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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)
A provocative history of violence—from the New York Times bestselling author of The Stuff of Thought and The Blank Slate
Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history. Exploding myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.
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306 of 327 people found the following review helpful.
For Better or Worse, The Story of Violence
By T. L. Cooper
I've struggled a bit to write this review because I have mixed feelings about The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.
I started reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined with the attitude that Pinker needed to first convince me violence had declined before getting into explaining why. To be perfectly honest, given the world we currently live in, it's hard to imagine that violence has declined.
While I finished the book convinced that violence has declined, I felt like the explanations for why seemed more hypothetical than proven. Pinker explored violence quite thoroughly beginning his book at the beginning of human existence and moving to modern times in the almost 700 pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature. He explored historical myths as well as historical documents to arrive at his conclusions. He used archaeological finds to disprove mythical battles. He described how the development of etiquette and the creation of government helped quell violence and change our norms about violence. He used a combination of statistics, anecdotal evidence, and archaeological studies to present his case.
Yet, the more I read, the more my college corrections statistics professor's words haunted me. He always warned our class to be careful when writing papers not to allow our biases and our desires to prove our points to affect the weight we gave the studies we used as evidence.
Pinker seems less objective in some areas of The Better Angels of Our Nature than in other sections. He seemed to excuse violence against some people while unequivocally condemning it against others. This bias felt incredibly out of place in a book on why violence has declined.
For example, when talking about things like the FBI's crime report and other such studies on crime, Pinker never mentions the effect of police discretion and biased court results on crime rates or how the statistics for individual areas are sometimes skewed by reporting or not reporting data. My assumption is he believes the numbers wouldn't be enough to skew the overall results, and a simple paragraph could have addressed that issue. Maybe even just a few sentences; however, if those sentences existed I couldn't find them.
His inconsistent handling of anecdotal evidence and research surveys deemed certain groups of people more credible than others without giving a clear reason why.
As I read The Better Angels of Our Nature, I found myself wanting it to be better than it was yet I still think it's a book worth reading. Pinker obviously studied violence in great depth. He explains the statistics in an easy to understand, straightforward method, and he tells the story of violence quite well. He makes violence the main character, for better or worse, in a story that is ongoing and relevant and important. In fact, Pinker tells the story so well and brings up such important points, facts, and conclusions, that I am tempted to dismiss the things that bothered me about the book. Yet, I can't do that in good conscience. Pinker drives home the fact that violence is much less acceptable than it used to be for a variety of reasons and that unacceptability has come about as humans have developed civilization and sought out ways to live together more peacefully. The Better Angels of Our Nature left me hopeful that we can continue to rise above violence and find nonviolent solutions in spite of my skepticism about certain sections of the book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful.
Excellent read, with a few minor annoyances
This is truly a marvelous piece of work. I can't imagine the amount of time and research that went into crafting this epic - and that is truly what it is. The author takes so many different perspectives - historical, psychological, biological, evolutionary, etc. to explain the decline of violence over the course of human history, and it is truly amazing and engrossing to read.
However, I had to dock a star for a few reasons. First, I believe Pinker uses excessively obsolete and/or "advanced" vocabulary throughout the entirety of the book. The vast majority of people reading this book, I believe, will have a very difficult time reading the book without a dictionary nearby (or of course, an app on your smartphone, which I admittedly used). I have a college background in writing, and was proficient in writing throughout my schooling days, but Pinker's vocabulary is advanced to the point of being frustrating and annoying; I found hundreds of words throughout the ~ 700 pages that I hadn't a clue as to their meaning. Eventually, it became frustrating enough that I downloaded the Merriam-Webster dictionary app for the sole purpose of having it on hand while reading this book! Never had that problem with any other book.
Second, Pinker tends to run off on tangents on a consistent basis, and you will often forget you are even reading a book on violence. Many of these tangents are relatively interesting, but at times I thought perhaps he was just stroking his own ego rather than staying on topic. The book could have been much more concise and delivered the same message.
As a whole, however, the book is excellent and definitely worth a read, if you are up for a challenge. Or hey, maybe I'm not as great a reader as I thought I was! I found it a challenging but rewarding read and I came away from the experience with a great deal of knowledge and insight.
209 of 229 people found the following review helpful.
This is a book I wish I could have liked. I admire Pinker’s easy writing style and erudition ...
By Anton Moscovitch
This is a book I wish I could have liked. I admire Pinker’s easy writing style and erudition abundantly displayed in some of his earlier books (such as the Language Instinct and How the Mind Works). Unfortunately “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” is one of those that deserve the truism “What is true in it was known before while everything not already known is probably false”.
