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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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  •  
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 05-21-12
    Gary Las Cruces, NM, United States 05-21-12 Member Since 2001

    Letting the rest of the world go by

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    "Probably the best book I have ever read."
    What did you love best about The Better Angels of Our Nature?

    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".


    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    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
  •  
    CrazyBird United States 11-25-11
    CrazyBird United States 11-25-11 Member Since 2009

    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
  •  
    Rena Alisa Los Gatos, CA, US 03-19-14
    Rena Alisa Los Gatos, CA, US 03-19-14 Member Since 2010
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    "For those who love torture and gore."

    This book loving depicts every horrible torture and sadistic punishment in the history of humanity. The author does mention how nice it is that we do not approve of these things today. However he then goes on to depict these horrors in great detail -- hour after hour. He is clearly fixated on all the ways we can torture people to death and takes great pains to describe every detail. He wastes little time in explaining how these tortures fell out of fashion. I finally just turned it off and deleted it. Only a sadist would like this book

    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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