on 9 September 2012
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.
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.
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?
on 11 January 2015
Steven Pinker has written some interesting and provocative books. Here he ventures into the world of history and somehow his scientific sense leaves him. That or his editors have not done their job properly.
It is a book of two halves: history and then science. First, then, the history with a handful of important graphs and a lot of examples and conclusions that strike me as shaky.
At one point he speaks of declining levels of homicide in most of Europe in the 20th century with the exceptions of the mountainous regions of the Balkans, Montenegro, Sicily and Sardinia. He draws the conclusion that these areas had less effective means of control because they were less accessible (at least I think that is the point)to control by the developed state, as it would be in most of Europe in the 20th century. He then writes "It's no coincidence that the two blood-soaked classics with which I began the book - the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric poems - came from people that lived in rugged hills and valleys".
With respect, as they say, this strikes me as pretty weak reasoning. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric poems came from people who left some record of their values and totems; others have not and others may have been as violent. Is there any evidence that in Homeric times or during the periods of the Hebrew Bible that people who lived in flat plains were less violent?
He also relies on and quotes extensively from Elias "The Civilizing Process" which, so Pinker writes, includes a mediaeval manners guide advising against sipping coffee from a saucer. Now, I know it's only one small bit of evidence I've latched onto here but I am dubious about mediaeval coffee and even more so about saucers. In Elias's book it is clear that examples cover periods into the 19th century but Pinker may conflate them. I could find no reference to drinking coffee from a saucer in the main examples in Elias; maybe the example slipped in as a joke! That said, it is of course bad manners to sip from a saucer, unless you are a cat!
Two factors are offered as explanation for the development of civilized manners, such as not spitting out food, in Europe,these are greater government/state control and development of trade. The link to table manners seems coincidental and not necessary. While in the Wild West of America it is the arrival of women (undoubtedly our better angels) that is the reason for the reduction in violence - also described as civilising (not eating from a knife and not murdering are lumped together in the civilising process Pinker describes). Seems a pretty broad an indiscriminate approach - any port in a storm maybe - to explaining reductions in the levels of violence. In the Southern states of USA people are more violent because they were immigrants from herding traditions where honour and self-help solutions were the accepted way to deal with conflict. African Americans are more violent because they are deprived and lack status and the institutions of the state (the police) do not support them - now that does seem to be correct! Violence was not so great in Canada because the Mounties got there before it was necessary to develop a local code of honour. A lot of the analysis seems to be simply a form of detailed description that seems like slightly desperate scrabbling around for a theory (or lots of theories) to describe many disparate events that do converge in less violence.
It's a long book and Pinker does not economise on words. I remain a little unconvinced that he has provide explanations - why did people become more civilized is answered by (in Elias two) exogenous explanations that themselves seem to require explanation. We stopped cruel punishments and tortures when we became humanitarian. Or is it that we became humanitarian when we stopped cruel punishments.. my point being that the connection between the two is not clear. The book has a lot of data and the argument that we have become less violent is very probably true, but the reasoning is weak and there might have been more treatment of ideas and economics. Economics and trade must have played a part in the development of the rule of law and general conflict resolution. And how do ideas arise that change us? That they do is true but still why and how ideas arose is still to be explained.
The second half of the book - Inner Demons - takes us back to science, well psychology if that is properly science. Pinker seems to me to be on more comfortable territory here. He deals with our self-serving bias as well as the mechanics of the brain that control aggression. Interesting and convincing.
I find Pinker wordy and preachy in the first half of the book. He takes a long time to make an obvious point and gives the impression he wants to sound wise. I'm sure that is not true, but he is laborious but maybe that's just me being irascible. When he being a scientist I feel he is both more convincing and less wordy ( well a bit less).
That we are less violent than before is, I feel pretty sure, true, but why this is so is owing to many reasons and constructing them into a convincing, integrated approach is beyond even the talented Professor Pinker. Nevertheless a gripping read and an intellectual achievement that is worthy of respect. Skip read the first half and move to the Inner Demons.
on 26 April 2012
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.
on 23 June 2013
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.
on 13 March 2015
I noticed Steven Pinker's work several weeks ago after reading an article on the internet. Intrigued by his book, I invested in 'Better Angels' and found it to be a pleasant surprise. According to the author, human society today is experiencing the lowest levels of violence in it's entire history. Sounds doubtful ?? Well, Pinker's work is clever, informative, entertaining, very witty and, ultimately, convincing. It's a quite a wonderful read and I was very impressed.
Firstly, Pinker looks at humanity's violent past. For this he goes right back to pre-history. Looking at human behaviour from both early state and 'non-state' societies, the author documents the development of humanity through several stages; The Pacification Process, the Civilizing Process, the Humanitarian Process and also the Rights Revolution.
