The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes by Steve Pinker

Things are bad.  And they are getting worse.  Inevitable disaster looms in the not too distant future.  The only good news is that life is getting so hazardous that in all likelihood we personally won’t survive long enough to see the worst.

Or that is what you would think if you read the papers and watch the news.  It is a continual accumulation of one disaster after another.  And if you look at recent history, it is pretty clear that the twentieth century was the most violent one in history what with wars, genocides, famine and with crime rates rocketing everywhere.

So given how bad everything is, it is no wonder that no academic has ever had the gumption to tabulate all the violence in human history.  It would just be so depressing to see how savage and murderous mankind has become.  Until now, that is.  Steve Pinker has done just that.  And it turns out that in fact we haven’t been getting more bloodthirsty after all.  Far from it.  Taking the long view, war has been going out of fashion for centuries now.   In Europe in particular, 400 years ago on average two wars broke out per year.  Today, it is hard to conceive of a war anywhere on the continent.

But surely the second world war was the bloodiest in history?  Yes it was, if you look at absolute numbers. But the population was a lot higher too.  It is still a pretty bloody event, but it is not that much ahead of the Napoleonic Wars in relation to how many participants there were.  Genocide is sometimes thought of as an inovation of the Nazis.  But in fact genocide has been practiced for centuries.  A glance through the Bible shows that it was pretty routine in the Bronze Age.  At least in the twentieth century we have enough taste to be horrified by it.  For people who don’t accept Biblical evidence, look at the Roman destruction of Carthage.  They killed 90% of the inhabitants of the city and sold the rest into slavery.

States don’t fight each other as much, but private individuals resort to killing much less frequently as well.  Murder rates are falling consistently everywhere.  Even corporal punishment for children and cruelty to animals is becoming a thing of the past.

Basically, if you want to feel better, not to say safer, this book is well worth a read.  It is superbly written and it really makes you feel good about the author, yourself and your fellow human beings.

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