This is the title of a fascinating book by Steven Pinker, a prominent scientist known mostly for his work regarding psychology and the human mind, in addition to best-selling popular science books that deal with a wide-range of topics for a general audience. He’s often listed as one of the world’s most influential thinkers and innovators, and I can attest to how thought-provoking many of his publications, columns, and conferences can be. Needless to say, I’m rather enthusiastic about this.
The book is pretty massive – a little over 800 pages long – and it’s due to be released on October 4th, though it’s already available for pre-order at Amazon for around $25 (funny enough, Richard Dawkin’s latest popular science book – which I covered recently – is also going to be published around this time, making October a pretty good month for us science enthusiasts). The official description is as follows:
Faced with the ceaseless stream of news about war, crime, and terrorism, one could easily think we live in the most violent age ever seen. Yet as New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows in this startling and engaging new work, just the opposite is true: violence has been diminishing for millennia and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’s existence. For most of history, war, slavery, infanticide, child abuse, assassinations, pogroms, gruesome punishments, deadly quarrels, and genocide were ordinary features of life. But today, Pinker shows (with the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps) all these forms of violence have dwindled and are widely condemned. How has this happened?
This groundbreaking book continues Pinker’s exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly nonviolent world. The key, he explains, is to understand our intrinsic motives- the inner demons that incline us toward violence and the better angels that steer us away-and how changing circumstances have allowed our better angels to prevail. Exploding fatalist myths about humankind’s inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious and provocative book is sure to be hotly debated in living rooms and the Pentagon alike, and will challenge and change the way we think about our society.
In other words, the author is challenging the widely-held – and increasingly popular – notion that modernity has led to unprecedented levels of rapaciousness and conflict, whereas our simpler and more primitive past was more peaceful, harmonious, and idyllic. While there’s some level of truth to this perception – such as how technology has amplified our capacity for destruction – Pinker is making the case that not only were historical times no better, but that they were actually far worse, and that violence has declined precipitously as time passes.
Given his reputation for meticulousness, and the tome’s voluminous amount of research and data, it’s sure to be a well-argued assertion, and a good read. I don’t doubt there will be contentions and debates, but that’s precisely what should be expected of any book that deals with such a difficult topic. I’ll certainly be looking out for reviews and rebuttals.
I must confess a bias for this subject matter, as human nature and mankind’s proclivity for conflict – both on an individual and collective scale – has always fascinated me. Violence is often viewed as a defining characteristic of human society and history, and most of us struggle to make sense of it’s origins and causes, all while coming to grips with the heavy toll that it takes on society, politics, and progress. Given the increasingly cynical attitudes of our time, it’d be refreshing to see some scientific evidence for us being far better than we popularly believe.
I’ve long argued that for all the troubles we face in modern times – both as individuals and as a whole – humanity has progressed much farther then we give ourselves credit for. More and more people are living longer, healthier, wealthier, and more peacefully than at any point in history (and this is both in terms of absolute numbers and proportionately). We have more democratic and free societies, relatively speaking, than ever before too.
Granted, all the corruption, moral depravity, and immense suffering that have mired us from the very beginning of our species remains present and widespread – in some cases even intensifying. Our progress is far from solid, and humankind’s achievements are arguably tenuous and reversible. But the evidence is clear that we’ve still come a very long way, and whatever the challenges and causes for pessimism, we shouldn’t underestimate our potential to evolved and improve.
It’s not just a matter of feeling good about ourselves, but also of education: as we explore the depths of our nature – our minds, psychological developments, social dynamics, etc – we’ll hopefully come to learn more about what makes us who we are, and what we can do to improve ourselves and the world. It’s still too early to say if such an endeavor will be fruitful, or even feasible, but it’s certainly worth a try.
If anyone is interested, they could also take a look at Pinker’s TED talk from 2007, which delves into some of the preceding material and thinking that led up to this book. I think it makes a very compelling case for how much we’ve achieved in terms of law, morality, ethics, governance, and social norms.
It goes without saying that I’ll definitely be exploring this topic again in the future.