The Better Angels of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker

“As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister.”

I’m not sure why I’ve decided to review this book now. It’s not a new book and it’s been a while since I read it. I just saw it sitting on my shelf and got to thinking about it, about how hopeful it is and how starkly it contrasts with most of the news being pumped through on my feed. I think it carries a really important message, one that sounds a bit of a rallying cry to those that refuse to believe things are only getting worse and worse, and one that deserves to get spread around as much as possible.

It’s not very often that you read a book that completely changes the way that you think about things. I’d always known that I had a problem with that “everything these days is so much worse than it was when I was a kid” thing that people always say, but I never really pushed back against it. I disagreed, but I wasn’t able to articulate the reasons why it didn’t seem right to me that we were living in an era of unprecedented crime and danger, even though we could see rights for several marginalized groups steadily improving over the course of the last few decades, that I myself could come out of the closet in a small rural community and have almost no issues (there were a few, but nothing like what I would have gone through twenty, even ten, years before. I may not have always been happy with the way people talked to me, but I was safe). Better Angels Of Our Nature not only gave me the tools and knowledge I needed to confirm my suspicions that we were, in fact, doing okay, but also provided me with a complete change in perspective when looking at the current state of mankind.
This book goes through and systematically picks apart the idea of continually declining morals, using historical context (being alive in medieval times, or industrial revolution times, or ANY time before now was fucking bleak), statistical information regarding death by violent causes (often even low balling past numbers and high balling current numbers just to make it seem fair), and giving some pretty good reasons why people always seem to think the world is spiraling out of control (historical myopia, confirmation bias, increased access to information regarding crimes through media, etc.).
Brief warning before you dive into this one, it’s a brick of a book. It’s big and it’s full of lots of statistical data and facts about the human brain and behavior, so you’ve got to be prepared to parse through a lot of that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong, this book is not a slog. Stephen Pinker is a great writer with an engaging voice and humor to spare, but it does require a lot of attention and more than a little effort to get through.
I’m worried that I’ve left the impression that this book is a clinical dissection of things, and that’s not really the case. It’s very well argued, Stephen Pinker is an academic and structures his argument like one, but the message behind it is a really hopeful, human one. He makes the argument that we should be proud of ourselves for what we’ve managed to do so far and that we shouldn’t give up pushing for progress, because when we’ve done it in the past we’ve made some (albeit limited) progress. Societal advancement is a stop and start, stuttering, sometimes slightly backsliding process, but it does have a general upwards tick to it.
Anyways, this was a really good, informative, hopeful read. If you’re a human behavioral nerd like me, a history nerd like me, or you just want a book that will prove to you the world is not barrelling down a barren slope into an open, bone strewn pit, you should give it a go.

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