Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature Review

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Guido Vitti for Newsweek

Steven Pinker is the very model of a modern intellectual. Since the 1994 publication of his first bestseller, The Language Instinct, he's been known for his ability to boil down complex ideas into accessible, often-funny, cocktail-party-chatter-worthy sound bites. His status as a pop-science rock star was cemented in 2009 when his article for The New York Times Magazine, "My Genome, My Self," featured a full-frontal headshot of him on the cover. (Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, got his whole genome sequenced for the story, and revealed such "blessedly average" findings as a slightly-lower-than-normal risk for prostate cancer and a slightly-higher-than-normal risk for diabetes.) And as a charter member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, he's instantly recognizable: square jaw, blue eyes, and masses of now-graying curls tumbling to his shoulders.

Pinker became a political lightning rod—or maybe the better image is an inkblot test—with the publication nine years ago of The Blank Slate, in which he argued people are born with genetic tendencies that have evolved over millennia. While culture and environment help determine how those tendencies are expressed, the nature-nurture balance tips heavily in nature's favor. He managed to offend most of the political spectrum with that one, being called sexist, polemical, and dangerous.

He is about to be in the news again. In Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he makes the counterintuitive claim that the 21st century—the century of terrorism in the Middle East, genocide in Darfur, civil war in Somalia—is the least violent era in human history. Not only homicide, but all forms of violence, are less common now than ever before, including torture, slavery, domestic abuse, hate crimes—even barroom brawling and cruelty to animals.

"A statement like that might seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene," Pinker admits. "But that is the correct picture." We have trouble believing it partly because we see so many egregious examples of violence streaming on the Web and blaring across our big-screen TVs. "Our own eyes deceive us," he says, "because we estimate probabilities by how well we can remember examples." And images of violence now come to us from everywhere, via anyone with a cellphone camera, making it seem that murder, rape, tribal warfare, and suicide bombers all lurk just around the next corner.

We've also broadened our definition of violence. "My favorite example is bullying," Pinker says. "President Obama gave a speech the other day denouncing bullying, which would have been ludicrous 40 years ago." Opposition to capital punishment, police involvement in domestic abuse—these are all "great moral advances," he is quick to add, but they help explain why people get the impression that violence is so pervasive. "We think the problem has gotten worse, but that's because our sensibilities have gotten more refined."

The Better Angels of Our Nature (the phrase comes from Abraham Lincoln) is a huge book, 696 pages of text plus 74 pages of notes and references. But "it has to be," Pinker writes. First he has to convince his readers violence has gone down—in the face of all their incredulity—then he needs to explain how it happened. Pinker's magic is done with numbers, starting with the hunter-gatherer societies of 10,000 years ago when life was, as philosopher Thomas Hobbes put it, "nasty, brutish, and short." Data shows that back then the likelihood of a man dying at the hands of another was as high as 60 percent in some regions, more than 50 times the same calculation for the United States and Europe in the 20th century—and that includes two world wars. "If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century," Pinker says, "there would have been 2 billion deaths from wars and homicide, rather than 100 million."

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Pinker looks for explanations for these advances within the individual. Human nature, he says, consists of a constant pull of good and evil. He identifies five "inner demons"—sadism, revenge, dominance, violence in pursuit of a practical benefit, violence in pursuit of an ideology—that struggle with four "better angels": self-control, empathy, morality, and reason. Over the years, Pinker says, the forces of civilization have increasingly given the good in us the upper hand. Strong centralized governments, international trade, the empowerment of women ("cultures that empower women ... are less likely to breed dangerous subcultures of rootless young men") all help make us kinder, gentler beings. Also important is what Pinker calls "the escalator of reason," in which people reframe conflict as a problem to be solved through brain instead of brawn.

Pinker realizes his message could encourage complacency, since people might not feel like working to make the world a better place if they find out that the world is actually pretty good already. But he's an optimist by temperament ("I get it from my father"), and he thinks that his message will lead not to complacency but to action: "I think it will embolden people to work harder, if they see that the stuff that people do has made a difference."

Starry-eyed? Maybe. But the hopefulness is an outgrowth not only of Pinker's temperament but of his larger worldview. He calls himself a scientist and a humanist who "sees reason and science and knowledge as progressive forces, as the source of the flourishing of individuals. This sounds banal to some people. But in the context of history it is a shocking, revolutionary claim." Let us hope his faith in the human race holds up against those devils on our shoulders.