Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)
This book has been about violence: its causes, its forms, its decline. It is only natural to ask, from our modern humanist vantage, “why is there violence?” Yet once these answers are understood, it’s far more difficult to answer “why is there peace?” Most would agree peace is preferable to war, but is that shared universal preference reason in itself for the decline of violence from ancient to modern times? Why do people think we live in the most violent of times, despite the stats? What role do literacy, wealth, trade, technology, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, and self-control play in the reduction of violence over time? Most importantly, where are we headed?
Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth. A measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the form of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred. Yet there is a vast difference between the minimal violence necessary to prevent greater violence and the bolts of fury that an uncalibrated mind is likely to deliver in acts of rough justice.
The answers, briefly touched on in this post series, are enough to fill a very thick book. By page 481, I had realized I was reading one of the most influential books I would ever read, and learning a new worldview I’d be incorporating into my own. So I started over on page 1, highlighting and notating for the purpose of summarizing each chapter in this series. I read chapters here and there, interspersed with other books, because I knew that reading a 1341-page tome could burn me out. Luckily for me, on page 1018, chapter 10 closed and the next page started in on footnotes and citations. Surprise! I was finished before I knew what hit me. I picked up this book in February of 2015. Now, in July of the following year, laid out on the beach incidentally, I’m done.
I won’t waste space recapping my 11-post recap series. This is a large book because it contains a lot of information about the human condition, information not taught in history class. I’ve done my best to distill it to these blog posts, which I hope was not folly, but I know it would be folly to try to distill it in a single concluding paragraph. Bottom line is, watch the TED Talk, and read (or skim!) the rest of the posts in this series. I challenge anyone not to be blown away by this evidence-based approach to world history and human psychology. I hope that a handful of people at least make it through this series and pick up the book itself. Its 1000 pages of lucid explanation and shocking facts are sure to challenge you as it challenged me. To think differently, to be less nostalgic and more optimistic, to question assumptions, and to seek out facts to support (or bust!) deeply-held beliefs.
At least, they say, our ancestors did not have to worry about muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation. Surely no Boeing 747, no antibiotic, no iPod is worth the suffering that modern societies and their technologies can wreak. And here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all.
If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.