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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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  •  
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 10-22-11
    Douglas Auburn, WA, United States 10-22-11 Member Since 2008

    College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

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    "Pinker Rings In"

    with his mammoth entry into the now ever growing canon of "moral sense" analyses of the evolving human being. I first read James Q. Wilson's THE MORAL SENSE three years ago (it now seems a bit facile), and then Goleman and the work of Robert Wright and others who see the uneven but eventual betterment of humankind coming by way of world commerce, increasingly democratic governments and not-quite-so-very-medieval post-modern versions of the various religions. Pinker, as always, weighs in with more facts (along with the rare factoid), examples, and evidence than the average reader would have patience to get through were they rendered by a less tongue-and-cheek and often laugh-out-loud translator of the intellectual into lay language and pop culture (without lowing the quality of the stuff translated). Only Pinker can shift between Aaron Burr and Bugs Bunny in the same sentence and still give us something real to think about. The only kick that some might have is that his decided liberal sensibilities shine through, as always, through not glaringly so, and anyone short of Dick Chaney (who, Pinker notes, was not the shot that Burr was) can still enjoy this often whimsical but most penetrating addition to the growing body of books that give us a rosier picture of the future than we might otherwise fashion after a daily media bath of world strife and local mayhem.

    13 of 15 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 12-22-12
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 12-22-12 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

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    "A tour de force"

    I found this to be a stimulating and hopeful book. While anyone who pays attention to the modern media, with its endless stream of mayhem, murder, and war, might conclude that humanity is getting more violent, Steven Pinker presents a comprehensive case that the reverse is actually true. In other words, over the long run of history and even over the past few decades, the rate of violence among human beings has declined drastically. And, according to Pinker, it’s done so in every imaginable category, from organized warfare, to disorganized warfare, to crime, to punishment of crime, to attitudes about acceptable social behavior.

    To be fair, most of Pinker’s evidence concerning the distant past is anecdotal or circumstantial, with statistics loosely extrapolated from what limited data existed then, but it still serves to paint a vivid picture of ancient societies that were far more casually brutal than most societies are today. The telling exceptions, of course, are the more primitive, traditional, and ungoverned ones that still exist, whose level of harshness suggests that the modern lifestyle is an improvement in terms of safety from human aggression.

    Like other prospective readers, I imagine, I was skeptical of the author’s views on war, but he does a pretty good job using statistics and numbers to show that death by conflict is a relative thing, with pre-modern people caught up in warfare, if only small scale warfare, far more often than 20th or 21st century people. Indeed, there’s a table showing that, in relative terms, *World War One* doesn’t even make the top eight (or more -- I forget) deadliest cataclysms, the “winners” including several conflicts I hadn’t even heard of. Taken in light of Pinker’s reasoning, even WWII can be seen as a devastating but statistically atypical event.

    Better Angels is quite a long, exhaustive read, but Pinker had an argument to address nearly every issue I could think of, and I wasn’t at any point bored. The middle part of the book examines the political and social reasons for the decline in violence, which I found convincing. Basically, as societies became more complex and interconnected, rulers began to profit more from peace than from attacking their neighbors, causing the state to take a more active role in resolving disputes. This created a more secure, civilized mercantile class, which, with the spread of democracy, began promoting ideas of “rights” and fairness. As each wave of progressive thought permeated society, support for new kinds of rights would take shape. (The inherent defense of capitalism may not sit well with some liberals, nor of a protective state with some conservatives, but there it is.)

    The most interesting part of the book to me, though, was the latter third, which connected our tendency towards aggressive or peaceful behavior to our evolutionary heritage. As you know, we all have innate cognitive biases that enabled our ancestors to confront potential dangers and cooperate with their own clans. Pinker provides a fascinating examination of how these biases play a role in human interaction, leading either towards aggression or away from it. In one corner are revenge instinct, tribal loyalty, groupthink, overconfidence, self-justifying narratives, etc., while in the other are moral instincts, empathy, and rationality. The angels and demons, it seems, intercede depending on how a choice is framed, and can drive vicious cycles or virtuous ones. Significant stuff.

