Book review: The better angels of our nature.

Book review: The better angels of our nature.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: by Steven Pinker 2011

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), worldwide military expenditures have been growing annually for the past 15 years, and between 15 and 20 armed conflicts- yes wars- are in progress as you read this. All told, upward of 175 million people died in war related violence during the 20th century, plus another 8 million because if conflicts between individuals.

Even so, according to the weighty new book by Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, the ‘better angels’ of human nature have actually brought about a dramatic reduction in violence during the past few millenia. Yes, the absolute number of victims has been rising, but relative to the worlds population, the numbers look ‘good’.

The shift towards nonviolence,he says, has been driven by many factors, such as the spread of agriculture and the rise of feminism and democracy. Such trends have led to a reduction in intitutionalised torture and execution and slavery and, especially in recent years, to an increase in the rights of women, homosexuals, children and animals.

Pinker claims that our dark side is driven by an evolution based propensity toward predation and dominance. On the angelic side, we have, or at least can learn, some degree of self control, which allows us to inhibit our darker tendencies. In one disturbing chapter, he describes in graphic detail the savage way in which chimpanzees- our closest genetic relatives in the animal world- torture and kill their own kind. The parallel with the shadow aspects of the human condition is unmistakable.

The biggest problem I had with the book is the assumption that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease? By this logic, when we reach a world population of 9 billion in 2050, Pinker will conceivably be satisfied if a mere 2 million people are killed in war that year.

Surely this is not the best case scenario we can hope for?

Or is it?

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