By Sheila Smith
Her blog Clicking UU Life
Book review of “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by Steven Pinker
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker combines the enjoyment of a sudoku puzzle and a Grafton thriller: seeing patterns and finding out how the patterns work out. When scientists do history, it’s fun. Not only was the book a satisfying read, it restored my faith in human nature. Pinker summarizes his 700 page opus in one sentence: “Violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.”
I can see Steven Pinker’s vision in my home town of Corvallis, Oregon, population 50,000. There’s no whipping post, pillory, gibbet, or slave market on the Benton County Courthouse lawn. There’s no debtor’s prison in the basement either. If we have bad weather, we don’t look for a witch to blame, torture, and then execute. We might see same sex or mixed race couples strolling hand in hand without fear of harassment. We average one murder every couple of years, a rate of one killing per one hundred thousand population, far less than found in tribal or medieval societies.
Like Father Gregor Mendel who counted his peas and thus founded modern genetics, Pinker counts acts of violence such as war, judicial torture, genocides, homicides, then graphs them against time. As you flip through the book, the trends all point to zero, although we’re not there yet.
We remember recent violent events we’ve heard on the news, then since these events are easy to remember, we believe these events are more probable. But history shows us we’re wrong. In the face of all the bad news, here’s good news. I recommend the book highly.