Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile has nothing to do with viruses or pandemics. But it is surprisingly relevant for these times.
People often ask me what is the best book I’ve read in the last year. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined stands out as one of the most important books I’ve read—not just this year, but ever.
The book is about violence, but paints a remarkable picture that shows the world has evolved over time to be a far less violent place than before. It offers a really fresh perspective on how to achieve positive outcomes in the world.
Pinker presents a tremendous amount of evidence that humans have gradually become much less violent and much more humane. The trend started thousands of years ago and has continued to this day. As I’m someone who’s fairly optimistic in general, the book struck a chord with me and got me to thinking about some of our foundation’s strategies.
I’m a dogged advocate for innovations that have brought us longer life spans, better nutrition and more freedom. But I’m also concerned about the things innovation can’t always change, like how we look at justice and violence. Is there a positive trend there, and if so, what are the lessons? How can we make sure the trend continues? How can we broaden it—and maybe even speed it up?
Many people are surprised to hear that we live in a far less violent time, because you see and read about tons of violence in the news. But Pinker argues convincingly that it’s our awareness and sensitivity to violence that have increased, not violence itself, which is way down.
For example, when archaeologists dig in ancient gravesites, they find that a lot of the people there were clearly murdered, their skulls cracked open before they died. Pinker thoroughly debunks the romantic idea that ancient humans lived in harmony with nature and each other. It’s an overly rosy view of the past and a view that ignores much of the progress we have made.
We began moving away from violence when we first settled down into stable agricultural communities, Pinker writes. After the Enlightenment, governments themselves became less violent, eliminating cruel punishments and other things that infringed on citizen’s rights. And in the two thirds of a century since World War II, nations have become less war-like, especially as the idea of universal human rights has taken hold.
It seems to me that higher rates of violence in some poor countries may have to do with the fact that governance has lagged behind. These are young countries, most of them, and some of their national governments haven’t yet fully established the rule of law and protection for human rights.
Before I picked up The Better Angels of Our Nature, I assumed that most murders were motivated by economic gain. In fact, only about 15 percent of U.S. homicides involve robbery or other economic factors. The perpetrator is usually driven by a sense of injustice or desire for revenge, and he doesn’t trust institutions to mete out punishment.
Also before I read this book, I always thought of honor as a good thing. I can remember my mom impressing on us kids that maintaining your honor by not lying and living right was important. But Pinker makes a case that honor is often a dangerous concept. It used to lead noblemen to kill each other in duels. It can lead to violent feuds, like between the Hatfields and McCoys in the Appalachians in the late 19th century. And some societies still have this notion of honor killing.
Pinker isn’t saying that peace, justice and nonviolence are inevitable. He acknowledges that modern technologies have really expanded how lethal wars can be. Things can go very wrong, but Pinker is saying the arc of history is toward less violence, and we should understand that and tap into it.
His ideas could be very helpful in different countries as a guide to how to build more peaceful societies, which is not just about economics. Some African countries, which still have high murder rates, might find ways to move faster toward the levels of developed countries. The Better Angels of Our Nature explains some ideas that I think should be widely understood, like the idea that the basis for morality—and the continued decline of violence—lies in empathy, strengthened by rules, codes and laws.
It’s a big book, more than 700 pages, and I wish that the summary chapter was available separately as an article, because many people could benefit from it who might be scared off by a book this long. As a guy who is pretty rigorous about how he spends his time, I think this book is completely worth the time to read it.
I would put “Better Angels” on the same scale as Big History, David Christian’s ambitious project to create a framework for how human history was influenced and shaped by everything around it.
For me, what’s most important about The Better Angels of Our Nature are its insights into how to help achieve positive outcomes. How can we encourage a less violent, more just society, particularly for the poor? Steven Pinker shows us ways we can make those positive trajectories a little more likely. That’s a contribution, not just to historical scholarship, but to the world.