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.
Trying to support 1) the comparably smaller non-fiction selection and 2) the few here that are not misinformation. Got mind? Use it.
This is truly a colossal topic to tackle, even 800+ pages leaves many areas untouched. However, there are certain themes in this book that provide some insight or at least some grounds for debate regarding the historical trend of violence and human nature.
Highly recommended to first read Pinker's "The Blank Slate", a truly excellent non-fiction that focuses more on human nature and ideologies. "How the Mind Works" is also excellent; it is more technical and more within Pinker's expertise.
This book sure did stir up some lively debates. I think it's important to first note that Pinker's book is about violence, not oppression/unfairness/"bad things", etc. So overall, I would agree that many forms of violence have been in decline, at least since the time when history was adequately-documented.
However, I would suggest that the evolution of ideas is not completely synonymous with improving the human condition. Negative ideas also evolve. Thus, while primitive forms of oppression like race and gender slavery are in decline, other forms of oppression continue to evolve and become further entrenched in our society. Example: unaccountable multinational corporations that force laws to pass without democratic scrutiny using hordes of lobbyists/less-than-transparent political systems/public's apathy, and can manipulate scientific research/marketing/media.
I've heard several dissident voices criticize the book's lack of interest in covering economic oppression. I do wish Pinker touched on this more, but I imagine he defined violence in the most strict form in order to keep the book's scope manageable. And sadly, if he did talk about economics I am sure he would open up a new can of worms, straying even further from his area of study and likely making this overall work less credible.
While I found many of Pinker's arguments to be compelling, I felt he glossed over the section on future dangers, particularly nuclear proliferation and climate change. True, no nukes have been successfully dropped on a population since the end of WWII, but it takes much more than "oh, well, it hasn't happened yet" to argue that our control over the situation is anywhere close to acceptable.
For example, John Oliver did a great commentary on USA's current nuclear weapons fiasco (search up "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Nuclear Weapons"), and the USA is supposed to be the most advanced nuclear weapons country in the world!
I can appreciate what Pinker and Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) are trying to get across (i.e. how much human progress has achieved and given such obvious improvements we have to continue to encourage such progress), but anytime you tackle such a large & complex scope you run the risk of over-simplifying certain topics to make it better fit your overall arguments.
l'enfer c'est les autres
The book changed the way I look at the world. I had false preconceptions about the changing nature of violence through out history and where we are today. The book opened my eyes to how we really are progressing better and gives me hope about the future. The book is probably the book that has changed my world view more than any other book. Pinker's "The Blank Slate" also changed my world view. That book also opened my eyes to the false preconceptions I had developed while growing up about man. And to show that I'm not a Pinker sycophant, I would just only moderately recommend Pinker's 'How the Mind Works".
I am a bilingual high school teacher. I mostly read non-fiction, especially history, but I am also a sucker for science-fiction and fantasy novels.
Steven Pinker is one of the best popular science voices out there today and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the best qualities of his work is that it is never "dumbed down" and yet it is totally accessible to anyone who is interested in learning about the subject. The quantity of research and depth of information makes this book like the best, most interesting, most engaging university lecture you've ever heard by the best professor you've ever had. Of course, that makes sense since Pinker is in fact a distinguished scientist and university professor, but his skill in developing a subject in total detail for people who know nothing about the subject without ever being boring even for a second is incredible. The narration was so natural that my husband, who is a huge Pinker fan, wondered if he had narrated it himself. I only noticed a very few mispronunciations of scientific terms or foreign-language words in the entire thing, and I am picky so I didn't penalize the otherwise stellar performance by Arthur Morey.
This book was fascinating. The history of violence alone would have kept my interest, but the sections on philosophy, the psychology of violence and neurobiological studies were also fantastic. Anyone who enjoys non fiction, especially from the social sciences, will love this book. Its only negative point is the sometimes truly disturbing imagery that comes up, since the subject matter is, after all, often torture (of people and animals), rape, murder, medieval execution techniques, and warfare. But in spite of the unpleasant subject material, this is above all an optimistic book. Its ultimate aim in every section is to demonstrate that every single type of violence has declined, attitudes about violence have improved, acceptance of oppressed groups has improved (even in comparatively oppressive countries today), and our desire to treat even strangers with sympathy and mercy is in a better place today than it has ever been.
I cannot say how much I enjoyed this book. It was so thorough that I'm coming out of it feeling not only good about the times I live in but also massively better-educated about psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, sociology, philosophy, and social history than I was before. I am a major consumer of non fiction, especially science books and history books, and that feeling doesn't come from most of them, even if they were pretty good. This one is something special and I highly, highly recommend it. You can't read it and be unchanged by the end.
mostly nonfiction listener
This terrific book (which I highly recommend), has a number of things working against it for readership within our IHE community:
1. 832 Pages: Dense pages with small type. I read this book as an audiobook, which ran a staggering 36 hours and 43 minutes. Audio worked out okay for me in this case, as I had a bunch of travel (EDUCAUSE conference), and an audiobook is the perfect travel companion. But if you are a fan of Pinker (I'm a huge fan), and the subject captivates you (it should), this might be a book to get in print (digital or paper).
