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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why…
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The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

by Steven Pinker

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Pinker, Steven (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking Press. 2011. ISBN 9781101544648. Pagine 832. 25,29 $

Di Steven Pinkert su questo blog abbiamo parlato più d’una volta, sia recensendo una sua opera precedente (The Stuff of Thought), sia accennando di sguincio a The Blank Slate nella recensione di The Moral Animal di Robert Wright, sia – di recente – parlando dell’influenza che Robert Trivers ha avuto su di lui (The Folly of Fools).

Pinker, oltre che un autore controverso, è un autore che ama le controversie e – dopo avere conseguito una meritata notorietà come studioso del linguaggio e delle sue origini – ha voluto affrontare nelle sue opere destinate al pubblico non specialistico temi che sembravano fatti apposta per provocare reazioni anche emotive, non solo dalla destra repubblicana (Pinker è canadese ma insegna a Harvard) e dai credenti di qualunque religione, ma anche nella sinistra legata a quello che nel 1992 John Tooby e Leda Cosmides hanno definito “Standard Social Science Model” (The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture).

Come già The Blank Slate, anche questo The Better Angels of Our Nature conta detrattori e sostenitori, affratellati soltanto dalla vis polemica con cui sostengono tesi contrapposte. Pinker, per la verità, spiega il perché del suo interesse per il tema della violenza nella storia e nelle società umane come uno sbocco naturale dei suoi interessi:

Many people have asked me how I became involved in the analysis of violence. It should not be a mystery: violence is a natural concern for anyone who studies human nature. I first learned of the decline of violence from Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s classic book in evolutionary psychology, Homicide, in which they examined the high rates of violent death in nonstate societies and the decline in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present. In several of my previous books I cited those downward trends, together with humane developments such as the abolition of slavery, despotism, and cruel punishments in the history of the West, in support of the idea that moral progress is compatible with a biological approach to the human mind and an acknowledgment of the dark side of human nature. [256: il riferimento è alla posizione sull'edizione Kindle]

Ma questo non spiega (mi pare) né la passione con cui l’autore affronta l’argomento (in un tour de force di oltre 800 pagine!) né la virulenza dei detrattori, che hanno accusato Pinker un po’ di tutto, e soprattutto di usare dati statistici di dubbia robustezza. Sospetto che le divisioni di campo siano da attribuire ad almeno due altre ragioni. La prima la individua lo stesso Pinker:

The question of whether the arithmetic sign of trends in violence is positive or negative also bears on our conception of human nature. Though theories of human nature rooted in biology are often associated with fatalism about violence, and the theory that the mind is a blank slate is associated with progress, in my view it is the other way around. [142: il corsivo è mio]

Sospetto che una seconda spiegazione sia più sgradevole per chi si professa di sinistra: la sinistra è storicamente e ideologicamente legata alla critica sociale, nel senso che fa leva sull’insoddisfazione sullo stato di cose presenti e sull’ipotesi che esse siano destinate a peggiorare (“o socialismo o barbarie”, per esprimersi con la Juniusbroschüre di Rosa Luxemburg), a meno di una vigorosa correzione di rotta apportata dal movimento di sinistra stesso. Questo, incidentalmente ma non troppo, mi sembra alla radice di un’altra frase-slogan molto citata – quella, attribuita ad Antonio Gramsci, su “pessimismo della ragione e ottimismo della volontà”. In realtà, anche se non sono né gramsciano né gramscista, a me risulta che abbia scritto, nella lettera dal carcere del 19 dicembre 1929:

Mi pare che in tali condizioni, prolungate per anni, con tali esperienze psicologiche, l’uomo dovrebbe aver raggiunto il grado massimo di serenità stoica, e aver acquistato una tale convinzione profonda che l’uomo ha in se stesso la sorgente delle proprie forze morali, che tutto dipende da lui, dalla sua energia, dalla sua volontà, dalla ferrea coerenza dei fini che si propone e dei mezzi che esplica per attuarli – da non disperare mai piú e non cadere piú in quegli stati d’animo volgari e banali che si chiamano pessimismo e ottimismo. Il mio stato d’animo sintetizza questi due sentimenti e li supera: sono pessimista con l’intelligenza, ma ottimista per la volontà. Penso, in ogni circostanza, alla ipotesi peggiore, per mettere in movimento tutte le riserve di volontà ed essere in grado di abbattere l’ostacolo. Non mi sono fatto mai illusioni e non ho avuto mai delusioni. Mi sono specialmente sempre armato di una pazienza illimitata, non passiva, inerte, ma animata di perseveranza. [i corsivi sono miei]