    Obviously, a book this bold in its conclusions, from such a prominent author, is going to draw some backlash from certain quarters (particularly those pushing gloom-and-doom messages), but I think that Pinker does such a thorough, intelligent job of tackling the topic, that it's hard to dismiss what he has to say. Full of information and insights you'll probably find yourself using in dinner table conversations.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Prsilla 04-01-12
    Prsilla 04-01-12 Member Since 2014

    Retired to mountains of California. Sell on eBay as Prsilla. No TV. Volunteer in wildlife rehab. Knit, sew or embroider while listening.

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    "IT'S ALL GETTING BETTER -- GET THAT!"

    This book has stayed with me, and I use it to counter negative comments or thoughts in myself or from others. The book takes a good mind and careful listening. The author documents with all kinds of statistics that things really are getting better. I can see this during my own long life and as a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer. There really is a lot more compassion out there. I think some people would want to get the print book to check all the facts and certain citations. As the author comes down through history and discusses various aspects, I found some chapters easy to listen to and others more murky as they used some ideas unfamiliar to me. I noticed that when he discussed Bible times and quoted passages I thought I knew, punishment back then was pretty awful. It made me think again. He even brought out patterns of thinking and action in the U.S. divided by political parties. Fascinating! I imagine that our wonderful ability to learn of fresh atrocities on the other side of the planet can make life appear on a downhill slope, but this book is convincing otherwise. Worthwhile! Long but good!

    6 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CrazyBird 11-25-11
    CrazyBird 11-25-11

    I am a retired Histology Technician. My time is spent caring for my grandchildren, my dog, cat, and blue & gold macaw.

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    "A feel good book...for sure!"

    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.

    6 of 7 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kevin 08-21-14
    Kevin 08-21-14

    Trying to support 1) the comparably smaller non-fiction selection and 2) the few here that are not misinformation. Got mind? Use it.

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    "Epic topic sure to stir up debate!"
    What did you love best about The Better Angels of Our Nature?

    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.


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

    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.


    What does Arthur Morey bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Perfect.


    Any additional comments?

    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.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Carolyn Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 11-08-12
    Carolyn Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 11-08-12 Member Since 2012

    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.

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    "Perspective-Altering Excellence"

    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.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kathy Bedford, TX, United States 05-30-12
    Kathy Bedford, TX, United States 05-30-12 Member Since 2007
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    "Brilliant!"

    Thoroughly researched, well written and narrated. I can't stop thinking about this book.

    I ordered the hard copy from Amazon to review parts of it and use it at my next class reunion when the old codgers start talking about "the good ol' days"
    This book is well worth the time - the only thing that could be better would be the opportunity to attend Dr. Pinker's classes or seminars.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    E. Smakman Netherlands 05-10-12
    E. Smakman Netherlands 05-10-12 Member Since 2007
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    "It all connects..."

    Why violence has declined. Such a simple title, but what an incredible depth of analysis and synthesis Pinker has performed. He relates world history, development of civilization and neurobiological impulses. Combining the theories of Dawkins (evolutionary game theory), Norbert Elias (civilizing process) and many behavioral scientists into a whole that convinces.

    And what are the main points (if you can try to distill after 36!! hours of listening): violence is natural, but so is the absense of violence. There are forces inside people as well as in their context that drive them either way. People are not inherently bad nor good, but how they frame their world defines how they relate to other people. Forces for violence are predation (more benefits than costs), vengeance & deterrence, ideology (infinite violence is allowed to reach infinite good) and pleasure (sadism). Forces for absence of violence are trade (more costs than benefits of violence), open societies (stimulating empathy & understanding), liberalization (less punishable offenses), and civilization.

    In the end you better understand the world around you. Even though it is framed around violence, the book gives you a deeper understanding about people's motives in relations with others around them. And that insight is very valuable.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    David Highland Park, IL, United States 04-30-12
    David Highland Park, IL, United States 04-30-12 Member Since 2010
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    "Brilliant!"

