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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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  •  
    Teddy Bronx, NY, United States 06-30-12
    Teddy Bronx, NY, United States 06-30-12

    "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one." - Jojen Reed. #ADanceWithDragons

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    "Excellent Book All Over"

    I was quite pleased with this entire title. It proposes a very interesting point and attacks it head on. The way that it was brought across by the narrator was very pleasing to the ears. Overall a very nice production with some excellent points overall.

    The argument that Violence has declined over time is one that I personally thought was a given if one were to think of it. Being a fan of Renaissance History it appeared to me that violence had declined. The author though uses this as well as a number of other points to brings across his point as to why this is so, using other factors such as religion, standard of living, etc. to provide insight on this fact.

    The book has A LOT of information (useful information mind you) but it is a lot of information to process and I think this plays up it having a lot of replay value.

    17 of 17 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Francis J DiBona 10-21-11 Member Since 2002
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    "Violence is decreasing everywhere. Who knew?"

    Steven Pinker is an intellectual of the first order. Yet all of his book are readily accessible to an educated reader (well, maybe not The Stuff of Thought, which was difficult "stuff").

    The premise of this book is that violence is decreasing throughout the world. That includes all kinds of violence: murder, rape, war, genocide and even terrorism! And the decrease is evident over all time scales. Over the last 10,000 years the chances of being a victim of violence has declined dramatically. This is true for the last 1000 years, last 100 years and even the last 10 years. You might think that this is absurd from reading the headlines and listening to TV news but Pinker presents exhaustive data to prove his point. He gives us FBI reports, WHO data, government studies and scholarly studies. He also tries in every case to explain the "why" of the decrease. We have become more and more civilized over time. We also have become more sensitive to the lives and feelings of others.

    Pinker is a wizard of making the difficult so easy to undersand. He not only alludes to the classics, The Bible, and academic studies, but also to pop culture. He frequently uses scenes from popular movies, TV shows, books and songs to make his point.

    The reading is superb. It is neither dull nor overly dramatic. Within minutes I forgot that there was a reader and my mind was focused in on Steven Pinker's mind.

    I would also highly recommend Pinker's previous tour-de-force, The Blank Slate.

    35 of 36 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Eric Toronto, ON, Canada 11-11-11
    Eric Toronto, ON, Canada 11-11-11
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    "I'd kill for another book this good"

    Without question of the best audiobooks I've listened to, out of over 100 so far. An exploration of the decline in violence through human history, taking pains to make a coherent, substantive and well supported case for every assertion it makes. Detailed and technical without being dull, this book makes one of the best cases I can imagine for the general advancement of the species and the triumph of modernity. Exceptional.

    30 of 31 people found this review helpful
  •  
    K. Cunningham San Francisco, CA 09-21-12
    K. Cunningham San Francisco, CA 09-21-12 Member Since 2002

    Kerry

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    "The Greatest Thinkers of our Generation"

    I have read this rather long book twice now. I think I'll read it again soon. I hope you will, too (and I hope you = everyone).

    The idea that we are living in the most peaceful, least murderous time in the history of the planet is an oddly uncomfortable one for many. First, it just doesn't feel that way. We hear about and see on TV and the internet a seemingly endless stream of stories about mass killings, senseless acts of cruelty, war and even genocide. Also, if we say now is better than ever, then maybe people will stop working to make the world yet less violent.

    And for those of us in our middle years, we can readily look back and say that, Yes, things were simpler then. We left our doors unlocked. Kids played outside, etc.

    The thing is, it doesn't really take all that much more thinking to notice that not that long ago even in this country women and African Americans were not allowed to vote. Not long ago, we had segregation, lynchings, race riots, assassinations of our leaders, a long a protracted war in Southeast Asia, which followed not long after a protracted (Undeclared) war in Korea, which came very shortly after the nuclear bombing of Japan, which essentially ended the worst global war ever, which some historians consider to have been simply part two of the other worst global war ever. And as one goes back in time, the wars, genocides, ethnic cleansings, etc., keep piling on.

    The massive tyrants responsible for the annihilation of tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people in the beginning and middle of the 20th century are long gone. There hasn't been conflict among the world's super powers since the bombs fell on Japan.

