Sunday, 22 January 2012

One more book for the wish list

The better angels of our nature

We’ve all had the experience of reading about a bloody war or shocking crime and asking, “What is the world coming to?” But we seldom ask, “How bad was the world in the past?”

In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.

How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment? The key to explaining the decline of violence, Pinker argues, is to understand the inner demons that incline us toward violence (such as revenge, sadism, and tribalism) and the better angels that steer us away. Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.

With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.

Found this at Samizdata.


spot_the_dog said...

I saw you mention this book over at Catallaxy & have just downloaded the preview. Thanks for the heads-up, definitely looks like it's worth reading.

kc said...

I've been telling people for years that it's better now than it ever was...but now I'll have some back-up, if I can lay my hands on that book. Thank you!

Bob Campbell said...

Similar to the Pinker book is - War before Civilisation by Lawrence H Keeley 1996. It is far more pointed at the myth of the noble savage living in peace and in harmony with nature until you-know-who came along.
It's an incredible read of how political correctness has tried to rewrite known history.
In 'native' societies most males would now be considered serial killers.
He rocords how a Greenland Eskimo tribe were peacable because they thought that they were the only people on earth and were astonished when Europeans turned up.
Even Australian Aborigines get a mention for their continuing conflict with nearby tribes.

(In keeping with this site this has not been proof read.)

kc said...

Thanks, Bob, I've put that one on my list, too!