There's a great deal to say about this book and that's primarily because there's great deal in it. It is the kind of compendium of argumentation one would expect to come out of a single mind which correlates with a number of similar types of theorists but it defies common sense and theoretical plans in ways that make its own thesis mockable. Which is to say it's bound to be a controversial and important book for years to come as we come back to it rather in the same way we came back to Fukyama after 9/11.The thesis? Stop worrying about The Bomb because in just about every way you can measure, humanity has grown up and we are all non-violent now.
I've had just about all I can take of Pinker as he marches into the current events section late in the book. I may finish, but I've certainly read enough to find some extraordinarily good stuff. What Pinker has done in many ways is that he has justified just about everything I've considered in my eschewing the domestic noise over the body counts of the Civil Rights Movement as its justification. He has opened up the real can of facts about the thing I've been calling War TV - getting real about the body counts and the relative importance of mortality in estimating how much moral outrage is appropriate given the nature and history of war. So it's rather disappointing that he spends so much time exemplifying this and that in terms of gender and race relations in contemporary America rather than something socially much more world historical like the One Child Policy in China.
Pinker sometimes annoys me by confusing the map with the territory. Granted, you must not suspend disbelief as he goes through the statistics about violence - and he does so in every category in every country in which they are available, but when statistics fail to show motive he inserts his own narrative which I think tends to be overly progressive. Pinker also betrays a biased understanding of how history unfolds. He most definitely comes from the Great Man school. Have too recently read Esdaile's account of the Napoleonic Wars as well as several histories from Ferguson (Warburg, Civilization, Pity of War, Ascent of Money) most everything Pinker gives as a reason for conflict feels incredibly reductive. As well, he all too often falls into contemporary metaphor for example, citing Tom Lehrer's song "Who's Next" to describe the public's attitude towards nuclear proliferation. That's ok for bloggers. Not so much for historians.
To his great credit, Pinker eviscerates a good deal of wishful thinking and illustrates how attitudes and mental illusions cloud the way people interpret facts and news. I think that at an individual level, Pinker has got it nailed. But I don't think he does any justice to the ways and means by which polities express themselves and wield the powers that move the great powers. This is the missing piece in his narrative that I think moves too quickly from statistical correlations and causalities to conclusions about whys and wherefores. He has done, as far as I can tell, a very credible job in interpreting the statisics and analyses to which he has availed himself, but the arc of his story is far too ambitious to support the theory he proposes. Nevertheless, the entire subject of violence has been kicked up a notch and the challenges he presents to sociology is rather immense. Number one on this chart is his disabuse of the 'hydraulic theory' of violence - that every suppression of violent behavior in one segment of society or humanity must be countered by an escalation somewhere else, or that aggression suppressed boils under the covers only to explode somewhere else. In this, he explodes myths about war in Africa, the nature of rape and speculation about our long peace' lacuna, like the idea that WW3 is next.
Number Two myth that Pinker explodes is particularly salient. Pinker challenges the unquestioned association of violence with poverty. The argument is simple and clear. The third world remains poor, remains young and remains 'restlessly' male. But the incidence of civil wars change dramatically over time even though these 'structural variables' do not.
What dampens my enthusiasm about Pinker's book is that I think he extrapolates a bit too far with his ideas about civilizing processes, specifically when making the case about nukes. His use of Hobbesian Leviathan ideas work in conjunction with his ideas about personal honor codes and self-help justice, but when he extends them to the progress made on nuclear disarmament I think he completely misses the boat. I think that it is entirely reasonable to give credit where credit is due with regard to nuclear disarmament and the failure of the Cold War to end in nuclear winter. And he is right to chastise the maintainers of the Doomsday Clock to change their criteria so that it's always a minute to midnight. But nuclear disarmament talks were the reason new regimes were set in place to make great power war less likely. Such diplomacy does not trickle down. So all the multifarious reasons the rape of women within the context of marriage has been criminalized has nothing to do with the multifarious reasons Russian troops did not engage American troops in Vietnam.
In short I don't see any overarching theory that can explain the reduction in violent human behavior than exactly the allegory he uses in his title. 'Better Angels'. There are too many specific angels to describe the whole heavenly host. And that is proper. Perhaps vio But where he goes to make the cases that he can are excellent and not to be missed. I do tend to agree that his theory ought to be 'The Nationalization of Violence' and spend more time examining the very specific ways that societies, cultures, groups and individuals disempower themselves of violent recourse for the sake of national identity - presicesly the give and take of individual sovereignty and the defense of rights. That would be a book we could sink our teeth into.(Because it would support or debunk a further explanation of why political philosophy does or does not work to reduce war.)
Because the social contract has changed so much between the 17th/18th century Europe and today in so many sovereign polities one cannot make much use of those statistics. But we could look at the trade offs between individual defense of liberties & honor codes vs those formalized by government powers in a variety of nations. I just felt throughout that South America just didn't figure into any of his calculations and the nature of the crimes perpetrated by dictators there in recent history were given short shrift merely because they didn't involve enough Europeans or interest enough European statisticians. So he had no narrative to make up and left power laws to describe all their conflicts.
So basically what you are left with is a chunky soup of a book that masquerades as a meal. Everything that is wrong with the book is everything wrong with aggregating micro and uneven distributions of statistics into a grand narrative that self-admittedly can make no predictions. It's almost a theory but more often than not sounds like wishful thinking in the gaps between very strong and pointed debunking arguments. If Pinker is the best in the world, he shows exactly how far we have to go to understand ourselves. If not, then he puts statistics to good use, and overuse showing why we need more historians like Esdaile and Furguson.