This is a book with a reputation. Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds. It has also received its fair share of criticism. Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.
In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up. Something to bring back some sense of optimism. Some sense of progress. Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill. It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.
Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious. His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire. The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011. At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.
The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating. Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world. Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.