This is definitely a piece worth reading: in yesterday’s Guardian, John Naughton summarized not only the thesis of Steve Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature, but also conducted an insightful interview with the author.
Not surprisingly, most of the major reviews have been positive, save that of the miscreant John Gray, who faults Pinker for attributing society’s decline in violence to the Enlightenment. (In his review in Prospect, Gray argued that Pinker not only was guilty of misusing statistics and data, but also neglected some thinkers, like Marx and Lenin, who could be considered part of an extended Enlightenment.)
Anyway, the two best parts of the article are the interview and a Pinkerian table of the worst atrocities in history, with human deaths converted to 20th-century equivalents. It turns out that history’s worst massacre was the eighth-century An Lushan Revolt in China, which cost 36 million lives. In modern equivalents (I presume this is calculated based on the proportion of the world’s population that was decimated), that’s 429 million deaths! In contrast, World War II, #9 on the atrocity scale, took 55 million lives.
Number two is the Mongol Conquest, with a loss of 40 million lives (278 million in modern equivalents). You’ll want to look over the list of the top 21 episodes, which will surprise you.
I won’t give away what Steve says in the interview, but two things impressed me. First, he wrote the book in only 14 months (it’s 700+ pages long). Second, he wrote it on a punishing schedule:
I spent a bit more than a year doing nothing but reading, to educate myself in fields I was not trained in – mainly criminology, history and international relations. The writing took 14 very intensive months. I had a sabbatical from Harvard, moved to our house in Cape Cod, and worked on it day and night seven days a week, taking time out only to exercise and spend time with my wife, novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein.
How can you not admire his diligence? I now have a copy of the book, and will read it for sure.