We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?” In this startling new book, the best-selling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. In fact, we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.
Evidence of a bloody history has always been around us: the genocides in the Old Testament and crucifixions in the New; the gory mutilations in Shakespeare and Grimm; the British monarchs who beheaded their relatives and the American founders who dueled with their rivals; the nonchalant treatment in popular culture of wife-beating, child abuse, and the extermination of native peoples. Now the decline in these brutal practices can be quantified.
With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the numbers they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals — all substantially down.How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment? Was it reading novels, cultivating table manners, fearing the police, or turning their energies to making money? Should the nuclear bomb get the Nobel Peace Prize for preventing World War III? Does rock and roll deserve the blame for the doubling of violence in the 1960s — and abortion deserve credit for the reversal in the 1990s?
Not exactly, Pinker argues. The key to explaining the decline of violence is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international best sellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.
©2011 Steven Pinker (P)2011 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
The early chapters.
Yes. This book confirms my own observations general world conditions are much better then past. Three cautions. 1) the book progresses into very much detail that some of us will not require; 2) The author stratified civilisations by descending order A) Europe; B) Blue States; C) Red States; D) Islamic States. I am in one just above a Caliphate.
Finally, the author seems a scientist, a socialist, and an atheist. What could possibly go wrong.
PS - Atheism seems a bit Luddite in the era of quantum mechanics and the double slit experiment which has, apparently been proven retroactive in time. Consciousness, as an independent variable… religious fundamentalist atheists who might deny unknown science?
Never heard of such a thing.
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.
Mislead by the title, I bought the book to understand the violence' place in human nature, but quit listening to it after ten hours of detailed descriptions of everything extremely brutal and savage in history, real or imagined. In the beginning I thought that these stories are meant to illustrate that the human history has been violent, more so than the time's we're living in, but after ten hours of this I think this is the only content of the book. Blood and suffering everywhere, described too vividly to my liking - I don't know who can enjoy, or even stand that for hours and hours in a row.
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.
a Tech Exec who loves the stories about what could be and what should have been. Mixed with histories told from an outside perspective.
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.
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