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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A staggering intellectual achievement, 7 Jan. 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)
This is one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read. It has enormously deepened my understanding of contemporary civilisation, and modern history.

The subtitle (The Decline of Violence in History and it's Causes) is a simplification. This book isn't fundamentally about the decline of violence: that's just the thread Pinker uses to tie together his ideas. It's more properly a narrative of how, over time, human societies have become relentlessly more rational, peaceful and civilised.

Pinker's core point is that much of the doom and gloom regarding the contemporary world is profoundly misplaced: the idea that the past was good (and the present bad) is inconsistent with the facts to the point of absurdity. The reason for that misperception, as Pinker points out in a typically cutting phrase, is "the innumeracy of our journalistic and intellectual culture". This age is far more enlightened than any previous one.

While that broad narrative should be relatively uncontroversial to anyone familiar with the data regarding human welfare across history, the breadth and scope of what Pinker offers is unlike anything I've seen. From intercommunal violence and state-directed violence, all the way through to homophobia, gender discrimination and racial discrimination, the human world is getting better - rapidly and decisively - by almost every measurable parameter.

Pinker attempts to dissect, and offer explanations for, all this, via a mixture of philosophy, evolutionary psychology and narrative history (not to mention masses of data). The breadth of his academic knowledge is remarkable. As the subchapters roll by, he collates and paraphrases information on everything from the statistics of war, to the neuroscience of aggression, to the psychology of nuclear disarmament.

For the non-expert (like me) prior background knowledge will go a long way when reading something like this. For example, I found some of the sections on neuroscience hard going. An understanding of evolutionary psychology is probably a prerequisite to properly appreciate `Better Angels'. Professor Pinker is an accomplished and stylish writer, but this is a 700-page tome, and it's not a light read.

But you get a lot of bang for your buck. I found myself introduced to new branches of learning (understanding `the moralisation gap' gives one pause for though in respect of every personal relationship one has ever had), and provided with insight after insight regarding today's social and geopolitical realities. From the nature of the American north-south divide, to the Iranian nuclear programme, Professor Pinker has as much to offer as any commentator I've come across.

Collectively, it appears, the human race has the option of building an ever brighter and more enlightened world. We'd be mad to work towards anything less. Pinker's insights will have made that happy future ever more likely. I was gripped. A staggering intellectual achievement.

Peter Baker
The Jolly Pilgrim
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