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.
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.
Probably not with Morey reading.
Yes-I think he's a genius
This was nonfiction
I'm sure Meryl Streep would be in there somewhere ; )
I listen to books on long drives. I was really interested in the concept, the but narrator put me to sleep.
"A Magnum Opus in every sense!"
For such a long book, it never gets boring. I was fascinated from start to finish. Pinker has certainly done his research, and the book is packed with references to current research. His analysis of human violence is comprehensive, covering history, philosophy, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, social theory, religious beliefs, child rearing practices, theories on the origins of war, demographic correlates of violence and much more on the demons and angels of our nature.
Contrary to what we might think, he argues convincingly that we are getting more humane. No more do we burn cats (or heretics) alive for entertainment. No more do we torture people to death, or subject children to cruel and unusual punishments and even though our weapons of war are deadlier than ever, every life lost - even our enemies, becomes a source of regret.
The book holds several surprises: that literature may be a cause of our greater tolerance of others, that empathy has a dark side in favouritism, that "mirror neurones" do not necessarily make us more humane, that the Flynn effect (increasing IQ) may also be contributing to our capacity for compassion, that the era of "Flower Power" bucked the downward trend with a sharp increase in crime and violence.
We will never be without violence, but for anyone who despairs at the modern world, there is much hope to be found here. It would seem that the angels of empathy, reason, self-control, prudence, fairness, ethical norms, and human rights are slowly winning out against the demons of instrumental violence, sadism, revenge, rage and ideology.
This is such a great book!
"Reasons to be happy"
Such a wonderful, positive, book. History is not just one damn thing after another; with SP as your guide you can see it as a systematic journey from us being animals to us being (more or less) civilised. Pinker is such an academic that he never gets round to throwing his hat in the air and crowing about how great it is that there are actually reasons to be optimistic and to hope (against the pounding of the 24/7 TV news) that human moral thinking is developing alongside our visible technologies. Still, he does admit that it is p o s s i b l e we are not going to hell in a hand basket, as I previously thought. Bravo Steven!
For such a big book and a complex subject it is never boring. I have both read the book and listened to it and I recommend it to anyone. Its optimistic premise basically is we are all becoming nicer, It is impossible to sumarise his arguments are cogent and very believable. I know he is right. I grew up in Dublin and i am 45 but in my short life I have seen the realization of civil rights, women,s rights, gay right, children's right and even animal rights.
This book gives a history of our journey to them. it is wonderful.
"Truly a masterpiece"
I'm a great fan of Steven Pinker, so I started with a favourable opinion. This one doesn't quite match up to The Blank Slate, but comes close. The subject matter - that the human race is getting progressive less violent - is counter-intuitive, but Pinker's case is made relentlessly, logically and empirically. I was completely convinced. It's dauntingly long and I don't think I would have got through the book, but listening to it worked really well.
"Fascinating, surprising and at times horrific."
It's definitely up there with the best. Very thought provoking, and life-affirming.
This was a non-fiction publication, and thus there were no characters.
This was a non-fiction publication, and thus there were no characters.
It gives one hope that we're actually making progress as a race.
Not for the faint hearted - some grim details, and it takes effort, but that effort is very well rewarded.
"Why we should be happy we're alive today!"
This book is an in-depth assessment of violence, and presents the evidence for the decline in violence, and despite that, makes for a really positive, uplifting read!
Although the narrator is sometimes a little 'one-note', it is due to the fact that this is an unabridged version offering every list (for example, of wars) that the book has. There are some amusing parts to the book which I think the narrator covers well.
It's annoying not being able to highlight facts or parts which I found especially interesting, but it's really good to be able to be absorbed in something so complex, challenging and satisfying without having to carry around a book which weighs more than I do.
I'm so glad we no longer set cats on fire for entertainment, relish public torture like crucifixion, or believe that children must be beaten until they bleed daily. This book has cheered me up every day to think of how far we have come!
"Some interesting facts and some utter tosh"
"The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker documents the decline in violence in modern times and tries to explain it. The documentation is usually okay but his attempts to explain it are often bad. He seems to imagine that it makes sense to do things like assigning a probability to a war, when such events are dependent on the future growth of knowledge.
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