Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, that “with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages.” Pinker challenges inherited concepts about human nature such as the ‘noble savage’ and defends individual agency despite recognizing the influence genetics has over our behavior.
What’s the Big Idea?
Pinker’s book is a rare blast of optimism, particularly given its focus on human nature. “With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls our collective movement away from killing the ‘civilising process’.” In the past, Pinker gained a reputation for his meditations on evolutionary psychology, which some were quick to criticize as a form of biological determinism. But Pinker has consistently defended free will in the face of genetics. “It’s this vision of our common humanity, what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’, that animates Pinker’s latest work.”