The Better Angels of Our Nature

  • by Steven Pinker
  • Narrated by Arthur Morey
  • 36 hrs and 43 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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 best-selling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. In fact, we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence.
Evidence of a bloody history has always been around us: the genocides in the Old Testament and crucifixions in the New; the gory mutilations in Shakespeare and Grimm; the British monarchs who beheaded their relatives and the American founders who dueled with their rivals; the nonchalant treatment in popular culture of wife-beating, child abuse, and the extermination of native peoples. Now the decline in these brutal practices can be quantified.
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 in 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 numbers 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? Was it reading novels, cultivating table manners, fearing the police, or turning their energies to making money? Should the nuclear bomb get the Nobel Peace Prize for preventing World War III? Does rock and roll deserve the blame for the doubling of violence in the 1960s - and abortion deserve credit for the reversal in the 1990s?
Not exactly, Pinker argues. The key to explaining the decline of violence 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 best sellers 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.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

A Magnum Opus in every sense!

For such a long book, it never gets boring. I was fascinated from start to finish. Pinker has certainly done his research, and the book is packed with references to current research. His analysis of human violence is comprehensive, covering history, philosophy, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, social theory, religious beliefs, child rearing practices, theories on the origins of war, demographic correlates of violence and much more on the demons and angels of our nature.

Contrary to what we might think, he argues convincingly that we are getting more humane. No more do we burn cats (or heretics) alive for entertainment. No more do we torture people to death, or subject children to cruel and unusual punishments and even though our weapons of war are deadlier than ever, every life lost - even our enemies, becomes a source of regret.

The book holds several surprises: that literature may be a cause of our greater tolerance of others, that empathy has a dark side in favouritism, that "mirror neurones" do not necessarily make us more humane, that the Flynn effect (increasing IQ) may also be contributing to our capacity for compassion, that the era of "Flower Power" bucked the downward trend with a sharp increase in crime and violence.

We will never be without violence, but for anyone who despairs at the modern world, there is much hope to be found here. It would seem that the angels of empathy, reason, self-control, prudence, fairness, ethical norms, and human rights are slowly winning out against the demons of instrumental violence, sadism, revenge, rage and ideology.

This is such a great book!

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- Jeremy

Reasons to be happy

Such a wonderful, positive, book. History is not just one damn thing after another; with SP as your guide you can see it as a systematic journey from us being animals to us being (more or less) civilised. Pinker is such an academic that he never gets round to throwing his hat in the air and crowing about how great it is that there are actually reasons to be optimistic and to hope (against the pounding of the 24/7 TV news) that human moral thinking is developing alongside our visible technologies. Still, he does admit that it is p o s s i b l e we are not going to hell in a hand basket, as I previously thought. Bravo Steven!
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- Judy Corstjens

Book Details

  • Release Date: 04-10-2011
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio