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The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity Paperback – 4 Oct 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 153 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 1056 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (4 Oct. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141034645
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141034645
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 4.4 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (153 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 8,302 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


One of the most important books I've read - not just this year, but ever ... For me, what's most important about The Better Angels of Our Nature are its insights into how to help achieve positive outcomes. How can we encourage a less violent, more just society, particularly for the poor? Steven Pinker shows us ways we can make those positive trajectories a little more likely. That's a contribution, not just to historical scholarship, but to the world (Bill Gates)

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.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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By F Henwood TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 16 Oct. 2011
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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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