Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In some ways this might be one of the most important books about Humanism and Enlightenment values ever written, because it charts, scientifically and even mathematically, the trends that contribute to a quantifiably more peaceful world. Fearmongers would have us believe that the world is a worse place than it once was, but the truth is that the past, which featured slavery, genocides and torture beyond all reckoning, was much much worse. Even if we look at the terrors of modern American industrial military torture complexes, at least we have an active (though by no means sufficient) counter current calling the government out on its crimes. Such a thing would be almost unimaginable during the time of the Inquisition.

The book is exhaustive, in the sense that it is long and exhausting. It took me days to read, and I'm a pretty fast reader. Pinker is nothing if not thorough, providing fodder that most authors might spread over six books.

The book is at times almost Evangelical in tone, as in "Have you heard the good news? The world is a whole lot better than you think it is, and trends show it getting better all the time!"

The fact that the pacification of our worst excesses isn't obvious to us is possibly a good thing: it means that we still know that we have a lot more to accomplish towards making the world a better place. Identifying those trends that allow for pacification can give us insights as to how the levers of the world can be manipulated to accelerate the changes.Conversely, those who value the status quo might find themselves now able to put the brakes on the system.

Pinker is quick to point out that these trends don't guarantee future peace and stability, or that there won't be more devastating terrorist attacks, wars, genocides or other atrocities. The trends point towards peace, for now.

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