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The Better Angels of Our Nature : A History of Violence and Humanity - Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature

A History of Violence and Humanity

Paperback Published: 7th January 2013
ISBN: 9780141034645
Number Of Pages: 1026
For Ages: 18+ years old

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Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful time in out species' history.

In this epic exploration of the human condition, Steven Pinker shows that, despite the constant stream of news about war, crime and terrorism, violence of all kinds has been decreasing. Barbaric practices such as human sacrifice, torture-executions and chattel slavery have been abolished; rates of death from war and homicide are dramatically down; and brutality towards minorities, women, children and animals is in steady decline.

Weaving together psychology and history, science and popular culture, The Better Angles of Our Nature reinvigorates the ideals of modernity, progress and enlightenment.

About the Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching and scientific research, Pinker is Peter de Florez professor of psychology in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Industry Reviews

One of the most important books I've read - not just this year, but ever ... 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 -- Bill Gates
Brilliant, mind-altering...Everyone should read this astonishing book -- David Runciman * Guardian *
A supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline -- Peter Singer * New York Times *
[A] sweeping new review of the history of human violence...[Pinker has] the kind of academic superbrain that can translate otherwise impenetrable statistics into a meaningful narrative of human behaviour...impeccable scholarship -- Tony Allen-Mills * Sunday Times *
Written in Pinker's distinctively entertaining and clear personal style...a marvellous synthesis of science, history and storytelling -- Clive Cookson * Financial Times *
A salutary reality-check...Better Angels is itself a great liberal landmark -- Marek Kohn * Independent *
Pinker's scholarhsip is astounding...flawless...masterful -- Joanna Bourke * The Times *
Selected by the New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2011 * New York Times *


The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
L. P. Hartley

If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away. A woman donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping boyponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving prince. We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors' way of life, but we are barely aware of them. Just as travel broadens the mind, a literal- minded tour of our cultural heritage can awaken us to how differently they did things in the past.

In a century that began with 9/ 11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. I know from conversations and survey data that most people refuse to believe it. In succeeding chapters I will make the case with dates and data. But first I want to soften you up by reminding you of incriminating facts about the past that you have known all along. This is not just an exercise in persuasion. Scientists often probe their conclusions with a sanity check, a sampling of real- world phenomena to reassure themselves they haven't overlooked some flaw in their methods and wandered into a preposterous conclusion. The vignettes in this chapter are a sanity check on the data to come.

What follows is a tour of the foreign country called the past, from 8000 BCE to the 1970s. It is not a grand tour of the wars and atrocities that we already commemorate for their violence, but rather a series of glimpses behind deceptively familiar landmarks to remind us of the viciousness they conceal. The past, of course, is not a single country, but encompasses a vast diversity of cultures and customs. What they have in common is the shock of the old: a backdrop of violence that was endured, and often embraced, in ways that startle the sensibilities of a 21st- century Westerner.


In 1991 two hikers stumbled upon a corpse poking out of a melting glacier in the Tyrolean Alps. Thinking that it was the victim of a skiing accident, rescue workers jackhammered the body out of the ice, damaging his thigh and his backpack in the process. Only when an archaeologist spotted a Neolithic copper ax did people realize that the man was five thousand years old.

Ötzi the Iceman, as he is now called, became a celebrity. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and has been the subject of many books, documentaries, and articles. Not since Mel Brooks's 2000 Year Old Man ('I have more than 42,000 children and not one comes to visit me') has a kilogenarian had so much to tell us about the past. Ötzi lived during the crucial transition in human prehistory when agriculture was replacing hunting and gathering, and tools were first made of metal rather than stone. Together with his ax and backpack, he carried a quiver of fl etched arrows, a wood- handled dagger, and an ember wrapped in bark, part of an elaborate fire- starting kit. He wore a bearskin cap with a leather chinstrap, leggings sewn from animal hide, and waterproof snowshoes made from leather and twine and insulated with grass. He had tattoos on his arthritic joints, possibly a sign of acupuncture, and carried mushrooms with medicinal properties.

