Sunday, March 4, 2018

Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker (2012) Audiobook

Not many nonfiction books have the potential to fundamentally change a reader’s perspective on a significant issue, but Steven Pinker’s Better Angels is on the shortlist.  In this ambitious work, Pinker uses historical and scientific data from numerous disciplines to demonstrate, conclusively, that human violence of every kind—from domestic abuse, to violent crime such as murder, to wars both large and small, to violence perpetrated by governments against their people, to even terrorism—has declined by orders of magnitude over the course of human history.

Knowing that this thesis drastically contradicts widely-held popular beliefs, Pinker musters statistic after statistic, chart after chart, and historical account after historical account to prove it right.  He refutes the widespread impression that the 20th century was the bloodiest in history by first reminding us how violent previous eras were.  He describes (sometimes in lurid detail) the kinds of tortures inflicted on petty criminals by their legal systems in the Middle Ages; the raids and slaughters carried out by hunter-gatherer tribes against neighboring tribes (he thoroughly lays to rest the “noble savage” stereotype in the process); the blood sports such as bear-baiting and cat-burning that were once considered high entertainment in many cultures; the frequency and acceptability of rape, child abuse, and infanticide around the world even through the Industrial Revolution; and the centuries of wars among great and small powers in Europe that preceded World War I.

After shattering the rose-colored glasses with which we usually view the past, Pinker discusses what he calls “the civilizing process,” the trends that led us to no longer consider practices such as torture and public execution ordinary, but rather horrifying and unthinkable.  He presents massive quantities of data to prove that every kind of violence has declined in every culture around the world, leaving the reader with little room to doubt his claim that human society is, at present, the most peaceable that it has ever been.

Finally, Pinker trains his scientific eye on the psychological and social processes that have accompanied this decline, including the evolutionary mechanisms behind revenge and sadism and the spread of empathy and self-control.  Despite the grimness of most of the book, the outlook is a positive one; Pinker has no need for optimism when the statistics are on his side.

This book is a major undertaking for both Pinker and the reader.  The paperback is about 600 pages; the audiobook, about 37 hours.  But it is also one of the most informative, densely-packed, and fascinating reads I have encountered in years.  Pinker’s characteristic style—educated but highly readable and geared toward a lay audience—shines in this piece.  I never became bored with it (though I did have to take a short break about halfway through, after having more than one vivid dream about being involved in a terrorist attack).  History buffs, political science junkies, sociology and psychology enthusiasts—and fans of having their unquestioned assumptions about reality destroyed—will love this book.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook, read beautifully by Arthur Morey.  (Those familiar with Pinker’s speaking voice will be grateful that the book is not read by the author.)  Morey is the epitome of professionalism and his reading is flawless.  And though the print versions include numerous graphs and charts to illustrate the many percentages and raw numbers that Pinker discusses, these figures are so well explained in the text that I had no trouble following the data without the visual aids.

This book is not for the faint-hearted—if you buy the audiobook, I don’t recommend listening around small children—but if you read it, you may find yourself left with a revolutionary perspective on and a new hopefulness about the future and fate of our species.

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