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.
I am in the middle of reading An Ice Cream War by William Boyd, and came to notice a bit of an anniversary. It’s now hundred years since the Battle of Tanga, otherwise known as the Battle of the Bees.
Continue reading Post 53: Bees??
It may not have escaped your attention that today was the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princep, an act that set forth a chain of events that led to the First World War. It certainly didn’t escape the attention of Zack Twamley of the When Diplomacy Fails podcast, and he’s doing a special series of episodes over the next few days on the so-called ‘July Crisis’ – that series of diplomatic actions that filled the period between the assassination and the outbreak of war. I don’t personally have much insight to add, it’s not really an era that I know a lot about, but it’s very topical and there seems to be a lot of interesting discussion about it at the minute.
Continue reading Post 25: When Diplomacy Fails: The July Crisis
Now for another podcast series, Zack Twamley’s When Diplomacy Fails, one which I mentioned briefly in my post on the History of England. In that Zack contributed a guest episode on the Battle of Bannockburn, an episode that would act as a prototype for this series. It focused on the war and specifically on why the war happened. Now, I don’t mind military history but at times I find it can descent into “A moved to B and did this, then C moved to D and did this …” until you end up with a long list of individually inconsequential events and start losing sight of the big picture. This podcast promised to be different, with an emphasis on the reasons behind wars and the factors that caused them to finished up as the do.
Continue reading Post 9: When Diplomacy Fails