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484 of 543 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force, covering a huge topic quite well
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...
Published on October 5, 2011 by Graham H. Seibert

versus
117 of 131 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Uneven; 3.5 Stars
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...
Published on March 10, 2012 by R. Albin


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484 of 543 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
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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. With our ability to reason, and the unique human ability to impute motive to conspecifics of our own or other tribes, and our ability to express ourselves verbally, we are better able than any other species to negotiate our way through situations of conflict. A good deal of the decline in violence has to do with the maturation of these processes through the genetic evolution of the human animal, and more recently, through the evolution of our society and the ways in which societies socialize their members.

He concludes with five historical forces, which I find a little bit harder to grasp, but which serve as a vehicle for explanations of a number of interesting phenomena in the recent evolution of society. We have evolved Leviathan societies, in which the individual is pretty well controlled by state force. Not only our police, but our employers, our schools, and every other institution holds violence firmly in check as a matter of its own functioning. Other forces are commerce, which only happens when the partners are on peaceful terms, the evolution of women from mere propagators of the species to intellectual equals and partners in all of our undertakings, the growing information networks which bind us together, a process he calls cosmopolitanism, and lastly the increasing application of reason, which we would probably call the scientific basis, to human affairs, leading to a recognition that violence is in most circumstances not the best way to achieve one's ends.

In his discussion of ideologically driven violence he spends several pages discussing ideologies themselves. Specifically, he describes the groupthink environment in which a group comes to embrace dogmas that most of the individuals within the group would reject, or at least question, if they approached them on their own. The key mechanism is punishment of dissention, the ostracism of people who don't mouth the groupthink. Sounds to me to describe political correctness at Harvard just as much as Communism under Stalin. I am pleased that Pinker had the courage to resist said PC and defend the science behind the observations which got Larry Summers fired as president of Harvard. Calls to mind the "Kinsley gaffe", "A truthful statement told accidentally, usually by a politician."

For a guy with a long history of writing about evolution, he seems to pretty much avoid its implications in this book. In fact, he has more or less morphed from a true scientist to a social scientist/historian. Whereas "The Language Instinct" and "Words and Rules" got into leading edge science, and "The Blank Slate" brought us up to date on the theory of human evolution, this book is pretty much a compilation of other peoples' statistics and observations, weighted with Pinker's opinions.

The question that will go through every reader's mind when reading a book on the subject this vast is "how do you know?" Pinker answers that question in a way that I really admire - statistics. He says that most of us reason from anecdotal evidence. For instance, because the news media play up terror deaths such as those in Fort Hood, they tend to be grossly exaggerated in our conscience. We would tend to equate the danger of death by an act of terror with that of dying from a lightning strike or industrial accident, when the latter are far more probable. Also, because there have been terror acts in the news lately, we would overlook the fact that the number of deaths attributable to terror have fallen off dramatically over the past few decades. Pinker does a good job of educating us by taking on our common sense understandings, showing that they are erroneous, and showing us a statistical methodology by which we can realistically estimate broad societal phenomena such as terror, death by war, murder and so on.

More than in his other books, Pinker reminds us of his Jewish roots, gently chafing Christianity for celebrating the sacrifice of an innocent man, and turning the cross, the instrument of sacrifice, into its holy icon. He also takes the obligatory swipes at George W. Bush for his bloodthirsty wars, conveniently overlooking the neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle who provided the intellectual foundation for the adventure. He also conveniently over looks the fact that President Obama, despite his vehement campaign rhetoric to the contrary, has continued the wars, presumably also with strong backing from AIPAC, and that he has likewise been captive to advisors such as Larry Summers. His writing is such a thrill to read that I overlook these tropes with an grin. And I appreciate that he is willing to defend the "dead white men" of the Enlightenment and make politically incorrect observations about the different peoples who make up America.

I note, although Pinker does not address them in great detail, some concommitment trends. At the same time violence is decreasing, our religiosity, fertility and our tribalism are likewise decreasing. We are not fighting wars in the interests of religion because large swaths of humanity no longer believe. We are not fighting for lebensraum because we are not having the children that would be needed in order to populate more territory. In other words, at the same time we're becoming less violent, we're losing some of that zest for evolutionary success which led us to become violent in the first place. We can pray along with Doctor Pinker for a world in which there is increasingly less violence, but we need also pray for one in which the drive for human excellence continues to manifest itself.

