Review: Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined came out in 2011, but it’s still the book I most frequently recommend after Factfulness (read my review here).

The New York Times Book Review selected it as a Notable Book of the Year, Bill Gates called it “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.”

In it, historian Steven Pinker tracks the decline of violence throughout history and a corresponding increase in respect for human rights.

We think that violence is increasing because of a quirk of our psychology. If something scary is happening in one direction, and something nice in another, we look at the scary thing first. We can always stop and smell the roses after we’ve dealt with the attacking tiger.

But our media is getting better. We can instantly learn about even the most minor crimes from all around the world. So the amount of crime happening seems to stay the same, or even to increase.

It’s an illusion. Not only is violence and crime decreasing all around the world, but crime levels are so low, historically speaking, that things that would never have been considered crimes before are now crimes. People routinely slap each other in the face in old movies. We don’t do that anymore. Throwing water in someone’s face, calling them names, spreading nasty rumors about people — those are now considered violent acts that we, as a society, no longer find acceptable.

And the pace of changing continues unabated. Even watching a television show from ten years ago can be an uncomfortable experience, with all the bullying, casual cruelty, and sexual harassment.

We’re now better than that, current political conditions notwithstanding.

The book bogs down a bit towards the end, full of historical minutia, but most of us is an extremely engrossing and eye-opening read. Pinker not only talks about how violence has been decreasing, but why, and what it bodes for the future of our civilization.