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The Better Angels of Our Nature
Cover of The Better Angels of Our Nature
The Better Angels of Our Nature
Why Violence Has Declined
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"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...
"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...
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  • "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.

Excerpts-

  • From the book

    PREFACE

    This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

    No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it's hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.

    The historical trajectory of violence affects not only how life is lived but how it is understood. What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off? How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity—of the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science? So much depends on how we understand the legacy of this transition: whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.

    The question of whether the arithmetic sign of trends in violence is positive or negative also bears on our conception of human nature. Though theories of human nature rooted in biology are often associated with fatalism about violence, and the theory that the mind is a blank slate is associated with progress, in my view it is the other way around. How are we to understand the natural state of life when our species first emerged and the processes of history began? The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has xxi decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue.

    This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword "If it bleeds, it leads." The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.1 No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people's impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.

    Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has ever recruited activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, and bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they lull people into complacency. Also, a large swath of our intellectual culture is loath to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity, and Western society. But perhaps the main cause of...

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    August 8, 2011
    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.

  • Kirkus

    September 1, 2011

    Frightened of your own shadow? Worried about lone gunmen and psycho killers? Pinker (Psychology/Harvard Univ.; The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, 2007, etc.) encourages readers not to fret so much.

    Recognizing that the world can be a dangerous place, the author sets out as his overarching thesis the fact that violence has steadily declined in human society over the generations—"today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species's existence." For those who consider humans to be simply well-armed chimpanzees, Pinker argues that there would seem to be nothing innate about "coalitional violence"—that is, the savage raiding that so characterizes chimpanzee society on one hand and what ethnologists used to call primitive human societies on the other. Yet, he adds, neither is there much reason to believe that we evolved to be peaceniks on the putative model of bonobos, who, in nature, turn out not to be the hippies of the primate world but who nonetheless cause less mayhem than their (and our) chimp relatives. In other words, our behavior is more situational and provisional than hard-wired, for which reason, as Pinker writes, the rate of violence (at least, of the non-coalitional sort) in most parts of the world is steadily declining. As evidence, he cites the steady disinvestment of many world powers in military enterprises, as well as the complex statistics in rates of death in warfare in state and nonstate societies (for the Aztecs, about 250 per 100,000; for America during the Vietnam era, about 3.7 per 100,000). Pinker ranges widely, citing the literature of neuroscience here and the poems of Homer there, visiting vast databases of statistics while pondering the wisdom of Thomas Hobbes' conception of human life as "nasty, brutish, and short," and analyzing such weighty matters as "the adaptive logic of violence" and "pathways to self-control."

    Classic Pinker, jammed with facts, figures, and points of speculative departure; a big, complex book, well worth the effort for the good news that it delivers.

     

    (COPYRIGHT (2011) KIRKUS REVIEWS/NIELSEN BUSINESS MEDIA, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)

  • Library Journal

    May 15, 2011

    The subtitle might seem counterintuitive, but Pinker reminds us that, in fact, centuries past were saturated with slavery, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, and cruel and unusual punishments of all kinds. Those things have declined, as evidenced by the charts and graphs Pinker supplies. A heartening thought; what will be even more interesting is seeing how the penetrating Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Blank Slate, explains how and why "the better angels of our nature" are prevailing. Pinker can be demanding and yet is pervasively popular--as suggested by the 12-city tour--and this book expands beyond his previous audience.

    Copyright 2011 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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