The Better Angels of Our Nature
|The Better Angels of Our Nature|
|Dewey Decimal||303.609 PINKER|
|LC Classification||HM1116 .P57 2011|
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a 2011 book by Steven Pinker arguing that violence in the world, especially the western part, has declined both in the long run and in the short, and suggests explanations why this has happened.
The phrase "the better angels of our nature" stems from the last words of Lincoln's first inaugural address. Pinker uses the phrase as a metaphor reflecting four specific human traits: self-control, empathy, morality, and reason.
Pinker argues that the radical declines in violent behaviour which he documents do not result from major changes in human biology or cognition. He specifically rejects the view that humans are necessarily violent, and thus have to undergo radical change in order to become more peaceable. However, Pinker also rejects what he regards as the simplistic nature versus nurture argument, which would imply that the radical change must therefore have come purely from external ("nurture") sources. Instead, he argues: "The way to explain the decline of violence is to identify the changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand".
Social changes Pinker discusses as bringing about the ascendancy of our "better angels" include:
- the emergence of strong government/authority claiming a monopoly on violence
- the interconnectivity of cultures through trade
- increased literacy, urbanisation, mobility and access to mass media—all of which have exposed different cultures to each other
- the spread of democracy
Pinker stresses, however, "The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue".
Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the book Pinker uses a range of sources from different fields. Particular attention is paid to thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes who Pinker argues has been undervalued. Pinker's use of 'un-orthodox' thinkers follows directly from his observation that the data on violence contradict our current expectations. In an earlier work Pinker characterised the general misunderstanding concerning Hobbes:
Hobbes is commonly interpreted as proposing that man in a state of nature was saddled with an irrational impulse for hatred and destruction. In fact his analysis is more subtle, and perhaps even more tragic for he showed how the dynamics of violence fall out of interactions among rational and self-interested agents.
Pinker also relies upon the sometimes-bypassed thought of more contemporary political scientists/theorists; for example the works of political scientist John Mueller and sociologist Norbert Elias, among others. The extent of Elias' influence on Pinker can be adduced from the title of Chapter 3 of The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is taken from the title of Elias' seminal The Civilizing Process. Pinker also draws upon the work of international relations scholar Joshua Goldstein. They co-wrote a New York Times op-ed article titled 'War Really Is Going Out of Style' that summarises many of their shared views, and appeared together at Harvard's Institute of Politics to answer questions from academics and students concerning their similar thesis.
Peter Singer positively reviewed The Better Angels of Our Nature in The New York Times. Singer concludes: "[It] 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".
In The Guardian, David Runciman's writes "I am one of those who like to believe that... the world is just as dangerous as it has always been. But Pinker shows that for most people in most ways it has become much less dangerous". Runciman concludes "everyone should read this astonishing book".
Bill Gates wrote about the book that "Steven Pinker shows us ways we can make those positive trajectories a little more likely. That's a contribution, not just to historical scholarship, but to the world". He considers it one of the most important books he's ever read.
In his review of the book in Scientific American, psychologist Robert Epstein criticises Pinker's use of relative violent death rates as an appropriate metric for assessing the emergence of humanity's "better angels", and what Epstein sees as an over-reliance on historical data. He also argues that Pinker has fallen prey to confirmation bias, leading him to focus on evidence that supports his thesis while ignoring research that does not.
Theologian David Bentley Hart wrote that "one encounters [in Pinker's book] the ecstatic innocence of a faith unsullied by prudent doubt". Furthermore, "it reaffirms the human spirit's lunatic and heroic capacity to believe a beautiful falsehood, not only in excess of the facts, but in resolute defiance of them".
John N. Gray gave a critical review of the book in Prospect. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a critical review in The New Yorker, to which Pinker posted a reply. Ben Laws gave a critical review published on CTheory.Net.
Craig S. Lerner, a professor at George Mason University School of Law, criticised the book in the Winter 2011/12 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Lerner and Pinker exchanged views in the correspondence section of the Spring 2012 issue.
John Arquilla criticized the book in a 3 December 2012 article in Foreign Policy. Arquilla criticized Pinker for using statistics that he said did not accurately represent the threats of civilians dying in war:
"The problem with the conclusions reached in these studies is their reliance on "battle death" statistics. The pattern of the past century—one recurring in history—is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically. In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since".
Edward S. Herman of the University of Pennsylvania, together with David Peterson, wrote a detailed criticism of the book., concluding "...terrible book, both as a technical work of scholarship and as a moral tract and guide", and describing Pinker as pandering to the "demands of U.S. and Western elites at the start of the 21st century".
Statistician and philosophical essayist Nassim Taleb coined the term "Pinker Problem" after corresponding with Pinker regarding the theory of great moderation   "Pinker doesn’t have a clear idea of the difference between science and journalism, or the one between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements. Science is not about making claims about a sample, but using a sample to make general claims and discuss properties that apply outside the sample." 
Awards and honors
- 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize, shortlist
- 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, shortlist
- Smith, Jordan Michael (20 October 2011). "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 16 November 2011.
- Pinker, Steven (6 October 2011). "'The Better Angels of Our Nature' Excerpt". New York Times.
- [Review of The Better Angels by Jason Marsh, University of California Greater Good Science Center 2011]
- Singer, Peter (6 October 2011). "Is Violence History?". New York Times.
- Pinker 2011 New York Times ibid.
- Pinker, Steven, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin: 2002), p. 318
- Elias, Norbert, The Civilizing Process, Vol.I. The History of Manners, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969), and The Civilizing Process, Vol.II. State Formation and Civilization, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982).
- Goldstein & Pinker (17 December 2011). "War Really Is Going Out of Style". New York Times.
- "Is War on the Way Out?". Harvard University Institute of Politics. 1 February 2012.
- "Book Review: 'The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker'". UK: The Guardian. 22 September 2011.
- "Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature". Big Think. 11 May 2012.
- Coffman, Scott (28 September 2012). "Book Review: 'The Better Angels of Our Nature'". Courier Journal.
- Kohn, Marek (7 October 2011). "Book Review: 'The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes', By Steven Pinker". UK: The Independent.
- Gates, Bill (18 June 2012). "Book Review: 'The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined'". The Gates Notes.
- R Epstein (October 2011). "Book Review". Scientific American.
- Hart, David Bentley (2011-12-18). "Article". First Things. Retrieved 2013-01-22.
- Gray, John (21 September 2011). "Delusions of peace". UK: Prospect Magazine.
- Kolbert, Elizabeth (3 October 2011). "Peace In Our Time: Steven Pinker's History of Violence in Decline". The New Yorker.
- Pinker, Steven (November 2011). "Frequently Asked Questions about The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined".
- Laws, Ben (21 March 2012). "Against Pinker's Violence". Ctheory.
- "The Claremont Institute – Have a Nice Millennium". Claremont.org. 2012-04-16. Retrieved 2013-01-22.
- "The Claremont Institute – Correspondence". Claremont.org. 2012-05-02. Retrieved 2013-01-22.
- "The Big Kill – By John Arquilla". Foreign Policy. 2012-12-03. Retrieved 2013-01-22.
- Herman and Peterson (2012) Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Volence, Znet..
- Alison Flood (5 October 2012). "Six books to 'change our view of the world' on shortlist for non-fiction prize". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
- "Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books Longlist 2012 Announced". The Royal Society. 16 June 2012. Retrieved 16 June 2012.