Winter Break Books: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

The book: Harvard professor, Pulitzer finalist and Time 100 badass Steven Pinker says a controversial thing: The world is a less violent, and overall nicer, place than it has ever been, in almost every way, for a set of reasons neither wholly liberal nor wholly conservative (at least as Americans conceive of those terms). Then, he goes ahead and proves it for 700 straight pages, quoting from hundreds of books, summarizing world history, and dropping science (mostly neuroscience) all the while.

The good: This is one of the ten or so best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. Amazing. A primer of intellectual history, political history, modern psychology, and also a convincing blow struck against pessimists everywhere. You can flip to any random page and come away with a valuable insight into human nature. I’ll do that right now.

Page 182: humans used to play almost entirely zero-sum games with each other; we gained resources by taking them from other humans, and preferably killing them so they couldn’t get revenge. Now, thanks to agriculture, technology, and the concept of “trade”, we play mostly positive-sum games, where both sides of an interaction can benefit without anyone getting hurt. It’s easier today, in most places and for most people, to make new wealth than it is to steal old wealth.

See? In the hands of a lesser (or less ambitious) writer, that could have been a whole book. It probably is. Every point Pinker makes has that kind of conceptual weight, and also reinforces the points which came before. He is adept at tying science to history to philosophy to the human quirks we all see around us. He’s not a novelist, but that isn’t a problem; the writing in Better Angels is so much better than it had to be that I found myself grinning at a passage every few pages. When I grow up, I’d like to write like Steven Pinker.


(He’s funny, too; not only when exposing the best bits of historical folly or the side effects of psychology experiments, but when he talks through his own ideas.)

Pinker may not consider every possible objection to his views (though he devotes many pages to the most reasonable ideas of his opponents), but, as he concludes with a shrug, the numbers on the decline of violence and liberalization of society over the centuries are so convincing that the burden of proof now rests with the pessimists. It is a sad fact of human nature that our brains are biased toward negative thoughts and memories, which seems to predispose us to pessimism. Still, I don’t think any rational reader, whatever their worries about implicit bias in society or the perils of global warming, can finish Better Angels and not feel a little better about the future of humanity.

The bad: Hmm. I will say that some parts of the book are better than others. The psychology sections dragged just a bit, but that was mostly because I’m a pop-psych junkie who knows the marshmallow experiment very well by now. I probably made seven or eight notes along the lines of “this is kind of dubious”, but that happens with books that are a third this long, and all Pinker’s main points are sound. I rolled my eyes a little when he started to attack the sillier measures taken to ensure child “safety” and the protection of their “self-esteem”, but that only took up a page and a half, and contained some of the better first-person anecdotes.

The verdict: Better Angels is phenomenal. It will take you a long time to read it, but you will be a different person upon finishing. Do not just read summaries, or reviews. Every single page is worthwhile. You should buy a copy of this book. The pleasure of scribbling in the margins is well worth whatever a paperback will cost you; you’ll have a lot to scribble, and there are a lot of margins. (On that note, 700 pages is exactly long enough). I would compare it to Thinking, Fast and Slow and say something like “this is the life’s work of a genius”, but Pinker is not yet 60, and has written several other acclaimed and lengthy books on topics that have very little to do with the subject matter of Better Angels. I will probably have to read them now. Oh well.

The best things I learned: It is highly possible that more people die from society’s excessive morality than actions that societies consider immoral. Much of the most abhorrent violence of earlier centuries was committed largely because societies had nothing else with which to occupy their time (like the medieval custom of burning cats alive just to watch them squirm). The rise of the novel was in a way the second wave of the Enlightenment. Many people, up to and including the 20th century, who we think of as great human beings, and even moral champions, held views that we’d consider “evil” today.

These are all general points, and I don’t have room for even a few of the great historical/psychological anecdotes Pinker relates, but this one deserves its own (paraphrased) paragraph:

The Duke of Brunswick in Germany is shocked by accounts of witchcraft trials in the region and asks two famous Jesuit scholars to supervise them. They tell him the inquisitors have done their job, only arresting people accused by other witches. The Duke has them follow him to a torture chamber. A confessed witch has been laid on the rack. The Duke tells her the Jesuits are suspected warlocks. What might the witch know about this? “I have often seen them at the Sabbat!” screams the woman. “They can turn themselves into goats, wolves, and other animals. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.”

The Duke turns to the Jesuits. “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess, my friends?”

(Source: Daniel Mannix, Malleus Maleficarium )


Edit: I may have to do this after every book review now—whenever I really love a book, I look for the most intelligent low-star reviews on Amazon and examine why their authors felt that way.

This is the most interesting discussion of Pinker’s points–and the economic factors some critics think he overlooks–that I have so far found. Most of the one-star reviews are interesting, however. Some say Pinker didn’t spend enough time on animal welfare. Others, on the institution of sweatshops. Still others, on environmental damage.

And then the guy who asserts that hunger’s killing more people than “natural death” is a form of violence. But even he’s articulate, and his points worth thinking about. I love Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Winter Break Books: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker

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