A review of Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’ve written an in-depth review of Steven Pinker’s new book on the decline of violence for the latest Wilson Quarterly

I thought getting a free copy and working on a review would be great fun but was rather taken aback when the 848 page book landed on my doorstep. I shouldn’t have been because there isn’t a wasted page.

I go into the details of some of Pinker’s key arguments in the book, which you can read in more detail in the review, but as you can see from this part, the book is definitely worth reading.

Despite my concerns about how Pinker portrays individual psychology and neuroscience, The Better Angels of Our Nature is so comprehensive that these faults represent only a fraction of the book. Taken as a whole, it is powerful, mind changing, and important. Pinker does not shy away from the gritty detail and is not to be taken lightly—quite literally in fact, as at more than 800 pages his book could easily be used as a weapon if you remained unpersuaded by its arguments. But this avalanche of information serves to demonstrate convincingly and counterintuitively that violence is on the decline.

In many ways, violence is a disease of the emotions. While we should never ignore the victims, it can be managed and curbed so it affects as few people as possible and remains minimally contagious. Many illnesses that once felled multitudes are now largely vanquished through greater knowledge and simple preventive measures; a similar process has made us all less likely to be targets, and perpetrators, of brutality. As Pinker argues, this is an achievement we should take pride in.

You can read the full text of the review by clicking on the link below. Thanks to The Wilson Quarterly for making it available online.
 

Link to review of Pinker’s new book in The Wilson Quarterly.

7 Comments

  1. Posted October 18, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Interesting… I wasn’t going to bother with it, but I may very well give it a read now.

  2. Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    how difficult would this book be for the lay reader?

  3. Posted October 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    how difficult is this for the lay reader to absorb? the topic is fascinating, but the length of the book worries me only because i’ve no background in statistics, etc. which i hear this book is heavily laced with.

  4. Emmy
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Nicely written review. I’m much more interested in the book now. I’m wondering several things: is it possible that the decline in violence among the well educated has more to do with having a well-paying job and secure life rather than an enlightened mind?

    I heard a scientist (sorry, can’t remember her qualifications) mention that people are in prison for 3 reasons: they are either sociopaths, psychopaths or if they are normal, their imprisonment is for a lack of feeling “useful” to society. So are there fewer people commiting crimes? I hear that high school students these days are less violent but more narcissistic; thus is it possible that stealing and cheating have replaced aggression?

  5. Neil
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    Interesting discussion here:

    http://crookedtimber.org/2011/10/16/violence-down-claims-pinker-the-thinker/

    I hated Blank Slate. I doubt my blood pressure can survive reading Pinker again. Certainly he has a habit of simply pretending that data that doesn’t fit simply doesn’t exist.

  6. Tim
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Steven Pinker gave a presentation for the Edge
    Symposium on this book. For those who want an additional synopsis:

    http://edge.org/conversation/mc2011-history-violence-pinker

  7. m
    Posted October 27, 2011 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    I think Pinker is full of it. Although there may be a decrease in violence, it’s only because of laws.

    People/Govt are watching(surveillance/cameras) a lot closer to what’s going on,not to mention public scorn.

    And the internet, –well, that’s the all seeing camera isn’t it.


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