The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

4.16 of 5 stars 4.16  ·  rating details  ·  5,776 ratings  ·  704 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...more
Hardcover, 802 pages
Published October 4th 2011 by Viking Adult (first published January 1st 2011)
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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...more
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...more
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...more
knig
Sep 24, 2012 knig rated it 4 of 5 stars
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...more
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...more
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
Richard
Feb 11, 2012 Richard rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Richard by: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/books/review/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker-book-review.html
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...more
David
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
Lois Bujold
Jun 26, 2013 Lois Bujold rated it 5 of 5 stars
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...more
Blaine
This book is sure to piss off or confuse just about everyone who cares about the world today, but especially postmodern-liberal-progressive types: "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 different life is today.

Pinker's basic thesis i...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 huma...more
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.
Kate Savage
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...more
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.
Faruk Ahmet
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
Joakim Wendell
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
Jan
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...more
Cheryl
Now that I am done, I can look at the book as a whole, and say it was fascinating, and an amazing book to debate and talk about. Not that I agree with it all, I am still wary of evolutionary psychology, but I feel smarter at least, and have gained some new ways of thinking about the world we live in and my own pacifist and liberal nature. I love love this quote near the end of the book, and it was said by a man who survived Hiroshima, and fled to Nagasaki for safety where he then survived the ot...more
Tommaso Querini
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...more
Wealhtheow
Pinker attempts to study trends of violence throughout human history. He sees a decline in violence of all kinds, on all scales of time and magnitude. The first seven chapters document the historical decline of violence, including hate crimes, murders, domestic violence, animal cruelty, war, and genocide. The remainder of the book traces probable causes of the decline, drawing on a huge range of fact sources, from histories to atrocologists to evolutionary psychologists.

To sum up, here are the...more
Chad Kettner
Pessimism is widespread these days - especially about the prospects for living in more peaceful world. And it is understandable, as we are bombarded with reports of murder, suicide bombings, armed conflicts, hate-crimes, and uprisings... and so much more.

But is human nature - the way we treat each other on a global as well as individual scale - actually getting worse? Steven Pinker says no... and offers over 800 pages of content to support his claim that "believe it or not, today we may be livin...more
Gwern
This was really really good, as in, maybe the best book I've read that year. Time and again, I was shocked to find subjects treated of keen interest to me, or which read like Pinker had taken some of my essays but done them way better (on terrorism, on the expanding circle, etc.); even so, I was surprised to learn new things (resource problems don't correlate well with violence?).

I initially thought I might excerpt some parts of it for an essay or article, but as the quotes kept piling up, I rea...more
Maitrey
The Better Angels of Our Nature is Steven Pinker's attempt to articulate if violence among humans has indeed declined. I thought it would make a great read in this centenary of the Great War and provide a counter-point to all the doomsayers who relish in pointing out humankind's penchant for violence. Pinker's specialty is linguistics and psychology so it was odd to see him tackling something so steeped in history and politics.

I think Pinker did a commendable job. Although there is a whiff of se...more
Ram
Yes…. I looked forward to reading this book and was not disappointed.

Personally when people start bitching about the new generation that are stuck in their electronics…. What will come out of them…. Etc… etc… I usually answer that the same was said about my generation, who grew up with TV's and rock music. But if you look at the world today, a world that is ruled by people of my generation, and compare it to the previous generations (that did not grow up with tv's and such), you see that the pre...more
Damian
A brilliant book by the great Steve Pinker that makes the startling -- and encouraging -- claim that not only is the world today more peaceful than in previous generations, it is VASTLY more peaceful. Orders of magnitude more peaceful.

The real meat of the book is in the first half, in which he brings an impressive amount of data to bear in elucidating four historical trends that each brought violence down by an order of magnitude: the Pacification Process (the coalescence of small tribes into la...more
Karen
An amazing and astonishing book, and one that I think that everyone should read. Although I have to admit I found the last few chapters a bit more of slog than the first several.

Pinter expects people will have a hard time believing that violence has declined dramatically throughout history, and especially in recent decades; after all we hear about murders and wars and so on on the news all the time. So he spends the first several chapters going over all kinds of violence (wars, murder, rape, to...more
H Wesselius
In previous books Pinker revealed himself to be a proponent and supporter of traditional Enlightenment ideas. This continues in his latest work in which he attempts to demonstrate that violence has declined and he places the responsibility on mass literacy, individual autonomy and primacy of reason. In short, secular humanism. He begins by outlining evidence that demonstrates a decline in violence. Although for anyone who has studied history this outline of past violence is hardly necessary, he...more
Mag
Do you know what hemoclysm is? Or, what the difference between genocide, democide and policide is? If you don’t, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the good news is that they are all on the decline. Violence is on the decline on the whole, actually.

It shouldn’t come as such a surprise because when you think of it we do live in a much more civilized time than ever before. Yet, it doesn’t feel that way every time we hear about an insane idiot killing schoolchildren or of other awful atrocities...more
Ryan
The Better Angels of Our Nature makes the bold claim in its first pages that human violence has not only declined (in relative terms) throughout the modern era, but has done so in virtually every measurable category, from war, to homicide, to non-fatal acts of aggression, to punishment of crime, to attitudes about acceptable behavior. Like many readers, I suspect, my eyebrows went up a little. Really? What about the World Wars? The Holocaust and other genocides? Terrorism? Serial killers? All th...more
Steve
In some ways this might be one of the most important books about Humanism and Enlightenment values ever written, because it charts, scientificallyand even mathematically, the trends that contribute to a quantifiably more peaceful world. Fearmongers would have us believe that the world is a worse place than it once was, but the truth is that the past, which featured slavery, genocides and torture beyond all reckoning, was much much worse. Even if we look at the terrors of modern American industri...more
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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
More about Steven Pinker...
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language How the Mind Works The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature Words And Rules: The Ingredients of Language (SCIENCE MASTERS)

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“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.” 26 likes
“Why should the spread of ideas and people result in reforms that lower violence? There are several pathways. The most obvious is a debunking of ignorance and superstition. A connected and educated populace, at least in aggregate and over the long run, is bound to be disabused of poisonous beliefs, such as that members of other races and ethnicities are innately avaricious or perfidious; that economic and military misfortunes are caused by the treachery of ethnic minorities; that women don't mind to be raped; that children must be beaten to be socialized; that people choose to be homosexual as part of a morally degenerate lifestyle; that animals are incapable of feeling pain. The recent debunking of beliefs that invite or tolerate violence call to mind Voltaire's quip that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” 24 likes
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