Peace in Our Time
Steven Pinker offers a curiously foreshortened account of humanity's irenic urges
Douglas P. Fry
The Better Angels of Our Nature
by Steven Pinker
$40.00 List Price
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker stakes out a boldly optimistic view of the world, at a time when his readers are no doubt processing all kinds of bad news. Straining at the bigger picture of the trends afoot in human history, Pinker argues that violence is at an all-time low today—and human rights, social equality, and gender egalitarianism are at all-time highs.
With apologies to Shakespeare, we might say that Pinker, who has helped spell out the more arcane findings of his field in best-selling studies such as How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002), writes not wisely but too well. He is a very clever wordsmith on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but in this newest work, serious problems arise with his central story line.
These shortcomings are especially unfortunate here since Pinker’s basic claim is itself largely on target: Physical violence has been decreasing over recent millennia. But the operative words in this formulation are physical violence and recent, and the chronology that Pinker adopts in The Better Angels of Our Nature deftly elides this recent progress with the bulk of the human story—chiefly by his simple failure to acknowledge much of that story’s earlier chapters. In essence, Pinker’s fable of steadily more peaceful human self-improvement starts not at the raising of the curtain, and not even in the middle of the play, but only in the final act.
This brings us to what readers of The Better Angels of Our Nature might call Pinker’s Big Lie—or what he leaves out of the human saga. For
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