46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but a very thorough look at violence and human nature
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...
Published on Oct. 14 2011 by A. Volk
19 of 108 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A 1-dimensional view of violence
Mr Pinker is a wonderful writer. His eloquence with prose and ideas is admirable. His arguments are convincing even as they are flawed:
While violence against humans may have decreased, Mr Pinker, like most humans, fails to identify and acknowledge that violence against other species has increased to such a disproportional degree as to become just another...
Published on Oct. 15 2011 by Vicky H
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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but a very thorough look at violence and human nature,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Hardcover)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!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful.,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Hardcover)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:
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Humanistic Study with Some Merit,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Hardcover)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. The part about striving for a greater transforming presence of peace in our lives, I am not sure he has. Nevertheless, a captivating read bolstered by some very powerful psychological and scientific studies.
5.0 out of 5 stars great reading and a better understanding of human nature in the past.,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Hardcover)this is a type of book that once you get into reading it .it brings out what i had learned and read all my life on history.it opens up how the real world was since the beginning ofhuman life .thank you for a better understanding .gary
3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars another thought-provoking read from one of the greatest intellectuals of our times,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Hardcover)Whether one agrees with Pinker's ideas or not, this is a must-read for anyone interested in evolutionary and social psychology, history, and politics-that is for anyone interested in human nature. Regarding the negative review here, it just proves Pinker's point. The fact that humans nowadays pay attention to and oppose the cruelty we inflict on animals, the fact that we regard as cruel the way we treat other animals is evidence of how far we have come in acknowledging and taming "our inner demons" as well as in allowing our "better angels" to prevail. Like his previous book "the Blank slate", this a thought-provoking and satifying read. Pinker is one of the greatest intellectuals of our times.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A story that needs to told and heard,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Kindle Edition)This book is written in a scholarly fashion, with citations and concise, detailed arguments. Like most such books it is long and the story may seem a little dry at times. That said, the story is one that needs to told and heard. This story is full of food for thought and discussion. The fact is that, in spite of a widespread feeling to the contrary, we live in the safest times in the history of the human race. We are less likely by far to be victims of violence than anyone living before us. The statistics are clear, and the research is fastidious. As to the dryness of scholarly books, Pinker has a linguist's love of the language and his writing is lively and at times amusing.
0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but flawed account of evolutionary psychology of violence and cooperation,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Paperback)This is not a perfect book, but it is unique, and if you skim the first 400 or so pages, the last 300 are a pretty good attempt to apply what's known about behavior to social changes in violence and manners over time. The basic topic is: how does our genetics control and limit social change? Surprisingly he fails to give in any clear way the explanation for this in terms of inclusive fitness which is entailed by neodarwinism Mostly the criticisms given by others (I read them all) are nit-picking and irrelevant and, as Pinker has said, he could not write a coherent book about "bad things", nor could he give every possible reference and point of view, but he should have said at least something about the other ways of abusing and exploiting people and the planet since these are now so much more severe as to render other forms of violence irrelevant.
Extending the concept of violence will provide a very different perspective on what is happening in the world right now and how things are likely to go in the next few hundred years. One might start by noting that the decrease in physical violence over history has been matched (and made possible) by the constantly increasing merciless rape of the planet (i.e., by people's destruction of their own descendants future). Pinker (like most people most of the time) is often distracted by the superficialities of culture when its biology that matters.
This is the classic nature/nurture issue and nature trumps nurture --infinitely. What really matters is the violence done to the earth by the relentless increase in population and resource destruction (due to medicine and technology) About 200,000 more people a day (another Los Angeles every three weeks), the 12 tons or so of topsoil going into the sea/person/year etc. mean that unless some miracle happens the biosphere and civilization will largely collapse in this century and there will be starvation, misery and violence of every kind on a staggering scale. People's manners, opinions and tendencies to commit violent acts are of no relevance unless they can do something to avoid this catastrophe, and I don't see how that is going to happen. There is no space for arguments, and probably no point either (yes I'm fatalist), so I'll just make a few comments as though they were facts. Don't imagine I have a personal stake. I am 71, have no descendants and no close relatives and do not identify with any political, national or religious group and regard the ones I belong to by default as just as repulsive as all the rest.
