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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 Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?
This groundbreaking book continues Pinker’s exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind’s inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.
About Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer finalist and the winner of many prizes for his research, teaching, and books, he has been named one of Time‘s 100 most influential people in the world today and Foreign Policy‘s 100 Global Thinkers. He lives in Cambridge.
This is a huge book, but as Pinker says, it is a huge subject. He organizes himself by lists. First, there are six significant trends which have led to a decrease in violence.
1. Our evolution from hunter gatherers into settled civilizations, which he calls the Pacification Process.
2. The consolidation of small kingdoms and duchies into large kingdoms with centralized authority and commerce, which he calls the Civilizing Process.
3. The emergence of Enlightenment philosophy, and it’s respect for the individual through what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution.
4. Since World War II, violence has been suppressed, first by the overwhelming force of the two parties in the Cold War, and more recently by the American hegemony. Pinker calls this the Long Peace.
5. The general trend, even apart from the Cold War, of wars to be more infrequent, and less violent, however autocratic and anti-democratic the governments may be. Call this the New Peace.
6. Lastly, the growth of peace and domestic societies, and with it the diminishing level of violence through small things like schoolyard fights, bullying, and picking on gays and minorities. He titles this the Rights Revolution.
Pinker then goes on to examine the traditional explanations of violence, the traditional explanations of human nature which account for violence. There is practical violence, which you might call necessary violence. Then there are dominance, revenge, sadism, and ideologically driven violence. Opposing these are what he calls the better angels of human nature, empathy, self-control, our moral sense, and reason. Many of these characteristics are shared with our primate brethren, the chimpanzees on down, but some of them are uniquely human. With our ability to reason, and the unique human ability to impute motive to conspecifics of our own or other tribes, and our ability to express ourselves verbally, we are better able than any other species to negotiate our way through situations of conflict. A good deal of the decline in violence has to do with the maturation of these processes through the genetic evolution of the human animal, and more recently, through the evolution of our society and the ways in which societies socialize their members.
He concludes with five historical forces, which I find a little bit harder to grasp, but which serve as a vehicle for explanations of a number of interesting phenomena in the recent evolution of society. We have evolved Leviathan societies, in which the individual is pretty well controlled by state force. Not only our police, but our employers, our schools, and every other institution holds violence firmly in check as a matter of its own functioning. Other forces are commerce, which only happens when the partners are on peaceful terms, the evolution of women from mere propagators of the species to intellectual equals and partners in all of our undertakings, the growing information networks which bind us together, a process he calls cosmopolitanism, and lastly the increasing application of reason, which we would probably call the scientific basis, to human affairs, leading to a recognition that violence is in most circumstances not the best way to achieve one’s ends.
For a guy with a long history of writing about evolution, he seems to pretty much avoid its implications in this book. In fact, he has more or less morphed from a true scientist to a social scientist/historian. Whereas “The Language Instinct” and “Words and Rules” got into leading edge science, and “The Blank Slate” brought us up to date on the theory of human evolution, this book is pretty much a compilation of other peoples’ statistics and observations, weighted with Pinker’s opinions.
More than in his other books, Pinker reminds us of his Jewish roots, gently chafing Christianity for celebrating the sacrifice of an innocent man, and turning the cross, the instrument of sacrifice, into its holy icon. He also takes the obligatory swipes at George W. Bush for his bloodthirsty wars, conveniently overlooking the neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle who provided the intellectual foundation for the adventure. He also conveniently over looks the fact that President Obama, despite his vehement campaign rhetoric to the contrary, has continued the wars, presumably also with strong backing from AIPAC, and that he has likewise been captive to advisors such as Larry Summers. His writing is such a thrill to read that I overlook these tropes with an grin. And I appreciate that he is willing to defend the “dead white men” of the Enlightenment and make politically incorrect observations about the different peoples who make up America.
I note, although Pinker does not address them in great detail, some concommitment trends. At the same time violence is decreasing, our religiosity, fertility and our tribalism are likewise decreasing. We are not fighting wars in the interests of religion because large swaths of humanity no longer believe. We are not fighting for lebensraum because we are not having the children that would be needed in order to populate more territory. In other words, at the same time we’re becoming less violent, we’re losing some of that zest for evolutionary success which led us to become violent in the first place. We can pray along with Doctor Pinker for a world in which there is increasingly less violence, but we need also pray for one in which the drive for human excellence continues to manifest itself. – Graham H. Seibert, Amazon.Com Customer Review
Is Violence History?
The New York Times Book Review – October 6, 2011 (Excerpt)
It is unusual for the subtitle of a book to undersell it, but Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” tells us much more than why violence has declined. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard who first became widely known as the author of “The Language Instinct,” addresses some of the biggest questions we can ask: Are human beings essentially good or bad? Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse? Do we have grounds for being optimistic about the future?
