The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined is a work of great breadth and some depth. In it, the versatile Steven Pinker has two goals: First, to show that, over time, violence has declined and second, to explain why this has happened. He succeeds brilliantly in the first, and quite well in the second, as well.
To many, the goals of The Better Angels of our Nature may seem nonsensical. There is a widespread feeling that violence has increased over time. The 20th century, after all, saw World Wars I and II, encompassing the deaths of tens of millions. Pinker notes that the reaction of many to his proposal was incredulity. Yet, in the first part of this book Pinker shows that, indeed, violence has declined. Indeed, it has declined dramatically. He shows that this has happened on many time scales (from millions of years to decades) and many levels of violence, from major international wars to family violence. People today are less likely to die a violent death than people from any previous point in human history.
For example: Since 1945, no army has crossed the Rhine (the European river) in anger. That’s more than 60 years. The last time that this had not happened for such a long period was in 333 AD, when the Romans controlled things. A second example: For many centuries, not only was the death penalty widespread, but ingenuity was used to make the deaths as painful as possible. Nowadays, fewer and fewer countries use the death penalty, they use it less often, and they attempt to make the death as painless as possible. A third example: Until relatively recently it was considered normal and even admirable for the “man of the house” to use extreme violence against his wife and children. And, for one last example, the 20th century was by no means the first century to witness massive genocide; but it was the first century where genocide was considered remarkable.
Pinker expands on this theme, noting that the better angels of our nature also account for less violence towards other species (and points out that modern factory farms were matched in earlier times); increased rights for women and minorities and more.
In the second part of The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker attempts to explain why this is so. This part contains considerable detail at different levels, from neuroanatomy to philosophy. I find the former rather uninteresting, but Pinker is an expert.
The Better Angels of our Nature is a big book (696 pages plus notes and bibliography). In the final chapter “On Angel’s Wings” he gives a summary of why violence has declined. He first poses the “Pacifist’s Dilemma” which is similar to the famous prisoner’s dilemma: In a contest between two contestants, if both choose peace, each gets a small reward; if both choose war, each gets a large penalty. But if one chooses war and the other chooses peace, then the one who chooses peace gets an even bigger penalty (for defeat) and the one who chooses war gets an even bigger reward (for victory). In this contest, neither contestant has an impetus to choose peace.
But there are ways out of the dilemma. The first is government, which places an extra penalty on anyone engaging in violence. The second is commerce, which greatly increases the rewards of peace. The third is feminization, or the increasing presence and power of women, which removes some of the penalty of defeat and some of the reward for victory. And two additional ways out of the dilemma are the expanding circle of humanity (recognizing the rights of others) and the escalator of reason (the valuing of reason and intelligence over other qualities).
I think The Better Angels of our Nature is a great and important book; everyone interested in human nature should read it. No book is without flaws, of course. It is true that Pinker spends more time discussing “Western” history than that of the rest of the world. It is true that he picks facts which make his case. But these two flaws are smaller than they might appear. First, while Steven Pinker does spend considerable time studying the west, he also does bring in wars from all over the world. Second, every author picks certain facts – no book can include everything! But the story Pinker tells is convincing. Violence has declined.