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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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  •  
    Mike Ivanovo, Russia 03-11-12
    Mike Ivanovo, Russia 03-11-12
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    "A Fascinating Listen"
    Would you consider the audio edition of The Better Angels of Our Nature to be better than the print version?

    Personally, I think I couldn't bear to read it all in print. Thankfully, audiobook format came to my rescue. This title is much easier to listen to, than to read.


    If you were to make a film of this book, what would be the tag line be?

    The most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.


    Any additional comments?

    Overall, a fascinating listen! Highly recommended! If you are not intimidated by its size, I mean! But fear not, you can always skip parts not interesting to you, as I did! :)

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David Hoeilaart, Belgium 03-09-12
    David Hoeilaart, Belgium 03-09-12 Member Since 2014
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    "Astonishing and important"

    This book is not for everyone, especially for those that do not want to delve into great detail. But it is a very powerful explanation for multiple changes going on in our society.

    The author gives a tour de force of multiple aspects of violence: war, insurrection, terrorism, and toward women, children, and even animals. He makes a well-backed argument that all forms of violence have declined over time. Of course, there are numerous statistics to illustrate the claims, but the book does not get bogged down in that. It remains interesting and engaging.

    Many days I told people I know, "You know what I learned today..." The portrayal of our development was just so astonishing in many ways. Pinker brings in history, biology, cognitive and developmental psychology, religion, and many other disclipines.

    The narration felt so natural and authoritative that I felt that Pinker himself was reading his own work. This is a book I will listen to again.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    V.D. BEAVERCREEK, OH, United States 02-24-12
    V.D. BEAVERCREEK, OH, United States 02-24-12 Member Since 2013
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    "important, enlightening, well-researched"

    this is a very important book, and amazingly well-researched.
    the breadth and depth of the research is astounding; the arguments are well-grounded in history, logic, and statistics; and the author is always careful not to overstate his conclusions.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    M 01-18-12
    M 01-18-12 Member Since 2012
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    "Fascinating, thorough and well delivered"
    What did you love best about The Better Angels of Our Nature?

    Extremely detailed research, laid out in a thoughtful and balanced manner. Pinker's case is something I've personally long believed, so I must be wary of some confirmation bias in reviewing the book. However, even if you already open to his case, I believe this would still be an interesting and pleasurable experience.


    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David United States 01-15-12
    David United States 01-15-12
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    "Very very long, and jam packed with insights"
    Any additional comments?

    Some parts are quite graphic, but they are integral to the point that Prof. Pinker is making. This is one of those books, like The Omnivore's Dilemma, that makes you stop and reassess how you interpret the world around you. All of Pinker's arguments are well defended and seem obvious in retrospect, thanks to the clear layout of this book.

    2 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    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
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