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The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity - Steven Pinker VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED, AND I WILL KICK THE LIVING SHIT OUT OF ANYONE WHO SAYS IT HASN'T

Disappointingly, Pinker strikes a slightly less confrontational tone than that, but the basic idea is the same. His thesis is that violence of every kind, from international warfare down to murder and corporal punishment, has been on a steady decline throughout human history, up to and including the present day – and not only does he make this case in considerable detail, but he goes on to give a very wide-ranging discussion of possible political and psychological causes for what's happened. This book is big, and it needs to be: it's built around a vast accumulation of raw evidence. Historical, statistical, sociological, neurobiological, and anecdotal – and I'm slightly confused by some of the negative reviews here, because although you might not like all of his conclusions, it's not easy to argue with the facts when they're laid out in this much detail.

Not convinced? Wondering if village life in the 30s can really have been as bad as dodging rapists in today's inner cities? Well, prepare for approximately 8,266 graphs and charts proving you wrong in every direction. Leafing through them is at first daunting, then fascinating, then astonishing, and eventually wearying. But they keep coming!


The decline in some forms of violence is so dramatic that the figures have had to be plotted on a logarithmic scale, so vertiginous is their descent. Hitting kids – gone from normal to unacceptable in barely a generation. Murder rates? Dropping like a knackered lift. Paedophiles and child abduction? Statistically speaking, if you wanted your child to have a better-than-average chance of being abducted and held overnight by a stranger, ‘you'd have to leave it outside unattended for 750,000 years’. Terrorism, surely? Nope; in fact ‘the number of deaths from terrorist attacks is so small that even minor measures to avoid them can increase the risk of dying’ – one study suggests that 1,500 more Americans died in the year after 9/11 because they started driving rather than flying.

Okay then, what about WAR. ‘As of May 15, 1984, the major powers of the world had remained at peace with one another for the longest stretch of time since the Roman Empire.’ This is important, because inter-state warfare is much, much more deadly than the small-'n'-nasty invasions and civil wars that are more common today. And even they are becoming less frequent and less individually deadly.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a happy-clappy book about mindless optimism, and he is assiduous in stressing that the situation could easily change.

The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them.

Pinker takes a good, long look at several possibilities, and (to my mind at least) identifies three major factors behind the decline. The first is the growth of democracy, which strongly correlates with lower rates of violence across the board, and we get the figures to prove it. The second is the revolution in communications, firstly during the Enlightenment, and then more recently with the birth of the mass media age. Again, huge numbers of studies are adduced to make the point.

The third factor is what he calls ‘feminization’: women are just less violent than men, and the more involved they are in a society the more peaceful it is. ‘We are all feminists now,’ he concludes, after a typically detailed examination of changing attitudes to, and rights of, women through history. (He is talking about the West here, but even elsewhere the trend is unmistakeable.) Studies suggest that this is not just a consequence of changing attitudes, but a cause of them, particularly given that ‘the one great universal in the study of violence is that most of it is committed by fifteen-to-thirty-year-old men.’ Pinker hones in on the obvious implications:

Would the world be more peaceful if women were in charge? The question is just as interesting if the tense and mood are changed. Has the world become more peaceful because more women are in charge? And will the world become more peaceful when women are even more in charge? The answer to all three, I think, is a qualified yes.

When he's finished considering social movements and political changes, he pokes inside your brain. We have pages and pages of various neuro-sociological experiments where people were strapped to an MRI machine and told to slap a puffin in the face, or something, so that various lobes and cortexes could be identified and examined. The question is whether there are anatomical, or evolutionary-psychological, causes for violence, and if so how easily they can be overcome. We get a lot of impressive-looking diagrams like this (I may have remembered some of the details wrong):


Pinker is very interesting on the Flynn Effect, which, if you're not aware of it, is the upward trend in general intelligence observed around the world in standardised testing since such things began. Many people that have written on this subject are skeptical that folk nowadays can really be smarter than anatomically-identical humans of a few generations ago, despite what the tests say – but Pinker, after a careful examination of how thought processes are influenced by changing social norms, is not afraid to draw his conclusions, at least in the ethical sphere:

The other half of the sanity check is to ask whether our recent ancestors can really be considered morally retarded. The answer, I am prepared to argue, is yes. Though they were surely decent people with perfectly functioning brains, the collective moral sophistication of the culture in which they lived was as primitive by modern standards as their mineral spas and patent medicines are by the medical standards of today. Many of their beliefs can be considered not just monstrous but, in a very real sense, stupid.

Obviously we are into speculative territory here, but I actually found it very heartening and thought-provoking to see someone prepared to follow the evidence that far.

How's it written? His style is exact without being dense, although he is not averse to the odd cliché (‘capital punishment itself was on death row’), and from time to time his desire to cloak the science in colourful imagery leads him into some awkward prose:

The age distribution of a population changes slowly, as each demographic pig makes its way through the population python.

Yikes. Also…and this may sound like a weird thing to pick up on, but once I noticed it I couldn't take my eyes off it…he is absolutely obsessed with telling the reader to ‘recall’ things he's already said.

Recall the mathematical law that a variable will fall into a power-law distribution…
Recall from chapter 3 that the number of political units in Europe shrank…
Recall that there were two counter-Enlightenments…
Recall that the statistics of deadly quarrels show no signature of war-weariness.
…and recall that duelling was eventually laughed into extinction.
Recall that the chance that two people in a room of fifty-seven will share a birthday is ninety-nine out of a hundred.
England and the United States, recall, had prepared the ground for their democracies…
Recall that for half a millennium the wealthy countries of Europe were constantly at each other's throats.
Cronin, recall, showed that terrorist organizations drop like flies over time…
And recall the global Gallup survey that showed…
Recall that narcissism can trigger violence…
Recall that the insula lights up when people feel they have been shortchanged…
Patients with orbital damage, recall, are impulsive…
Recall from chapter 3 the theory of crime…

Just how much stuff are you expecting me to remember, Pinker?! And surely someone who wrote three books on language has a fucking thesaurus handy?

There are a couple of minor errors, too, that an editor should have caught. The Polish city of Wrocław is printed in my edition as ‘Wroctaw’; and he also refers to some statistics gathered in the ‘town of Kent’ (there are dozens of towns in Kent, which in the dataset concerned is a county).

However, and despite my sometimes flippant tone in this review, the truth is that I thought this was a magnificent book – convincingly argued and truly multidisciplinary, so that I felt like I was getting a synthesis of the important studies carried out in half a dozen different fields. It's a big, serious argument that deserves proper consideration, and one that'll give you some ammo to argue back next time you're feeling cynical about the relentless news headlines. I think it's a clear 4.5 – and since Goodreads won't let me do that, I'm inclined to bump it up rather than down.

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