    On a scale much closer to home, Pinker talks at length about the change in the moral zeitgeist such that treating wives and children as property is outlaw throughout a much greater part of the globe today than just 30 years ago. Spanking children could land you in jail. Spanking your dog can now land you in jail in some places! Foods and cosmetics are often "cruelty" free, where the idea was unheard of not long ago.

    Pinker does a brilliant and thorough (800+ pages worth) job of laying out all the statistics to support his case that violence has actually declined. More importantly, he adduces a long list of forces that have contributed to that decline. It's a big book, and it's not possible to summarize it in a few paragraphs. However, it might suffice to say that the forces Pinker adduces are pretty well supported in their various academic disciplines (anthropology, sociology, psychology).

    Among the most interesting forces thought to be at work civilizing the world is commerce. This is one that ruffles some feathers a bit, but the argument is essentially this. When you look at the data, what appears to be the case is that countries that trade with each other don't tend to kill each other. Pinker uses a line from writer Robert Wright, who said (paraphrasing), "The reason I don't want to kill the Japanese is that they make my minivan." The line is intended to be ironic, of course, but the point stands. When our economic lives are intertwined, we find ways to resolve disputes peaceably. How likely is it that France and Spain would go to war today over disputed territory in the Alps? Moreover, by this stage in world history, we (powerful countries) have figured out that overtaking and subjugating nations by force is more expensive than trading with them and imposing economic and policy-based restrictions. One may object to neo-liberalism, but it can hardly be more objectionable than its predecessor strategy, conquest and empire. This part of the book and argument is long and involved and fascinating.

    Another strong force in the civilizing of the globe involves media and its globalizing effects. Again, we may not like what we see in our media outlets every day, but the fact that people nearly everywhere know a lot about people nearly everywhere else on earth helps reduce violence. The reason it does is that the more we know about other people, the more we can put ourselves in their shoes, the less likely we are to kill them. We can relate a little more. We don't de-humanize them as much. This isn't to say that racism, culturism, etc, has or ever will go away. We are a tribal species. But, data show that as people in general are more and more able to reason abstractly about the world, and to think about what it is like to be someone other than who they are, the less violent they are. This type of reasoning leads to more understanding and less killing. There are plenty of exceptions to this, and this isn't to say that neighboring countries or ethnic groups within countries don't still kill each other. They certainly do (but moreso when infused with lots of religious fervor). But, in general, the trend is away from killing.

    A final point. PInker cites a good deal of data and some theorizing to suggest that even the 21st century terrorism plague is already fading away. The reason: it doesn't work. In the big picture, terrorists never succeed in accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish via their terrorism. Ireland is not united. Basque country is not independent. Israel is still Israel.

    To continue to make things better, it is critical that we know what has worked in the past. Many strategies and natural trends have contributed to making the world a safer place today. The Better Angels lays out in detail what has been working. It is well worth knowing what they are. It is also helpful to feel just a bit better about who we are as a species today.

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kenneth LEESBURG, VA, United States 05-13-12
    Kenneth LEESBURG, VA, United States 05-13-12 Member Since 2005

    Old & fat, but strong; American, Chinese, & Indian (sort of); Ph.D. in C.S.; strategy, economics & stability theory; trees & machining.

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    "My Pick for Best Book in a Few Years"

    I try to pick a personal book of the year about once a year and a personal book of the decade about every 10 years. But I also have some in between category of books that are better than the book of the year, but not as good as the book of the decade. “Better Angles” is in this category.

    In the last 5 or 6 years there seems to be a growing awareness that violence has declined significantly in parts of the U.S. since the ‘70s. This awareness may be in part due to other popular books that have pointed this out, like Freakonomics. However, this book shows that the decline in violence is global and part of a very long term trend. The details are varied, but the pattern is remarkably consistent. And the affect is not small. For example 500 years ago violence in the more civilized parts of Western Europe was 30 times higher than in the U.S. today.

    The first “third” of the book contains copious detail designed to convince you that in spite of rare exceptions the trend toward less violence is significant. The middle “third” of the book reviews what science can (and can’t) tell us about the causes of violence. The last “third” tries to construct a theory that explains the reason for the actual decline in violence.