Afterward: For an excellent review by a professional historian, albeit somewhat more critical than this review, I recommend you google "timothy snyder war no more". Snyder is the author of "Bloodlands," which I also review favorably here on Amazon.
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117 of 131 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Uneven; 3.5 Stars, March 10, 2012
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R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
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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. Pinker makes the important point that while the 20th century saw great violence with the tremendous crimes committed by totalitarian states and the huge casulties of WWI and WWII, on a per capita basis, there is continued decline which has accelerated in the post-WWII era.

All of these phenomena are generally well known to historians and many social scientists. Pinker deserves considerable credit for bringing them before the broad reading public and for synthesizing them into one broad arc. That said, Pinker's presentation and discussion of these topics is uneven. In general, Pinker does better when drawing on political science and other social science literature. His discussion of the democratic peace phenomenon, for example, is quite good. His discussions of historical topics often leads a good deal to be desired. Treating the admirable Barbara Tuchman as an authoritative source on late Medieval Europe when there is a lot of excellent secondary literature seems a bit lazy. Referring to Napoleonic France as the first fascist state is very misleading about both France in this period and 20th century fascism. I share Pinker's enthusiasm for Enlightenment reformism but his schematic version of the Enlightenment is a distortion of this rich historical phenomenon. Pinker also overlooks an important complication of his primary story. All of his discussion of the decline in violence from the Middle Ages onward, the Civilizing Process, Enlightenment Humanitarianism, etc., is based on European examples. But this is the same period during which European expansion results in the victimization of the pitiful remnant of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, Australia, and the Pacific. It is also largely the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which probably caused a marked increase in violence in sub-Saharan Africa. These phenomena were accompanied and followed by considerable imperialist-colonial depredations, some of which had marked destabilizing effects. One of the most traumatic events of the 19th century was the Taiping Rebellion, which caused tens of millions of deaths in China. The Taiping revolt was partly a result of the destabilization of the Qing regime by European colonialism. None of this means that Pinker is wrong about the overall story but its a much more complicated evolution than he suggests.

In the final part of the book, Pinker discusses the possible mechanisms of the decline in violence. This is largely a discussion of possibly relevant psychological processes. Pinker discusses psychological processes that would favor violence and other processes that would reduce violence. As with the descriptive part of the book, this is an effort to synthesize a lot of prior literature, notably social psychology literature. Pinker develops an interesting model in which some psychological mechanisms could interact in virtuous circles to enhance personal restraint, sympathy with others, and improve sociability. This is somewhat speculative but plausible. In one case, Pinker offers an interesting specific hypothesis that the decline in violence and increase in social tolerance we've experienced in the past decades is due to the Flynn effect, an apparent increase in certain aspects of intelligence across the 20th century. Also as with the first section of the book, these discussions are uneven. Pinker does better when discussing social psychology literature. As someone who is involved in neurobiology research, I found his efforts at including brain mechanisms overly simple. Given his reliance on social psychology studies for many of his most important analyses, the gestures at neurobiology add little to his overall presentation.

Another deficiency of this book is Pinker's style of argumentation. On a paragraph by paragraph basis, Pinker is a clear and often engaging writer. Some sections could be confusing because of a tendency to abruptly reverse directions. In a section on the decline in crime in recent decades, he expands at some length on the effects of increased incarceration rates. He then abruptly changes course and attacks this idea. Without careful reading, it would be possible to take very different conclusions away from this discussion. Similarly, he has a discussion of so-called power law relationships in which he suggests the presence of apparent power law curves suggests a uniform process. He later suggests that dual processes could underly a power law curve and, in fact, the existence of a an apparent power law curve tell you nothing about whether a single or multiple processes underlies the phenomenon under study. Pinker also has a tendency to punctuate his analyses with opinionated asides that may or may not be relevant or valid. The purportedly destructive effects of the 1960s counterculture seems to be a idee fixe.

This book would have benefited from a major revision prior to publication, some shortening, and a lot more historical research.
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148 of 176 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An analytical, methodical juggernaut of guarded optimism, October 8, 2011
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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). More than half of the book is dedicated to a chronological exploration of the Trends of our history, six paradigm shifts in the human condition: The Pacification Process, The Civilizing Process, The Humanitarian Revolution, The Long Peace, The New Peace, and The Rights Revolutions. The bulk of the remaining half of the text is a fascinating look at psychology and sociology, showcasing a combined total of nine human traits (the Better Angels & Inner Demons) that dictate our behavior depending on their interplay with our environment and circumstance. The last five items in Pinker's syllabus, the five Historical Forces, feature in the concluding chapter and encapsulate much of the book's overall content by reflecting combinations of historical trend and human trait.

