Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books.
Steven Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and, as the expression goes, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (TBAoON) purports to show just that. That over the ages of human history, violence has declined. Pinker is an acknowledged authority on such subjects as language and cognition. TBAoON is not a book on any of that. Pinker stretches his argument over 800 pages with research data, graphs and tabulations. Unfortunately, what he suggests is at best, open to interpretation. Statistics are like that.
As is often done, the author uses a highly selective interpretation of data. He appears to select what supports his hypothesis and disregards the rest. Further, while there might be more evidence to support it, he does not present it and his extrapolations seem to be weak at best. Statistical sample sizes seem at times to be small and Pinker makes no apologies for this and fails to proffer its limitations. In fact, we are even sometimes asked to ignore some of the data. Ahhh, me thinks not.
A tome this size perhaps warrants more of a review however, when the scientific method is totally mangled and evidence-based science is completely ignored, it’s probably time to stop reading let alone spend the time reviewing a book like this. I thoroughly enjoyed The Blank Slate. It was my introduction to Steven Pinker. I thought that I could not wait to read more by this author. I should have become suspicious about one who writes on subjects seemingly light years removed from his field of expertise. However, I took a chance and unfortunately, I was disappointed.
While I like Steven Pinker's thesis and I agree that violence has gone down over time, I do not agree with a lot of his causation and some of his fact collection. The irony is that he put down Cultural Anthropology in chapter 1, yet this very thing could have saved him from fact errors. This Judeo Eurocentrism hurts his thesis, though it need not to. (His gaffe where he said "Muslim countries"... is an example of Judeo-Christian Ethnocentrcism. There are followers of Islam in the US and they aren't all violent.) Since I collected 20+ such errors, I will give a specific example of where looking outside of Western culture should have given him clues to real causations.
For example, he attributes the civil rights movements to the invention of the printing press, making works more available to the public. First off, Gutenberg did not invent the printing press anymore than Edison invented the light bulb or Bell wholly invented the telephone by himself--that is an easy fact to look up. Gutenberg invented adjustable brackets. Chinese invented the printing press and wood block printing, Koreans invented movable type (In the form of clay). Scholars in both countries for a long time were encouraged to learn to read and write. South Korean enjoyed a higher literacy rate than the US for longer at 99%. Yet, despite having both a printing press and a high literacy rate since the 1443 (which was when hangeul was invented), torture was still in place for a long time. And despite having a democracy, there are still some civil liberties that are currently not in place in South Korea. (which one would get from reading outside of the Western world. In which case, I would say the change in subsistence pattern and putting civil liberties into that of the state instead of the individual, would be the correct assumption--but such things take time because industrialization is a hard thing to handle and catch up with. Again, anthropology would help here.) I would propose instead of literacy rate or the printing press, it was freedom of speech that helped the civil rights movements in Britain, the United States, South Korea and Japan. This would account for the loss of civil liberties in such countries as North Korea in current times, despite the high literacy rate (99% literacy rate, BTW.), printing press and the potential for democracy. (Also accounts for Rome, Athens, Sparta and other city-states in Greece who were democratic and certainly literate with often extensive records.) It's the first amendment and something that at least *my* high school history classes covered extensively as one of the leading factors to civil change. It was the first civil liberty fought for. If one gets killed for speaking out, then the ability to speak to a larger audience becomes inconsequential and it won't reach anyone, especially if the government is regulating it. You can see this with the advent of using Twitter and Facebook to liberate Egypt and other parts of Africa--it's more the ability to speak out, organize and publish without the government looking over ones shoulder that causes civil change.
It's the little dropping of inaccurate facts that frustrated me--such as Witchcraft died because of the "Age of Reason" which is really unreasonable--it's Neolocal communities that do not have witchcraft beliefs. Many mobile forager groups do not have witchcraft beliefs and it is not to the degree that it was in Europe--with a little research he could have found that. (Éva Pócs' paper on witches, you find that out in undergraduate Anthropology class, Magic Witchcraft and Religion) In addition, early advances in science, like it or not were often tied to religion and following religion. Wallace, Darwin, Issac Newton and Linnaeus pursued science as a kind of devotion to Christianity. It's convenient for many people to skim over this in contemporary times since the division between religion and science became a strict line in around the 1930's. (I point this out, though I'm neither religious, nor a Christian.)
