The Better Angels of Our Nature
Author: Steven Pinker
Review by Stephen Lewis
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker has produced a well-researched and erudite book on an important subject: the decline of violence and its causes.
Pinker’s historical argument is that pre-state societies were not blissful, peaceful places, but were full of feuding, raiding and homicide. Once agriculture and towns arose, religious and secular “big men” took power. This led to a decline in homicide – the price being repression and exploitation.
Starting in the seventeenth century with the spread of literacy and writing, the humanitarian revolution expanded the circle of human empathy and contributed to the abolition of torture and slavery. Inexplicably skipping two centuries, Pinker goes to great length to show that in the supposedly very violent twentieth century, relative to population levels, we were less likely to be murdered or die in an organised war than in former times. Only since 1945 have we entered a relative golden age of much less violence – “the long peace” as he calls it.
The fact that for a few lucky people in a few places in the world the chance of being murdered has diminished, is indeed positive news. But by concentrating on one-on-one homicides Pinker ignores the many other forms of violence that have always existed and still exist today. The most glaring omission is the violence that ‘civilized’ nation-states or their powerful elites invariably inflict on their own citizens and on peoples of other countries. If Pinker were to turn his attention to a close examination of who is really doing violence to whom and why, that would be even more revealing.