E purtroppo, qualche anno più tardi, a Gramsci l’ottimismo si era ormai esaurito:

Fino a qualche tempo fa io ero, per cosí dire, pessimista con l’intelligenza e ottimista con la volontà. Cioè, sebbene vedessi lucidamente tutte le condizioni sfavorevoli e fortemente sfavorevoli a ogni miglioramento nella mia situazione (tanto generale, per ciò che riguarda la mia posizione giuridica, come particolare, per ciò che riguarda la mia salute fisica immediata), tuttavia pensavo che con uno sforzo razionalmente condotto, condotto con pazienza e accortezza, senza trascurare nulla nell’organizzare i pochi elementi favorevoli e nel cercare di immunizzare i moltissimi elementi sfavorevoli, fosse stato possibile di ottenere un qualche risultato apprezzabile, di ottenere per lo meno di poter vivere fisicamente, di arrestare il terribile consumo di energie vitali che progressivamente mi sta prostrando. Oggi non penso piú cosí. Ciò non vuol dire che abbia deciso di arrendermi, per cosí dire. Ma significa che non vedo piú nessuna uscita concreta e non posso piú contare su nessuna riserva di forze da esplicare. [29 maggio 1933]

Insomma – scusate la lunga divagazione – ma sospetto che la sinistra abbia bisogno di poter dire che le cose vanno male e tendono al peggio (anche i doverosi riferimenti al “tanto peggio, tanto meglio” e alla “caduta tendenziale del saggio del profitto” meriterebbero lunghe digressioni, che però per il momento ci risparmiamo) per convincere cittadini ed elettori a sostenerla e, nei casi peggiori, per giustificare le proprie malefatte (“il fine giustifica i mezzi“).

Pinker si pone invece nella prospettiva che (recensendo Risk di Dan Gardner, il cui ultimo capitolo è intitolato There’s never been a better time to be alive) ho chiamato del neo-ottimismo quantitativamente fondato, il cui manifesto è The Rational Optimist di Matt Ridley. Rispetto a quest’ultimo, che è più liberista che liberal (Ridley si chiama in realtà Matthew White Ridley, 5th Viscount Ridley, figlio dell’omonimo 4th Viscount e di Lady Anne Katharine Gabrielle Lumley, nipote di un ministro conservatore, etoniano e oxfordiano, proprietario di un avito maniero in cui risiede, presidente della banca di famiglia Northern Rock fino al fallimento del 2007: insomma uno di quegli inglesi come non ne fanno più. Ha una rubrica fissa, Mind & Matter, sul Wall Street Journal. E rimasto famoso un intervento su Edge nel 2006 il cui titolo dice tutto: Government is the problem not the solution), Pinker è però su una linea più liberal (nel senso americano del termine), anche se – pur avendovi partecipato – considera la controcultura e i movimenti di protesta degli anni Sessanta un arretramento nel progresso storico verso una società meno violenta.

Nel complesso, è un libro da leggere e da raccomandare, sia perché le sue tesi, anche quando e qualora non le si condivida, sono uno stimolo importante alla riflessione liberata dai preconcetti che inevitabilmente abbiamo sull’argomento; sia perché le 800 pagine del libro sono talmente ricche di digressioni e di spunti intelligenti da meritare la lettura anche solo per incontrare idee e riflessioni inconsuete e territori poco battuti.

Per avere un’idea del libro e del suo autore vi presento qui sotto un suo intervento TED del 2007 (una lezione più recente ma molto più lunga a una master class di Edge la trovate qui).

