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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

4.17  ·  Rating Details  ·  10,073 Ratings  ·  1,046 Reviews
Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year The author of 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 Pinke
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Hardcover, 802 pages
Published October 4th 2011 by Viking (first published 2010)
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Berry Muhl He actually does consider this, in his mention of what is called the "escalator of reason." Part of the point of the book is to demonstrate *why*…moreHe actually does consider this, in his mention of what is called the "escalator of reason." Part of the point of the book is to demonstrate *why* people are more amenable to reason, to "thinking before reacting," than they used to be.
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Riku Sayuj

The Skeptic’s Peace

Pinker warns the reader upfront that the book is huge, and with more than 800 dense pages there is no question about it. It is so wide-ranging that it is fortunate it has such a memorable title - the reader might have easily lost track of where it is all supposed to be heading. Individually, any single section of the book is a throughly entertaining masterpiece, but as a whole, in terms of coherence, and on how the thesis and the direction of the arguments hold together, the b
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Miquixote
Breathtakingly mindless for 2/5 of the book, blowhard the whole way through.

Sometimes a good joke is more revealing than 800 pages of blowhardness. Pinker gives himself away with this quote by George Carlin on page 622: I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who's lying around all day watching game shows and stroking his penis, and I'll show you someone who's not causing any fucking trouble!...

...I hope I am not the only one who thinks it is not necessarily a good thing to
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Warwick
VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED, AND I WILL KICK THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF ANYONE WHO SAYS IT HASN'T

Disappointingly, Pinker strikes a slightly less confrontational tone than that, but the basic idea is the same. His thesis is that violence of every kind, from international warfare down to murder and corporal punishment, has been on a steady decline throughout human history, up to and including the present day – and not only does he make this case in considerable detail, but he goes on to give a very wide-ran
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David
This seems like a stunning misstep by the normally brilliant Steven Pinker. His ability to write with extraordinary force and clarity has been demonstrated repeatedly in two separate areas of expertise -- linguistics and cognitive science. Unfortunately, the brilliance of his earlier books in those areas is nowhere in evidence in this regrettable dog's breakfast of a book.

I found it almost unreadable - poorly argued, undisciplined, self-indulgent, and - despite its grotesquely bloated length (8
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Nebuchadnezzar
When an academic steps outside his or her field of expertise, it's best to brace yourself for a torrent of nonsense. Steven Pinker, whose work in linguistics and psychology I greatly enjoy, has made a habit of using that work as a springboard to foist his pet political theories on the public. Whereas his previous attempt in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature was a vehicle for his ideological ramblings, it was at least not based on a gaping statistical flaw and had some value in r ...more
knig
Sep 24, 2012 knig rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
I have a peripheral awareness that Pinker awakens red penitus in a goodly proportion of his stalwart readers: but I don’t know why. I shan’t delve into this before I write up ‘better angels’: don’t want to be distracted by ‘noise’.

800 pages of socio-economic postulating: always an inexact science, is going to rub someone the wrong way hither or thither. We see what we want to see, and 800 pages of the ‘humanities’ is like waving a red flag to a bull: plenty of scope to flare up, statistically s
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David
Jan 08, 2014 David rated it it was amazing
In this book, Steven Pinker explores a very controversial thesis, that is, violence is declining. Different types of violence are declining on multiple time scales. It would seem like the twentieth century had some major wars and plenty of genocide to make his thesis sound rather foolish. But in the first seven chapters he shows lots and lots of statistics to back up his thesis. In the eighth and ninth chapters he also explores the scientific reasons for violence and the reasons for increasingly ...more
Richard
Steven Pinker certain ranges widely in intellectual circles. Although he is nominally a professor of psychology at Harvard, but even with specialties (per Wikipedia) in experimental psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, he somehow dove into history to present one of the best TED Talks, back in 2007: Steven Pinker on the myth of violence (watch those nineteen minutes, if you haven't already).

Wonderfully, he has now followed that presentation up with an entire volume.

Peter Singer wrote the
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Blaine
Jan 24, 2016 Blaine rated it it was amazing
This book is sure to anger or confuse just about everyone who cares about the world today, but particularly those who love to hate the idea of cultural progress: "What? You gotta be kidding - violence has declined over time? No frikin' way - just look at the news." But be assured - after you read only a few pages of this book, you'll be reminded of what life used be like in the foreign country called The Past and you just might change your tune and recognize how, for large sectors of the world's ...more
Fiona
Did this really take two and a half years to read? I see that it did. I picked it up after a new-ish boyfriend press-ganged me into seeing Pinker talking about his new book - this one - in Edinburgh, and thinking that it sounded fascinating and potentially relevant to a PhD I was considering doing. Well, the PhD idea is discarded, and as for the boyfriend, I swapped Pinker for Susanna Clarke and moved in with him. He finished my book first.