For example, in his “Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) Ian Morris argued convincingly that substituting the Law of Man with the Law of the State (Creon’s point in Sophocles’ Antigone), bringing larger and larger swathes of territory within the rule of law and finally clamping down on the steppe hordes (the Russian and Chinese closure of the “Eurasian exchange” as Ian Morris phrased it) are largely responsible for reducing human suffering over the centuries (keeping away the horsemen of the Apocalypse as Morris would have it). It is conceivable that the expansion of democratic forms of government and capitalistic forms of production may have been responsible for further reducing violence in more recent times but it is too early and the numbers too small to tell if Pinker is a lucid student of history or an apologist of neoliberal cliché.
To some extent, the trouble with The Better Angels of Our Nature is due to Pinker’s bizarre notion of agency in history. Consider, for example, his idea (Loc. 4714 and Chapter 6) that the Holocaust is the handiwork of one person (Adolf Hitler; actually, he uses the title, “No Hitler, no Holocaust”, of one of Hemmelfarb’s essays, to make this point concisely) rather than the militarism and white supremacism of German society through much of that state’s history. But a lot more has to do with Pinker’s poor grasp of history. Not surprisingly he is led to the conclusion that a lot of violence is stochastic rather than the work of bad policies, bad estimates, bad calculations and/or bad manners: “The two world wars were, in a sense, horrifically unlucky samples from a statistical distribution that stretches across a vast range of destruction”, Pinker claims in Loc 4986.
In fact, the data he presents belie his argument. Rather than the monotonic decline of homicidal tendencies as time goes by, several of his figures demonstrate sudden aperiodic upswings. For example, Figure 3.2., titled “Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000”, displays an upsurge from the 12th to the 14th century. Did it occur to Pinker that the 12th century belongs to what is not accidentally called the Dark Ages -dark relative to the civilized late Roman era of the Antonines- culminating in the again not accidentally called calamitous 14th century? Moreover, Fig. 5.18 shows 3 major upswings in the rate of deaths since the 15th century. The first coincides with the German wars of religion (the first half of the 17th century) the second with the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century) and the 3rd with the first half of the 20th century (the 2 world wars). Because, together with Richardson (1960), Pinker thinks that the onset of war is random and argues against “….historical narratives that see constellations in illusory clusters” and “theories that see grand patterns, cycles and dialectics in human history” (Loc. 4637), he goes to great lengths to explain away these upswings as due to misconceived ideology and inadequate negotiating skills. For example, along with Garrett Mattingly, Pinker thinks of the early 16th century upswing as “ideological fervor acting as accelerant for military conflagration “ as well as because of the disabling of a mechanism for terminating war (“…any negotiations with the enemies…looked more and more like heresy”, Loc 5214).
Unfortunately for Pinker, but fortunately for us, David Hackett Fischer has already provided a convincing account of these upswings in “The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History”. This is the book to read in an effort to understand large scale changes in the exertion of violence, be they ascending or descending. Hackett-Fischer’s point is that every so often, prices increase due to demographics and other factors, to the point that people cannot satisfy basic every day needs. Because governments often work for vested interests rather than for the people, the price increases end in major violent upheavals (namely the 100 years war, the 30 years war, the Napoleonic wars and the World wars in the upswings I referred to in the beginning of the previous paragraph).
Finally, but tellingly, Pinker commits several embarrassing mistakes, mistakes that a professional historian would have avoided. Julius Caesar was definitely not “one of 34 Roman emperors…” (Loc. 3658). Instead, he held the offices of dictator for life and tribune at the time of his assassination, in 44 BCE. Similarly, Constantinople was not “inhabited by Muslim and Jewish populations that were massacred when the city fell to the crusaders (Locus 3252)” (he has in mind the sack of the City on April 12, 1204, and the murder of several of its citizens, Roman citizens mind you, by members of the IVth crusade). Nor was Greece a fascist dictatorship until the 1970s, akin to Portugal and Spain (Loc 6205). There was a military dictatorship in Greece but it started in 1967. Greece was a constitutional monarchy since the middle of the 19th century, a Republic in the 1920s and early 1930s (actually that was the second Greek Republic, but Pinker can be excused for not being familiar with too much historical detail). It was not run by a German/Italian puppet government such as Franco’s or Salazar’s in the 1930s. Instead Metaxas’ right wing government defeated Italy and fought against Germany in WWII but later succumbed to it in Operations Marita and Mercury. After WWII and a brief civil war, the country again reverted to constitutional monarchy till 1967. Finally, the Romans did not destroy “Carthage and its population during the Third Punic War in the 3rd century BCE… (Loc 7384) ”but in the 2nd (in 146 BCE to be exact). It is the first and second Punic wars that took place in the 3rd century BCE. Clearly Pinker is well read but does not have the intimate knowledge of history that one needs to decide if violence has indeed declined over the years as he claims.
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