The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker

Taking a long look back through human history, Steven Pinker draws an overarching conclusion: human beings are becoming less violent. To make his case, he draws from work in many areas of history, philosophy, sociology and psychology. He casts a very wide net, trying to think on both the scale of millennia and the scale of the individual human. By the time I finished The Better Angels of Our Nature, I wasn’t so much convinced as overwhelmed. I felt like I had been at a dinner party where one guest had done all the talking about everything he knows.

Pinker’s book can be divided roughly into three parts. In the historical section, he identifies three large-scale developments in human history that led, he argues, to a lessening of violence: the move of humans into cities and onto farms, the development of the nation-state in Europe and the philosophical Enlightenment, also in Europe. In the second section, Pinker tries to work both historically and with contemporary social science to show that in the past 50 years violence has decreased remarkably worldwide, and especially in Europe and the United States. He calls this “The Long Peace” and “The New Peace.” In the book’s third and by far the most interesting and nuanced section, Pinker looks into the psychology of human violence and the psychology of nonviolence, speculating on human nature and the human future.

Running through the book is one theme that unlocks everything else: we are becoming less violent because of the development of reason. The breakthrough for Western Europe was in the philosophical Enlightenment: