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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined [Hardcover]

Steven Pinker
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 4 2011

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 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.

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"For anyone interested in human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor ... a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement."
(-The New York Times Book Review)

" extraordinary range of research ... a masterly effort."
(-The Wall Street Journal)

" ...Better Angels is a monumental achievement. His book should make it much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future. Whether war is an ancient adaptation or a pernicious cultural infection, we are learning how to overcome it."

About the Author

Steven Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. A two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and the winner of many awards 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.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
48 of 50 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful. April 4 2012
Personally, I know I'm taken with a book when I carry it everywhere. It draws me in, and provokes thought. Walking some random place I'll look down and see it clenched in my hand, not even realizing it was there before then. Of course, this is that kind of book.

It's a beautiful, massive undertaking. Throughly researched and obviously long in the making. I can imagine Steven Pinker reading through his life and an idea slowly starting to gestate. On the shoulders of giants our civilization stands, and this book is no different. Pinker has taken thoughts, research, and ideologies that have helped shape our world and drawn them together into, if nothing else, a touching premise: Violence has Declined.

This book is more than that premise, yet focused all the same. It draws from history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, criminology, and many other disciplines. It is the nature of such a broad topic that it must. I'm more than halfway through the book right now, and if I had to offer up what it has invoked in me in a few words they would be: hopeful, thoughtful, troubling, inspiring, and all around impressed.

You can get an introduction to the book through an audio lecture by Pinker at the RSA:
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Humanistic Study with Some Merit April 3 2012
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
In his latest book on the state of modern civilization, eminent Harvard social scientist and professor of psychology has given his readers plenty to chew over. First, he devotes the main portion of this study to laying out his thesis that violence, as reflected in acts of physical aggression, has been on the wane over the last century contrary to what some law-and-order types have been promoting. There is an abundance of statistical and empirical evidence that shows that the incidence of murder, mayhem, rape, child abuse, and other social ills - while still peaking at key periods along the way - is trending downwards. Generally, we have less need to be concerned about our public safety today than ever before. Pinker does a masterful job in showing how the threat of war - one of humanity's biggest historical threats - has been reduced to periodic interstate skirmishes and short conflicts that statistically have only a small negative impact on human life. According to him, we are definitely on a track to pacification of the human race. To get there requires something more than just the so-called magic of numbers. Personal and collective initiative on a consistent and wide-scale basis is what Pinker seems to be promoting here in order to truly pacify society. For him, it becomes a matter of finishing the job already started by the fact that, on the whole, we earnestly seek peace in our lives. To complete the deal, the human race must recognize and overcome the scientifically-proven demons - greed, anger, malice, self-importance, fear, and cruelty - and learn to replace them with good angels such as self-control, empathy, morality, and respect for taboo. While I appreciate and understand where Pinker is coming from in this book, he has only got one part of the puzzle solved: our proclivity for violence. Read more ›
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Must Read for our time Aug. 31 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An amazing book, which will astonish most readers with its wealth of information and analysis, supported by sophisticated statistical techniques. Optimistic theses are not popular these days, but here's one that looks pretty irresistible, and raises all sorts of interesting questions, most of which Professor Pinker deftly discusses. What's more, it's a pleasure to read.

Here is one of the great books of recent times, for sure.
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