This is the second time in a short while that I've read a book by a famous psychologist that turned their attention to a new topic- evil/violence. This time it's Steven Pinker, a cognitive/evolutionary/linguistic psychologist, who decides to turn to the topic of evil and violence. The result is, in my opinion, a really good piece of work. The scope of the topics covered is reflected in its 700+ page length, with around 30 pages (small font) of references. Clearly, if nothing else, Pinker has done a LOT of reading on the topic. Briefly, the book argues that human violence has declined over time and outlines social and psychological reasons why that's so.
Almost the first half of the book is spent discussing the evidence for how violence has declined in the form of homicides, torture, war, genocide, and terrorism. Frankly, as someone who's read a lot of anthropological accounts of violence, as well as historical accounts, I didn't need to be convinced of this. We live in a candy cake la-la land compared to just about any of our ancestors. The section on torture alone is enough to make your toes curl. Water-boarding in Gitmo was (is?) terrible, but it's a walk in the park compared to the regular torture methods of medieval Europe. Or the Mongols, Huron, Iroquois, Aztecs, etc. War, especially larger wars, have all but disappeared since WW2. For all these data, Pinker tries to offer explanations why. For example, Pinker is reluctant to give much credit to nukes for the drop in wars since WW2, but I have to disagree with him here. Nukes bring something to the table that's entirely new- Mutually Assured Destruction. They take the uncertainty out of war (e.g, Hitler's Soviet gamble) and replace it with certain death for both winner and loser. No thanks!
Overall, Pinker points to three main social forces driving these drops in violence. First, reason as a result of The Enlightenment. In the face of reason, violence generally seems wasteful, futile, and/or morally questionable. No doubt that's had a significant effect. It's hard to argue that being more educated, more thoughtful, and more rational aren't related to lower average levels of violence. Second, the Leviathan of the state has usurped the need for people to defend themselves with lethal violence, allowing for much lower levels of overall violence. This removes a lot of incentives for homicides, particular over honor (which Daly & Wilson have shown to be so powerful). Finally, democracy and commerce have opened up countries within themselves and made them more open and dependent on others. Commerce is not a zero-sum game, so it's in everyone's interest to trade rather than to fight. "Make money, not war" is a quote from the book. This is all very Hobbesian. It's also very obvious to me. Like a lot of Canadians, I question why we are spending money on a stealth fighter when the only people we'd need a supersonic stealthy jet against are either our neighbors, serious trading partners, or have nukes to retaliate with. For the same reason, I find that the talk of a US/China war in the future is ridiculous. Who would buy China's goods and who would hold US debt? Not to mention that if one got a serious upper hand the other could just nuke them to even the score. It's silly to even think about.
The rest of the book focuses on psychological reasons behind individual behaviors that have led to this drop in violence. This section of the book is adequate, and certainly covers the major social and evolutionary psychology theories of violent behavior. But I wish more of the book focused on this, as we have much better experimental data on things like Milgram's study than we do on the causes of 18th/19th Century wars. I also wish this area had been fleshed out more, as ultimately, the causes of wars, homicides, and other kinds of violence are individual human beings. Only by understanding individuals can we fully understand the larger forces that also contribute to violence. Pinker does make some tentative hints about the future, but generally notes that explaining the past is hard enough without trying to explain the future. I'd argue that a good theory is predictive as well as explanatory, so this is a bit of a cop-out in my opinion, even though he does offer modest predictions. So it's a humble cop-out, given the scope of the topic, the difficulty of prediction, and his newness to it, but still a bit of a cop-out.
Overall then, this is a very good book that is packed with data. I'm sure just about anyone who reads it will find statistics, arguments, and/or theories they don't quite agree with. I certainly did. There's also areas I'm sure you'll feel could have been better explained. I certainly did too. But the sheer amount of information and explanatory effort, combined with a relatively open and honest scientific/historical approach to the topic makes this a very good read indeed. Whether you agree 80-90% with Pinker (like me) or more like 50-60% with him, there's a lot of meat on the bone here to work over in one's mind. And as Pinker notes, "blood sells" when it comes to media. Violence is a topic that interests almost everyone, and for very good reason- we don't want to be victims of it! This book offers two great antidotes for that fear. First, we live in what is overall the most peaceful period of human history. Second, the book offers some really solid numbers and theories into which people can sink their rational teeth and start seriously thinking about the topic. Because as good as the trend has been, I think we'd all agree that we'd like to see serious violence (i.e., much more than a good hockey hit) continue trending all the way down to zero!