The Five Major Historical Forces for Peace:

The Leviathan (the state; reigns in internal violence)
Gentle Commerce (economic incentives for cooperation)
Feminization (empowerment of women; men are naturally more violent)
The Expanding Circle (empathy; sympathizing with ever wider classes)
The Escalator of Reason (rationality; application of empathy)

A few minor quibbles with value judgments aside, "The Better Angels of Our Nature" assiduously justifies its subtitular contention: violence really has declined, and now it's not so hard to see why. Steven Pinker has assembled vast quantities of data to support his position, sourced in turn by the assemblies of other preeminent scholars in ethnography, anthropology, and the history of man. Add to this a trove of lab-tested social psychology, game theory, and the areas of Pinker's own expertise in cognitive psychology. The resulting dissertation, structured with the incredible skill and forethought that define Steven Pinker's books, sums these component analyses into the rational juggernaut needed to upend the conventional wisdom it is up against. Though consistently dispassionate in tone and bearing throughout, the title of this book betrays its emotional impact: optimism for humanity.
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51 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling, Credible -, November 7, 2011
Pinker tells us we may be living in the most peaceful ear of man's existence. This conclusion is substantiated via six trends, five 'inner demons,' four 'better angels,' and five historical forces.

The first of the six trends took place over millennia, and consisted of the transition from the anarchy of hunting and gathering societies to agricultural civilizations with cities and governments some 5,000 years ago. That change brought a reduction in chronic raiding and feuding, and an approximate 5X decrease in violent death rates. The second spanned more than half a millennium (between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century), and brought a 10 - 50+X decrease in European homicide rates. The reduction is attributed to consolidation from a patchwork of small territories into large kingdoms and an infrastructure of commerce. The third transition took centuries and began in the 17th and 18th centuries via movements to abolish socially sanctioned violence like despotism, slavery, dueling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment, along with the beginnings of pacifism. The fourth took place after WWII, with the great powers and developed states ceasing to wage war on each other. The fifth trend, though more tenuous, is based on the further decline of civil wars, genocides, autocratic government, and terrorist attacks since the end of the Cold War. Pinker's final trends consists of the growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against minorities (civil rights), women (women's rights), children (children's rights), and homosexuals (gay rights).

The five inner demons include predatory violence deployed as a means to an end, dominance(urge for authority, prestige, glory, and power, revenge (retribution, punishment, and justice, sadism (pleasure in another's suffering), and ideology (shared belief system that justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good). The four better angels are motives orienting away from violence and towards cooperation and altruism. These include empathy, self-control, moral sense, and reason (allows us to reflect on ways to better live our lives). The five historical forces are comprised of a state with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, commerce providing a positive-sum game in which everybody can win and technological progress, feminization involves increasingly respecting the interests and values of women, cosmopolitan forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media prompt people to take the perspective of those unlike themselves, and reason can bring people to recognize the futility of trying to boosting their own interests over others.

Bottom-Line: 'The Better Angels of Our Nature' reaches a somewhat surprising, though well-documented, well-reasoned, and welcome conclusion.
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24 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but mistaken about Warrior Gene research, November 21, 2011
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Pinker's new book encompasses a prodigious collection of disparate lines of evidence and I would recommend it. However, I just wanted to comment on a technical point about research on the so called "Warrior Gene", which Pinker mistakenly dismisses (monoamine oxidase A (MAOA). Pinker writes:

"[A]n association between the gene and aggression has not been found in non-European populations, perhaps because they have evolved other ways of regulating their catecholamine levels. (Genes often act in networks regulated by feedback loops, so in populations in which a particular gene is less effective, other genes may step up their activity to compensate.) For now, the Warrior Gene theory is staggering around with possibly fatal wounds."

The mistake Pinker makes is that this is based on a paper by Widom and Brzustowicz which does not control for Gender. As the gene does not seem to affect female behaviour the study isn't helpful for looking at ethnic differences.

Pinker is apparently completely unaware that studies have found that MAOA influences aggression in non-europeans (see Weder et al). Kevin Beaver's research on MAOA's effect on gang membership and weapon use also helps support this association.

