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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined | [Steven Pinker]

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

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.
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Publisher's Summary

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.

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  •  
    Kenneth London, ON, Canada 12-08-11
    Kenneth London, ON, Canada 12-08-11 Member Since 2009
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    "A convincing look at humanity's social evolution"
    Where does The Better Angels of Our Nature rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    This a powerfully fascinating book where Pinker shows, with very thorough evidence, that human nature has changed for the better over the centuries. In short, Pinker will prove to you how we have, if still incompletely depending on culture and region, become more peaceful, just and civilization after a fashion. In that, the author gives a detailed look at the history of violence in society that will make you blanch at the bloody antics done by our ancestors and the psychological research trying to explain it. Just hear the reader read out how medieval people found


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    I was heartened for at least one element of the human race, even while I wanted to give those sadists in the past a taste of their own medicine.


    2 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    frank United States 11-06-11
    frank United States 11-06-11 Member Since 2010
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    "Debunking His-story"

    Pinker takes a stroll through the ages and may leave you challenging much of the history you have been taught.
    This is one of the five best books I have read.

    Another gift from one of the best minds we have.

    3 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Marianne Indianapolis, IN, United States 12-19-11
    Marianne Indianapolis, IN, United States 12-19-11 Member Since 2014
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    "A flimsy debate"
    Any additional comments?

    I wish I could say I was surprised by this fascist diatribe masquerading as a scholarly work. What does surprise me is the praise heaped upon it by critics who should know better.The author's main assumption that violence has declined is a sound theory, backed by credible data. It seems almost self explanatory for a student of history. It's when the writer tries to explain modern changes in violent behavior that his political aims show through.The author attests that the decline in violence after the 1980s was caused by increased rates of imprisonment, and the tightening up of social norms after the 1960s. Yet, as the author points out himself, most of the rest of the world saw a decline in violence without an increase in incarceration as we had in the US. He gives this only a hand wave, and says it doesn't really mean anything. Except it does. Second, he provides no data whatsoever about changes in social norms. I would bet that he would find an increased liberalization of social conventions across the board, if he ever bothered to check. But since that doesn't fit his theory, it is easily ignored. All data and historical evidence supports the writer's main thesis, that violence had declined. However, he really needs to go back and really think about his theories of causation. Which I suspect her will not because they do not fit his political agenda.It's really a shame because he is an engaging author, and knows how to get a point across.

    5 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Robert Yamhill, OR, United States 04-20-12
    Robert Yamhill, OR, United States 04-20-12 Member Since 2015

    Hey Audible, don't raise prices and I promise to buy lots more books.

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    "Disappointed"

    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.

    5 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rachel 11-29-11
    Rachel 11-29-11
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    "Judeo Eurocentrism hurt it..."

    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.

    4 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kevin San Clemente, CA, United States 10-24-11
    Kevin San Clemente, CA, United States 10-24-11
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    "Compelling"

    Very good book. I would highly recommend it to all. Steven Pinker has one of the best minds of our time.

    2 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David United States 07-03-14
    David United States 07-03-14 Member Since 2012

    Hellicopter Man

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    "Strong Reccomendation W/3 Cautions"
    Would you listen to The Better Angels of Our Nature again? Why?

    Some chapters.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of The Better Angels of Our Nature?

    The early chapters.


    Have you listened to any of Arthur Morey’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    N/A


    What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

    Many


    Any additional comments?

    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.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rebecca A. Wall 04-02-13
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    "Warning--Opening Section Very Gruesome"

    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.)

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    William New York, NY, United States 03-21-13
    William New York, NY, United States 03-21-13 Member Since 2013
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    "Interesting but too many statistics"
    What did you like best about The Better Angels of Our Nature? What did you like least?

    Liked the encyclopedic scope and examples.

    Statistical analysis hard to understand and mostly unnecessary for average reader.


    Has The Better Angels of Our Nature turned you off from other books in this genre?

    No.


    Have you listened to any of Arthur Morey’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

    No.


    Was The Better Angels of Our Nature worth the listening time?

    Yes.


    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tyler 02-08-13
    Tyler 02-08-13
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    "Solid Research"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Yes, I think it puts history and religion into important context.


    What did you like best about this story?

    The comparison of pre-historical and biblical expectation and toleration of violence with modern socially acceptable perspectives was eye opening.


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    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.


    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
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