Friday, December 30, 2016

Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of our Nature - A History Of Violence And Humanity (Penguin, 2011) *****

It took me some years before I actually starting reading this book, because its size, close to 1,000 pages in small print, meant that I needed to have time, also to put aside some other books I wanted to read.

Trust me, this is a must-read ... and more than worth to make time for. Its author, Steven Pinker is a well-know psychologist from Harvard University, and he became famous with his books about the workings of the mind: "The Language Instinct" and "How The Mind Works", both highly recommendable books. Pinker is not only a scientist, he is a very gifted writer, able to synthesise gigantic quantities of studies in a very readable format for an educated lay audience. The breadth of his knowledge allows him to give a very big picture of the broad scientific areas of cognitive sciences, neurology, linguistics and psychology.

In this book, "The Better Angles Of Our Nature", Pinker goes even further in the breadth and scope of his vision, giving an amazing overview of the nature and the size of violence in history, with the remarkable conclusion that we currently live in the least violent period ever in humanity. It is remarkable because we are bombarded on a daily basis with scenes of horror in the Middle East, in South Sudan, in the Sahel, with terrorism apparently on the rise and daily stories of homicides and rapes and brutal aggression.

But Pinker breaks through this bias by presenting us figures from anthropologists, paleontologists, historians, economists, sociologists and other specialists that are truly eye-opening. One of the most striking figures is that in pre-historic times, not less than one third of all the people living in small tribes were killed by other humans. Death by disease, accidents and animal attacks have to be added to this figure. Dying of old age was almost unheard of.

Pinker guides us through history, and the horror of incessant fights and brutal killings among the conquered nations. But he also looks at modern times, at warfare and homicide in the 19th century and the 20th. Sure, not all statistics can be trusted, but even then the results speak for themselves. The rise of human rights, the global agreements on codes of warfare, the increased respect for minorities, the acceptance of societal diversity have led to a significant reduction in rape and murder, also in the most "civilised" societies.

But Pinker wouldn't be Pinker if he didn't delve into human nature and what can be done to improve things in the future. He believes - and he gives the evidence for it - that because the scope of our world has increased, through globalisation, international commerce, travel and tourism, the thinking about "the other" has changed. Global views and policies take consequences about the out-group into account. The financial interests of international commerce make politicians think twice before declaring war on other states. He also sees the importance of women in leading functions as an evolution towards more dialogue and less violence. He introduces some elements of game theory - changing the Prisoner's Dilemma into the Pacifist's Dilemma - to explain how an attitude of non-violence is always the better choice, and as a consequence also one of biological survival.

The amazing thing is that view people perceive our world as such, and think about former times, when everything was peaceful and calm. That past is as much an illusion as anything else of course.

Pinker's book gives hope. It is encouraging for all people who fight for more democracy, human rights, peace and tolerance. He demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction, even if the news of the day may show otherwise.

A must-read.

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