Top positive review
13 people found this helpful
A necessary and well argued book
on 21 August 2013
I will not summarise the contents of this book, as by now you all know what it's about. Indeed, in view of the many excellent reviews that have already been written, I think that all I can really do is give some very personal impressions of it. Firstly, it is an impressive piece of scholarship. A whizz through the footnotes and references is exhausting. Particularly in the first half of the book, in which Pinker presents evidence that all forms of violence have declined over the course of human history, he makes no assertions that are not backed up by a plethora of facts and figures. The second half of the book, in which he theorises about why this decline might have taken place and gives some pointers as to how we can foster its continuation, is less susceptible to this kind of proof, but is nevertheless very well argued and draws on a wide variety of evidence from researchers in various disciplines. Pinker takes an optimistic view of the world, and one comes to the end of his book tired but happy. In spite of the book's undeniable erudition (and length!) is is very readable, occasionally funny (in spite of its gruesome subject matter), and clearly aimed at the general reader. As long as one is prepared to devote some attention to it, no background knowledge of history, biology or the social sciences is needed.
So why only four stars? I think that the book is too long and repetitive. Is there really a need to quote from the same Paul Simon song twice, or to repeat lists of excruciating mediaeval tortures at regular intervals? Like the old preacher, Pinker tells us what he's gonna tell us, then he tells us, then he tells us what he told us. This is unnecessary, and it is a serious criticism, as I think that a lot of people who really need to read this book will be put off by its length. Perhaps Pinker could bring out a potted version, or point us in the direction of something more accessible.
I give no credence to the negative reviewers who accuse Pinker of being politically motivated or of cherry picking the figures that fit in with his thesis. None of them are able to mount a reasoned rebuttal backed up by figures, but rely on some very limited personal experience and, in many cases, a religious adherence to the notion that the world is daily becoming more violent. I have to say that my own limited personal experience chimes with Pinker's conclusions. No-one in my family or circle of friends has been murdered or tortured, though some have been victims of lesser crimes. My father and grandfather both fought in world wars, and as a boy I expected that this would be my fate when I grew up. In stead I found myself in the 'long peace'. There are Jeremiahs in the media (If it bleeds it leads) and in some religious groups (Only God can save us from this downward spiral) who would have us take a more pessimistic view. I would like to thank Steven Pinker for doing his best to rescue us from them.