Several readers sent me “Human nature’s pathologist,” Carl Zimmer’s New York Times profile of Steven Pinker and his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Many of you might have already seen Zimmer’s piece, but I’ll highlight it here, for Pinker’s book is superb and you should read it.
At least that’s my opinion after having gotten through 250 pages. As you know, the book is a long analysis of and explanation for why various forms of violence have declined in the millennia since our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived. The thesis, in other words, is that the world—and human behavior—is getting better.
I find that thesis so far pretty convincing. Pinker backs it up with a ton of statistical analysis (the book is loaded with graphs) and a lot of thoughtful commentary. Yes, the book is very long—696 pages of text, with tons of footnotes and references—and many of my friends won’t take my recommendation, saying that they have no time to read such a big tome. I mourn the trend of avoiding big books, since many of the greatest ones (including, of course, Darwin’s Origin) fall into this category, and I really do think that everyone who wants to consider themselves educated should put Better Angels under their belt.
But though the book is long, it’s not a slog. Steve always writes with a light and graceful touch, and peppers the text with anecdotes that are edifying (and horrifying, as in his graphic descriptions of medieval torture) as well as with his patented references to modern culture.
I’ll include just one excerpt that I liked, for it bears on recent discussions we’ve had on this website. I particularly like his characterization of “science” in the second sentence, which is how I construe oue discipline broadly:
(p. 181) Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge—not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.
Zimmer’s profile in the Times is good, though many readers may already know about Pinker’s intellectual history and his previous books. But if you want to see what Better Angels is about before you buy it (and you should buy it), Zimmer gives a good precis. As Carl notes, critical reception has been pretty favorable, with a few exceptions (I read the New Yorker’s hatchet job and thought it was way off the mark).
Steve’s books have been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes twice before, but the award has so far eluded him. I predict that Better Angels will finally nab him that honor.