Ostensibly, humanity's violence has deteriorated over the centuries thanks to the development of society. Using Thomas Hobbes's 'Leviathan' as a model, Pinker states that the more humanity has invested in mutually beneficial structures the less willing humans have been to use violence as a way of life. The growth of government and authoritative structures have reduced random violence by challenging and defeating other forms of 'privatised' violence; Knights, warlords, gangsters, bandits, etc. Not only this, the greater evolution of societies over the years has led to changes in other human attitudes and behaviours also. Torture, vulgar behaviour such as public fornication, public defecation, swearing and even bad table manners have all reduced over the years and have been both a cause, and a consequence of, the decline in human violence, according to the author.
Pinker also looks at unusual influences too. The growth of literature has led to a wider understanding of the world we live in. This has led to a growth in empathy among humans for other ways of life. Simple, yet no doubt true. Education, trade and simple understanding have increased humanity's willingness to seek alternatives to violence. The section 'Rights Revolution' documents how violence has been challenged by the growth of human rights, animal rights, women's rights and also children's rights. Simple tolerance of others has led to more understanding and good will. Sounds doubtful, but the author makes a strong case.
Finally, Pinker looks at the human mind from a scientific perspective and also an ethical one too. Concepts such as sadism, genocide and religion have taken a heavy battering over the centuries thanks to the growth of understanding and society. Economics plays a major influence too in reducing the need for societies to use violence. The final section discusses the future of human violence and the possibilities of further reduction.
Pinker makes a good case. He's witty and informative. His writing style is very articulate and easy to read. The author uses statistics to back up his positions, but not in an academic and 'stuffy' manner. They really do support his theories and points of view. I found myself really warming to his arguments and I was greatly impressed by the time I'd finished the book. Above all, Pinker highlights throughout his work that violence is still a factor in humanity's development, but it is at its lowest ever level.
Stick with it, this is a really rewarding book and a must for anyone interested in human relations, history and anthropology. Excellent.
on 31 January 2015
Absolutely required reading. This is a big, big book, (on many levels) and took me a while to get through. But it is astonishing and life-affirming.
Now, many people have reviewed this book, the great and the good have recommended it, so you don't really need me to add my personal take on it to be honest. But I feel strongly enough about it, that if my personal take convinces a few people to read it, then I will.
So why read this book ?
1) The news. The news is full of horror story followed by horror story of violence. If you relied on the news you would be driven to think that the modern world is going to hell in a hand basket. It is depressing and bleak, and well you would be forgiven for thinking that there is hardly any point to life. We are a doomed species, riven with violence and aggression. Well this book will change your perspective. There is hope. We are getting better. The past was way, way worse.
2) Rights. Slow to come, but once they come, irreversible. Human rights, children's rights, women's rights, gay rights, animal rights. You will of course always get the savage upstart movements trying to reverse this. They will not win - they are the wrong side of history.
3) Yes we are flawed. But we are also an inspired species, with many wonderful people working hard to improve life, and save life on this planet. Read this book and decide to be one of them, rather than submit to despair. Be part of the continuum that has and is improving life. Sometimes hope needs a big nudge. This book provides a big nudge.
Books can change lives. This one will.
on 30 October 2011
In this magnificent work, Pinker challenges the two prevailing views of human nature - Rousseau's view that the noble savage has been corrupted by civilization, and Hobbes's idea that human greed and violence can only be curbed by strong government. The first view is common on the left of the political spectrum, the second among conservatives. The reviewers who think poorly of the book may have been upset by the fact that Pinker rejects both positions. Instead he shows, with a mass of evidence and interpretation, that violence has declined through history. We seem likely to have started with the high levels of inter-group killing found in our chimpanzee cousins, eventually to be tamed by the slow development of effective government, peaceful trading and eventually Enlightenment thinking.
Rather than slow down and reach equilibrium, the civilizing progress has gone even further and faster in the past hundred years, with a reduction of violence in thought and action towards other ethnic and cultural groups and towards women, children and animals. With this has gone a remarkable evolution - cultural, not biological - of minds and mentalities. Prominent thinkers and politicians of the early twentieth century - Wells, Huxley, Roosevelt, Churchill - are quoted in sentiments that now astonish us by their crudeness and stupidity. Only by denying adequate education to large numbers of people could this civilizing process be reversed.
This is a huge book - nearly 700 pages, with another hundred of notes, references and index - but it is very readable, never sinking into pedantry. I can foresee that I shall return to it many times, for a single reading cannot take in all the wealth of information and ideas. It should be very widely read, and the world will be a better place if Pinker's account of human nature becomes the mainstream view.
on 17 November 2015
This is the best example that I have seen of how to evaluate and analyse evidence. A well researched, well referenced summary of how the incidence of violence has changed over time. Stephen Pinker looks at all the different forms of violence. His discussion about the reasons for an overall decrease are often amusing. Peace activists often feel that they're fighting a losing battle. This book proves that, over the years, they are succeeding.