Ruth Francis, Nature’s former head of press, is reading the shortlist of the Royal Society Winton prize for science books at a rate of one a week. She’s done it before. Will she succeed this year? The winner of the prize will be announced on 26 November.
“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.’” So begins Steven Pinker’s latest tome: The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Pinker’s objective is to persuade the reader that, contrary to what we may instinctively feel, violence has declined over time. Appropriately, given his belief in the subject’s importance, he leaves no stone unturned.
Referencing the Bible, the Iliad and other historical texts, he presents body counts from previous centuries that far outdo those of the last hundred years. We are reminded of the origin of the phrase ‘whipping boy’ — a child who was physically reprimanded for the misdeeds of a prince — and of the reference to crucifixion in the word ‘excruciating’ . Our attention is called to the original, non-Disney versions of Grimm’s fairy tales and Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes — gory, cautionary stories that terrify the young reader. And this is simply scene-setting for his argument.
In contrast to Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho, which sets out to bore the reader with lists of materialism so sterile you yearn for the next act of brutality, Pinker’s lists of acts of brutality over time and across cultures leave you relieved when the text turns to academic argument. Then, we are run through the causes of reducing violence over time: the effect of government and centralized law, ‘people power’ affecting change and the acceptance of morals filtering down through societies and becoming the norm. Pinker even cites the decline of violent childhood games as a factor — nowadays these are deemed inappropriate, but in our past, channeling aggressive impulses in such a manner was the norm.
The later chapters take on our own nature, and this is less convincing ground. We are, he argues, wired for violence, even if we do not commit such acts. He also proposes that interwoven in our character are traits that encourage us to avoid violence.
The sheer volume of evidence in the earlier sections of the book is convincing, but the later cognitive psychology held less weight for me, and these chapters seem almost rushed in comparison to what has gone before.
Nevertheless, his central argument is convincing and this is a riveting read, although perhaps not one you would add to your summer holiday book list.