Steven Pinker takes unpopular stances in new book

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Review

Other than sex, few things are more interesting to humans than violence.

We pay good money to watch gory movies and video games, deplore the acts of violence we see on the news (but still can’t stop talking about them) and curse all of those other drivers who stop to look at the bloody accident, only do the same when we’re close enough to see. And, if you talk to almost anybody, they’ll say that there’s too much violence and bloodshed in the world today and it’s getting worse.

True enough, there may be “too much” violence, but according to Steven Pinker in his superbly researched “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” we are living in the most peaceful time in the history of humanity.

Even with the combined bloodshed of the two world wars, the atomic bomb, school shootings, gang wars, drug trade and serial killers, the 20th century wasn’t nearly as violent as the Dark Ages or, and this is a real shocker, the Renaissance. In any reasonable definition of violence ­— and Pinker goes through many of them — the world is in a state of relative peace.

Inspired by a few brief paragraphs that Pinker wrote in 2007 for edge.org, which were then expanded into a TED talk, the book is roughly broken into two parts. The first catalogues the types of violence in previous eras as well as some of the large scale trends that caused its gradual reduction, while the second, more tenuous part offers psychological explanations for how human nature has undergone a very real change over the past 10,000 years.

Pinker argues a minority viewpoint, and one need look no further than the comments on his TED talk to see that, but it’s a minority that many experts agree with.

Additionally, he’s very persuasive in the book and builds up a very strong case, anticipating the reader’s arguments and addressing them almost before the reader can come up with them. He supports his points with nonstop graphs, but takes the time to explain where the data came from and, when estimates are necessary, is sure to indicate whether they’re low-end or high-end and why.

As a result, this is a very long book — just under 700 pages of text with an additional 150 pages of endnotes, references and index — but it’s also a very readable and entertaining one. For such a hefty work, it’s tough to put down. Pinker offers a very professional tone, as he did in his other books including the wonderful “How the Mind Works” and “The Language Instinct,” but he also inserts a dry and sometimes laugh out loud sense of humor.

He takes his time, explaining some of the more complex ideas in such a way that all but the most impatient readers should be able to follow. Like a good professor, he inspires interest not just by his enthusiasm for the topic, but in his ability to make it interesting. But he also forces his students to think and the ideas in “The Better Angels of Our Nature” will dance around in your mind long after you turn the final page.

Pinker deals with strongly political topics in this book, but isn’t afraid of siding with an uncomfortable viewpoint if the evidence seems to support it. He argues strongly against the “blank slate” opinion of humanity, in which we’re molded only by our environment, as well as the “noble savage” stereotype, in which Native Americans were living peacefully on the American continent until Western Europeans came and corrupted them. And, in the end, while he comes across as a left-leaning voter, he’s not afraid to support strongly conservative viewpoints, including the idea that disarmament is not an effective means of reducing violence and that the open market is one of the main reasons that violence has gone down.

It’s refreshing to read something by someone who has strong opinions for good reasons that don’t necessarily gel with a specific ideology.

“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is bound to go down as a classic of science and historical writing and begs to be read carefully. Though sometimes appearing idealist, Pinker very rarely states what the next few years may bring. Instead, he repeatedly makes the point that, though this is what history has shown, there are no guarantees that it will continue.

The moral of the story is not to sit back and relax, thanking our lucky stars for the world we live in, but to push forward and continue the trend.

Printed on Tuesday, October 11,  2011 as: Pinker's tome posits we live in a time of relative peace