Steven Pinker presents a comprehensive examination of the history of violence, a wealth of evidence for its clear and dramatic decline in all areas of violence, well founded arguments for the key exogenous (external) causes for each decline, and a breakdown of several human traits (angels and demons of our natures) that can lead us into and away from violence.
It is certainly among the greatest books I have ever read, and it felt that way from relatively early on. We live under a daily barrage of bad news that tries to convince us these are the worst of times. Becoming convinced, at my core, that today, this day, is probably the best day ever for the most people ever, was like stumbling upon some great treasure, and knowing it was priceless.
Pinker divides the book into several sections. The first is a visit to the past for a tour of horrors which were once considered commonplace, even godly but are now basically unthinkable. He introduces the pacification process, in which small powers try to keep their peasants from killing each other. Then the civilising process in which people began to desire more civil behaviour. The Humanitarian Revolution wherein a regard for human life developed. The Long Peace and the New Peace look at the violence and aftermath of the World Wars, and the post Vietnam era respectively, showing how the violence was relatively small against the backdrop of history and almost non-existent in recent times. The Rights Revolution examines the rise/explosion of animal rights, human rights, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, etc. The work is dense and thorough, but readable.
The book closes with an examination of our inner demons (Predation, Dominance, Revenge, Sadism and Ideology), our better angels (Empathy, Self-Control, Recent Biological Evolution?, Morality and Taboo, and Reason), and a final reflection and summation that helps toward processing it all. Again, some of Pinker's observations and approaches are extraordinarily insightful. He breaks morality into five different categories that brings new clarity to the liberal/conservative breakdown (Conservatives still value all five categories, classic Liberals only value two).
It challenged, then changed some of my long held beliefs. We have been developing so very quickly. Human rights were unheard of until just a generation ago. It was only a little over a hundred years ago that very first child abuse cases were heard in the United States and the UK – both brought to court by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – for children had no legal protection. While our access to media may present us with an endless stream of outrageous violence and injustice, a look at the past reminds me that being touched by violence used to be literally 30 times more likely, and would have caused no outrage, probably not even a raised eyebrow. Sure, there is a anti-civilising push back by people who fail to understand their peace, prosperity and security are actually the product of what they rail against (Hello Donald Trump) but the push will wither if we stand and more and more people will learn to value others and genuinely care for their welfare.
This is a very hopeful book. I will be gifting it to several people. I encourage you to read it. On a personal note, I was particularly encouraged when Pinker credited the invention of the novel as one of the greatest triggers in the decline of violence. “Reading is a technology for perspective taking.” Fiction is an effective way to challenge people's sensibilities and when reading the pages of Richardson's Pamela, Clarissa, and Rosseau's Julie, “grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women with whom they had nothing in common.” For me this was deeply inspiring – but the book is a treasure trove of inspiration and gentle hope.