The premise of The Better Angels of Our Nature is that t
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Jan Rice
Mar 12, 2015 Jan Rice rated it really liked it
Steven Pinker has written a monster of a book. He has used his intelligence to crunch a huge volume of material. He has made a number of great points to which I'm sure to be referring often.

Yet despite all the insights and accompanying drum rolls, I am suspicious of the dramatic hypothesis, the grand prediction that humankind has learned in any permanent sense to be kinder and gentler. That hypothesis is a welcome change from all the dystopian predictions, and I do think I, and western civilizat
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Kate Savage
Jan 22, 2014 Kate Savage rated it did not like it
Make me a t-shirt that says “I read an 800-page book and all I got from it was this lousy review.”

The Good:
There’s a nice irreverent romp through the Bible, he shows what monsters "chivalrous" knights were, shows why we shouldn't be so afraid of terrorist attacks or child abductions or Iran.

The bad: everything else.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Conquistadors:

“Though imperial conquest and rule can themselves be brutal, they do reduce endemic violence among the conquered” (56).

P ope
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Lois Bujold
Jun 26, 2013 Lois Bujold rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Lois by: chat list contributor who'd just read it
After a steady recent diet of short-attention-span theater internet surfing, it was very interesting to dive into a dense read that took me a week to chew through. (I am not a very fast reader, but I'm usually faster than that.) The exercise of following a really long, complex, sustained argument was probably good for me.

Seven chapters of convincing examination of historical evidence to the best approximation that could be managed, all of which jibes well with what I know or have experienced of
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Hadrian
I have recently learned about some stunning statistical anomalies and misinterpretations in here which I had shamefully missed. A simple understanding of Chinese history in the 20th century already seems to be a profound stumbling block for this hypothesis. The jury is out. Further deliberation continues.
Nikki
Jan 02, 2016 Nikki rated it liked it
I better admit up front that I don’t have any intuitive or educated grasp on statistics, and without actually sitting down with the data sets, I haven’t the least idea of whether they’re appropriately chosen, correctly delineated, etc, etc. I do note, though, that Steven Pinker is a respected academic, Penguin are a respected publisher, and I was directed to reading this by another academic. Where he talks about history, he seems to be broadly correct, and his explanation of his graphs and stati ...more
Joseph D. Walch
But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
--The Federalist, No. 51, James Madison


This is easily one of the best books of 2011, and I suppose it must already be earmarked as a Pulitzer finalist. It’s about violence, but so much more than that since it strikes at the very core of human nature, the hum
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notgettingenough
Pinker has disappointed me for so long that it is no surprise to me to discover that this is the work of a charlatan. Here on goodreads try David Giltinan's review .

But also http://www.zcommunications.org/realit... is worthy of a read.

Is his basic message pretty much that if first world white people aren't dying, then violence is decreasing? And has this been greeted with great approbation in - ummm - the first white world? Oh deary me.
Faruk Ahmet
Jan 08, 2014 Faruk Ahmet rated it did not like it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Loathing is the word. It infuriated me. You'd think that after all these years one would stop being surprised by this style of typical new-atheist/liberal argumentation but when I see this much cherrypicking, oversimplification, handwaving and western supremacism shoved into a single book, I still get all worked up. And of course, it doesn't help that they call themselves "The Brights" and "The Enlightened" etc. I mean, who does that? Even if I was intellectually convinced by their arguments, I ...more
Jan
Nov 15, 2011 Jan rated it it was amazing
Stunning book! Probably the most fascinating nonfiction I've ever found!
In recorded form, this was 36+ hours long, but it was divided into sections that seemed like full books in themselves.
What a work of scholarship! In order to demonstrate the shift toward greater kindness and less violence in the world, Steven Pinker first examined, thoroughly, the many forms that cruelty has taken since our earliest primate ancestors. He then summarized the relevant studies in the sciences and social science
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Tom Tabasco
May 02, 2016 Tom Tabasco rated it liked it
I love optimistic books and, overall, there is a lot of optimism in the almost 800 pages of "The better angels of our nature". However, I find it impossible to give a single, monolithic opinion about this behemoth of a book, because I found some of its elements truly excellent, some ok, and some absolutely dreadful.

In brief:

- the great: the quality of the writing is superb. This is one of the best books I've ever read in terms of clarity of exposition and effectiveness of the writing. As a plu
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Michael Jones
Oct 11, 2015 Michael Jones rated it it was ok
Shelves: philosophy
Pinker’s essential view is that human’s possess both instincts toward violence, and instincts toward cooperation, and that our violent instincts used to have the ascendency, but now our peaceable instincts have gained the upper hand. And we should celebrate this. And it does seem clear that civilized societies (some at least) are less violent than some primitive ones. However I have two problems with Pinker’s approach. The first is this: Pinker has in-effect, simply compared a restrained 40 year ...more
Tommaso Querini
Oct 30, 2013 Tommaso Querini rated it did not like it
Shelves:
The better angels of our nature is a flawed book.
Unfortunately many will appreciate it without watching critically at the data used.