For these errors I knock off two stars because while his thesis is really good, it makes me cringe to hear so many inaccuracies. I hope that in the future, he reads outside of Europe--it's difficult, but not that hard given the way we are more and more connected to other countries and peoples--which I would attribute to the new civil liberties movements and the more liberal thinking minds of the younger generation. It's harder to say you hate all Z's if you happen to be acquainted with someone or someone of someone who is a Z and you didn't know it.
BTW, Japanese are perfectly civilized with picking up their soup bowls and drinking the broth while slurping (Move Tampopo.) And contrary to popular belief, there are civil rights movements for women and other groups. I find Japan very civilized with its manners and rules of conduct.
I should note I have the same issues with the Language Instinct... only examine outside of English and mostly Indo-European languages when it was convenient to support the thesis, rather than read and examine other languages completely outside of that scope and use it to fact check the base thesis.
The performance, however, is excellent, so I gave that 5 stars... giving this audiobook overall 4 stars.
This may turn out to be a good book--I'm still trying to listen to it--but anyone thinking of choosing it should be aware that after a brief introduction it goes into a long and sickening description of the violence of various bits of history and literature. No doubt this makes the author's point, not only by the evidence it presents but by my revulsion at it, but I'm not sure I'll make it out of part 1. So far, this is the kind of book I prefer not to listen to--it's much easier to skip ahead when reading a printed book. (The author also just called Anne Boleyn the first wife of Henry VIII, something that does not inspire confidence in the details of the history being recounted.)
Liked the encyclopedic scope and examples.
Statistical analysis hard to understand and mostly unnecessary for average reader.
Yes, I think it puts history and religion into important context.
The comparison of pre-historical and biblical expectation and toleration of violence with modern socially acceptable perspectives was eye opening.
This is the first book I've heard or read in some time that brought doubt to the legitimacy of old testament ethics. I have been disturbed by the idea that the US is implicitly supporting old testament ethics in our support of Israel, and was disappointed until hearing this at how rarely this problem is brought up in non-fiction media, however indirectly. It often seems to pale in the shadow of Hitler and Shariah law, but this helped me to believe it at least has been and can be brought up in modern thought.
I'm in awe of anyone who can do this kind of research. I love it that some of the authors cited haven't even published their books yet. It makes me wonder about how good the research conditions must be at Harvard.
This book gives a thorough survey of how violence has affected human history and the causes that brought about this violence and the reduction of it in recent decades. It answers the truism that "Society is worse now than ever and that it is falling apart" by showing that, in fact the quality fo life of most people today is better that ever. More importantly it delves into the reasons for this. Not only socially but also psychologically. Why do we commit violence? Why do we stop ourselves from being violent? It is at once optimistic and yet challenges the reader to confront those dark parts of our nature that result in everything from homicide to genocide to sadism.
The book is a tough read because it is long and meticulous but the author does a good job of keeping it engaging. As he states at the beginning: "This is a long book... but it has to be." The reader works very well for the material.
The best part of this text was the leading through history and the chronicalling of human society. Such items as comaring what we consider violence today to that which would be violence 20 or 200 years ago is telling of our growth. The author does need to get over his lack of tolarance to other views, and his country of birth is obvious peticularly on the last third of the book. I believe I would have been much happier if I had not listened to the fifth section, not because of my own political leanings of view of society, but because of the authors denegration of those who are not exactly like him, or an understanding of how those in our past generation came to be where they were.
only the first four of five section.
I think it is not as remarkable or counter-intuitive as previous Pinker books such as "how the mind works" or "the blank slate". It is rather an exhaustive survey of research done on violence by humans through out the ages.
Pinker's writing is elegant and persuasive as usual. But the book can get tedious. No stone is left unturned - all types of human violence or covered such as witchburning and school bullying.
It is interesting that Pinker, after making his intellectual reputation by researching phenomena such as language and higher brainfunctions of humans that are mostly a product of nature (i.e. genes) that he has chosen to tackle of phenomenom that is a product a culture - although he does not rule out that our environment of the last 7000 years has not selected for individuals that are less belligerent.
Tackling an issue, such as violence, that is explained by culture as opposed to genes will certainly place Pinker in better standing with the academic world - and possibly get him a life time achievement award from some left wing organization.