2. Detail: Pinker's stated purpose is to marshal every bit of evidence to test the hypothesis that violence, at all levels, has been in decline since the Enlightenment. This decline of violence accelerated during the Industrial Revolution, and has been particularly dramatic since the end of the 2nd World War. We have seen declines in state sponsored violence (wars), personal violence (homicides), and non-fatal violence (abuse and intimidation). Pinker starts with the premise that we will be skeptical, that we will long for a "peaceful" past, and that we will tend to see elevated levels of violence as the price of industrialization and modernity. He believes that we will point to world wars and terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and school massacres and conclude that the world has gotten more violent. I've read enough about the "progress paradox" to know that we enjoy the fruits of modernism, and that it would be crazy to romanticize the past or want to return to it. I was more receptive to Pinker from the get go. His exhaustive description of all the data on violence decline tended run together in my brain, I wanted more analysis. When Pinker does provide his theories on why violence has declined, however, he is most articulate and convincing.
3. Audience: Here I'm hoping that you will help me out. Not knowing what our IHE community reads, I'm not sure about the overlap between us and the target market for "Why Violence Has Declined". Might be a decent fit. I bet we like big ideas, Pinker is something of an academic rock star, and we like participating in the larger intellectual \
I am a retired Histology Technician. My time is spent caring for my grandchildren, my dog, cat, and blue & gold macaw.
If the condition of the world is getting you down than you must listen to this wonderfully researched and written font of knowledge! I have listened to this book several times and cannot give Mr. Pinker enough praise. Steven Pinker leads you down a time line of well researched information and statistics on man's journey from brute to civilized and caring creature. I must recommend this work to all parents as it is a great relief to find that our world, and the world that we are leaving our children, is not the death trap of misery the news media and powers that be lead us, and want us, to believe. It is a long read, but a wonderful read, and I hope it reaches a great number of people. As I said before, I recommend it to all.
While generally a Pinker fan, this is not his best work. He does challenge a fundamental assumption, i.e. that the world is getting more violent. But he drifts into soft science, opinion, and social "scientific" narratives that probably aren't his core expertise. And mostly it just lacks the intellectual rigor and thoroughness I would expect. A very good example is the somewhat Sunday afternoon tv sci-fi concept that "if only the bullet that killed Scheubner-Richter had hit Hitler instead" nonsense. This line of reasoning is total abdication to "man makes history" or "randomness makes history" and is ignorant of much broader currents and factors. It is grossly over simplified and kinda of tough to even listen too. As if he, Pinker, never heard of "the stab in the back???" Oh well. It's hard work doing this stuff. But maybe time to just take it easy on Nantucket.
The book takes an empirical look at violence from so many aspects backed by so much research it gives much food for thought, whether you agree or not.
Like reading several books at once, Better Angels weaves together a multi-disciplinary approach supporting its theme.
Dr. Pinker seems to argue what is in fact a classical Comtean positivist case defending empiricism, and takes an obligatory critical stance against any solely-intuitive explanations.
In short, this great read ought to be mandatory for many undergraduate, and certainly all graduate students of, namely social, but also natural sciences, for it delineates a distinctive arrow in the entire recorded human experience; the one we as a specie simply cannot afford to misinterpret or otherwise be confused about.
A commendable academic feat from one of the leading intellectuals of our day.
on scale and significance is on par with guns, germs and steel. highly recommended for all curious people
"Wow! very thought provoking"
long and heavy going at times but well worth it. a truly thought provoking book which is extremely interesting.
"Not read by a real person, surely"
The voice of the narrator sounds as though it was made up from the sounds of a real person's voice but it didn't work. It badly distracted from the enjoyment of the book. Having said that, I found the book quite disappointing too. Maybe it would be better on paper. It seems rather repetitive.
"Masterpiece, albeit somewhat bloated"
An excellent book on the decline of violence. I recommend it to everyone who tries to understand global society. My only complaints are
1. The needless use of obscure words
2. The length. The book could be squeezed down to half its length without much being lost.
This is a perspective changing book. The sheer weight of evidence that Pinker brings to bear on the subject is compelling but it is also brilliantly delivered. After 36 hours of listening I sincerely hope that I find time again in future to reread it. Highly recommended!
"All you the ever wanted to know about nastiness"
Good - comprehensive, interesting, well researched, amusing, well narrated
Not so good - very long, a bit repetitive
I am glad that I completed this book but I was also glad when it ended.
"A bright future."
It appears the good old days are just products of our biased memories, and based on facts, and the assertion of trends, the future of mankind is more likely to be brighter, more humane and pacifistic.
Admittedly I'm a fan of S Pinker's work, so my opinion may be a little biased, but I think this is a brilliant book. So glad I bought it.
"rethink what you know about violent conflict"
this is long and technical, but well worth the time. it's a bit of a minefield of dry data interspersed with graphic descriptions of, for example, medieval torture practices. take care if listening with kids around. the mere fact I need to tell you this in a review of a book on violence tells you how much modern attitudes have shifted away from violence. this work takes you through how we got from the bad old days to the modern global village and leaves you with a real sense of hope.
"Great book, well researched and put together. "
This book is excellent. The narrator however is not, he is dull and monotone and makes hard work of the statistics. He has a habit of making you tune out if you listen too long.
gripping narration about the almost cosmic implications of the decline of violence in our world
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