Parents are all Enemies of Life on Earth and women are at least as violent as men. The fact that women's violence (like most of that done by men) is largely done in slow motion, at a distance in time and space and mostly carried out by proxy -by their descendants and by men --does not ameliorate it. Increasingly women bear children regardless of whether they have a mate and the effect of stopping one woman from breeding is on average much greater than stopping one man. In my view most people and their offspring richly deserve whatever misery comes their way and (with rare exceptions) the rich and famous are the worst offenders. Meryl Streep or Bill Gates and each of their kids may destroy 50 tons of topsoil each per year, while an Indian farmer may destroy 1 ton. If you deny it or don't want to deal with it that's fine, and to your descendants I say "Welcome to Hell on Earth"(WTHOE).
Human Responsibilities must replace Human Rights. Nobody gets rights without being a responsible citizen and the first thing this means is minimal environmental destruction . The most basic responsibility is no children unless your society asks you to produce them. A society or a world that lets people breed at will and supports their progeny will always be exploited by selfish genes until it collapses (or reaches a point where life is so horrific it's not worth living). If you want to maintain Human Rights as primary, that's fine and to your descendants one can say with confidence "WTHOE".
"Helping" has to be seen from a global long term perspective. Almost all "help" that's given by individuals, organizations or countries harms others and the world in the long run and must only be given after a very careful consideration. If you want to hand out money, food, medicine, etc., you need to ask what the long term environmental consequences are. If you want to please everyone all the time, that's fine and again to your descendants I say "WTHOE".
Dysgenics: endless trillions of creatures beginning with bacteria-like forms over 3 billion years ago have died to create us and all current life and this is called eugenics. We all have "bad genes" but some are worse than others. It is estimated that up to 50% of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion due to "bad genes". Civilization is dysgenic. This problem is currently trivial compared to overpopulation but getting worse by the day. Medicine, welfare and "helping" of all kinds have dysgenic consequences which will collapse society even if population growth stops. Again if you don't believe it or don't want to deal with it that's fine and to your descendants we can say " WTHOE".
Beware the utopian scenarios that suggest doomsday can be avoided by judicious application of technologies. You can't fool mother nature. I leave you with just one example. Famous scientist Raymond Kurzweil proposed nanobots as the saviors of humankind. They would make anything we needed and clean every mess. They would even make ever better versions of themselves. They would keep us as pets. But think of how many people treat their pets, and pets are overpopulating and destroying and becoming dysgenic almost as fast as humans. Pets only exist because we destroy the earth to feed them and we have spay and neuter clinics and euthanize the sick and unwanted ones. We practice rigorous population control and eugenics on them and no form of life can evolve or exist without these--not even bots. And what's to stop nanobots from evolving? Any change that facilitated reproduction would automatically be selected for and any behavior that wasted time or energy (i.e., taking care of humans) would be heavily selected against. What would stop the bots program from mutating into a homicidal form and exploiting all earth's resources causing global collapse? There is no free lunch for bots either and to them too we can confidently say "WTHOE".
19 of 108 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A 1-dimensional view of violence,
This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Hardcover)Mr Pinker is a wonderful writer. His eloquence with prose and ideas is admirable. His arguments are convincing even as they are flawed:
While violence against humans may have decreased, Mr Pinker, like most humans, fails to identify and acknowledge that violence against other species has increased to such a disproportional degree as to become just another form of technology. Yet the consequences of this unrecognized violence is pushing wild animals toward extinction (e.g. western North American wild horses) and domesticated food animals to live brutally-confined lives and often painful deaths. The mega-agriculture business "processes" - read: violently kills - more than 10 BILLION animals in the US alone each and every year. (Don't say it isn't cruel unless you have looked an animal in the eye and then witnessed its death at the hands of a slaughterhouse.)
Humanity has not become less violent. We have simply sanitized the violence so that the average citizen, who through their wallet is complicit in this violence, simply removes it from their awareness. This is humanity's improvement??
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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker (Hardcover - Oct. 4 2011)
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