37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Golden Age is at hand; let's not screw it up
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...
Published 15 months ago by W. James
12 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not convinced
Well, this is an enormous book. But I think it could perhaps have been shorter (with some judicious editing). On the plus side, it is very entertaining, provocative and readable (Pinker rides again). But, on the down side, there's a danger that we are being blinded by a mass of what is, perhaps, not especially useful data. Whether society is getting civilised rather...
Published 20 months ago by JonP
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Golden Age is at hand; let's not screw it up,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (Kindle Edition)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. The factors he implicates include the ever-consolidating and regularizing forces of the state, whose monopoly on violence tends to extinguish local skirmishes and vendettas, increasing cognitive sophistication across the globe (as evidenced by ever-increasing scores in components of IQ tests), and the intensification and spread of technologies to enhance communication between individuals who might previously have been ignorant of each other's situation or thoughts. I can forgive him his one piece of hubris: he seriously proposes that appreciation of the writings of social psychologists by the masses has been a significant factor in improving their behaviour! The Kindle edition is well prepared for its format, and makes it a physically, if not intellectually lighter task to learn from this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profound, Magisterial and Wonderfully Written,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (Paperback)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. Pinker's command of his subject matter in every field is impressive, but never overbearing.
Simply put, then, Better Angels is a masterpiece. Hopeful without being naively optimistic, it is a wonderfully life-affirming work. And by beginning with the evidence, rather than ideology, it settles arguments that have been raging in op-ed columns for decades.
Highly recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in current affairs, society or human psychology.
70 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dazzling Tour de Force,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (Hardcover)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. This trend, despite the current Great Recession, continues to drive violence down.
The rise of the Leviathan is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The state itself perpetrated numerous horrors, burning heretics and witches at the stake, slavery, genocide, capital punishment and torture of the grisliest kind, and in public. The state itself had to be pacified.
Pacification is complemented by a normative shift: the humanitarian and rights revolutions. The humanitarian revolutions arose out of the rationalist and Enlightenment philosophies that inspected established practices in the light of reason, and demanded justifications for the supposed goods these practices were supposed to serve. The rights revolutions of the second half of the 20th Century, with campaigns for sexual and racial equality, to curb violence against women and children and even animals, cemented earlier accomplishments.
So the decline of violence is two fold. It's down to institutions in part but it's also down to moral progress, a widening of the circle of empathy and sympathy. Empathy alone is not enough. One can have plenty of empathy and sympathy for those of one's own tribe, but still embark on a dawn raid against the neighbouring tribe on the other side of the river and think oneself no worse for it. The testimonies of former slaves did much to turn opinion against the institution in the 18th and 19th Centuries for example. But for this to happen, reason needs to make the bridge and subject oppressive and violent practices to critical scrutiny.
It is fashionable to denigrate the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. If you are one of those people, then ask yourself these questions: would you justify the reestablishment of slavery? Which is the better way to establish guilt or innocence - trial by jury or trial by fire? If someone told you that a child's epileptic fit was the devil's work, would you be appalled? If you are appalled, and you wouldn't dream of justifying slavery or trial by fire, then you are a child of the Enlightenment as much as I am. And the fact that you are partially accounts for the decline of violence, for it demonstrates that both you and I can be reasoned with.
We humans share a common nature, and that nature is partially given to violence. Pinker does not say that we walk around seething with a murderous rage like the zombies in the film `28 Days Later'. It's a lot more complicated than that. Violence can be predatory or sadistic but in certain circumstances it can be rational. A preemptive strike to neutralise a perceived aggressor is a case in point. Violence can be motivated for moral reasons, because a taboo has been violated, or to exact revenge for an injustice suffered. Epithets like the `Killer Ape' with all its connotations of mindless bloodlust are too crude.
