Steven Pinker is an intellectual of the first order. Yet all of his book are readily accessible to an educated reader (well, maybe not The Stuff of Thought, which was difficult "stuff").
The premise of this book is that violence is decreasing throughout the world. That includes all kinds of violence: murder, rape, war, genocide and even terrorism! And the decrease is evident over all time scales. Over the last 10,000 years the chances of being a victim of violence has declined dramatically. This is true for the last 1000 years, last 100 years and even the last 10 years. You might think that this is absurd from reading the headlines and listening to TV news but Pinker presents exhaustive data to prove his point. He gives us FBI reports, WHO data, government studies and scholarly studies. He also tries in every case to explain the "why" of the decrease. We have become more and more civilized over time. We also have become more sensitive to the lives and feelings of others.
Pinker is a wizard of making the difficult so easy to undersand. He not only alludes to the classics, The Bible, and academic studies, but also to pop culture. He frequently uses scenes from popular movies, TV shows, books and songs to make his point.
The reading is superb. It is neither dull nor overly dramatic. Within minutes I forgot that there was a reader and my mind was focused in on Steven Pinker's mind.
I would also highly recommend Pinker's previous tour-de-force, The Blank Slate.
Without question of the best audiobooks I've listened to, out of over 100 so far. An exploration of the decline in violence through human history, taking pains to make a coherent, substantive and well supported case for every assertion it makes. Detailed and technical without being dull, this book makes one of the best cases I can imagine for the general advancement of the species and the triumph of modernity. Exceptional.
Old & fat, but strong; American, Chinese, & Indian (sort of); Ph.D. in C.S.; strategy, economics & stability theory; trees & machining.
I try to pick a personal book of the year about once a year and a personal book of the decade about every 10 years. But I also have some in between category of books that are better than the book of the year, but not as good as the book of the decade. “Better Angles” is in this category.
In the last 5 or 6 years there seems to be a growing awareness that violence has declined significantly in parts of the U.S. since the ‘70s. This awareness may be in part due to other popular books that have pointed this out, like Freakonomics. However, this book shows that the decline in violence is global and part of a very long term trend. The details are varied, but the pattern is remarkably consistent. And the affect is not small. For example 500 years ago violence in the more civilized parts of Western Europe was 30 times higher than in the U.S. today.
The first “third” of the book contains copious detail designed to convince you that in spite of rare exceptions the trend toward less violence is significant. The middle “third” of the book reviews what science can (and can’t) tell us about the causes of violence. The last “third” tries to construct a theory that explains the reason for the actual decline in violence.
So what is his conclusion? In a word “enlightenment”. I found the argument compelling. But even more interestingly the result is an unexpected defense of education, learning, refinement, and bourgeoisie values. He clearly thinks enlightenment is at odds with modern leftist (or right wing) politics; and uses the phrase “classical liberalism”.
Three cautions: The author is a statistical researcher or a number cruncher. The math is all almost trivial, but numeracy is the core of the argument and is the bulk of the book. The book is irreverent. I found it charmingly so. But other may find it borderline belligerent. Finally, it is a long and detailed, to the point of pushing the audible format.
This is one of those rare books that does more than inform or amuse: it actually has the potential to influence for a lifetime. It is even more rare in that it does this from an entirely positive angle. And though it does occasionally dip into contemporary politics, it does so in a detached and enlightened enough manner so as not to destroy its timelessness. The author does a great job of extolling the good ideas and skewering the bad ones from all ages, including our own, and instilling a sense of awe in the face of enormous human progress.
I have read this rather long book twice now. I think I'll read it again soon. I hope you will, too (and I hope you = everyone).
The idea that we are living in the most peaceful, least murderous time in the history of the planet is an oddly uncomfortable one for many. First, it just doesn't feel that way. We hear about and see on TV and the internet a seemingly endless stream of stories about mass killings, senseless acts of cruelty, war and even genocide. Also, if we say now is better than ever, then maybe people will stop working to make the world yet less violent.
And for those of us in our middle years, we can readily look back and say that, Yes, things were simpler then. We left our doors unlocked. Kids played outside, etc.