***

Rinuncio a mettere le centinaia (letteralmente) di passi che mi sono annotato, per limitarmi a quelli che mi sembrano di interesse più generale. Il riferimento è come di consueto alle posizioni sul Kindle:

In the teeth of these preconceptions, I will have to persuade you with numbers, which I will glean from datasets and depict in graphs. In each case I’ll explain where the numbers came from and do my best to interpret the ways they fall into place. [161]

Honor is a bubble that can be inflated by some parts of human nature, such as the drive for prestige and the entrenchment of norms, and popped by others, such as a sense of humor. [782]

“Formerly we suffered from crimes; now we suffer from laws.” [1475: è una citazione di Tacito]

For as long as I have known how to eat with utensils, I have struggled with the rule of table manners that says that you may not guide food onto your fork with your knife. To be sure, I have the dexterity to capture chunks of food that have enough mass to stay put as I scoot my fork under them. But my feeble cerebellum is no match for finely diced cubes or slippery little spheres that ricochet and roll at the touch of the tines. I chase them around the plate, desperately seeking a ridge or a slope that will give me the needed purchase, hoping they will not reach escape velocity and come to rest on the tablecloth. On occasion I have seized the moment when my dining companion glances away and have placed my knife to block their getaway before she turns back to catch me in this faux pas. Anything to avoid the ignominy, the boorishness, the intolerable uncouthness of using a knife for some purpose other than cutting. Give me a lever long enough, said Archimedes, and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. But if he knew his table manners, he could not have moved some peas onto his fork with his knife! [1496]

Another historical change was that homicides in which one man kills another man who is unrelated to him declined far more rapidly than did the killing of children, parents, spouses, and siblings. This is a common pattern in homicide statistics, sometimes called Verkko’s Law: rates of male-on-male violence fluctuate more across different times and places than rates of domestic violence involving women or kin. [1572]

[…] we will look at a faculty of the mind that psychologists call self-control, delay of gratification, and shallow temporal discounting and that laypeople call counting to ten, holding your horses, biting your tongue, saving for a rainy day, and keeping your pecker in your pocket. We will also look at a faculty that psychologists call empathy, intuitive psychology, perspective-taking, and theory of mind and that lay people call getting into other people’s heads, seeing the world from their point of view, walking a mile in their moccasins, and feeling their pain. [1742]

A classic positive-sum game in economic life is the trading of surpluses. […] Of course, an exchange at a single moment in time only pays when there is a division of labor. […] A fundamental insight of modern economics is that the key to the creation of wealth is a division of labor, in which specialists learn to produce a commodity with increasing cost-effectiveness and have the means to exchange their specialized products efficiently. [1820-1823]

[…] with Homo sapiens a man’s position in the pecking order is secured by reputation, an investment with a lifelong payout that must be started early in adulthood. [2356]

[…] the fact that women show a lot of skin or that men curse in public is not a sign of cultural decay. On the contrary, it’s a sign that they live in a society that is so civilized that they don’t have to fear being harassed or assaulted in response. [2882]

«First, . . . set fire to their synagogues or schools and . . . bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them…. Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed…. Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them…. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…. Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews…. Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3[:19]). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting, and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. Let us emulate the common sense of other nations . . . [and] eject them forever from the country». [3150: la citazione è da Martin Lutero]

«Some say that because the crime consists only of words there is no cause for such severe punishment. But we muzzle dogs; shall we leave men free to open their mouths and say what they please? . . . God makes it plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heels all natural affections when his honour is at stake. The father should not spare his child, nor the husband his wife, nor the friend that friend who is dearer to him than life». [3163: questo, per par condicio, è Calvino]

Beccaria began from first principles, namely that the goal of a system of justice is to attain “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (a phrase later adopted by Jeremy Bentham as the motto of utilitarianism). [3293]

[…] democracies tend to avoid wars because the benefits of war go to a country’s leaders whereas the costs are paid by its citizens. [3670]

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. Not only are you taking in sights and sounds that you could not experience firsthand, but you have stepped inside that person’s mind and are temporarily sharing his or her attitudes and reactions. [3839]

Oppressive autocrats can remain in power even when their citizens despise them because of a conundrum that economists call the social dilemma or free-rider problem. In a dictatorship, the autocrat and his henchmen have a strong incentive to stay in power, but no individual citizen has an incentive to depose him, because the rebel would assume all the risks of the dictator’s reprisals while the benefits of democracy would flow diffusely to everyone in the country. [3940]

Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge—not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time. [3978]

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. [3999]

Morality […] is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.[ 4010-4011]

[…] narratives without statistics are blind, statistics without narratives are empty. [4215]

In the case of a war of attrition, one can imagine a leader who has a changing willingness to suffer a cost over time, increasing as the conflict proceeds and his resolve toughens. His motto would be: “We fight on so that our boys shall not have died in vain.” This mindset, known as loss aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, and throwing good money after bad, is patently irrational, but it is surprisingly pervasive in human decision-making. [4725]