    So what is his conclusion? In a word “enlightenment”. I found the argument compelling. But even more interestingly the result is an unexpected defense of education, learning, refinement, and bourgeoisie values. He clearly thinks enlightenment is at odds with modern leftist (or right wing) politics; and uses the phrase “classical liberalism”.

    Three cautions: The author is a statistical researcher or a number cruncher. The math is all almost trivial, but numeracy is the core of the argument and is the bulk of the book. The book is irreverent. I found it charmingly so. But other may find it borderline belligerent. Finally, it is a long and detailed, to the point of pushing the audible format.

    13 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sean MANCHESTER, MA, United States 10-23-11
    Sean MANCHESTER, MA, United States 10-23-11 Member Since 2011
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    "One of my top 5 favorite books"

    This is one of those rare books that does more than inform or amuse: it actually has the potential to influence for a lifetime. It is even more rare in that it does this from an entirely positive angle. And though it does occasionally dip into contemporary politics, it does so in a detached and enlightened enough manner so as not to destroy its timelessness. The author does a great job of extolling the good ideas and skewering the bad ones from all ages, including our own, and instilling a sense of awe in the face of enormous human progress.

    23 of 24 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Phineas KNOXVILLE, TN, United States 10-27-11
    Phineas KNOXVILLE, TN, United States 10-27-11 Member Since 2010
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    "A Thorough Study and an Enjoyable Listen"

    Arthur Morey does an excellent job with the narration. I found his voice engaging during the entirety of the almost 37 hours of this audiobook.

    As one would hope for a book this lengthy, Steven Pinker doesn't waste your time. After a brief introduction, the book takes off into a systematic and thoroughgoing analysis of just about all the data one could ask for on this topic. He gives the numbers, the studies, etc. and explains them at every step of the way. He goes into quite a bit of history, biology, neuroscience, politics, law, and several other subjects relevant to the topic which were a pleasure to learn about for their own sake. I found that Pinker even anticipated nearly every question I had, usually only a few sentences after it popped into my mind. I don't think one could ask for a better book the subject.

    Steven Pinker writes near the end of the book, "...and I hope that the numbers I have marshaled have lifted your assessment of the state of the world from the lugubrious conventional wisdom." I can say that this has been the effect on me.

    19 of 20 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Charles USA 01-10-12
    Charles USA 01-10-12 Member Since 2008

    Wonderchuck

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    "An emotional lift"

    It is sometimes hard to have hope for the future. I hear about new and horrible websites, terrible atrocities, lives of crime, heartbreak, death and despair. It is easy for me to slip into a malaise thinking that there is nothing to keep the world from going to hell. This book gave me an emotional lift. It's strange because the author doesn't play to pathos; the arguments are detached and analytic. Nor does he suggest any mystical or supernatural intervention guiding the process. People have good reasons to be tolerant and peaceful, if not straight up kind. Instead of hoping inspite of the world, I now feel that there are good reasons to hope for and with it.

    8 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Randall D. Raymond Evans, GA USA 11-12-11
    Randall D. Raymond Evans, GA USA 11-12-11 Member Since 2004

    randytoad

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    "One of the Most Surprising Books I've Read"

    I just loved this book. I get so tired of hearing people say how bad things have gotten, and how much more violent we are than our wonderful peaceful ancestors. Pinker puts the lie to that idea and backs up his personal observations with extensive documentation. I appreciate that Pinker is trying to make a point here and may have omitted some evidence that didn't back up his claims, so I'd like to read a detailed refutation of his central tenet. The only objection I have to this book is that it is, in my opinion, somewhat longer than it needed to be, as he makes some points over and over again.

    16 of 17 people found this review helpful
  •  
    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
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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
  • judith
    canary wharf, United Kingdom
    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!

    11 of 11 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
  • 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
  • Alan Michael Forrester
    Northampton
    4/13/13
    Overall
    "Some interesting facts and some utter tosh"

    "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker documents the decline in violence in modern times and tries to explain it. The documentation is usually okay but his attempts to explain it are often bad. He seems to imagine that it makes sense to do things like assigning a probability to a war, when such events are dependent on the future growth of knowledge.

    1 of 8 people found this review helpful
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