- Hardcover: 832 pages
- Publisher: Allen Lane (6 Oct. 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1846140935
- ISBN-13: 978-1846140938
- Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 5.2 x 24 cm
- Average Customer Review: 244 customer reviews
Amazon Bestsellers Rank:
423,554 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #335 in Books > Health, Family & Lifestyle > Psychology & Psychiatry > Specific Topics > Violence
- #1031 in Books > Health, Family & Lifestyle > Psychology & Psychiatry > Cognition & Cognitive Psychology > The Self, Ego & Personality
- #1098 in Books > Health, Family & Lifestyle > Psychology & Psychiatry > Social & Developmental Psychology > Social
The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes Hardcover – 6 Oct 2011
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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 one of the world's most influential thinkers and writers on the human condition. His popular and highly praised books include The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching, books, and scientific research, Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He also writes frequently for The New York Times, the Guardian and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine's "The World's Top 100 Public Intellectuals," Foreign Policy's "100 Global Thinkers," and Time magazine's "The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today."
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If you are a regular consumer of news media you could be forgiven for thinking, "what decline in violence?" There seems always to be a war going on somewhere, our towns and cities are crime ridden, aren't they? The answer is yes war has not been and seems unlikely to be eliminated any time soon and violent crime is a daily fact of life in many places in this world.
When you take a cold hard look at the facts rather than the news headlines the conclusion is undeniable that the world is a less violent place today than its ever been. Starting with our hunter/gatherer ancestors where life was truly nasty, brutish and short, travelling forward in time through early civilisations to our modern era of nation states and global commerce there has been a huge decline in the odds of suffering injury and untimely death at the hands of a fellow human. This decline has not been steady or constant but has wavered up at times and down at others, and from place to place, but long term, the decline is very real. Pinker stacks up the evidence in a clear and digestible form, that can seem repetitive but makes the case for the long term decline of violence irrefutable by any reasonable mind.
The big question this book attempts to answer is "what are the causes of this decline?" This is a question that it is vital for us to grasp if we are to ensure that the "long peace" may continue into the future and the world continue to get less violent. That we have come to think that war and other violence is not a smart way to behave is a triumph of reason and rational action that we may take for granted but just a few generations ago many still believed in the honour of war and the necessity of defending one's honour by violently destroying your enemies.
The conclusions that Pinker arrives at seem entirely plausible. The decline in violence seems inextricably linked with a rise in education, the sharing of information, the ability to read and be transported into the lives of others, and the sympathy this engenders. The resulting rise in enlightened reasoning overtaking received dogma as a better way to organise ourselves. Democracy for all its faults does seem a force for peace. Democracies that function passably well don't go to war with each other. The positive changes in western culture in just my own life time have been quite remarkable. The universal declaration of human rights, the civil rights movement, the rise of women's rights, gay rights, animal rights, the downfall of communism and other ideologies and despots that diminished the rights of the individual. Glance a little further back into the past and things our ancestors gave little thought to, slavery, wife beating, child beating, torture, witch burning, infanticide, now fill us with horror. It is unthinkable that we could now accept such things as a part of civilised life in the 21st century.
It is no accident that the most peaceful and safe places to live in the modern world are those places with a well educated populace governed by a functioning democracy, policed by an impartial justice system, with open access to information. Conversely the least safe places in the world lack some or all of the above.
The ideas that were yesteryears liberal radicalism, women's rights for instance, have now become so mainstream that even the most conservative have embraced the inevitable and sometimes even claim it as their own idea.
The feminisation of world is also a force for peace. Violence is by no means exclusively male but it is overwhelmingly so. Most violence is perpetrated by young men. A fact that is beginning to haunt those parts of the world that have used modern methods (and old fashioned infanticide) to preferentially select for male offspring. The resulting large groups of young adult males, without the prospect of marriage and its calming influence on male testosterone fuelled behaviour, is the cause of much criminally or ideologically driven violence. The countries where violence within the family and wider communities is rife also happen to be the countries where women's rights and their influence is weakest.
The lesson I think I have learned from reading The Better Angels Of Our Nature is that whilst the future is by no means assured to be less violent than the past, we now have a fairly clear idea of how to steer ourselves in that direction. This is to embrace science and reason, reject ideology and dogma. We need functioning democracies, we need shared commerce and resources, we need impartial justice, we need open information and free discussion. None of those things can happen unless all the people are sufficiently educated to be able not only to read, write and do arithmetic but to be capable of abstract reasoning. We have to be able to walk a mile in another man's (or woman's) shoes.
Over a century ago Charles Darwin summed it up in The Descent Of Man.
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to men of all nations and races.
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.
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