Steve Pinker’s book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

This is the book in question.

This review will NOT do the book justice; the book is almost 700 pages of text, NOT counting end notes. The book starts off saying that this “needs to be a big book” and after reading it, I can see why.

How the book is written
I can’t say that this is light reading. But I can say it is engaging reading; once you start it, you’ll look forward to having time to read more of it. In fact, you’ll find yourself making time to read it.

The book contains a lot of statistics albeit on a “sort of basic” level. Having had a “statistical methods for XXXX” course under your belt will be a great asset, even if the material isn’t fresh. The book is NOT technical.

What I like: when Pinker takes up an issue, he weighs the various competing opinions/conjectures and gives the pros and cons for each. He then brings the data, but when he does, he tells WHERE the data comes from (source), the weaknesses and strength of the source, and he talks about what type of data it is (e. g. A single study? Are these results from surveys? Are these results from an agency report? Is it scientific data? Is it a meta analysis (combining independent studies)?). He then gives the caveats associated with such data.

Of course, there isn’t hard core statistical data for everything, so he gives reasons for making a conjecture as to why he thinks that things were that way.

Pinker frequently draws from history, makes conjectures based on work from the time in question, and of course, draws from psychology and neuroscience.

The upshot: if you disagree with a conclusion, you’ll feel obligated to ask yourself WHY you disagree rather than “hey, that doesn’t make sense to me” or “I don’t like that conclusion”.

What are his conclusions?
Roughly speaking, he shows that a modern human has a lesser chance of dying violently than they’ve ever had in human history (or pre-history). Also, the most destructive wars (in terms of loss of human life) did NOT come in the 20’th century; yes that includes World War II and “the holocaust”. If that seems strange, remember that the accurate measure is “percent of population killed” rather than “numbers killed”.

Non war death rates (homicide rates) are also…down. Yes, down.

So, the real question is: why? He discusses many reasons including:
1. Gentle, mutually beneficial trade.
2. Evolution of human morality (but why?)
3. Increase in empathy due to: travel, reading fiction (!) (really!)
4. Circumstances (example: infanticide was more common when life was harsher; people couldn’t always provide for new mouths to feed. That isn’t as much of a problem given advances in medicine agriculture, gains in wealth, etc.).
5. Human evolution (of a sort; PROBABLY not genetic): we are smarter now (in terms of being able to think abstractly, and being able to think abstractly makes for more empathy toward others).

Of course, he cautions that moral progress is NOT inevitable.

So, while this review is unjustly short, I just don’t want to spend a week on the type of review that this book deserves.

Read it; you won’t be sorry!


March 10, 2013 - Posted by | books, evolution, science, social/political |

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