The thing is, it doesn't really take all that much more thinking to notice that not that long ago even in this country women and African Americans were not allowed to vote. Not long ago, we had segregation, lynchings, race riots, assassinations of our leaders, a long a protracted war in Southeast Asia, which followed not long after a protracted (Undeclared) war in Korea, which came very shortly after the nuclear bombing of Japan, which essentially ended the worst global war ever, which some historians consider to have been simply part two of the other worst global war ever. And as one goes back in time, the wars, genocides, ethnic cleansings, etc., keep piling on.
The massive tyrants responsible for the annihilation of tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people in the beginning and middle of the 20th century are long gone. There hasn't been conflict among the world's super powers since the bombs fell on Japan.
On a scale much closer to home, Pinker talks at length about the change in the moral zeitgeist such that treating wives and children as property is outlaw throughout a much greater part of the globe today than just 30 years ago. Spanking children could land you in jail. Spanking your dog can now land you in jail in some places! Foods and cosmetics are often "cruelty" free, where the idea was unheard of not long ago.
Pinker does a brilliant and thorough (800+ pages worth) job of laying out all the statistics to support his case that violence has actually declined. More importantly, he adduces a long list of forces that have contributed to that decline. It's a big book, and it's not possible to summarize it in a few paragraphs. However, it might suffice to say that the forces Pinker adduces are pretty well supported in their various academic disciplines (anthropology, sociology, psychology).
Among the most interesting forces thought to be at work civilizing the world is commerce. This is one that ruffles some feathers a bit, but the argument is essentially this. When you look at the data, what appears to be the case is that countries that trade with each other don't tend to kill each other. Pinker uses a line from writer Robert Wright, who said (paraphrasing), "The reason I don't want to kill the Japanese is that they make my minivan." The line is intended to be ironic, of course, but the point stands. When our economic lives are intertwined, we find ways to resolve disputes peaceably. How likely is it that France and Spain would go to war today over disputed territory in the Alps? Moreover, by this stage in world history, we (powerful countries) have figured out that overtaking and subjugating nations by force is more expensive than trading with them and imposing economic and policy-based restrictions. One may object to neo-liberalism, but it can hardly be more objectionable than its predecessor strategy, conquest and empire. This part of the book and argument is long and involved and fascinating.
Another strong force in the civilizing of the globe involves media and its globalizing effects. Again, we may not like what we see in our media outlets every day, but the fact that people nearly everywhere know a lot about people nearly everywhere else on earth helps reduce violence. The reason it does is that the more we know about other people, the more we can put ourselves in their shoes, the less likely we are to kill them. We can relate a little more. We don't de-humanize them as much. This isn't to say that racism, culturism, etc, has or ever will go away. We are a tribal species. But, data show that as people in general are more and more able to reason abstractly about the world, and to think about what it is like to be someone other than who they are, the less violent they are. This type of reasoning leads to more understanding and less killing. There are plenty of exceptions to this, and this isn't to say that neighboring countries or ethnic groups within countries don't still kill each other. They certainly do (but moreso when infused with lots of religious fervor). But, in general, the trend is away from killing.
A final point. PInker cites a good deal of data and some theorizing to suggest that even the 21st century terrorism plague is already fading away. The reason: it doesn't work. In the big picture, terrorists never succeed in accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish via their terrorism. Ireland is not united. Basque country is not independent. Israel is still Israel.
To continue to make things better, it is critical that we know what has worked in the past. Many strategies and natural trends have contributed to making the world a safer place today. The Better Angels lays out in detail what has been working. It is well worth knowing what they are. It is also helpful to feel just a bit better about who we are as a species today.
"A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one." - Jojen Reed. #ADanceWithDragons
I was quite pleased with this entire title. It proposes a very interesting point and attacks it head on. The way that it was brought across by the narrator was very pleasing to the ears. Overall a very nice production with some excellent points overall.
The argument that Violence has declined over time is one that I personally thought was a given if one were to think of it. Being a fan of Renaissance History it appeared to me that violence had declined. The author though uses this as well as a number of other points to brings across his point as to why this is so, using other factors such as religion, standard of living, etc. to provide insight on this fact.
