C'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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's review
May 09, 12

Read in November, 2011

This book has gotten great reviews so far, and they're not wrong.
Pinker does have a gift for synthetic arguments packaged in provocative claims, and overall I enjoyed this book--especially the footnotes-- very much.

But if you take issue with his gender essentialism or seemingly uncritical faith in the free market, no fear: I will recap here for you two briefly mentioned points that should incite major critiques, thus sparing you the need to read all 600+ pages of the book in order to rebut a Pinker-lover at a cocktail party.

1) Violence and women: Pinker interprets violence as heinous physical acts: torture, rape, and child abuse. Our ability to recognize psychological violence is interpreted as a sign of civilized times: what are verbal slurs compared to flayed, burning limbs? To my mind, this overlooks the (often vicious) role played by less sensational social dynamics. For example: I recently read a fabulous dissertation proposal that used social network analysis to describe the central role that Italian nuns played in carrying out medieval vendettas. Pinker devotes too much attention to the flaying and not enough to the baiting and conniving that preceded it. Your high school experience should bear out these two historical truths: Women were victimized throughout modern history. But men were also pawns.

2) "Uncivilized" colonials: Pinker's scope of modern history is what you would get in your high school AP Euro class: western nations. Not only does he ignore other complex civilizations that existed alongside the nasty, brutish life in pre-modern France and England, he has the gall to (ahistorically) describe many of these cultures in direct opposition to post-enlightenment Western Civilization. For example, "the Hindus of India produced so little in the way of serious historical scholarship, unlike neighboring China" largely due to their "tribalist" caste system and belief that the ruling elite had "descended from heroes and gods."

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