One of the dangers of “self-determination” is that there is really no such thing as a “nation” in the sense of an ethnocultural group that coincides with a patch of real estate. [5170]

“The greatness of the idea of European integration on democratic foundations is its capacity to overcome the old Herderian idea of the nation state as the highest expression of national life.” [5534: l'ha scritto Vaclav Havel]

Though it’s tempting to think of this stereotyping as a kind of mental defect, categorization is indispensable to intelligence. Categories allow us to make inferences from a few observed qualities to a larger number of unobserved ones. [6891]

The capital necessary to prosper in middlemen occupations consists mainly of expertise rather than land or factories, so it is easily shared among kin and friends, and it is highly portable. [7038]

For all the rigor that a logistic regression offers, it is essentially a meat grinder that takes a set of variables as input and extrudes a probability as output. What it hides is the vastly skewed distribution […] [7312]

Still, you might ask, isn’t it the essence of science to make falsifiable predictions? Shouldn’t any claim to understanding the past be evaluated by its ability to extrapolate into the future? Oh, all right. I predict that the chance that a major episode of violence will break out in the next decade—a conflict with 100,000 deaths in a year, or a million deaths overall—is 9.7 percent. How did I come up with that number? Well, it’s small enough to capture the intuition “probably not,” but not so small that if such an event did occur I would be shown to be flat-out wrong. My point, of course, is that the concept of scientific prediction is meaningless when it comes to a single event—in this case, the eruption of mass violence in the next decade. [7726]

Junk statistics from advocacy groups are slung around and become common knowledge, such as the incredible factoid that one in four university students has been raped. [8552]

Since the point of erotica is to offer the consumer sexual experiences without having to compromise with the demands of the other sex, it is a window into each sex’s unalloyed desires. Pornography for men is visual, anatomical, impulsive, floridly promiscuous, and devoid of context and character. Erotica for women is far more likely to be verbal, psychological, reflective, serially monogamous, and rich in context and character. Men fantasize about copulating with bodies; women fantasize about making love to people. [8616] ( )
  Boris.Limpopo | Apr 29, 2019 |
I grabbed this book when I found out that Bill Gates mentioned that, for him, it was the most inspiring book he has ever read.

The book contradicts everything that we hear on TV or we read on the Internet. It is a rich, earnest source of information about the history of violence and an insightful and comprehensive analysis of factors which created the modern world.

On 600 pages (more than 200 pages of notes, references and the index excluded) you will read about the reduction of vicious interpersonal violence such as cutting off noses, the elimination of cruel practices like a human sacrifice... (if you like to read my full review please visit my blog https://leadersarereaders.blog/2018/09/19/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-why-vi...) ( )
  LeadersAreReaders | Feb 19, 2019 |
This is a fascinating book, and many people will be surprised by what Pinker has to say. We routinely tell ourselves that we live in a violent world, that for all the comforts of civilization wars are more common, more terrible, and more fatal to non-combatants. Anyone who follows the news can cite examples of terrible atrocities that are the basis of our certainty that the human race is demonstrating a destructiveness and depravity towards other human beings unknown in the simpler, gentler past when knights and armsmen fought other knights and armsmen, leaving the civilians largely undisturbed.

Stephen Pinker explains, with examples, details, and cites to original sources and current research, that we have it all wrong, and the past was a far more violent place than we typically imagine, or than we experience day to day in all but the most violent places on Earth now. And those "most violent places" aren't our modern cities in developed countries.

He examines the levels of violence and the rates of violent death in primitive human hunter-gatherer communities, mediaeval Europe, and modern hunter-gatherer societies. He mines information from physical anthropology, historical records, recorded causes of death, death rates and causes of death in modern hunter-gatherer communities, and the trend is both clear and quite different from what our reflexive biases often tell us. Hunter-gatherer cultures generally have startlingly, even shockingly, high rates of death by violence. This stems from raids and conflicts with neighboring groups, the need to have a reputation for being too strong to attack and/or likely to take revenge if attacked, and other conflicts that, in the absence of a functioning government, individuals have to prevent or resolve for themselves.