The book has A LOT of information (useful information mind you) but it is a lot of information to process and I think this plays up it having a lot of replay value.
Arthur Morey does an excellent job with the narration. I found his voice engaging during the entirety of the almost 37 hours of this audiobook.
As one would hope for a book this lengthy, Steven Pinker doesn't waste your time. After a brief introduction, the book takes off into a systematic and thoroughgoing analysis of just about all the data one could ask for on this topic. He gives the numbers, the studies, etc. and explains them at every step of the way. He goes into quite a bit of history, biology, neuroscience, politics, law, and several other subjects relevant to the topic which were a pleasure to learn about for their own sake. I found that Pinker even anticipated nearly every question I had, usually only a few sentences after it popped into my mind. I don't think one could ask for a better book the subject.
Steven Pinker writes near the end of the book, "...and I hope that the numbers I have marshaled have lifted your assessment of the state of the world from the lugubrious conventional wisdom." I can say that this has been the effect on me.
I just loved this book. I get so tired of hearing people say how bad things have gotten, and how much more violent we are than our wonderful peaceful ancestors. Pinker puts the lie to that idea and backs up his personal observations with extensive documentation. I appreciate that Pinker is trying to make a point here and may have omitted some evidence that didn't back up his claims, so I'd like to read a detailed refutation of his central tenet. The only objection I have to this book is that it is, in my opinion, somewhat longer than it needed to be, as he makes some points over and over again.
Trying to support 1) the comparably smaller non-fiction selection and 2) the few here that are not misinformation. Got mind? Use it.
This is truly a colossal topic to tackle, even 800+ pages leaves many areas untouched. However, there are certain themes in this book that provide some insight or at least some grounds for debate regarding the historical trend of violence and human nature.
Highly recommended to first read Pinker's "The Blank Slate", a truly excellent non-fiction that focuses more on human nature and ideologies. "How the Mind Works" is also excellent; it is more technical and more within Pinker's expertise.
This book sure did stir up some lively debates. I think it's important to first note that Pinker's book is about violence, not oppression/unfairness/"bad things", etc. So overall, I would agree that many forms of violence have been in decline, at least since the time when history was adequately-documented.
However, I would suggest that the evolution of ideas is not completely synonymous with improving the human condition. Negative ideas also evolve. Thus, while primitive forms of oppression like race and gender slavery are in decline, other forms of oppression continue to evolve and become further entrenched in our society. Example: unaccountable multinational corporations that force laws to pass without democratic scrutiny using hordes of lobbyists/less-than-transparent political systems/public's apathy, and can manipulate scientific research/marketing/media.
I've heard several dissident voices criticize the book's lack of interest in covering economic oppression. I do wish Pinker touched on this more, but I imagine he defined violence in the most strict form in order to keep the book's scope manageable. And sadly, if he did talk about economics I am sure he would open up a new can of worms, straying even further from his area of study and likely making this overall work less credible.
While I found many of Pinker's arguments to be compelling, I felt he glossed over the section on future dangers, particularly nuclear proliferation and climate change. True, no nukes have been successfully dropped on a population since the end of WWII, but it takes much more than "oh, well, it hasn't happened yet" to argue that our control over the situation is anywhere close to acceptable.
For example, John Oliver did a great commentary on USA's current nuclear weapons fiasco (search up "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Nuclear Weapons"), and the USA is supposed to be the most advanced nuclear weapons country in the world!
I can appreciate what Pinker and Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) are trying to get across (i.e. how much human progress has achieved and given such obvious improvements we have to continue to encourage such progress), but anytime you tackle such a large & complex scope you run the risk of over-simplifying certain topics to make it better fit your overall arguments.
It is sometimes hard to have hope for the future. I hear about new and horrible websites, terrible atrocities, lives of crime, heartbreak, death and despair. It is easy for me to slip into a malaise thinking that there is nothing to keep the world from going to hell. This book gave me an emotional lift. It's strange because the author doesn't play to pathos; the arguments are detached and analytic. Nor does he suggest any mystical or supernatural intervention guiding the process. People have good reasons to be tolerant and peaceful, if not straight up kind. Instead of hoping inspite of the world, I now feel that there are good reasons to hope for and with it.