Bethany's Reviews > The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
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Aug 28, 2015

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bookshelves: other-nonfiction, history
Read from December 24, 2011 to January 11, 2012

I'm glad I read (listened) to this one. It has its faults - Pinker is very anti-ideology, hating on all religion (disregarding Eastern religions entirely) along with Marxism, to the extent of completely ignoring any opportunity to analyze religious or Marxist thought. Exclusively equating Christianity to the Spanish Inquisition (and Communism to Mao) doesn't come off like solid scholarship to me. The only ideology he's cool with is his Enlightenment humanism. He does make some brief excuses and disclaimers at the very end, acknowledging the positive contributions of some religions at certain times in history, but it doesn't make up for the rest of the book. Also, ranking red states just above PAKISTAN in their acceptance of "classical liberalism" - seriously?

Nonetheless, I think this is an important book. I am not knowledgeable enough about statistics or prehistory to dispute his violence figures through the centuries, but he gets his point across. What really hit me what the discussion of infanticide. I had never, ever considered those kind of numbers, and it's really interesting to consider the modern issue of abortion alongside the past. There are lots of other amazing/awful/thought-provoking things to learn in this book.
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message 1: by Greg (new)

Greg Williams You're right, and you give an amazingly concise summary of Pinker's strengths and weaknesses.
Passing over the book's strengths (which I'd say make this a must read), it lumps democratic socialism, including it's Marxist varieties, in with Stalin and Mao as "utopian" -- resembling fascism as seeking a utopia in the past. He very briefly summarizes the Marxist version of history as that humanity first lived in a primitive communist garden of Eden, then tried a bunch of other social systems before figuring out that communism was best after all! Marxism is specific about the manner in which each major social system represented an improvement, and how specific types of conflict led to transformation -- no going back.
On the other hand, he wants to throw the French Revolution out of his humanist fold, when it was absolutely a child of his enlightenment. Maybe the American revolution had more luck not backsliding into extreme violence and dictatorship (like the English and French revolutions) because it was far enough away from the centers of power of the old order. Good ideas, whether egalitarian socialism or his enlightenment humanism, are not always a guarantee of good outcomes, when faced with formidable opponents.
By defining the issue as "violence" -- torture, rape, murder, assault, he makes all progress a matter of stopping harm done to individuals. He ignores any notion of exploitation, growing inequality, etc. which causes hunger, pain and death to millions from poor health care and other services, etc. He equates any conflict to create a more egalitarian economic system with violent suppression of the wealthy, and a zero-sum game of taking from the rich to give to the poor. But there are endless examples of democratic, non-violent redistribution of wealth combined with economic growth, in social democratic, socialist, laborist and liberal democratic regimes.
Yes, socialists and communists fighting the old order can go wrong, just as classic liberal have. But the democratic collectivist stream has already made major contributions (including to feminism, civil rights, labor rights, etc.) and, more important to where do we go next, dealing with the growing concentration of wealth and income the inevitably results from unfettered free-market economies.


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