Friday, March 23, 2012

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined

This is an outstanding book, so much so that I’ll probably buy a copy as soon as the paperback version comes out. Since I am a Certified Public Cheapskate, and already having trouble finding bookshelf space, this is high praise! I cannot remember ever buying a book after reading a library copy, except when our book discussion group later decided to use it.

Pinker correctly says that this analysis is “unsentimental history” based on “statistical literacy.”

A great strength of this work is Pinker’s extensive and persuasive documentation of how violent and nasty life in previous centuries was. The massive torture of people and animals in the past, which Pinker does not shrink from describing in gory detail, is sobering and depressing, but very educational.

Pinker admits that we are far from having arrived at utopia. But a number of graphs illustrate how the chances of being murdered or raped over the long haul have been greatly reduced from one century to another, and even the likelihood (expressed as a percentage of the current populations) of being killed in wars has gone way down.

The author capably explores a number of possible explanations for the improvements, accepting some and rejecting others.

Although Pinker’s thesis is very upbeat, he pointedly refrains from arguing that the trends toward improvement he documents will inevitably continue. He says our appropriate attitude should be “gratitude” rather than “optimism.”

This book would make a wonderful basis for reading and discussion in college political science classes, and its 700 pages (before footnotes kick in) would probably mean it would have to be the main text for a one-semester undergraduate class.

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