Finally, Pinker repeats a mistaken figure on the representation of MAOA in Chinese populations, stating:

"[T]he low-activity version of the gene is even more common in Chinese men (77 percent of whom carry it), and the Chinese are neither descended from warriors in their recent history nor particularly prone to social pathology in modern societies."

A study by Lu et al found that 42 Taiwanese men, or 55% of their 77-subject control sample, had the 3-repeat allele of MAOA. Lea and Chambers copied the information incorrectly. Then, an editorial against MAOA research by a doctoral student repeated the falsehood. Now, Pinker has repeated it too.
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161 of 217 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly Polemic, October 11, 2011
By 
DAW (Austin, TX) - See all my reviews
Pinker is as ever brilliant, and I found much intriguing and enlightening in this collection of cherry-picked psychological research in support of a sociological thesis: stated simply (my words, not Pinker's): However unpleasant they may be from time to time, elites are necessary if society is to function properly. For one example among many of Pinker's selectivity, he includes cutting edge evolutionary psychologist David Buss's work where it supports his own argument, but ignores his seminal inferences concerning reciprocal altruism, which differ in important ways from Pinker's. Buss is far less convinced than Pinker that violence defines man more than the urge to connect. Attachment theory doesn't even appear in the index. When Pinker suggests that one reason for the correlation between modernism and relative peacefulness is because power increasingly controls who can and cannot be violent, which he considers not such a bad outcome, he enters the domain of the famous Frankfurt School sociologists and the postmodernists who followed. However, he carefully avoids dialogue with renowned thinkers dating from Gramsci to Foucault who illuminated how power renders people passive, depressed, uninformed and authoritarian through techniques of propaganda, misdirection, and cooptation. Thus, non-physical, but profoundly destructive methods of social control cast no shadow on Pinker's view of modern Western elites as in the main, progressive. In sum, this seems less a comprehensive study than a scholarly polemic. Having said this, much of the material is absolutely fascinating.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One for the Library, Classroom, and Everyone Who Cares, July 20, 2013
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This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Paperback)
It's a big, thick book, but that's in large part because it is so very full of facts: tables and charts, references, footnotes, index: this is a work that is bound to show up on required reading lists in sociology classes, political science classes, perhaps philosophy and others.

Pinker has gathered this impressive array of data to make one point: we are growing nicer over time. We are experiencing a humanizing, civilizing force that has reduced violence of all kinds, from war and murder to schoolyard bullying. An important part of that is attitude shifts: we tend to go from acceptance of brutality to discussions about it, to reducing the incidence, to finding what remains completely unthinkable. The statistics on infanticide are, to me, the defining example. It used to be common for newborns to be killed or abandoned for any number of reasons, and nobody talked about it. The shift -- uneven across cultures, but downward over the whole world -- makes a study of interest to everyone, and Pinker gives us plenty of detail. But he does that for every category of nastiness, and that adds up to a large, well-written, very readable book.

You do not have to be all that well educated, or any sort of specialist, to appreciate this book. In fact, I recommend it to pretty literally everyone.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pinker's Magnum Opus, July 18, 2013
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This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Paperback)
This book represented a crowning achievement in research. While lengthy, Pinker does not deviate from his argument that we are living in a less violent world than in the past. This book should be required reading for those concerned about the state of violence in the world, how humans have changed in response to violence, and the contrasts for how violence has changed in the past and the present.
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47 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An original work of almost incandescent readability, October 5, 2011
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Steve Pinker is an joy to read. Few writers have his in-your-face intellectual confidence to invite your skepticism by telling you in the introduction that he intends to make a sweepingly radical point, then list in advance the evidence he will present to convince you. Not only does his thesis defy conventional wisdom and the most common intuitions from the evening news, his conclusions carry enough moral charge to provoke howls of protest from a wide range of people with a vested vision of a radically different human history and our future. Plus, he has the writer's chops to make these points with a breathtaking eloquence, brevity and a rock-solid erudition.

He has done this successfully before. His 2002 book, The The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, in similarly demolished the "tabula rasa" model of human nature which had increasingly dominated all the social sciences throughout the 20th century. Like "Our Better Angels..." his logic was an irresistible force and the prose was electric with the ring of truth and studded with insights of wisdom lightly often disguised as pearls of wit. My obsolete view of human nature (acquired by osmosis) was swept away in the opening chapters I found myself amazed that a writer who makes important points so quickly and convincingly could sustain such a chain for 500-plus pages.