Ten years after the Iceman was discovered, a team of radiologists made a startling discovery: Ötzi had an arrowhead embedded in his shoulder. He had not fallen in a crevasse and frozen to death, as scientists had originally surmised; he had been murdered. As his body was examined by the the CSI Neolithic team, the outlines of the crime came into view. Ötzi had unhealed cuts on his hands and wounds on his head and chest. DNA analyses found traces of blood from two other people on one of his arrowheads, blood from a third on his dagger, and blood from a fourth on his cape. According to one reconstruction, Ötzi belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighboring tribe. He killed a man with an arrow, retrieved it, killed another man, retrieved the arrow again, and carried a wounded comrade on his back before fending off an attack and being felled by an arrow himself.

Ötzi is not the only millennia- old man who became a scientific celebrity at the end of the 20th century. In 1996 spectators at a hydroplane race in Kennewick, Washington, noticed some bones poking out of a bank of the Columbia River. Archaeologists soon recovered the skeleton of a man who had lived 9,400 years ago. Kennewick Man quickly became the object of highly publicized legal and scientific battles. Several Native American tribes fought for custody of the skeleton and the right to bury it according to their traditions, but a federal court rejected their claims, noting that no human culture has ever been in continuous existence for nine millennia. When the scientific studies resumed, anthropologists were intrigued to learn that Kennewick Man was anatomically very different from today's Native Americans. One report argued that he had European features; another that he matched the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan. Either possibility would imply that the Americas had been peopled by several independent migrations, contradicting DNA evidence suggesting that Native Americans are descendants of a single group of migrants from Siberia.

For plenty of reasons, then, Kennewick Man has become an object of fascination among the scientifically curious. And here is one more. Lodged in Kennewick Man's pelvis is a stone projectile. Though the bone had partially healed, indicating that he didn't die from the wound, the forensic evidence is unmistakable: Kennewick Man had been shot.

These are just two examples of famous prehistoric remains that have yielded grisly news about how their owners met their ends. Many visitors to the British Museum have been captivated by Lindow Man, an almost perfectly preserved two- thousand- year- old body discovered in an English peat bog in 1984. We don't know how many of his children visited him, but we do know how he died. His skull had been fractured with a blunt object; his neck had been broken by a twisted cord; and for good measure his throat had been cut. Lindow Man may have been a Druid who was ritually sacrificed in three ways to satisfy three gods. Many other bog men and women from northern Europe show signs of having been strangled, bludgeoned, stabbed, or tortured. In a single month while researching this book, I came across two new stories about remarkably preserved human remains. One is a two- thousand- year old skull dug out of a muddy pit in northern England. The archaeologist who was cleaning the skull felt something move, looked through the opening at the base, and saw a yellow substance inside, which turned out to be a preserved brain. Once again, the unusual state of preservation was not the only noteworthy feature about the find. The skull had been deliberately severed from the body, suggesting to the archaeologist that it was a victim of human sacrifice. The other discovery was of a 4, 600- year- old grave in Germany that held the remains of a man, a woman, and two boys. DNA analyses showed that they were members of a single nuclear family, the oldest known to science. The foursome had been buried at the same time— signs, the archaeologists said, that they had been killed in a raid.

What is it about the ancients that they couldn't leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play? Some cases may have an innocent explanation based in taphonomy, the processes by which bodies are preserved over long spans of time. Perhaps at the turn of the first millennium the only bodies that got dumped into bogs, there to be pickled for posterity, were those that had been ritually sacrificed. But with most of the bodies, we have no reason to think that they were preserved only because they had been murdered. Later we will look at the results of forensic investigations that can distinguish how an ancient body met its end from how it came down to us. For now, prehistoric remains convey the distinct impression that The Past is a place where a person had a high chance of coming to bodily harm.

ISBN: 9780141034645
ISBN-10: 0141034645
Audience: General
For Ages: 18+ years old
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 1026
Published: 7th January 2013
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Country of Publication: GB
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 13.0  x 4.6
Weight (kg): 0.72
Edition Number: 1

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Steven Pinker

About the Author

Steven Pinker is one of the world's leading authorities on language and the mind. His popular and highly praised books include Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, and The Language Instinct. The recipient of several major awards for his teaching and scientific research, Pinker is Peter de Florez professor of psychology in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Visit Steven Pinker's Booktopia Author Page