On Steven Pinker’s history of violence

Ingrid Norton in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_01 Dec. 07 12.00Pinker is a curious, lucid guide across eons of evidence. He is equally articulate about the social arrangements of primates and the pacifist theories of Immanuel Kant. With eclectic verve, he surveys taxonomies of different kinds of warfare, explores the way satire can puncture social norms, and interrogates how the increased presence of women in the public sphere has changed men’s perception of rape and sexual harassment. The scope of the undertaking is staggering; the results, unfailingly thought provoking.

But The Better Angels can also be an unwieldy book, by turns digressive and selective. Part of the problem is the infinite regress inherent to any deep examination of human existence, where myriad cultures and millions of years must be telescoped into a few hundred pages. Drawing on the empirical studies of evolutionary psychology and the evidence of anthropologists, archeologists, and primatologists, Pinker asserts that bloody conflict pervaded the thousands of generations before written history. As homo sapiens transitioned from small bands of foragers to larger agricultural and urbanized groups, rulers and fiefdoms emerged, which in turn led to empires and states. The concentration of power lessened homicide and feuding but brought forth organized armies and new forms of oppression. Narrative at this scale necessitates summary: solving solving the problems of tyranny and coercive government, Pinker explains at one point, “would have to wait another few millennia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day.” Pinker’s vast scholarship, cogent intellect, and engaging style sweep the reader along, but also tend to mask some questionable — and significant — oversights.

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