The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. Viking, 2011.
I can’t stop telling people about this amazing landmark study of societal progress concerning violent behavior! Everyone I’ve talked to is cheered by the news that the 20th century was not the most violent; that with occasional exceptions, humans have been making solid progress in reducing violence; and that our treatment of “out-groups” of a different race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or even species, has grown increasingly respectful. The author writes clearly and enlivens his descriptions of countless psychological studies, numerous graphs and, in the beginning chapters, grisly depictions of torture, with just the right amount of anecdotal passages to keep the reader engaged throughout its nearly 700 pages. For example, you’ve got to love that the concept of deterrence is explained using lyrics from the old Jim Croce song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.”
Those who read the results of Pinker’s solid research in Better Angels will be better able to place the media’s sensationalized reporting on current violent incidents in historical context. In so doing, such people will be able to remain optimistic, understanding that these incidents are fewer in number and take fewer lives than would formerly have been the case. It is also welcome news that humans’ capacity for abstract reasoning and general intelligence has been rising steadily during the last century, and that this tends toward more peaceful behavior.
Furthermore, I now have another justification for my reading addiction: avid readers–of both fiction and non-fiction–test higher for empathy than non-readers.