But that is not the entire story, as you can infer from the title of the book. We have the power of reason, of sympathy, of being able to transcend our parochial tribal perspective and see things from a disinterested point of view, from the viewpoint of others, to assess and predict the consequences of our actions and reflect accordingly. The evidence Pinker presents is that this aspect of our nature has strengthened over time and this is a result of both the development of institutions and the rise of progressive ideas.
But this is a simplified summary that I fear does little justice to the richness of this book. There is much, much more that can be said. The discussions of the long peace, the decline of genocide, riots and terrorism, fascinating discussions about what actually occurs in the brain when we are in thrall to both our better and our worse angels, discussions as to why it is considered rude to eat off a knife at the dinner table, discussions of why democracies do not go to war with each other, discussions of how trade fosters peace. There is a scarcely a dull sentence in this book.
You may think that this is Whiggish nonsense. You may well recoil from a claim that violence is in decline. It certainly has not vanished. But, over the long term, it has declined. Whether this will carry on is, of course a moot point. This book tells us what has happened, but cannot tell us whether it will continue to happen. But, in the last analysis, the fundamental point of the book is to show that, despite our inherent propensity for violence, our better angels can and do get the upper hand over our inner demons. This is good news, is it not?
43 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic, brilliant, fascinating, engrossing book,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (Hardcover)Pinker's book is 696 pages long, excluding notes. It is incredibly nuanced. And it is impossible to do justice to it in any review of any length, covering as it does vignettes of medieval European life, the lyrics of Springsteen's "The River", the Holocaust, Singer's expanding circle, the Flynn effect, and Poisson distribution. It's a brilliant synthesis. Nothing about it is in any way simplistic. It's a fantastic book, and incredibly readable. Despite the length, I read it in a couple of days, frantically making notes as I went.
Briefly, Pinker shows that violence in every aspect of life has declined throughout the world since the beginning of human existence. The imposition of the state, the rise of secular reasoning, cosmopolitanism, trade, democracy, increased hygiene - all of these things contributed in various ways. The picture is complex. Pinker is not saying that war has ended forever, or that the world is now a utopia, or that war between the great powers is now certainly a thing of the past. It's more complicated than that, but optimistic nonetheless. Pinker himself says that he is not so much optimistic as grateful - grateful to have lived now than when many of the things documented in the book occurred. Parts made me retch, or nearly retch, including the description of breaking on the wheel. As Pinker puts it, "The bland phrase 'broken on the wheel' cannot come close to capturing the horror of that form of punishment" (p.147). I did not know, nor did I think I needed to, that a once-popular Parisian pastime involved burning a cat to cinders.
This book attracted a lot of criticism, mostly from people who didn't bother to read it. John Gray's review in the Guardian was an insult to sense; it was clear that despite having been paid to review it, Gray hadn't even read it, and "criticised" it on the grounds that Pinker broadly supports Enlightenment humanism. Other reviews claimed that Pinker ignored Robert Wright, the effects of Christianity, or some other pet theory; or that his work is just a rehashing of Norbert Elias's supposedly superior work. These things are simply untrue. Wright is mentioned in several places, Christianity is shown as a primarily regressive force compared to the power of reasoning (Quakers and abolitionists notwithstanding), and Elias has an entire chapter devoted to him. I have not found a single criticism of this book vindicated upon reading it.
Even more pitiable was the reaction from certain academic quarters. Socio-cultural anthropologists gave a particularly poor showing. The anthropology blogs gave the book short shrift; none seemed to have actually read it, and most criticised it on the back of spurious continental philosophy. Some even refused to read it on the grounds of lack of metaphysical sophistication, which is bizarre. The real reason, of course, is that this is a book with the power and the data to overturn many of the favourite tropes of social not-quite-science, including the power of empathy and the "failure" of the Enlightenment. That isn't posturing. Pinker's book really is that good.
