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The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes [Kindle Edition]

Steven Pinker
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (383 customer reviews)

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Book Description

-Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize 2012

This acclaimed book by Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate, argues that, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent, over millenia and decades. Can violence really have declined? The images of conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. Extraordinarily, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and between societies - both murder and warfare - really has declined from prehistory to today. We are much less likely to die at someone else's hands than ever before. Even the horrific carnage of the last century, when compared to the dangers of pre-state societies, is part of this trend. Debunking both the idea of the 'noble savage' and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a 'nasty, brutish and short' life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people.

'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

'Pinker's scholarhsip is astounding...flawless...masterful' Joanna Bourke, The Times

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.

Editorial Reviews


"For anyone interested in human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor ... a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement."
(-The New York Times Book Review)

" extraordinary range of research ... a masterly effort."
(-The Wall Street Journal)

" ...Better Angels is a monumental achievement. His book should make it much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future. Whether war is an ancient adaptation or a pernicious cultural infection, we are learning how to overcome it."

About the Author

Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer finalist and the winner of many prizes for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time's 100 most influential people in the world today and Foreign Policy's 100 Global Thinkers. He lives in Cambridge.

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
531 of 590 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force, covering a huge topic quite well October 5, 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a huge book, but as Pinker says, it is a huge subject. He organizes himself by lists. First, there are six significant trends which have led to a decrease in violence.
1. Our evolution from hunter gatherers into settled civilizations, which he calls the Pacification Process.
2. The consolidation of small kingdoms and duchies into large kingdoms with centralized authority and commerce, which he calls the Civilizing Process.
3. The emergence of Enlightenment philosophy, and it's respect for the individual through what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution.
4. Since World War II, violence has been suppressed, first by the overwhelming force of the two parties in the Cold War, and more recently by the American hegemony. Pinker calls this the Long Peace.
5. The general trend, even apart from the Cold War, of wars to be more infrequent, and less violent, however autocratic and anti-democratic the governments may be. Call this the New Peace.
6. Lastly, the growth of peace and domestic societies, and with it the diminishing level of violence through small things like schoolyard fights, bullying, and picking on gays and minorities. He titles this the Rights Revolution.

Pinker then goes on to examine the traditional explanations of violence, the traditional explanations of human nature which account for violence. There is practical violence, which you might call necessary violence. Then there are dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideologically driven violence. Opposing these are what he calls the better angels of human nature, empathy, self-control, our moral sense, and reason. Many of these characteristics are shared with our primate brethren, the chimpanzees on down, but some of them are uniquely human.
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140 of 158 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Uneven; 3.5 Stars March 10, 2012
This very ambitious and sprawling book is a serious effort to argue for and explain the progressive decline in interpersonal violence in human societies. The book is divided into 2 parts. The first part is an effort to describe a broad sweep of human history from prehistoric societies to the present, arguing for a progressive though intermittant decline in violence in human societies. The second part is an effort to understand the underpinings of the decline in violence in terms of human psychological processes.

Pinker's sequence of the decline in violence is based on synthesis of a large volume of literature generated by archaeologists, ethnologists, historians, sociologists, political scientists, and psychologists. Pre-state societies, while low in absolute population and absolute number of violent acts, had very high per capita levels of violence. The emergence of states resulted in some decline in violence and the gradual strengthening of the state resulted in a progressive decline in interpersonal violence, even as states became more capable of waging war. This is best documented in Europe from the Middle Ages to the present. Pinker highlights a number of important parallel processes. The "Civilizing Process" described by the great historical sociologist Norbert Elias of the increasing importance of self-control, manners, and social amity from the Renaissance onwards is prominently featured as a key feature in the decline of violence. Similarly, Pinker emphasizes the humanitarianism of the Enlightenment and subsequent reform movements. In the 20th century, the "Rights Revolution" that has brought widespread acceptance of religious and ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals, is also discussed as improving our societies.
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154 of 182 people found the following review helpful
In his lauded but controversial best-seller "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature", Steven Pinker set out to quash a romanticized nostalgia for the lifestyle of people in pre-state societies: the myth of the "noble savage". Now, in his new book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined", Steven Pinker extends this rectification of prevailing but misguided opinion to grand scale, presenting a strong case for our ennobled present; we are living in the most peaceful era humanity has ever known.

Pinker blows the reader away (forgive the violent metaphor) with sheer weight of analytical shot. At 700 pages of text interspersed with graphs and heaps of reference data, "Better Angels" is thorough-going and methodical because it has to be; contradicting common folk theories (like the noble savage), overriding an often overwhelming sense of unceasing or imminent violence from media coverage (see compassion fatigue), and compensating for a general lack of statistical thinking and probabilistic understanding in the lay public is no easy task. People are right to be skeptical of controversial theories, and knowing this Pinker has patiently lain it all out for us to see for ourselves that violence truly has declined with clear and unambiguously downward direction.

"Better Angels" is structured around an inventory of six Trends, five Inner Demons with four Better Angels, and five Historical Forces (Pinker can't help but enumerate).
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars finished reading
Much of the material presented was new and heady, but not all. As I persisted to read each page, I kept telling myself "This is good for me". Read more
Published 2 days ago by George M. Mabe
5.0 out of 5 stars This is an amazing book that has helped cultivate a better...
This is an amazing book that has helped cultivate a better understanding of how fortunate we are to be living in the time that we are. Read more
Published 3 days ago by cory king
4.0 out of 5 stars Decent book, with some flaws.
Although I agree with Pinker's thesis, some of data used was questionable. I'm skeptical that over 36 million died during the An Lushan revolt. Read more
Published 3 days ago by King of Lightning
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought Provoking
Steven Pinker gives us a thorough look at violence from so many different angles. His use of statistics, history, and reason helped me come around to his way of thinking. Read more
Published 3 days ago by Mrsgris
5.0 out of 5 stars A BOOK OF HOPE
One of the best things I've ever read!
My own sense of my understanding of existence is vastly richer than before. Read more
Published 4 days ago by Jeffrey W. Rudisel
3.0 out of 5 stars History of violence and why the statistics show violence decreasing
I rated this book a 3 because I alternated between finding it enlightening and extremely boring the whole way through the book. Read more
Published 4 days ago by Anita Nicholas Alexander
5.0 out of 5 stars A "Must Read and Have" Book
One of the most far reaching books I have read on this topic. Pinker deals with the mindset of humans in various times, along with detailed research on all ideas he presents. Read more
Published 6 days ago by L'Ara
4.0 out of 5 stars More books need to be written emphasizing the ideas being ...
More books need to be written emphasizing the ideas being articulated in this book. Extremely well-written, but at times needlessly dense with graphs and data. Read more
Published 17 days ago by commandereagle2
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Thoroughly convincing argument against the popularly held view that the modern world is relatively immoral or violent.
Published 19 days ago by teatime
4.0 out of 5 stars I needed this book for a study class@ the library ...
I needed this book for a study class@ the library. <----part of The Life Long Learning program in our town.
It is a very interesting book. Lots of historical facts.
Published 22 days ago by Jane E. Fry
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More About the Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, 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, Time, The New Republic, and other magazines.

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