Steven Pinker (1954-): The Better Angels of Our Nature: Conflict Book Review

This massive book by the Canadian academic Steven Pinker, is so full of the most extraordinary data and insights that I think it is probably one of the best, most interesting  books I have ever read. It certainly met the criteria of changing my mind on a whole array of issues, not least the massive decline in killing per 100,000 of the population from hunter gatherers right through up to today.

Modern day hunter gatherers can kill up to 1500 of their number per 100,000 per year. And though the data is less certain, it is likely our forebears pre-settled agriculture achieve similar rates in Pinker’s view. Even 20th century Germany and Russia managed around 100 per 100,000 per year. And today most of Western Europe and the northern states of the US manage 1 per 100,000 per year. The South is still more violent. Though the USA as a whole has fallen from 10 per 100,000 in the early 90s to 5 today. And along with this long term decline in killing has been a parallel fall in other forms of violence and cruelty such as torture, and rape, though of course there have been spikes in violence and cruelty along the way, like the 55 million dead of World War 2.

The suggestion that hunter-gatherer societies can be very violent is generating a firestorm of criticism, as it cuts against a whole perspective of their essential nobility. I will watch with interest where this lands up. I am reminded of the vitriol that Paul Ekman generated among anthropologists when he showed that the reading of fundamental emotions was common across all cultures from New Guinea to the US. He was laughed off the platform at a conference. Though subsequently the more open minded anthropologists replicated his findings. Thus does paradigm shift occur. And I think Steven Pinker may be attempting the same.

The book is a detailed, data and evidence backed, working through of the detail of this trend and its causes. In Pinker’s view the fundamental causes of the decline are five:

1)  Hobbes Leviathan: the power of the state to enforce the rule of law by the threat of force

2) Gentle Commerce: trade builds non-violent connections that make violent seizure pointless

3) Feminization: greater power and influence for women especially over reproductive decisions changes the nature of society towards avoiding violent conflict

4) The Expanding Circle: our ability to include an ever larger proportion of humanity beyond our immediate circle, tribe, religion or nation in moral consideration

5) The Escalator of Reason: as our powers of reasoning grow we seem able to go beyond violence based Prisoner’s Dilemma and see the rationality of cooperation.

It will take me a lot of further study on my part to absorb all of this. But based on my own field of study: conflict, his arguments and data sets are profoundly convincing. So I most strongly recommend reading this book. And of course, in our present grey reality, it is good to have some data backed reason for hope. And I also see it as a fierce defense of ‘The Enlightenment’ which had fallen on hard times at the hands of post-modernists and other data free ists.


This is Steven below looking a bit worn down by all the ancient atrocities he had to research for this book. He confesses to the nightmares they have generated. He is no Candide:

See also:

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict Book Reviews, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Neuro-science of conflict, Philosophy of Conflict, Religious Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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