The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Steven Pinker


Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.

       from  The Better Angels of Our Nature


At half time: Angels 2, Demons 1

My favorite New Yorker cartoon shows a beach patrol officer speaking to a man, reading a thick novel: “I’m sorry, sir, but Dostoevsky is not considered beach reading. I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me.”

If summer is the time for big mindless potboilers, then perhaps winter should be the season to sink our intellectual teeth in some work that broadens, deepens and elevates the mind. For those who enjoy history and ideas, I recommend Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, which asserts that, contrary to what the media would have us believe, “we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”

Pinker, a Harvard professor of psychology and bestselling author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works, counters the expected skepticism by taking us on a survey of violence in human history.

He provides more than 100 tables and graphs of research (easily skim-able) from a variety of academic disciplines and cites numerous examples from past eras to show just how far we have come: public executions were once a popular form of entertainment for the masses; since 1850, all civilized societies have outlawed the use of “judicial torture” (extracting confessions through torture)—except, of course, the Bush II Administration; the concept of “war crimes” would have appeared ludicrous even a century ago.

To this rather grim survey of humanity’s ongoing struggle between its inner demons and what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” Pinker brings the informal style and wry humor that have made him one of the most popular science writers today. On Medieval hygiene: “The people of the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross.”

He not only wants to show that violence has declined, but examines the “civilizing process” that has contributed to that decline—the rise of states and central governments, the growth of commerce, literacy, reason, and “feminization” (“Since violence is largely a male pastime, cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence…”).

Scientific and technological advances have both contributed to the decline in violence as well as made us more efficient in killing each other. The mass slaughter by the Mongol Hordes (estimated at 40 million lives) stretched over a century, while World War II killed 55 million people in a mere six years.

We are left with the sobering conclusion that, while violence is declining, we are getting so much better at it.

 This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.