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Why Violence Has Declined

A-The Better Angels of Our NatureHarvard University professor Steven Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and cognitive scientist whose previous works include The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (1994) and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002). Recently reviewed: The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2008).

The Topic: We currently live in the longest period of peace between great powers since Roman times, and, when adjusted for population, in the safest era in all of human history. Drawing on recent research in archaeology, history, psychology, sociology, and neurobiology, Pinker reports a staggering decline in cruelty and violence and credits this transformation to several developments in human civilization: the emergence of government and the rule of law; commerce; the triumph of reason over blind faith and superstition; the growing power of women; and the spread of literacy, which stimulates empathy by introducing readers to differing points of view. Humanity has made great strides in learning to control the baser impulses of its nature, argues Pinker, and there is every reason to think the trend can continue.
Viking. 832 pages. $40. ISBN: 9780670022953

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Better Angels of Our Nature is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline." Peter Singer

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Pinker constructs an unassailable case that humanity's taste for cruelty has waned. ... But the book's main thesis, which Pinker calls ‘the most important thing that has ever happened in human history,' is not about the diminishment in human cruelty but about the decline of violence. His argument about violence, while convincing, is not as ironclad." Phillip Manning

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Pinker's casual remarks on matters that he has not studied are no reason not to study The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a masterly effort to explain what Mr. Pinker regards as one of the biggest changes in human history: We kill one another less frequently than before." James Q. Wilson

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"World War II is the most lethal single event in human history, killing 55 million people over six years. Rather than flatly admit that this poses an obstacle to his theory, Pinker engages in creative accounting. ... In the end, The Better Nature of Our Angels should be greeted as an opportunity for further evaluation of our distressed but perfectible humanity." Michael Washburn

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"Where Pinker goes wrong – sometimes deeply wrong – is in some of his other explanations of these phenomena. He is far too optimistic about the irreversibility of progress that has been made." Jordan Michael Smith

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Better Angels is fascinating but also deeply flawed. Pinker deserves congratulation for trying to explain why violence has declined. ... Confidence is Pinker's biggest impediment; it leads him to impressionistic judgments unsupported by facts." Gerard DeGroot

Critical Summary

Although critics considered Better Angels a wide-ranging and fascinating look at the way human psychology has been shaped by civilization, they listed numerous complaints and pet peeves, including some sweeping generalizations and "dodgy analysis" (Washington Post), a cavalier attitude towards violence and its victims, a liberal bias, and a system of measuring the impact of wars and other events by adjusting statistics to current population sizes. However, the Boston Globe conceded that these were "questions of taste and methodology rather than blanket refutations of this challenging, ambitious book." Pinker levies his data with humor to make it more palatable to lay readers, and his lucid, fluent prose renders difficult concepts understandable. n