cut short by war or homicide. The rise of the state, Hobbes' Leviathan, begins a pacification process, which is achieved by imposing an impersonal system of justice on its subjects. The law of the state may be an ass, but it is a disinterested ass. It curbs vigilantism and imposes peace. Hence murder rates in England have dropped from 100 in 100,000 of the population in the 14th Century to 1 in 100,000 in the 20th. Similar drops extended to most of Western Europe and gradually to the United States.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended.
This is a very important - and entertaining - book. I have read only to page 123 thus far, yet am extremely impressed with the quality of the research and the depth of thought... Read more
Published 5 days ago by Xact
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
an utterly brilliant read that leaves you hopeful and invigorated
Published 9 days ago by guy holland
4.0 out of 5 stars Heavy going but full of factual material that may surprise ...
Heavy going but full of factual material that may surprise a few people. If you have a spare month read it!
Published 19 days ago by Mac
5.0 out of 5 stars A cause for celebration renewed optimism and pure inspiration.
So now we know.
Our primary evolved purpose is to survive in competition with the elements and each other. Read more
Published 21 days ago by Jeremy from Preston UK
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 27 days ago by teatime
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book on the role of violence in the world
Such a readable book! Pinker's sense of humour transcends this masterpiece on the history of violence, lightening a difficult subject. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Caroline
5.0 out of 5 stars changed my view of the world and have me evidence for hope
I've always had a hopeful view of humanity, this book sets out the extensive evidence that supports such a hopeful view. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Dr Ben
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Very wordy take on the subject but a good refernce work.
Published 2 months ago by Aimee Cezon
1.0 out of 5 stars Dreadful
This is a monumentally poor book.

Pinker has no qualifications as an historian, and yet he makes sweeping historical assessments based on cherry-picking those facts that... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars A good book, bringing an important message to the world
A good book, bringing an important message to the world. One which accepted might bring down the level of fear, and thus decrease the level of danger even further.
Published 3 months ago by Eolake
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