He traces the significantly lower but still high rates of violence in early agricultural settlements, as government begins to evolve but is still, itself, pretty violent, and then the evolution of things that start to resemble the modern state. We are introduced to Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and how their theories both described and influenced the growth of government, Hobbes' "Leviathan," and the concomitant increase in self-control and decrease in private violence. He describes in enough detail to make the point the behavior that resulted from the expectation that mediaeval armies would feed and pay themselves by "living off the land," i.e., raiding villagers, and damage the enemy's wealth by burning the fields and killing the villagers. Torture was also used routinely, openly--and often as a form of public entertainment.

Fewer mediaeval Europeans were likely to die by violence than hunter-gatherers, but it was still a shockingly violent time by modern standards.

Pinker marshals evidence from the fields of sociology and psychology as we move closer to our own time, as well as crime statistics, war records, causes of death, etc. He does not shirk examining the effects of the two World Wars in the past century, as well as civil wars, the Rwanda genocide, and other painful modern episodes.

He also looks at less obvious declines in violence, such as hookless fly fishing and the elimination of many kinds of "entertainment" that used to be taken for granted. The banning of dodgeball by some schools and summer camps, and speech codes at universities are discussed as ridiculous extremes that are nevertheless simple overshoots of what are generally beneficial trends.

Stephen Pinker has a track record of excellent books using psychology and sociology to examine major aspects of modern life in an interesting, informative, and enlightening way. He's done it again, and in this volume lays out a powerful case that the growth of effective government, the development of political forms that placed a premium on self-control, the growth of modern literature (and, eventually, movies, tv, and the internet), democracy, open societies, and international trade have all contributed to dramatically lowering rates of violence and creating a startlingly safe and peaceful world--for now. He makes no claim that we've changed human nature, or that the trends that have produced our current peacefulness could not be reversed.

This a compelling, enlightening, and highly readable book.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
I abandoned this book when it got way too deep into the statistical weeks for my comfort, but the author explores an interesting thesis. He posits that mankind and our cultures have become less violent rather than more violent. While media coverage focuses our attention on both individual incidents and on terrorist attacks, mass murder, and outright warfare and their resulting carnage, violence is less likely to directly touch our lives that at any time in the past.
This might seem counterintuitive, given that the first half of the 20th Century saw the two most destructive wars in human history. He suggests that this needs to be put in perspective by considering the world's continually growing perspective.
He provides hard data to support his thesis. More interestingly, he explores reasons for the gentling of our natures. Much of it traces back to the Great Enlightenment and our growing awareness that other individuals share the same emotions as we do.
Still, too much detail for me. ( )
  dickmanikowski | Mar 6, 2018 |
On the whole, I think this is a good book, but an incomplete one.

While I don't think, or feel, that violence has declined, he does have data on his side. However, it is easier to push a button, or sit in the comfort of a War room, than actually lead troops to battle!

He does cover aspects like domestic violence, rape, child killings, and this is good. As he also does the topic of genocide.

The analysis is, in general, good. However, I feel that the book is incomplete on account of a few things"

One: it is a Western book. The data covers Europe and the US. You cannot extrapolate to Latin America, Asia, Australia and Africa! This is a sad fact of the book,

Two: I don't think he explores causality. Some aver that the rise of Muslim terrorism, and Hindu fundamentalism is because of the actions of the British, in India, between 1858 and 1947, wherein they systematically tried to drive a wedge between the two communities. True? Some sort of analysis on causality would be good

Another example: the West has had a different growth trajectory, demographic situation, culture than the rest of the world. the forces that drive violence is different. He has not gone into this at all

A good book, but incomplete. ( )
  RajivC | Jan 30, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
But in its confidence and sweep, the vast timescale, its humane standpoint and its confident world-view, it is something more than a science book: it is an epic history by an optimist who can list his reasons to be cheerful and support them with persuasive instances.

I don't know if he's right, but I do think this book is a winner.
added by Widsith | editThe Guardian, Tim Radford (Nov 19, 2012)
 
The biggest problem with the book, though, is its overreliance on history, which, like the light on a caboose, shows us only where we are not going.
 
“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is a supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline.
 