    This book is so good you will be sad when it's over. If you're interested in, well, any of the most important topics in intellectual life -- i.e. human nature, evil, goodness, violence, war, progress -- then you will take away much knowledge and enlightenment from these pages. Arthur Morey is a fantastic narrator, bringing a calm-cool tone to Pinker's elegant prose. This is a real treasure trove of fascinating information, neatly packaged in classic Pinkerian wit and style. If you like Pinker, you will love this book. If you don't know Pinker, but are interested in any of the aforementioned topics, you will love this book.

    5 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Craig C. austin, TX United States 12-28-11
    Craig C. austin, TX United States 12-28-11 Member Since 2007
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    "We are becoming more civilized and non-violent"
    Where does The Better Angels of Our Nature rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    Near the top of audio books on an important topic that runs counter to the prevailing whiny mood.


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

    That American towns in the nineteenth century would barter with neighboring towns for people to hang. Towns seemed to need a monthly hanging to entertain the crowds. If a town didn't have one ready, they would scout for a trade of some sort from a neighboring town to see if they had a surplus.


    Which character – as performed by Arthur Morey – was your favorite?

    NA


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

    The Better Angels of Our Nature; the future is so bright that I have to wear shades.


    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
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  • Jeremy
    Malvern Wells, United Kingdom
    5/14/12
    Overall
    "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!

    14 of 14 people found this review helpful
  • Judy Corstjens
    4/22/12
    Overall
    "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!

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful
  • J. markey
    dublin ireland
    12/28/12
    Overall
    "Superb"

    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.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  • David
    London, United Kingdom
    10/17/13
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Truly a masterpiece"
    Where does The Better Angels of Our Nature rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    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.


    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Dr
    Ireland
    7/8/13
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Fascinating, surprising and at times horrific."
    Where does The Better Angels of Our Nature rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

    It's definitely up there with the best. Very thought provoking, and life-affirming.


    Who was your favorite character and why?

    This was a non-fiction publication, and thus there were no characters.


    Which character – as performed by Arthur Morey – was your favourite?

    This was a non-fiction publication, and thus there were no characters.


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

    It gives one hope that we're actually making progress as a race.


    Any additional comments?

    Not for the faint hearted - some grim details, and it takes effort, but that effort is very well rewarded.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Rose
    London, United Kingdom
    12/10/12
    Overall
    "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!



    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • penelope stewart
    4/14/15
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Thought provoking!"

    It is human nature to believe the past was better. This book is highly educational and provides oddles of evidence that the present is better than the past and there is hope for the future!

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Darren - UK
    2/5/15
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "This book should be required reading for as all."

    One of the most interesting and fascinating books I have ever read.

    This book challenges the nostalgic view of past events and the unfolding of human history, in scientific and rigorous way. life now is better than it's ever been and ideas about some lost golden age are fantasy and nothing more.

    The book is superbly written and the narration is excellent.
    This is one of the best audio books I've read so far.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • Amazon Customer
    East Sussex, England
    12/30/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "Unpersuaded"
    What disappointed you about The Better Angels of Our Nature?

    Promised persuasion but beaten round the head with specious, agenda-laden, cherry-picked factoids - that was bad enough. What was worse though, was that I simply cannot buy into one of his primary theses: that capitalism is a zero-sum game. Sorry, no can do.


    What could Steven Pinker have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

    Being guided by the principle that 'less is more' may have helped - there is an interesting book to be written on this subject; and paring down the personal/political agenda.


    Did Arthur Morey do a good job differentiating each of the characters? How?

    n/a


    What character would you cut from The Better Angels of Our Nature?

    n/a


    Any additional comments?

    The revisionist, US-centric trot through the 1960s was both a hoot, and alarming.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  • mark
    6/29/14
    Overall
    Performance
    Story
    "no characters"
    What would have made The Better Angels of Our Nature better?

    It was so boring couldnt finirsh it


    What could Steven Pinker have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

    He went on and on i lile history but not the book


    How could the performance have been better?

    Keeping to one topic


    You didn’t love this book--but did it have any redeeming qualities?

    No


    Any additional comments?

    I made a mistake haveing the book i love listening to audible i have a few books eveary month my fault chooseing that book not yours

    0 of 2 people found this review helpful

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