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43 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic, brilliant, fascinating, engrossing book, 26 April 2012
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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.
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Initial post: 30 Apr 2012 20:40:55 BDT
John Gray's review was a picture postcard representation of the sort of decadence into which many intellectuals have sunk.
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