There are some problems, but I give it five stars nonetheless. Pinker uses very little data from China. Mao's famine, the An Lushan rebellion, and China's current murder rate (2.2 in 100,000 - low) are all mentioned, but Pinker seems quite unfamiliar with China's history, recent or otherwise. The Chinese data do seem to support his thesis (very strongly, in fact) but most of the statistical analysis is of European data over the past few millennia, and not Chinese, which actually isn't a serious problem at all despite appearances. Other problems include Pinker's treatment of human sacrifice, which is too swift. The phenomenon is barely covered, except to say that lots of human groups have indulged in it, on every continent.
I'm tempted to say that this is the best work of popular social science that I have ever read. It is meticulous, nuanced, reasonable, and incredibly interesting. No matter what you study or what already know, you are guaranteed to learn something new from this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A necessary and well argued book,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (Kindle Edition)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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Does it reach all the way?,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (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.
Still, the ideas brought forth certainly are worth pondering, not least when contrasteed with the opinion commonly presented, usually by employees of the military-industrial complex that since war always has been with us, it also always has to be with us in the future, and no real progress happens except through war. Pinker instead proposes that progress gets more space to happen the less war there is.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (Hardcover)Steven Pinker has combined figures from widely different sources to show that humanity has been getting consistently, and massively, less violent. This is from prehistory right through to today and it applies to large areas of the planet, including Europe and the US.
By "less violent", he means that we are less likely to die at the hands of our fellow men, through war or murder etc. He does not necessarily mean that we are getting any "kinder" or "nicer" or less aggressive.
And, yes, the decrease in violence during the 20th century did include both world wars.
He speculates on the causes of some of the steeper declines in violence, such as The Enlightenment in 18th Century Europe.
I did not find it a particularly political book. But the findings are nonetheless politically charged. It is like Galileo reporting that Jupiter had moons in 1610. Although this was a scientific observation, Galileo well knew the political repercussions.
It is hard to get a feel for the accuracy of the figures. And, as another reviewer has observed, it is impossible to gauge how selective they are. So I am not convinced that the picture he paints is particularly correct.
But that is not really the point. The important point is that we should be open to such a finding, if it survives further scrutiny. A bit like if Galileo had reported that Jupiter *might* have moons.
Even if, like me, you take the findings with a pinch of salt, the ideas bubbling up everywhere, and the many diverting side-topics, make it a good read.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brillant read,
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can't recommend this enough...,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (Paperback)Whilst reading many positive reviews on the book, I was expecting it to be a good read, but I don't think I was expecting something quite as informative as this gem of a book has turned out to be.
It's become such a cliché these days, to say 'this is the best book I've read...'etcetera, But for me, it really does fall true for 'Better Angels Of Our Nature'. It is the most informative and interesting non-fiction book I can remember reading. I feel like I've learned so much just from one book.
It covers not just the various acts of violence over human history, but the change in attitudes such as human rights movements, and the evolution of 'etiquette' social behaviour, table manners and such, too. As well as the possible reasons 'why'. All this from our primitive past of hunter gatherer tribes, to modern day states and super-states.
You might be expecting (considering the subject) an heavy, dry, academic tone from the author, but Pinker writes with such eloquence, he draws you in and arouses genuine interest. I didn't find the book a particularly heavy book. I'd actually read just about half of the book in one sitting, and the second half, a day later. Given the fact that this book covers so much, I do feel I'll need to read it a couple of times though to benefit from the full wealth of knowledge it offers.
I bought this book, along with a couple of other of Pinker's books, a few of weeks ago. But with the size and subject of this book, I put off reading it for a while. Thinking it was going to be heavily academic, and needed to be in the right mood for it to take my interest. I needn't have though. I've thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to reading more of Pinker's collection, including 'Blank Slate', which I bought along with this one.
If someone was to ask me to recommend them just one book - this would be that book. Can't recommend it enough.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Triumph,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (Paperback)Better Angels is thoroughly exceptional and quite probably the most thought provoking and eloquent book ever to emerge from the realm of science. A masterpiece. Finally we have evidence that God exists, and his name is Steven Pinker.
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The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes by Steven Pinker (Hardcover - 6 Oct 2011)