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Top reviews from the United States
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I went ahead and got a copy of this book on Kindle anyway after reading an FT interview with the author 2 days ago. That article piqued my curiosity at the right moment in time.
This book has been difficult because it’s different. Because it challenges every belief I had, premised on Hobbes, Machiavelli, the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Kitty Genovese incident, the ‘Broken Windows’ theory, and a lifetime of being trained & reminded not to trust ‘others’ in our ‘dog eat dog’ world.
But in essence that’s what good books do, isn’t it? Just as travel is anathema to prejudice, a good book opens your mind.
I’m going to re-read this book, and recommend it to everyone I know. I don’t believe the world is sunshine and roses (I write this review in a COVID-19 era of lockdowns and economic malaise, where protests rage around the world against the death of George Floyd). This book doesn’t make all the horrible things happening vanish, it sprinkles fairy dust on nothing. It simply presents a different perspective, a perspective that I would have ridiculed and mocked mercilessly as recently as a week ago.
But after speeding through this book, I mean it when I say that this is the first time in a long time I have felt truly hopeful for a better future, for the possibility of change for the better.
This is a book with an agenda, a pleasant one. It's well documented and although the author does not hide his preferences, he does not shrink from frank discussion on numerous examples of humans' bad deeds. Of course there are simplifications and omissions, but it was impossible from the start to analyse every aspect in detail - the book would have run into 30th volume.
Personally, I was well prepared to like the book and agree with the author. There were, however, some parts of the book which I cannot write off as simplifications and omissions.
First of all, the book is absolutely, shamelessly West-oriented. Asia, with all humanitarian philosophies that originated there, gets few mentions, all of them firmly negative. (I don't count the Bible as Asian in origin).
Casual mention of "Polish concentration camps" indicates sloppy writing, editing or translation. Other parts of the book make it clear that the writer does know whose the camps really were and does not confuse perpetrators and victims. The mistake (if it was a mistake, not lack on information about political and legal situation in occupied Poland) does make one wonder about other facts presented in the book.
People interested in human prehistory might look forward to writer's conclusions about beginning of settled life and what we call civilisation. Why, he asks "did we exchange our nomadic life of leisure and good health for a life of toil and trouble as farmers?" Apparently, there were soon too many humans (which somehow is not a proof that farming gave advantage to settled humans over hunters and foragers), the humans who wanted to return to previous mode of life couldn't do so because other people disliked trespassers (a no-explanation of how farming expanded from original starting point in Euphrates to corn fields in Aztec Empire) and humans lost ability to forage (even though it's still a popular pastime in some parts of Europe and almost an industry in Sweden).
The biggest no-no for me: in a hunter-gatherer tribe a man had made himself obnoxious. Every adult in the tribe took part in lynching him. Is it given as an example that not all is rosy in hunter societies? No! The author is not for a moment advocating such way of solving conflicts, but thinks it was practical solution to the problem the tribe faced. A lynch and a society where staggering 100% of adult population are killers, given as a proof of how nomadic way of life is better than civilisation. Absolutely last thing I expected from a self-declared humanitarian.
Top reviews from other countries
Perhaps they were just a bad lot and they are the exception to the rule as espoused by the author but my experience of 70 years of other peoples selfish nature is at odds with his research.
But as I read this, I kept asking "When is Rutger going to acknowledge 'Sex at Dawn' by Calcida Jetha & Christopher Ryan?", but he never did.
Sex at Dawn does an even more comprehensive job of counteracting Pinker. Calcida & Chris say that violence was low among prehistoric hunter-gatherers because (i) they had no fixed private property to fight over (ii) sexual freedom contributed to lower stress levels in society and (iii) plenty of room for nomadic groups to spread out and avoid resource conflicts.
However, I do like Rutger's observation that when hunter-gatherer groups met, friendliness was the norm, not rivalry, and that people probably switched groups, and so had a much wider social circle.
I'd be interested to know why Rutger didn't acknowledge this important book. (I did find one reference to "Sex at Dawn", but it was not relevant to the point I make above).
PS. there's a missing word on page 253, - Bloomsbury should probably get that fixed.