Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes

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About the Author:

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time and Slate, and is the author of six books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought.

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Praise for Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature

A New York Times Notable Book

A Library Journal Best Book of the Year

One of Amazon’s 100 Best Books of the Year

A NetGalley Best of 2011

“For anyone interested in human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor. . . . A supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement.”

The New York Times Book Review

“An extraordinary range of research . . . a masterly effort.”

The Wall Street Journal

“It is quite a story, and Pinker tells it ably. There are stimulating thoughts on nearly every page.”

New York

Better Angels is a monumental achievement. His book should make it much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future. Whether war is an ancient adaptation or a pernicious cultural infection, we are learning how to overcome it.”


“Classic Pinker, jammed with facts, figures, and points of speculative departure; a big, complex book, well worth the effort for the good news that it delivers.”

Kirkus Reviews

“This long, well-researched, comprehensive tour de force provides a helpful look at the human condition.”


“A hugely important work and major contribution to historiography.”

—Niall Ferguson, professor of history, Harvard University, and

author of Civilization: The West and the Rest



Table of Contents

Praise for Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE

About the Author

Also by Steven Pinker

Title Page

Copyright Page









Chapter 5 - THE LONG PEACE

Chapter 6 - THE NEW PEACE


Chapter 8 - INNER DEMONS


Chapter 10 - ON ANGELS’ WINGS









Eva, Carl, and Eric


Jack and David


Yael and Danielle



and the world they will inherit

What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and the scum of the universe.

—Blaise Pascal



1–1 Everyday violence in a bodybuilding ad, 1940s
1–2 Domestic violence in a coffee ad, 1952
2–1 The violence triangle
2–2 Percentage of deaths in warfare in nonstate and state societies
2–3 Rate of death in warfare in nonstate and state societies
2–4 Homicide rates in the least violent nonstate societies compared to state societies
3–1 Homicide rates in England, 1200–2000: Gurr’s 1981 estimates
3–2 Homicide rates in England, 1200–2000
3–3 Homicide rates in five Western European regions, 1300–2000
3–4 Homicide rates in Western Europe, 1300–2000, and in nonstate societies
3–5 Detail from “Saturn,” Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch (The Medieval Housebook, 1475–80)
3–6 Detail from “Mars,” Das Mittelalterliche Hausbuch (The Medieval Housebook, 1475–80)
3–7 Percentage of deaths of English male aristocrats from violence, 1330–1829
3–8 Geography of homicide in Europe, late 19th and early 21st centuries
3–9 Geography of homicide in the world, 2004
3–10 Homicide rates in the United States and England, 1900–2000
3–11 Geography of homicide in the United States, 2007
3–12 Homicide rates in England, 1300–1925, and New England, 1630–1914
3–13 Homicide rates in the northeastern United States, 1636–1900
3–14 Homicide rates among blacks and whites in New York and Philadelphia, 1797–1952
3–15 Homicide rates in the southeastern United States, 1620–1900

3–16 Homicide rates in the southwestern United States and California, 1830–1914
3–17 Flouting conventions of cleanliness and propriety in the 1960s
3–18 Homicide rates in the United States, 1950–2010, and Canada, 1961–2009
3–19 Homicide rates in five Western European countries, 1900–2009
4–1 Torture in medieval and early modern Europe
4–2 Time line for the abolition of judicial torture
4–3 Time line for the abolition of capital punishment in Europe
4–4 Execution rate in the United States, 1640–2010
4–5 Executions for crimes other than homicide in the United States, 1650–2002
4–6 Time line for the abolition of slavery
4–7 Real income per person in England, 1200–2000
4–8 Efficiency in book production in England, 1470–1860s
4–9 Number of books in English published per decade, 1475–1800
4–10 Literacy rate in England, 1625–1925
5–1 Two pessimistic possibilities for historical trends in war
5–2 Two less pessimistic possibilities for historical trends in war
5–3 100 worst wars and atrocities in human history
5–4 Historical myopia: Centimeters of text per century in a historical almanac
5–5 Random and nonrandom patterns
5–6 Richardson’s data
5–7 Number of deadly quarrels of different magnitudes, 1820–1952
5–8 Probabilities of wars of different magnitudes, 1820–1997
5–9 Heights of males (a normal or bell-curve distribution)
5–10 Populations of cities (a power-law distribution), plotted on linear and log scales
5–11 Total deaths from quarrels of different magnitudes
5–12 Percentage of years in which the great powers fought one another, 1500–2000
5–13 Frequency of wars involving the great powers, 1500–2000
5–14 Duration of wars involving the great powers, 1500–2000
5–15 Deaths in wars involving the great powers, 1500–2000
5–16 Concentration of deaths in wars involving the great powers, 1500–2000
5–17 Conflicts per year in greater Europe, 1400–2000

