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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Paperback – September 25, 2012
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From the Publisher
“If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this—the most inspiring book I've ever read."
—Bill Gates (May, 2017)
A Mark Zuckerberg "Year of Books" Pick
"My favorite book of the last decade is [Steven] Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a long but profound look at the reduction in violence and discrimination over time."—Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft
"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
"An 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."—Slate
Praise for THE STUFF OF THOUGHT
“The majesty of Pinker’s theories is only one side of the story. The other side is the modesty of how he built them. It all makes sense, when you look at it the right way.”— The New York Times Book Review“Packed with information, clear, witty, attractively written."—The New York Review of Books
“Engaging and witty …Everyone with an interest in language and how it gets to be how it is—that is, everyone interested in how we get to be human and do our human business—should read THE STUFF OF THOUGHT.”— Science
Praise for THE BLANK SLATE
“An extremely good book—clear, well argued, fair, learned, tough, witty, humane, stimulating.”—Colin McGinn, The Washington Post
“Sweeping, erudite, sharply argued, and fun to read…also highly persuasive.”—Time
About the Author
Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards 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.
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I started reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined with the attitude that Pinker needed to first convince me violence had declined before getting into explaining why. To be perfectly honest, given the world we currently live in, it's hard to imagine that violence has declined.
While I finished the book convinced that violence has declined, I felt like the explanations for why seemed more hypothetical than proven. Pinker explored violence quite thoroughly beginning his book at the beginning of human existence and moving to modern times in the almost 700 pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature. He explored historical myths as well as historical documents to arrive at his conclusions. He used archaeological finds to disprove mythical battles. He described how the development of etiquette and the creation of government helped quell violence and change our norms about violence. He used a combination of statistics, anecdotal evidence, and archaeological studies to present his case.
Yet, the more I read, the more my college corrections statistics professor's words haunted me. He always warned our class to be careful when writing papers not to allow our biases and our desires to prove our points to affect the weight we gave the studies we used as evidence.
Pinker seems less objective in some areas of The Better Angels of Our Nature than in other sections. He seemed to excuse violence against some people while unequivocally condemning it against others. This bias felt incredibly out of place in a book on why violence has declined.
For example, when talking about things like the FBI's crime report and other such studies on crime, Pinker never mentions the effect of police discretion and biased court results on crime rates or how the statistics for individual areas are sometimes skewed by reporting or not reporting data. My assumption is he believes the numbers wouldn't be enough to skew the overall results, and a simple paragraph could have addressed that issue. Maybe even just a few sentences; however, if those sentences existed I couldn't find them.
His inconsistent handling of anecdotal evidence and research surveys deemed certain groups of people more credible than others without giving a clear reason why.
As I read The Better Angels of Our Nature, I found myself wanting it to be better than it was yet I still think it's a book worth reading. Pinker obviously studied violence in great depth. He explains the statistics in an easy to understand, straightforward method, and he tells the story of violence quite well. He makes violence the main character, for better or worse, in a story that is ongoing and relevant and important. In fact, Pinker tells the story so well and brings up such important points, facts, and conclusions, that I am tempted to dismiss the things that bothered me about the book. Yet, I can't do that in good conscience. Pinker drives home the fact that violence is much less acceptable than it used to be for a variety of reasons and that unacceptability has come about as humans have developed civilization and sought out ways to live together more peacefully. The Better Angels of Our Nature left me hopeful that we can continue to rise above violence and find nonviolent solutions in spite of my skepticism about certain sections of the book.
I would also like to mention that if you buy the paperback version, towards the beginning, the text on the pages is uniformly at an angle, and not entirely horizontal across the page.
However, I had to dock a star for a few reasons. First, I believe Pinker uses excessively obsolete and/or "advanced" vocabulary throughout the entirety of the book. The vast majority of people reading this book, I believe, will have a very difficult time reading the book without a dictionary nearby (or of course, an app on your smartphone, which I admittedly used). I have a college background in writing, and was proficient in writing throughout my schooling days, but Pinker's vocabulary is advanced to the point of being frustrating and annoying; I found hundreds of words throughout the ~ 700 pages that I hadn't a clue as to their meaning. Eventually, it became frustrating enough that I downloaded the Merriam-Webster dictionary app for the sole purpose of having it on hand while reading this book! Never had that problem with any other book.
Second, Pinker tends to run off on tangents on a consistent basis, and you will often forget you are even reading a book on violence. Many of these tangents are relatively interesting, but at times I thought perhaps he was just stroking his own ego rather than staying on topic. The book could have been much more concise and delivered the same message.
As a whole, however, the book is excellent and definitely worth a read, if you are up for a challenge. Or hey, maybe I'm not as great a reader as I thought I was! I found it a challenging but rewarding read and I came away from the experience with a great deal of knowledge and insight.
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