Book review: The Better Angels of our Nature


Whoo. Four stars. OK, 5 stars for philosophical arguments and hard science content, 3 stars because it is hard to listen to for hours on end.

This is an important book, and one that argues that over the time scale of humanity (decades, centuries and millennia), instead of at our puny scale of 24-hour news cycle CNN or short term memory of the last few days or weeks, violence as consistently declined. Pinker argues with compelling evidence that the background violence that used to be taken for granted (murder, rape, robbery, war) is much less prevalent as time goes on. Because our brains don’t carry the long view unless someone assembles the data and points it out, we are inclined to see what our nightly TV and news cycles bring us: episodes of violence across the globe.

Pinker argues that global communication technologies (the Gutenburg press and thus books, then radio, TV, internet) both enhance our ability to understand the other AND ALSO over-emphasizes the individual acts of violence, as those salacious details are “what sells” and what our hind-brains, wired for risk-assessment, remember most easily.

And yet the statistics speak loudly that the “truthiness” of what our gut tells us, is not true. In chapter after chapter, example after example, Pinker deconstructs our presumptions and shows us we are wrong. This is the best, least violent era yet for humanity.

CMIO’s take: Maybe it is less newsworthy, but voices like Pinker are sorely needed.

Author: CT Lin

CMIO, UCHealth (Colorado); Professor, University of Colorado School of Medicine

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