Book Review: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Steven Arthur Pinker, a Canadian-American is an experimental psychologist at Harvard, known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. A prolific writer a linguist and popular science author with eight books on diverse issues to his credit, he became famous in 199os with the publication of his books The Language Instinct (1994) and How the Mind Works (1997). However, his claim to universal fame is due to his remarkable book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) followed by Enlightenment Now (2018).

In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker argues that although human nature has not changed over time, yet violence, including tribal warfare, cruel punishments, domestic violence, and international and civil wars, has decreased over time and magnitude in terms of deaths per capita.  In his view, this reduction in violence and warfare has much to do with what he calls the inclinations of human nature toward violence and those that counteract them, the “better angels of our nature”. He outlines the following six ‘major historical trends responsible for this gradual decline in violence and wars namely:

  1. “The Pacification Process”; – The rise of organized systems of government prevented tribal feuding, reduced losses and thus resulted in less violence
  2. “The Civilizing Process” – Consolidation of centralized states and kingdoms throughout Europe results in the rise of criminal justice and commercial infrastructure, organizing previously chaotic systems that could lead to raiding and mass violence.
  3. “The Humanitarian Revolution” – The 18th – 20th century abandonment of institutionalized violence by the state due to the spike in literacy after the invention of the printing press thereby allowing the proletariat to question conventional wisdom.
  4. “The Long Peace” – A largely peaceful 65-year period post World War I and World War II period during which developed countries have stopped warring (against each other and colonially), adopted democracy, and this has led a massive decline (on average) of deaths.
  5. “The New Peace” – The decline in organized conflicts of all kinds since the end of the Cold War.
  6. “The Rights Revolutions” – The reduction of systemic violence at smaller scales against vulnerable populations.

Although the book is a masterly analysis of a complex phenomenon with lot of compelling evidence and convincing arguments to prove the thesis presented, it has been criticised for its Eurocentric focus, too much reliance on linear projection of history, and selective interpretation of historical data. However, the most damning criticism pertains to its using deaths per capita as an appropriate metric to prove that the world is becoming more peaceful over time.

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