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Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Last week, I finished listening to a book by Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature. The subtitle for this book is Why Violence Has Declined.

I picked up the book on Audible and listened to it, which is a different experience than reading as I'm sure y'all know. My review is based on the audio book, not the paper version. I very much liked the narrator for the book, a big plus since it's an extremely long book. The paper version is listed at 800 pages and the audio version had 5 parts. Most Audible books come in 2 parts.

The premise intrigued me when I saw it. Violence is declining? In many ways, the world seems more uncivilized now than it's ever been. Right? But the author begins the book by explaining what everyday life was like in the past and what our ancestors considered normal.

Blood sports in ancient Rome--gladiators fighting to the death, starving animals set loose with Christians, two animals fighting to the death. Blood and circuses to use the term I've heard in my history classes. Torture was everyday practice in the medieval period and people turned out to watch. People cut off the noses of others and apparently this was quite common, as was stabbing people to death during a dinner. Burning accused witches. The Inquisition. Well, the list can go on and on and it did in the book. The author talks about the increased violence that began in the 1960s and continued into the early 1990s before reaching today.

The length of the book makes it impossible to summarize coherently and I didn't make notes, but Pinker doesn't offer predictions about the future. While he said things have been improving, events could send us back into higher level of violence.

Overall, I found the information and the way it was presented to be extremely accessible and interesting. There is one section that gets heavily into an explanation of statistics before presenting the actual data that got a little long, but it was brief. I also found the last few chapters to be dry as well and would have preferred it ended a bit earlier. The last chapter in particular where it's primarily a summary of all the rest of the book was particularly hard for me to sit through.

Another caveat is that the author gets quite graphic about what routine torture was like in the medieval period, and with my squeamishness, I was forced to remove my ear buds a couple of times. Pinker explains that he goes into this level of detail because of the way the past frequently gets glossed over or sanitized.

And squeamish or not, I think he was right about that. We've all heard of the iron maiden and the rack and breaking people on the wheel, but I didn't really give any real thought to these things being used on real, living people. I knew they had been, of course, but somehow in my brain, I disconnected the suffering/pain/death that these things caused from the devices themselves.

Pinker did a tremendous job using facts and figures to support his argument about the decline of violence. I didn't agree with everything I heard and some of it bothered me or made me uncomfortable, but I was able to disagree with some things without it toppling the premise.

But you know what? This book really made me think and it made me look at events--both historical and more modern--from a different angle so I'm calling the time well spent. I like having my world view knocked askew and I liked the fact it made me mull over things I thought I knew. Maybe the best part, though, is that I was left feeling hopeful about the future of humans. Maybe things aren't as bad as the media would have us believe after all.

Recommended, but be prepared to make a big time commitment.