Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"The Better Angels of Our Nature"

I'm told that everyone should read Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". I would, myself, if I didn't read so ploddingly slowly that it'd take forever to get through 832 pages.

The book's very hotly debated, though even its detractors find it brilliant. Having gotten the sense this may come to be considered a classic, I'm currently flitting around it: reading reviews, interviews, and sample chapters, and generally trying to work up the zeal to tackle the thing.

Here's Pinker doing a Cliff's Note's version (plus Q&A).

BBC interview with author Steven Pinker (also see the insightful reader commentary on that page)

Raving NY Times review ("The Better Angels of Our Nature is a supremely important book")

A famously critical review by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker (you must be a subscriber to view it). Here is Pinker's reply to that review (scroll down to "Other Questions").

Read quoted passages from the New Yorker review in this interesting survey of Pinker along with other recent "Big Idea" books, of which the writer is understandably skeptical:
"The history of publishing is replete with big ideas — see Francis Fukuyama’s end of history or Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations — that haven’t quite panned out. (China shows no sign of withering away without democracy, for example.) But as grand Theories of Everything arrive fast and thick, a growing skepticism of such unifying ideas has also emerged."
Yes, there's a very long list of these, going back centuries. And, yes, from "Capital" to "The Population Bomb" to "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", regardless of the brilliance of the minds which spawned them, Big Ideas books most often turn out to be considered overreaching displays of intellectual hubris. But they're fun, they're provocative, and they keep us thinking. Which is good enough!

Here's an impressive Amazon reader review, as well as the interesting (and only sporadically flamey) three page discussion it spawned.

Finally, for a 98 minute super-entertaining theatrical treatment of similar themes, don't miss David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" (2005). Quoting Roger Ebert's review:
"David Cronenberg says his title "A History of Violence" has three levels: It refers (1) to a suspect with a long history of violence; (2) to the historical use of violence as a means of settling disputes, and (3) to the innate violence of Darwinian evolution, in which better-adapted organisms replace those less able to cope."
I share Cronenberg's thinking. It strikes me as obvious that evolution favors the most violently competitive (which explains why there aren't indications of intelligent life in the universe). That said, a subtle evolutionary process does work the other way. Actions such as surrender, forgiveness, acceptance, and love all trigger an unmistakeable spritz of bliss. There is, for some reason, an innate biological reward mechanism encouraging those things; and myriad spiritual traditions insist that, in the very long run, this will win out over coarser, crueler impulses which, truly, provide a rather shoddier high.

Just so long as we don't blow ourselves up first.

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