‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker

Very good. Very long, but also very well written and readable (as usual with Pinker), entertaining, and again and again informing us about interesting and often surprising facts, ideas and theories. It took me about a year to read the whole book, a few pages every other evening, but I never considered abandoning the project.

Contrary to the widespread impression that we live in violent times, Pinker argues that on the whole, violence in all forms — whether in war or as parents ill-treating their children — has decreased tremendously over the course of human history. He bolsters this claim by adducing statistics (remarkably unboring) and illustrates it with vivid examples. He debunks the romantic notion that life was better in ‘the good old days’ when we lived closer to nature, with less technology and a simpler culture — and less inhibited by reason. And he describes the most promising hypotheses about what multifarious causes lie behind this trend. For example, one of the reasons people became less cruel to each other was, according to Pinker, the introduction and proliferation of novels, which made you see the world, and experience life, from the vantage point of another person, possibly quite foreign to you. Seems at least very plausible to me. You also get some insight into why the United States still has (I, for my part, would prefer treating ‘the United States’ as the plural it is — ‘the U.S. have‘ — but I acquiesce to my dictionary) no gun control worth mentioning. Also, this book is a defense of rationality, self-control and civilization. Those in need of such a defense will probably not be interested in reading the book, but it might make us others more content with civilization’s discontents.

If you’re interested in human nature, this book is a good choice (although Pinker’s The Blank Slate might be better still); if you’d like to understand some grand trends in history, ditto (another good tip would be Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

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