The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker (2011)

Genre: Nonfiction
Interest Level: Adult
Better Angels of Our NatureSteven Pinker is a Harvard professor of psychology, and the author of several popular science books, such as How the Mind Works, the Blank Slate, and The Language Instinct. This time, he’s tackling humans and violence, examining our history of violence, and the factors that have led to our current state of relative peace and goodwill, despite media reports and parental warnings to the contrary. (My parents watch some American show that alarms them to no end. They’ll never travel in the U.S. again, I think!) Pinker is also a Canadian – this means he includes Canadian history and statistics in his examination of violence, and occasionally mentions his own upbringing.
This book is not an easy read, in several respects, but worth the effort. Pinker doesn’t shy away from the gory details of violence in human history – from the pain of drawing and quartering to the massive numbers of those killed in human sacrifice. The 10,000-year-old skeleton of Kennewick Man, discovered in the banks of the Columbia River in our neighbour state of Washington, showed he’d been shot at some point by a stone arrowhead. Though it showed signs of healing and wasn’t the cause of his death, the discovery is a grim reminder–and only the first in a series of evidence Pinker uses–that humans have engaged in killing each other for millenia. Fun reading, no? In fact, Pinker never really lets up. It’s fascinating reading as Pinker is a skilled writer and uses stories and stats to make his point that violence used to be a much bigger threat to us than it is today. But it’s still hard going at times. Pinker argues that it is strong, benevolent, democratic government, an increasing civilisation and literacy, an embracing of human rights, and a shift in human values that have driven this change in our history. Over time, we’ve collectively imposed laws, accepted our responsibility for the health of others, developed trade ties that give us access to others’ resources, strengthened our individual self-control, and ultimately reasoned that violence is generally not worth the cost/penalty. Will this continue? As Pinker notes, he can’t predict the future any more than I can, but the evidence so far suggests this is a downward trend (read it to find out how he explains the 1960s and 1970s when violence spiked worldwide). At times distasteful, the book is nonetheless riveting and will influence its readers for years. I’ve already vowed to control my temper just a little better …
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