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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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  •  
    Scott Sandy, OR, United States 03-19-12
    Scott Sandy, OR, United States 03-19-12 Member Since 2010
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    "Guaranteed to keep a conversation going"

    Much of the information of this book is readily available via other sources. People who seriously study historical trends will probably not be shocked by Pinker's conclusions. That being said he has done a great job in gathering the information together in a single volume and presented it in original and dramatic style.

    Our view of the world is based on the information we are given. If we are told, over and over again, that we live in a violent and terrible world, then we tend to believe it at face value. But to try and objectively determine how violent our world is, as shown in this book, is a big problem, but not an impossible one.

    The decline of violence is one of the long historical trends in the history of man. But since humans live such pitifully short lives they are condemned not to see it or fully appreciate it.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    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
  •  
    Emily 06-10-12
    Emily 06-10-12 Member Since 2014
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    "Too much detailed torture and cruelty."

    I have a lot of respect for Pinker. He is one of the world's greatest modern thinkers and even in this book you can see how he pushes for answers to difficult questions. While I don't agree with all of his theories, I do admire his capacity to contemplate, and I appreciate his perspective.

    However, this book was too much. He goes overboard trying to convince us how bad humans were a hundred to a thousand years ago, by describing in MINUTE detail the torture that people practiced on each other. He states that because this behavior is less prevalent and not as accepted as a common practice that we are making improvements.

    If that is the only yard stick, then we have improved. (That's a short yard stick to measure such an important quality.)

    Humans still have a very long way to go and just because delighting in torture is not politically correct (in most modern societies) does not mean we are necessarily "better."

    The 36+ hours of detailed human cruelties (repeated over and over and over) was just too much for me.

    Last gripe is that he would make a statement and then say, "We'll talk more about that in chapter X." He did that repeatedly, and I wished he would have just described it right then. If it was relevant to the topic, he should talk about it. This makes for A LOT of repetition -- he repeats the same concepts over and over.

    5 of 11 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 12 people found this review helpful
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