While Pinker makes a great show of relying on evidence—the 700-odd pages of this bulky treatise are stuffed with impressive-looking graphs and statistics—his argument that violence is on the way out does not, in the end, rest on scientific investigation. He cites numerous reasons for the change, including increasing wealth and the spread of democracy. For him, none is as important as the adoption of a particular view of the world: “The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism.”
added by atbradley | editProspect, John Gray (Sep 21, 2011)
 
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What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos,

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We've all asked, "What is the world coming to?" But we seldom ask, "How bad was the world in the past?" In this startling new book, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the past was much worse. Evidence of a bloody history has always been around us: genocides in the Old Testament, gory mutilations in Shakespeare and Grimm, monarchs who beheaded their relatives, and American founders who dueled with their rivals. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were common features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? Pinker argues that thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence

Summary

We've all asked, "What is the world coming to?" But we seldom ask, "How bad was the world in the past?" Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the past was much worse. Evidence of a bloody history has always been around us: genocides in the Old Testament, gory mutilations in Shakespeare and Grimm, monarchs who beheaded their relatives, and American founders who dueled with their rivals. The murder rate in medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were common features of life for millennia, then were suddenly abolished. How could this have happened, if human nature has not changed? Pinker argues that thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence. From publisher description.

Contents:

A foreign country. Human prehistory ; Homeric Greece ; The Hebrew bible ; The Roman Empire and early Christendom ; Medieval knights ; Early modern Europe ; Honor in Europe and the early United States ; The 20th century -- The pacification process. The logic of violence ; Violence in human ancestors ; Kinds of human societies ; Rates of violence in state and nonstate societies ; Civilization and its discontents -- The civilizing process. The European homicide decline ; Explaining the European homicide decline ; Violence andclass ; Violence around the world ; Violence in these United States ; Decivilization in the 1960s ; Recivilization in the 1990s -- The humanitarian revolution. Superstitious killing : human sacrifice, witchcraft, and blood libel ; Superstitious killing : violence against blasphemers, heretics, and apostates ; Cruel and unusual punishments ; Capital punishment ; Slavery ; Despotism and political violence ; Major war ; Whence the humanitarian revolution? ; The rise of empathy and the regard for human life ; The republic of letters and enlightenment humanism ; Civilization and enlightenment ; Blood and soil -- The long peace. Statistics and narratives ; Was the 20th century really the worst? ; The statistics of deadly quarrels, Part 1 : the timing of wars ; The statistics of deadly quarrels, Part 2 : the magnitude of wars ; The trajectory of great power war ; The trajectory of European war ; The Hobbesian background and the ages of dynasties and religions ; Three currents in the age of sovereignty ; Counter-enlightenment ideologies and the age of nationalism ; Humanism and totalitarianism in the age of ideology ; The Long Peace : some numbers ; The Long Peace : attitudes and events ; Is the Long Peace a nuclear peace? ; Is the Long Peace a democratic peace? ; Is the Long Peace a liberal peace? ; Is the Long Peace a Kantian peace? -- The new peace. The trajectory of war in the rest of the world ; The trajectory of genocide ; The trajectory of terrorism ; Where angels fear to tread -- The rights revolutions. Civil rights and the decline of lynching and racial pogroms ; Women's rights and the decline of rape and battering ; Children's rights and the decline of infanticide, spanking, child abuse, and bullying ; Gay rights, the decline of gay-bashing, and the decriminalization of homosexuality ; Animal rights and the decline of cruelty to animals ; Whence the rights revolutions? ; From history to psychology -- Inner demons. The dark side ; The moralization gap and the myth of pure evil ; Organs of violence ; Predation ; Dominance ; Revenge ; Sadism ; Ideology ; Pure evil, inner demons, and the decline of violence -- Better angels. Empathy ; Self-control ; Recent biological evolution? ; Morality and taboo ; Reason -- On angels' wings. Important but inconsistent ; The pacifist's dilemma ; The Leviathan ; Gentle commerce ; Feminization ; The expanding circle ; The escalator of reason ; Reflections.
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Summary: Today we may be living in the most peaceful time in human existence. The ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism makes it seem as if the world is getting bloodier. But in this book the author shows that violence has in fact declined over long stretches of history. How has this happened? Here the author examines the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that pull us away, and shows how changes in ideas and practices have allowed our better angels to prevail. In the process he explodes many myths about violence and presents a new defense of modernity and enlightenment. This exploration of human nature blends psychology and history to provide a picture of humanity's gradual conquest of violence.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

2 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 1846140943, 0141034645

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