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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Paperback – September 25, 2012
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“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.
For example, in his “Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) Ian Morris argued convincingly that substituting the Law of Man with the Law of the State (Creon’s point in Sophocles’ Antigone), bringing larger and larger swathes of territory within the rule of law and finally clamping down on the steppe hordes (the Russian and Chinese closure of the “Eurasian exchange” as Ian Morris phrased it) are largely responsible for reducing human suffering over the centuries (keeping away the horsemen of the Apocalypse as Morris would have it). It is conceivable that the expansion of democratic forms of government and capitalistic forms of production may have been responsible for further reducing violence in more recent times but it is too early and the numbers too small to tell if Pinker is a lucid student of history or an apologist of neoliberal cliché.
To some extent, the trouble with The Better Angels of Our Nature is due to Pinker’s bizarre notion of agency in history. Consider, for example, his idea (Loc. 4714 and Chapter 6) that the Holocaust is the handiwork of one person (Adolf Hitler; actually, he uses the title, “No Hitler, no Holocaust”, of one of Hemmelfarb’s essays, to make this point concisely) rather than the militarism and white supremacism of German society through much of that state’s history. But a lot more has to do with Pinker’s poor grasp of history. Not surprisingly he is led to the conclusion that a lot of violence is stochastic rather than the work of bad policies, bad estimates, bad calculations and/or bad manners: “The two world wars were, in a sense, horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution that stretches across a vast range of destruction”, Pinker claims in Loc 4986.
In fact, the data he presents belie his argument. Rather than the monotonic decline of homicidal tendencies as time goes by, several of his figures demonstrate sudden aperiodic upswings. For example, Figure 3.2., titled “Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000”, displays an upsurge from the 12th to the 14th century. Did it occur to Pinker that the 12th century belongs to what is not accidentally called the Dark Ages -dark relative to the civilized late Roman era of the Antonines- culminating in the again not accidentally called calamitous 14th century? Moreover, Fig. 5.18 shows 3 major upswings in the rate of deaths since the 15th century. The first coincides with the German wars of religion (the first half of the 17th century) the second with the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century) and the 3rd with the first half of the 20th century (the 2 world wars). Because, together with Richardson (1960), Pinker thinks that the onset of war is random and argues against “….historical narratives that see constellations in illusory clusters” and “theories that see grand patterns, cycles and dialectics in human history” (Loc. 4637), he goes to great lengths to explain away these upswings as due to misconceived ideology and inadequate negotiating skills. For example, along with Garrett Mattingly, Pinker thinks of the early 16th century upswing as “ideological fervor acting as accelerant for military conflagration “ as well as because of the disabling of a mechanism for terminating war (“…any negotiations with the enemies…looked more and more like heresy”, Loc 5214).
Unfortunately for Pinker, but fortunately for us, David Hackett Fischer has already provided a convincing account of these upswings in “The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History”. This is the book to read in an effort to understand large scale changes in the exertion of violence, be they ascending or descending. Hackett-Fischer’s point is that every so often, prices increase due to demographics and other factors, to the point that people cannot satisfy basic every day needs. Because governments often work for vested interests rather than for the people, the price increases end in major violent upheavals (namely the 100 years war, the 30 years war, the Napoleonic wars and the World wars in the upswings I referred to in the beginning of the previous paragraph).
Finally, but tellingly, Pinker commits several embarrassing mistakes, mistakes that a professional historian would have avoided. Julius Caesar was definitely not “one of 34 Roman emperors…” (Loc. 3658). Instead, he held the offices of dictator for life and tribune at the time of his assassination, in 44 BCE. Similarly, Constantinople was not “inhabited by Muslim and Jewish populations that were massacred when the city fell to the crusaders (Locus 3252)” (he has in mind the sack of the City on April 12, 1204, and the murder of several of its citizens, Roman citizens mind you, by members of the IVth crusade). Nor was Greece a fascist dictatorship until the 1970s, akin to Portugal and Spain (Loc 6205). There was a military dictatorship in Greece but it started in 1967. Greece was a constitutional monarchy since the middle of the 19th century, a Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s (actually that was the second Greek Republic, but Pinker can be excused for not being familiar with too much historical detail). It was not run by a German/Italian puppet government such as Franco’s or Salazar’s in the 1930s. Instead Metaxas’ right wing government defeated Italy and fought against Germany in WWII but later succumbed to it in Operations Marita and Mercury. After WWII and a brief civil war, the country again reverted to constitutional monarchy till 1967. Finally, the Romans did not destroy “Carthage and its population during the Third Punic War in the 3rd century BCE… (Loc 7384) ”but in the 2nd (in 146 BCE to be exact). It is the first and second Punic wars that took place in the 3rd century BCE. Clearly Pinker is well read but does not have the intimate knowledge of history that one needs to decide if violence has indeed declined over the years as he claims.