I just finished reading the first four chapters of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. The temptation is strong to jump at the title with accusations of ridiculousness, but that exercise is foolish if you don’t read the book first. This book may be the most important I have read so far in my life, and I am not comparing to a bunch of Tom Clancy novels. The book is as intensely emotional as it is intellectual, despite the clinical precision of the analysis provided by Steven. The reason this book has been triggering my emotions so much is because the story he tells is about humanity as a whole and therefore also about me.
If you have never heard of Steven Pinker, you should know that he is as credible an expert as you can find. The same way that you should pay attention to Stephen Hawking, Lisa Randall or Brian Greene when they talk about physics, you should pay attention to Steven Pinker when he talks about social psychology. I am not making an argument from authority. What I am saying is that you cannot dismiss what these people have to say like you can dismiss Deepak Chopra on quantum mechanics or Jenny McCarthy on vaccines. The claims of real experts deserve attention and deliberation (although not immediate acceptance).
To be fair, I do have a bias here. I have a strong tendency to be optimistic about humanity. I am sitting at Heathrow airport at the moment of writing. I have been there many times before and each time, I reflect upon what this place represents with a deep sense of wonder. Here is a picture that will give you a hint as to why.
The Better Angels of Our Nature is a book about history. I think any history buff will relish in it, and they will often encounter a new perspective they haven’t considered before. Reading this book is also an intellectual exercise of critical thinking. Steven always present several alternative interpretations and explanations for historical trends about violence. He doesn’t rely on emphasis alone to convey his conclusions to the reader. The reader participates and analyzes the theories and how well they fit the historical data along with him. This is the best way to argue any controversial point.
But I am not going to argue anything here. (Besides that you should read this book!) I cannot make justice to the clarity of writing of Steven Pinker, nor to his arguments. If you are looking for a TL;DR version of his book, you won’t find it here. There can be no TL;DR explanation for something as complex as the history of violence. To encourage you, the book is extremely well-written anda pleasure to read. Your head will spin with ideas and you will be surprised frequently.
As a warning, the first 3 chapters may be difficult to stomach by parts. There are quite a few graphic descriptions of methods of torture and execution of the past. The simple fact that most of us find these things disgusting and degrading now calls out for an explanation.
What may be more controversial is that violence has declined in the way it is conducted but also in quantity. This is what chapter 5 of the book is about. I know quite a few people who are going to pick a bone with this claim. I personally don’t need that much convincing as I briefly explained above. Still, at this point, I am still skeptical about this. However, I have yet to be exposed to the full force of the data and the book’s interpretation of it. So far, the book has delivered facts and an argumentation I am unable to refute, so I expect to be swept by the rest of the book as well.