“If I could give each of you a graduation present, it would be this—the most inspiring book I've ever read."
—Bill Gates (May, 2017)
Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year
The author of Enlightenment Now and The New York Times bestseller The Stuff of Thought offers a controversial history of violence.
Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millenia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species's existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, programs, gruesom punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?
This groundbreaking book continues Pinker's exploration of the esesnce of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives--the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away--and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.
In the perennial debate over nature versus nurture, Steven Pinker has established himself as the pre-eminent contemporary spokesman for biology as destiny. Every few years, Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, publishes a doorstop-sized, improbably readable tome that swiftly generates controversy. Pinker's thesis is that the human condition is, in effect, coded into the human genome. We have about two dozen basic cognitive and emotional systems operating between our ears. They are the product of evolution. Our capabilities as a species (for example, language) as well as our all too obvious limitations (say, the penchant for aggression) have eons of momentum behind them. Thus human nature, while somewhat flexible, is, for the most part, fixed.So it proves mildly surprising to consider the subtitle of Pinker's new book. The very claim that violence has declined seems counterintuitive. After all, the 20th century obliged us to invent new terms such as "genocide" and "concentration camp" while this one has been plenty bloody so far. But rather than claiming that some homicidal imperative is hard-wired into us as organisms, Pinker maintains that we've grown less bloodthirsty over the course of recorded history. Through historical shortsightedness, we're prone to underestimate just how pervasive routine violence was in previous eras. But Pinker's graphs and the evidence he harvests from anthropologists, historians, criminologists, and experts of many other kinds suggest that the percentage of the population killed in warfare or everyday mayhem has declined, from century to century. The number of executions has gone down, and routine public displays of viciousness (such as torture and lynching) have grown less socially acceptable. By Pinker's account, our evolutionary inheritance includes a tendency for dominance as well as a knack for rationalizing violent actions as "provoked, justified, involuntary, or inconsequential." But we also have capacities for self-control and empathy that become reinforced when societies undergo what the great sociologist Norbert Elias called "the civilizing process" of establishing a central, rational authority. Alas, that process has failed to pacify "the lower strata of the socioeconomic scale, and the inaccessible or inhospitable territories of the globe." (The latter phrase evidently refers to the Third World, rather than Antarctica.) Better Angels is a fascinating and deeply irritating book full of thought-provoking data, but also prone to bursts of dismissive sneering toward researchers whose work runs counter to Pinker's current of thinking. He effectively reinvents Victorian notions of "the dangerous classes" and "lesser breeds without the law." But his vision of "civilized" societies triumphing over humanity's murderous impulses would be more credible if highly developed countries had not developed so many weapons capable of destroying all life on Earth several times over.Reviewed by Scott McLemee, who writes the weekly column Intellectual Affairs for Inside Higher Ed.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Almost as great as The Blank Slate
Here he makes some terribly controversial claims, which is not new for him, but with The Better Angels Of Our Nature, Pinker provides more thorough evidence than ever. Get ready for an onslaught of graphs, charts, and mind-numbing calculations and statistical data. But I recommend reading it creatively, by jumping around the book so that you can keep the pace going and save the math for bedtime.
Pinker might be difficult to read and his books thick and heavy, but his rhetoric is so polished and his arguments so refreshingly effective that any extra effort is amply rewarded. I haven't even finished reading it and already can recommend to those who haven't started to stock up on pencils and bookmarking material, because he provides even more crucial nuggets of solid evidence and quotable material here than I believe can be found in his last three books. I hate to use terms like tour de force, but in this case it fits. Steven Pinker is a revolutionary thinker with the power to turn one's world upside down.
It is a truly amazing book!
This is THE most interesting book I’ve ever come across so far. A truly comprehensive guide to the human condition of the past few thousand years.
I find myself jotting down passage after passage, so I can tattoo the information and the way it is delivered on to my brain. if you like Solzhenitsyn, you will love this book!
This book suffers in iBooks
This is a fantastic book, but I can't recommend buying it in iBooks. This book has dozens of figures, but there is no easy way to find them in the text. The list of figures has no links to take you directly to them. It gives page numbers, but only the hardback numbers, which are not displayed in iBooks. So you have just keep turning pages until you find them--fine for a linear reading, but not for referring back later.