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.
College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
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.
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 \
Retired to mountains of California. Sell on eBay as Prsilla. No TV. Volunteer in wildlife rehab. Knit, sew or embroider while listening.
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!
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.
Do you read the book before you dislike my reviews?
"The Better Angels of Our Nature" is basically a chronological on history of violence. It shows examples of Biblical times, Hitler, genocide, and many other examples on the subject of violence. You would think after reading all of these horrifying acts that the World is going to hell, but its actually not. Even when the Earth was at its worse, man started to repent. In one of the chapters, Steven Pinker explains how many countries finds it inhumane to use chemical warfare to harm innocent people, but instead, we use guns. Also, do you ever wonder why after 9/11, why there isn't more acts of terrorism? These groups are like a fashion fad. They almost always loose strength in numbers as their propaganda fizzle.
Very interesting book to tackle, but there is also a flaw in Pinker's study. At certain point, there is so much evidence on the subject where I just stopped listening. I managed to finish the book, but the information was overbearing where it became convoluted. The first half of the book on his theory was great. Like a well oil machine, it started off at first click, but as I got deeper into his study, Pinker fails to deliver a convincing argument.
Too much data and not enough argument, but still intriguing.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
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.
at around 35 hours, listening to this book is a marathon! But for an academic, Pinker writes surprisingly clearly and with enough colloquialisms and humor to keep his audience engaged.
I haven't looked at a printed version of this book, so I don't know if there are any illustrations, but i'm glad that in the audio version i don't have to look at any of the devices of war and torture that are described in vivid detail. It took a strong stomach just to listen. This book takes us on a tour of every evil depravity mankind has ever conceived, and by comparing the evils of this decade to those of past decades and centuries, makes the case that in comparison, we are becoming less violent and more humane. He makes a pretty good case, along the way discussing the history of wars; treatment of animals, gays, women, and other minorities; all the atrocities committed by dictators and various religions; the pathophysiology of violent offenders; and on and on. Toward the end he discusses the causes of the decreased violence - the 'better angels'.
The book is full of statistics about the rates of every kind of violence imaginable. Pinker certainly has done his research. It certainly provides a new perspective on news and current events. Worth the time to listen.
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
"eye opening, positive message for the future "
compelling from start to finish. something for everyone. I'm going to buy the paperback as there are some parts is love to revisit.
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!
"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.
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.
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.
The revisionist, US-centric trot through the 1960s was both a hoot, and alarming.
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