The main reasons I say so:

- Pinker uses 2nd sometimes 3rd hand raw data without further reflecting upon it.

- data on warfare in prehistory is cherry-picked exaggerated.
Read: http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/sites/fas...

- data on pre-state societies is sometimes simply wrong and the extended debate on violence in these societies is completely ignored.

Read: http://bjc.ox
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Joakim Wendell
Jun 25, 2012 Joakim Wendell rated it did not like it
An interesting idea, but Pinker fails to deliver a convincing argument. The subject of the book is violence, and Pinker argues that 1) violence has declined historically, and 2) that the decline is due to a number of factors. His five factors are a) strong states, 2) commerce, 3) feminization, 4) cosmopolitanism and 5) reason. There are several glaring problems with his thesis. First, he never defines "violence", a rather big problem since the book is about violence. From his examples, I infer t ...more
Gendou
Aug 30, 2015 Gendou rated it it was amazing
Pinker says this book came out of his answer to the question, "what are you hopeful about?" It details the history of violence in human society from prehistory to the present day. Pinker argues that violence has generally declined, and offers an explanation of how this happened.

He describes a political/sociological theory called "Leviathan" in which the government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Under a Leviathan people are better off letting the state handle punishment than ta
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Baal Of
I read a lot of depressing non-fiction books, so it is nice to read one that actually presents some of what is going well in the world, even if it is tempered with a fair amount of caution. Pinker presents a powerhouse of a book, with carefully nuanced arguments, tons of data, and extensive references to back it all up. As I like to do, I read several of the one star reviews of this book before writing my own, and I found that even with the most wordy of them, they presented no real solid refuta ...more
James Murphy
Jul 22, 2015 James Murphy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Considering the news reports about war, terrorism, and violent crime we hear and read every day, you wouldn't think we're living in an age which might be thought of as the most peaceful in history. But Steven Pinker writes convincingly that the incidence of violence of all kinds has been in decline for centuries, and particularly during the 2d half of the 20th century. Generally, Pinker attributes this to the blooming of liberalism and modern emphasis on political correctness. Societies are more ...more
Charles
Aug 09, 2015 Charles rated it liked it
This is a sprawling mess of a book. Flashes of arguably brilliant insight alternate with meandering musings. Fascinating narrow conclusions are drawn from carefully parsed evidence—and then sweeping conclusions are drawn from highly dubious evidence. Historical insights are used incisively in an argument—then the next argument is undermined by total historical illiteracy. At the end, the reader is left uncertain whether he has read 800 pages of genius, 800 pages of authoritative-sounding-but-mea ...more
Jon Stout
Nov 05, 2014 Jon Stout rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: futurists and fatalists
Recommended to Jon by: Bill Dennis
Skeptical as I was of the idea of progress in a moral sense, Steven Pinker convinced me that civilization really has progressed in terms of the way we treat each other. The book is really divided in two parts, first a historical study in which Pinker amasses enormous statistical detail to show that there has been a continual progression in the reduction of violence, and second a psychological study to unearth the causes, the constraints and the directions of this progression.

Pinker’s erudition i
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Thomas Edmund
Oct 15, 2011 Thomas Edmund rated it it was amazing
Ok small confession to make. I was hoping to purchase this piece on the day it became available, power through it, and be one of the first to post a review on Amazon.

This was before seeing the thing...

But after pumping through the ~700 pages I feel its worth the size. Pinker dives through history, philosophy, psychology and politics to identify the apparent causes for the 'decline in violence.'

I would describe reading the book as a combo of history, psychology and professional polemic. Obviously
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Emily
May 01, 2012 Emily rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012
When I first read reviews of this book last fall, I was profoundly unconvinced to the point of feeling almost irritated at Pinker, despite having read and enjoyed at least one of his prior books. This is a great argument, then, for actually reading the book, because I found it an enjoyable read, written in a personable voice. And, to the extent that it makes any sense to offer overarching theories across such a broad sweep of history (cf. Jared Diamond), I found this one convincing.

This is a ver
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Steven Arthur Pinker is a prominent Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and author of popular science. Pinker is known for his wide-ranging advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time, and The New Republic, and is the author of seven b ...more
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“Challenge a person's beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali is the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them--or worse, who credibly rebut them--they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.” 45 likes
“The scriptures present a God who delights in genocide, rape, slavery, and the execution of nonconformists, and for millennia those writings were used to rationalize the massacre of infidels, the ownership of women, the beating of children, dominion over animals, and the persecution of heretics and homosexuals. Humanitarian reforms such as the elimination of cruel punishment, the dissemination of empathy-inducing novels, and the abolition of slavery were met with fierce opposition in their time by ecclesiastical authorities and their apologists. The elevation of parochial values to the realm of the sacred is a license to dismiss other people’s interests, and an imperative to reject the possibility of compromise.” 40 likes
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