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Without question of the best audiobooks I've listened to, out of over 100 so far. An exploration of the decline in violence through human history, taking pains to make a coherent, substantive and well supported case for every assertion it makes. Detailed and technical without being dull, this book makes one of the best cases I can imagine for the general advancement of the species and the triumph of modernity. Exceptional.
70 of 72 people found this review helpful
I have read this rather long book twice now. I think I'll read it again soon. I hope you will, too (and I hope you = everyone).
The idea that we are living in the most peaceful, least murderous time in the history of the planet is an oddly uncomfortable one for many. First, it just doesn't feel that way. We hear about and see on TV and the internet a seemingly endless stream of stories about mass killings, senseless acts of cruelty, war and even genocide. Also, if we say now is better than ever, then maybe people will stop working to make the world yet less violent.
And for those of us in our middle years, we can readily look back and say that, Yes, things were simpler then. We left our doors unlocked. Kids played outside, etc.
The thing is, it doesn't really take all that much more thinking to notice that not that long ago even in this country women and African Americans were not allowed to vote. Not long ago, we had segregation, lynchings, race riots, assassinations of our leaders, a long a protracted war in Southeast Asia, which followed not long after a protracted (Undeclared) war in Korea, which came very shortly after the nuclear bombing of Japan, which essentially ended the worst global war ever, which some historians consider to have been simply part two of the other worst global war ever. And as one goes back in time, the wars, genocides, ethnic cleansings, etc., keep piling on.
The massive tyrants responsible for the annihilation of tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people in the beginning and middle of the 20th century are long gone. There hasn't been conflict among the world's super powers since the bombs fell on Japan.
On a scale much closer to home, Pinker talks at length about the change in the moral zeitgeist such that treating wives and children as property is outlaw throughout a much greater part of the globe today than just 30 years ago. Spanking children could land you in jail. Spanking your dog can now land you in jail in some places! Foods and cosmetics are often "cruelty" free, where the idea was unheard of not long ago.
Pinker does a brilliant and thorough (800+ pages worth) job of laying out all the statistics to support his case that violence has actually declined. More importantly, he adduces a long list of forces that have contributed to that decline. It's a big book, and it's not possible to summarize it in a few paragraphs. However, it might suffice to say that the forces Pinker adduces are pretty well supported in their various academic disciplines (anthropology, sociology, psychology).
Among the most interesting forces thought to be at work civilizing the world is commerce. This is one that ruffles some feathers a bit, but the argument is essentially this. When you look at the data, what appears to be the case is that countries that trade with each other don't tend to kill each other. Pinker uses a line from writer Robert Wright, who said (paraphrasing), "The reason I don't want to kill the Japanese is that they make my minivan." The line is intended to be ironic, of course, but the point stands. When our economic lives are intertwined, we find ways to resolve disputes peaceably. How likely is it that France and Spain would go to war today over disputed territory in the Alps? Moreover, by this stage in world history, we (powerful countries) have figured out that overtaking and subjugating nations by force is more expensive than trading with them and imposing economic and policy-based restrictions. One may object to neo-liberalism, but it can hardly be more objectionable than its predecessor strategy, conquest and empire. This part of the book and argument is long and involved and fascinating.
Another strong force in the civilizing of the globe involves media and its globalizing effects. Again, we may not like what we see in our media outlets every day, but the fact that people nearly everywhere know a lot about people nearly everywhere else on earth helps reduce violence. The reason it does is that the more we know about other people, the more we can put ourselves in their shoes, the less likely we are to kill them. We can relate a little more. We don't de-humanize them as much. This isn't to say that racism, culturism, etc, has or ever will go away. We are a tribal species. But, data show that as people in general are more and more able to reason abstractly about the world, and to think about what it is like to be someone other than who they are, the less violent they are. This type of reasoning leads to more understanding and less killing. There are plenty of exceptions to this, and this isn't to say that neighboring countries or ethnic groups within countries don't still kill each other. They certainly do (but moreso when infused with lots of religious fervor). But, in general, the trend is away from killing.
A final point. PInker cites a good deal of data and some theorizing to suggest that even the 21st century terrorism plague is already fading away. The reason: it doesn't work. In the big picture, terrorists never succeed in accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish via their terrorism. Ireland is not united. Basque country is not independent. Israel is still Israel.
To continue to make things better, it is critical that we know what has worked in the past. Many strategies and natural trends have contributed to making the world a safer place today. The Better Angels lays out in detail what has been working. It is well worth knowing what they are. It is also helpful to feel just a bit better about who we are as a species today.
59 of 61 people found this review helpful
For such a long book, it never gets boring. I was fascinated from start to finish. Pinker has certainly done his research, and the book is packed with references to current research. His analysis of human violence is comprehensive, covering history, philosophy, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, social theory, religious beliefs, child rearing practices, theories on the origins of war, demographic correlates of violence and much more on the demons and angels of our nature.
Contrary to what we might think, he argues convincingly that we are getting more humane. No more do we burn cats (or heretics) alive for entertainment. No more do we torture people to death, or subject children to cruel and unusual punishments and even though our weapons of war are deadlier than ever, every life lost - even our enemies, becomes a source of regret.
The book holds several surprises: that literature may be a cause of our greater tolerance of others, that empathy has a dark side in favouritism, that "mirror neurones" do not necessarily make us more humane, that the Flynn effect (increasing IQ) may also be contributing to our capacity for compassion, that the era of "Flower Power" bucked the downward trend with a sharp increase in crime and violence.
We will never be without violence, but for anyone who despairs at the modern world, there is much hope to be found here. It would seem that the angels of empathy, reason, self-control, prudence, fairness, ethical norms, and human rights are slowly winning out against the demons of instrumental violence, sadism, revenge, rage and ideology.
This is such a great book!
18 of 18 people found this review helpful
Such a wonderful, positive, book. History is not just one damn thing after another; with SP as your guide you can see it as a systematic journey from us being animals to us being (more or less) civilised. Pinker is such an academic that he never gets round to throwing his hat in the air and crowing about how great it is that there are actually reasons to be optimistic and to hope (against the pounding of the 24/7 TV news) that human moral thinking is developing alongside our visible technologies. Still, he does admit that it is p o s s i b l e we are not going to hell in a hand basket, as I previously thought. Bravo Steven!
16 of 16 people found this review helpful
Vast, enlightening and beautifully read.
This book has actually changed the way I see the world, and appreciate the age in which we live. Maybe humanity is going on the right direction after all.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
it should have been thaught in any high school and university all around the world