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.
I'm a hardcore reader and art student. ;)
What I liked about the book was how the author explained in detail why violence has gone even when people think that is goes up.
I didn't have a favorite character. This is a non-fiction book.
Comparing the differences between now and then.
It made me laugh and I didn't cry.
This book is wonderful look at how far humans have progressed ethically. Steven Pinker eloquently tells the story of how we escaped the amoral, nasty, brutish Hobbesian state of nature to now be at a place ethically where we are considering the rights of other species. And of course the potency of the story comes from the myriad facts and statistics Pinker provides throughout. As a beautiful vindication of the idea of progress, the argument perfectly refutes the delusional Rousseauians' idea of the "good old days." I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It's a true reason for optimism.
Bucking all of the 'common sense' misunderstandings of our time, Pinker mounts a flawless defense of modernity and enlightenment in a non-partisan, simple to understand, and very thorough manner. This book should be mandatory reading for all human beings; that way, we could skip past the time wasting pontifications on the good ol' days and get right to the substance. It's a LONG read, but a good one. The narrator does an excellent job of reading such a long and substantive book; I had zero complaints.
I am a voracious audiobook listener. I listen to everything: fiction, business, technology, politics...I need an interesting story, intriguing characters, and a fast pace to keep me interested.
No, it is far too long.
This is my candidate for the best book of the decade. It has a challenging premise that is fully documented with facts and data. I could not believe that a book of such detail, and scientific data could be so gripping in the audio format. I have quoted from the book over and over. I bought a print copy so I could get the charts and footnotes. I loved it!
Excellent read that builds a solid case for why we are living in safer times than ever before. Pinker starts from the Old Testament stories of extreme carnage through the Middle Ages to modern times and builds on the dynamics he calls our better angels that have lead to a civil society throughout the world. Obviously we are not living in a utopian world bu far safer than the good old days.
Better listened to than read. So, ok, it went over my head at times, and the audio version does not come with the charts and tables, but these are minor and not even annoying. The fact is that it kept me coming back because I always knew there was more that I would find interesting, that would make me glad I stuck with it. There was always another moment when I'd say to myself, yes, this is worth coming back to.
The narration is perfect. I could believe it was the author speaking to me. Without sounding like a Harvard professor, he sounded like someone I can like. It would be all scholarly-like for a while and then I’d hear a quote from Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen or my personal Woodstock favorites, Country Joe and the Fish. There were also plenty of references to current pop culture but I just don’t remember them as much as those from my boomer culture.
I don’t think I would have appreciated this book in my twenties but after many discussions and disagreements over the question of where our society is headed, are we getting better or worse, I love that Steven Pinker has done the work for me. Because I have always believed it in my heart, I accept his research as the confirmation.
I give the audio version only 4 stars because (1) it lacks a downloadable file for charts and tables. (2) being such a long listen, I often had to switch devices and struggled to find my place more than once because of the different chapter counts between devices, and (3) I would so love an index and table of contents.
I am considering buying a print or eBook version to reread sections that were particularly enlightening. A very satisfying experience, it will not be my last from Steven Pinker.
Extensive use of scientific research.
The 1960's and 70's were a recent peak in violence.
Civilization and mankind are advancing.
How many times have I heard "What is the world coming too" with the perception that violence, crime and atrocities are out of control. This book successfully concludes through history, statistics and examples that we are now living in the least violent time period in history. Very well documented without becoming tedious. Very good read. Once you read this book you will find many times to appear brilliant when someone tries to complain about how violence is taking over.
Pinker does an amazing job weaving together ideas from extremely far ranging fields of psychology, sociology, and biology to present a case that whatever our future in terms of peace and war, statistics would have it that we are progressing towards a more peaceful existence. I found the ideas of humanism and religion to be most compelling and interesting. Will probably give this one another listen as there is lots of information to take in.
Retired. Have been listening to book since 1977.
Steven Pinker is one of the foremost thinkers of this era. This book demonstrates his ability to synthesize so many disciplines to write this remarkable book.
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