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Briefing note: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

29/10/2011

Gangs, suicide bombers, paedophiles, Somali pirates: the world is swarming with people who want to hurt us. And yet Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, thinks we’ve never been safer. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, he argues that violence has actually declined from prehistory to today, due to a combination of progressive thinking and neurological evolution.

What are the critics saying?

Most reviews have been ecstatic.

The Economist called it ‘magisterial’, the New York Times thought it ‘supremely important’, while David Runciman told Guardian readers it was a ‘brilliant, mind-altering book’.

In his Financial Times review, Clive Cookson said although it was too long, and potentially too gruesome for some readers, it was a ‘marvellous synthesis of science, history and storytelling.’

Reviewing the book for the Independent, Marek Kohn described it as ‘a great liberal landmark’, adding ‘its 700 pages of exposition almost turn themselves.’

But not everyone agrees.

Sunday Times reviewer Christopher Hart felt Pinker relies too much on potentially unreliable statistics (‘and can we judge human cruelty by statistics and percentages anyway?’) though believed ‘anyone who challenges such a  dominant cliché about our times is to be welcomed.’

Writing in the Washington Post, academic Gerard DeGroot found the book ‘fascinating but also deeply flawed’. Although its basic point was ‘valuable’, DeGroot felt Pinker’s editor should have been stricter: ‘there’s too much in this book that is simply nonsense.’

The most damning assessment came from the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert. In her opinion, Pinker’s analysis was far too Eurocentric (‘There is little discussion … about trends in violence in Asia or Africa or South America’) with a tendency to ‘gloss over’ developments that didn’t fit into his schema: ‘Though he hesitates to label the Second World War as an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count.’

So what’s the verdict?

Agree with it or not, Pinker’s thesis is important and needs to be debated. Unfortunately its sheer length (832 pages in total) will put off many readers.

Where can I find out more?

Read an extract from the book

Watch Steven Pinker giving a lecture about his book

Read all reviews for The Better Angels of Our Nature

(This article originally appeared on the Spectator Book Blog)

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