If that sounds like a book you would want to read, wait, there’s more. In 800 information-packed pages, Pinker also discusses a host of more specific issues. Here is a sample: What do we owe to the Enlightenment? Is there a link between the human rights movement and the campaign for animal rights? Why are homicide rates higher in the southerly states of this country than in northern ones? Are aggressive tendencies heritable? Could declines in violence in particular societies be attributed to genetic change among its members? How does a president’s I.Q. correlate with the number of battle deaths in wars in which the United States is involved? Are we getting smarter? Is a smarter world a better world?
In seeking answers to these questions Pinker draws on recent research in history, psychology, cognitive science, economics and sociology. Nor is he afraid to venture into deep philosophical waters, like the role of reason in ethics and whether, without appealing to religion, some ethical views can be grounded in reason and others cannot be.
The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century. [Read the full article...]
“The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” by Steven Pinker
The Washington Post Book Review – October 7, 2011 (Excerpt)
Appearances often deceive. Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” landed on my desk in the immediate aftermath of that terrible massacre in Norway. As I read the book, Syrian forces slaughtered pro-democracy protesters, riots engulfed English cities, and murders punctuated the news. But, if we believe Pinker, all this violence is just the background noise behind a relentless paean of peace.
He’s probably right. The world today is less violent than it has ever been. We’re living through the longest period without war between great powers since Roman times. All other categories of violence — murder, rape, child abuse, wife-battering — have also declined. Pinker thinks his revelations are Earth-shattering, but, in fact, he’s merely proved something that most historians have long accepted, namely that there’s no reason to be nostalgic about the past.
Most people, however, think they live in uniquely violent times, a popular misconception that encourages panic. Travelers frightened of terrorism spurn airplanes in favor of much more dangerous cars. Parents worried about sidewalk pedophiles drive children to school and thereby exponentially increase the risks they face. The world seems violent partly because films, Web sites, video games and music pummel us with images of brutality. Parents cringe when Ice Cube boasts: “I can act like an animal, ain’t nothin’ to it/Gangsta rap made me do it.” Pinker, however, thinks that’s simply hot air — pretend violence has replaced the real thing. [Read the full article...]
‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker
The Boston Globe Book Review – October 7, 2011 (Excerpt)
Early in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being’’ novelist Milan Kundera invokes Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. “Putting it negatively,’’ Kundera writes, “the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all . . . means nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.’’ This isn’t a good thing, of course. But Kundera’s passage repeatedly sprang to mind when reading “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,’’ Steven Pinker’s always provocative, often frustrating new book.
Pinker, celebrated Harvard psychology professor, argues that we currently enjoy the least violent age in human history. We don’t perceive this because we overemphasize the scale of recent events. Agincourt seems less representative of its time than 9/11 does of ours because we’re so much closer to the latter. We also respond to dramatic stimuli – our blood-soaked news cycle forces us to continuously witness violence. It’s bad out there, we proclaim, and getting worse. Quite the contrary, Pinker argues, “[i]t’s a good time in history to be a potential victim.’’
Pinker marshals a battery of research to support this assertion, arguing that the last few centuries have seen a precipitous decline in violence, including rape, slavery, and war. Pinker digs into each category of cruelty, revealing how a series of overlapping elements of modernity is responsible for the decline. [Read the full article...]
Human Nature’s Pathologist
The New York Times – November 28, 2011 (Excerpt)
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Steven Pinker was a 15-year-old anarchist. He didn’t think people needed a police force to keep the peace. Governments caused the very problems they were supposed to solve.
Besides, it was 1969, said Dr. Pinker, who is now a 57-year-old psychologist at Harvard. “If you weren’t an anarchist,” he said, “you couldn’t get a date.”
At the dinner table, he argued with his parents about human nature. “They said, ‘What would happen if there were no police?’ ” he recalled. “I said: ‘What would we do? Would we rob banks? Of course not. Police make no difference.’ ”
This was in Montreal, “a city that prided itself on civility and low rates of crime,” he said. Then, on Oct. 17, 1969, police officers and firefighters went on strike, and he had a chance to test his first hypothesis about human nature.
“All hell broke loose,” Dr. Pinker recalled. “Within a few hours there was looting. There were riots. There was arson. There were two murders. And this was in the morning that they called the strike.” [Read the full article...]
THE BLEEDING HILLS
A Novel by Wilfried F. Voss
I have fought a good fight,
I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith.
- 2 Timothy iv. 7
The Irish War is officially a part of history, but not for Finnean Whelan, an IRA veteran of almost 40 years. British Intelligence has produced evidence that he is the mastermind behind a conspiracy to assassinate the First Minister of Northern Ireland. For Whelan this is not only a mission of revenge, but marks the beginning of a journey into the past and the return to the one true love: Ireland. [More...]
The Bleeding Hills is available at Amazon.Com, Amazon.co.uk, Barnes & Nobel, and any other good bookstore.