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"The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker
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October 21, 2011, 11:40 PM
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In the November issue of The American Conservative, I have a lengthy review of Steven Pinker`s new book. Subscribers can read my review online, or you can buy a paper copy of the magazine at a newsstand for money (a remarkable concept, I realize).

Here is a small excerpt:

Disorder is a dauntingly vast topic. So, we are lucky that Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist whose 2002 work The Blank Slate may have been the outstanding book of the last decade, has turned his abundant energy and intelligence to understanding violence. No reductionist, Pinker attributes what he sees as the slow retreat from violence to "six trends" interacting with "five inner demons," "four better angels," and "five historical forces."  

These 20 factors — ranging from the rise of Leviathan to the expansion of empathy and rationality — aren`t really enough to explain trends in violence, but they`re certainly a start. And I can`t think of anybody who could have done a better job. Pinker`s range is extraordinary. For instance, The Better Angels of Our Nature includes the best introduction to brain anatomy that I`ve read. (And Pinker isn`t even all that terribly impressed by fashionable fMRI scans.) Yet, his touch is light. He sums up the research on why marriage makes men behave better with Johnny Cash`s definitive explanatory couplet: "Because you`re mine, I walk the line."  

(And, in case you are wondering, yes, Pinker eventually does quote Edwin Starr`s 1970 Motown hit single: "War! Huh, yeah, what is it good for?" Being Pinker, he presents a long list of the pragmatic uses of war, while remaining in emotional harmony with Starr`s sentiment: "Absolutely nothing!")

For the parts of my review where I critique Better Angels, well, you can read the review. 

A few points: the topic of violence is gigantic and Pinker`s book is remarkably thorough. So, don`t assume that Pinker hasn`t considered, at length, the various counter-arguments. My galley copy is festooned with my notes to myself in the margin like: "A-ha! P. is ignoring X. That undermines his whole argument." But then, 400 pages later, Pinker writes something like, "You have probably noticed that so far I haven`t mentioned X, which might seem to undermine my whole argument. But, I have seven responses to X." 

Second, even though my American Conservative review is about 3,000 words long, I wound up having to leave out lots of good stuff. Some of it then went into my new Taki`s Magazine column comparing Pinker`s book on violence to Pat Buchanan`s Suicide of a Superpower in light of the violent homicide of Col. Kathafi.

Third, Graham Siebert has a good review of Pinker`s book at Amazon.