5–18 Rate of death in conflicts in greater Europe, 1400–2000
5–19 Length of military conscription, 48 major long-established nations, 1970–2010
5–20 Military personnel, United States and Europe, 1950–2000
5–21 Percentage of territorial wars resulting in redistribution of territory, 1651–2000
5–22 Nonnuclear states that started and stopped exploring nuclear weapons, 1945–2010
5–23 Democracies, autocracies, and anocracies, 1946–2008
5–24 International trade relative to GDP, 1885–2000
5–25 Average number of IGO memberships shared by a pair of countries, 1885–2000
5–26 Probability of militarized disputes between pairs of democracies and other pairs of countries, 1825–1992
6–1 Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts, 1900–2005
6–2 Rate of battle deaths in state-based armed conflicts, 1946–2008
6–3 Number of state-based armed conflicts, 1946–2009
6–4 Deadliness of interstate and civil wars, 1950–2005
6–5 Geography of armed conflict, 2008
6–6 Growth of peacekeeping, 1948–2008
6–7 Rate of deaths in genocides, 1900–2008
6–8 Rate of deaths in genocides, 1956–2008
6–9 Rate of deaths from terrorism, United States, 1970–2007
6–10 Rate of deaths from terrorism, Western Europe, 1970–2007
6–11 Rate of deaths from terrorism, worldwide except Afghanistan 2001–and Iraq 2003–
6–12 Islamic and world conflicts, 1990–2006
7–1 Use of the terms civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights,
and animal rights in English-language books, 1948–2000
7–2 Lynchings in the United States, 1882–1969
7–3 Hate-crime murders of African Americans, 1996–2008
7–4 Nonlethal hate crimes against African Americans, 1996–2008
7–5 Discriminatory and affirmative action policies, 1950–2003
7–6 Segregationist attitudes in the United States, 1942–1997
7–7 White attitudes to interracial marriage in the United States, 1958–2008
7–8 Unfavorable opinions of African Americans, 1977–2006
7–9 Rape prevention and response sticker
7–10 Rape and homicide rates in the United States, 1973–2008

7–11 Attitudes toward women in the United States, 1970–1995
7–12 Approval of husband slapping wife in the United States, 1968–1994
7–13 Assaults by intimate partners, United States, 1993–2005
7–14 Homicides of intimate partners in the United States, 1976–2005
7–15 Domestic violence in England and Wales, 1995–2008
7–16 Abortions in the world, 1980–2003
7–17 Approval of spanking in the United States, Sweden, and New Zealand, 1954–2008
7–18 Approval of corporal punishment in schools in the United States, 1954–2002

7–19 American states allowing corporal punishment in schools, 1954–2010
7–20 Child abuse in the United States, 1990–2007
7–21 Another form of violence against children
7–22 Violence against youths in the United States, 1992–2003
7–23 Time line for the decriminalization of homosexuality,
United States and world
7–24 Intolerance of homosexuality in the United States, 1973–2010
7–25 Antigay hate crimes in the United States, 1996–2008
7–26 Percentage of American households with hunters, 1977–2006
7–27 Number of motion pictures per year in which animals were harmed, 1972–2010

7–28 Vegetarianism in the United States and United Kingdom, 1984–2009
8–1 Rat brain, showing the major structures involved in aggression
8–2 Human brain, showing the major subcortical structures involved in aggression
8–3 Human brain, showing the major cortical regions that regulate aggression

8–4 Human brain, medial view
8–5 The Prisoner’s Dilemma
8–6 Apologies by political and religious leaders, 1900–2004
9–1 Implicit interest rates in England, 1170–2000
9–2 The Flynn Effect: Rising IQ scores, 1947–2002
10–1 The Pacifist’s Dilemma
10–2 How a Leviathan resolves the Pacifist’s Dilemma
10–3 How commerce resolves the Pacifist’s Dilemma
10–4 How feminization can resolve the Pacifist’s Dilemma
10–5 How empathy and reason resolve the Pacifist’s Dilemma


This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

No aspect of life is untouched by the retreat from violence. Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.

The historical trajectory of violence affects not only how life is lived but how it is understood. What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off? How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity—of the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science? So much depends on how we understand the legacy of this transition: whether we see our world as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide, and war, or as a period that, by the standards of history, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.

The question of whether the arithmetic sign of trends in violence is positive or negative also bears on our conception of human nature. Though theories of human nature rooted in biology are often associated with fatalism about violence, and the theory that the mind is a blank slate is associated with progress, in my view it is the other way around. How are we to understand the natural state of life when our species first emerged and the processes of history began? The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has xxi decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue.

This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword “If it bleeds, it leads.” The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.1 No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be dis...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9780143122012: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

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ISBN 10: 0143122010 ISBN 13: 9780143122012
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2012

9781846140945: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes

Allen ..., 2011

9780670023158: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Penguin, 2015

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