If this book were thinner I'd have read it in a single sitting, and though I haven't yet finished it, I've jumped impulsively ahead at random a dozen times and found myself hooked for pages every time before returning to the bookmark. This book is just over 800 pages and is, if anything, even better. It may raise less ruckus than the "Blank Slate" (there's no towering academic attachment to human violence comparable to its commitment to tabula rasa humanity) but there's a very good reason to read this book: it's the sort that can do more than just change your mind, the sort of book that makes reading into more than another learning experience. It's fun.
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24 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Most Important Trend You Never Heard Of, November 5, 2011
By 
Cebes (Dracut, MA United States) - See all my reviews
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In The Better Angels, Steven Pinker has finally hit his stride and established himself as a true public intellectual. In what is by far his best book, Pinker makes a compelling case that we live in the most peaceful, violence-free period in history, and that there is a clear long-term historical trend of the reduction of physical violence of every kind and at every level. What is extraordinary is that, not only does this fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but no one seems to have made this argument or even suggested this before. The book is long, detailed, and full of graphs, charts, and statistics, but that is because it has to be - for the Conventional Wisdom insists that this claim cannot possibly be correct. Conservatives believe that society is in a breakdown mode due to the decay of traditional family and religious values; liberals believe that violence is endemic to global capitalism and imperialism; the average person believes the criminals and child molesters are running wild on the streets. But Pinker demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that just the opposite is true. This is perhaps the most important single development in all of human history, and it is simply astonishing that no one seems to have heard of it. And probably no one else could have written this book besides Pinker, with his brilliance, his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, and his omnivorous reading habits in many disciplines, from science to philosophy to literature.

Pinker's book sets out not only to document this trend, but even more ambitiously, to give an explanation for it. And here Pinker is successful as well (with a few caveats, mentioned below). Greatly to his credit, Pinker departs from the standard evolutionary psychology approach (in which we are deterministic "demonic males" and so forth) and ventures to give a sort of explanation that is almost entirely out of fashion these days especially in scientific circles, and that will come across as sentimental softness. But Pinker makes a compelling case that it is not our instincts, our "mental modules" or "stone age minds" that have caused the decline in violence, but rather our REASON and our MORALITY. There is, Pinker says, nothing more powerful than an idea (415). Over time, people have come to develop their rationality and their moral faculties in a way that makes violence no longer an acceptable way of solving problems. Moreover, government plays an essential role in this process (despite the fashionable conservative mantra that government is the source of all our problems). By establishing a monopoly on force, the state made the single most important contribution to violence reduction. And by providing universal education and ensuring that commerce can take place in a nonviolent setting, the state set the stage for ever-decreasing levels of violence.

The one pervasive flaw in Pinker's approach is his dogmatic, reflexive bias against religion. In Pinkerworld, all good things came out of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution/Age of Reason, and everything that happened before then reflects ignorance, superstition, and anti-humanism. This bias distorts his historical analysis, for instance entirely discounting the influence of Christiantiy. Like so many New Atheists, he quotes at length from the violence of the Old Testament, but entirely ignores the opposite message from the New Testament that supersedes the Old one. Jesus is after all the Prince of Peace, and his message is to turn the other cheek, not resist evil, forgive, love your enemy, etc., etc. One would have thought that this moral revolution might have figured large in a book on the decline of violence, especially as Christianity is the world's biggest religion. But Pinker dismisses it in a couple of lines, presumably because it threatens his ideological view that nothing good can possibly come from religion. Similarly, Pinker sings the praises of teh 18th century idea of universal human rights, but almost entirely dismisses the fact that all major religions discovered the idea of the Golden Rule thousands of years before. However, the thesis of the book stands even despite this bias, and indeed the development of religion in a direction towards nonviolence if anything would only strengthen Pinker's thesis, if he were not so dogmatically hostile to religion.

This is a powerful and important book, and it should have a wide influence on public policy debates. Unfortunately, since politicians get votes by scaring voters about the terrible evils out there (terrorists, criminals, etc), it probably won't get the attention it deserves. It is also a 700-page tome, and hence most people won't have the time to go through it carefully. But they should - it is that important.
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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker (Paperback - September 25, 2012)
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