Editor’s presentation: Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?
Abstract: BOOKS review of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Viking; $40). In the weeks following Anders Behring Breivik’s shooting spree in Norway, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to make sense of what had happened. Many used the occasion to warn of the dangers of homegrown terrorism. Others argued that the shootings revealed the growing menace of nativist rhetoric. Still others maintained that the problem was peculiarly Norwegian, a combination of inept policing and misguided pacifism. “How long would the Norway gunman have lasted in Texas, or any state where concealed-carry laws are on the books?” Michael Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s oldest son, asked in a widely reprinted opinion piece. He continued, “There’s a lot of truth in the old adage that, if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will carry guns.” Another possible take on Utøya—admittedly not a popular one—is that the whole incident was blown way out of proportion. In “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker didn’t get a chance to comment on the Utøya shootings, since the volume went to press before the attack took place. Yet the book can be read as a long argument—a seven-hundred-page-long argument—for this last proposition. Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor and best-selling science writer, wants to correct what he sees as a basic misperception. Fed on a steady diet of gruesome news—terrorist bombings, schoolyard shootings, deadly riots—people have come to think of life in modern, industrialized societies as dangerous, when just the opposite is true. Western Europe is not only the safest place to live in the world today; it is probably the safest, most peaceful place in the history of humankind. During the past couple of decades, there has been a surge of research on prehistoric mayhem, and Pinker’s claims grow out of a great deal of this recent work in what might be called atrociology. As is frequently the case with the so-called human sciences, the latest thinking recalls some of the very oldest. The savages, it turns out, really were savage! The medievals did, in fact, go medieval! But there’s more to “The Better Angels of Our Nature” than reviving such politically incorrect notions. Pinker doesn’t just want to prove that rates of violence have fallen; he wants to explain why. The scope of Pinker’s attentions is almost entirely confined to Western Europe. There is little discussion in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” about trends in violence in Asia or Africa or South America. Indeed, even the United States poses difficulties for him. There is much in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” that is confounding. Those developments which might seem to fit into his schema are treated in detail. Yet other episodes that one would think are more relevant to a history of violence are simply glossed over.