The Better Angels of Our Nature
Why Violence Has Declined
A provocative history of violence—from the New York Times bestselling author of The Stuff of Thought and The Blank Slate
Believe it or not, today we may be living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence. In his gripping and controversial new work, New York Times bestselling author Steven Pinker shows that despite the ceaseless news about war, crime, and terrorism, violence has actually been in decline over long stretches of history. Exploding myths about humankind's inherent violence and the curse of modernity, this ambitious book continues Pinker's exploration of the essence of human nature, mixing psychology and history to provide a remarkable picture of an increasingly enlightened world.
In 1991 two hikers stumbled upon a corpse poking out of a melting glacier in the Tyrolean Alps. Thinking that it was the victim of a skiing accident, rescue workers jackhammered the body out of the ice, damaging his thigh and his backpack in the process. Only when an archaeologist spotted a Neolithic copper ax did people realize that the man was five thousand years old.
Ötzi the Iceman, as he is now called, became a celebrity. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine and has been the subject of many books, documentaries, and articles. Not since Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man (“I have more than 42,000 children and not one comes to visit me”) has a kilogenarian had so much to tell us about the past. Ötzi lived during the crucial transition in human prehistory when agriculture was replacing hunting and gathering, and tools were first made of metal rather than stone. Together with his ax and backpack, he carried a quiver of fletched arrows, a wood-handled dagger, and an ember wrapped in bark, part of an elaborate fire-starting kit. He wore a bearskin cap with a leather chinstrap, leggings sewn from animal hide, and waterproof snowshoes made from leather and twine and insulated with grass. He had tattoos on his arthritic joints, possibly a sign of acupuncture, and carried mushrooms with medicinal properties.
Ten years after the Iceman was discovered, a team of radiologists made a startling discovery: Ötzi had an arrowhead embedded in his shoulder. He had not fallen in a crevasse and frozen to death, as scientists had originally surmised; he had been murdered. As his body was examined by the CSI Neolithic team, the outlines of the crime came into view. Ötzi had unhealed cuts on his hands and wounds on his head and chest. DNA analyses found traces of blood from two other people on one of his arrowheads, blood from a third on his dagger, and blood from a fourth on his cape. According to one reconstruction, Ötzi belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighboring tribe. He killed a man with an arrow, retrieved it, killed another man, retrieved the arrow again, and carried a wounded comrade on his back before fending off an attack and being felled by an arrow himself.
Ötzi is not the only millennia-old man who became a scientific celebrity at the end of the 20th century. In 1996 spectators at a hydroplane race in Kennewick, Washington, noticed some bones poking out of a bank of the Columbia River. Archaeologists soon recovered the skeleton of a man who had lived 9,400 years ago. Kennewick Man quickly became the object of highly publicized legal and scientific battles. Several Native American tribes fought for custody of the skeleton and the right to bury it according to their traditions, but a federal court rejected their claims, noting that no human culture has ever been in continuous existence for nine millennia. When the scientific studies resumed, anthropologists were intrigued to learn that Kennewick Man was anatomically very different from today’s Native Americans. One report argued that he had European features; another that he matched the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan. Either possibility would imply that the Americas had been peopled by several independent migrations, contradicting DNA evidence suggesting that Native Americans are descendants of a single group of migrants from Siberia.
For plenty of reasons, then, Kennewick Man has become an object of fascination among the scientifically curious. And here is one more. Lodged in Kennewick Man’s pelvis is a stone projectile. Though the bone had partially healed, indicating that he didn’t die from the wound, the forensic evidence is unmistakable: Kennewick Man had been shot.
These are just two examples of famous prehistoric remains that have yielded grisly news about how their owners met their ends. Many visitors to the British Museum have been captivated by Lindow Man, an almost perfectly preserved two-thousand-year-old body discovered in an English peat bog in 1984. We don’t know how many of his children visited him, but we do know how he died. His skull had been fractured with a blunt object; his neck had been broken by a twisted cord; and for good measure his throat had been cut. Lindow Man may have been a Druid who was ritually sacrificed in three ways to satisfy three gods. Many other bog men and women from northern Europe show signs of having been strangled, bludgeoned, stabbed, or tortured.
In a single month while researching this book, I came across two new stories about remarkably preserved human remains. One is a two- thousand- year-old skull dug out of a muddy pit in northern England. The archaeologist who was cleaning the skull felt something move, looked through the opening at the base, and saw a yellow substance inside, which turned out to be a preserved brain. Once again, the unusual state of preservation was not the only noteworthy feature about the find. The skull had been deliberately severed from the body, suggesting to the archaeologist that it was a victim of human sacrifice. The other discovery was of a 4,600-year-old grave in Germany that held the remains of a man, a woman, and two boys. DNA analyses showed that they were members of a single nuclear family, the oldest known to science. The foursome had been buried at the same time—signs, the archaeologists said, that they had been killed in a raid.
What is it about the ancients that they couldn’t leave us an interesting corpse without resorting to foul play? Some cases may have an innocent explanation based in taphonomy, the processes by which bodies are preserved over long spans of time. Perhaps at the turn of the first millennium the only bodies that got dumped into bogs, there to be pickled for posterity, were those that had been ritually sacrificed. But with most of the bodies, we have no reason to think that they were preserved only because they had been murdered. Later we will look at the results of forensic investigations that can distinguish how an ancient body met its end from how it came down to us. For now, prehistoric remains convey the distinct impression that The Past is a place where a person had a high chance of coming to bodily harm.
Our understanding of prehistoric violence depends on the happenstance of which bodies were accidentally embalmed or fossilized, and so it must be radically incomplete. But once written language began to spread, ancient people left us with better information about how they conducted their affairs.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are considered the first great works of Western literature, and occupy the top slots in many guides to cultural literacy. Though these narratives are set at the time of the Trojan War around 1200 BCE, they were written down much later, between 800 and 650 BCE, and are thought to reflect life among the tribes and chiefdoms of the eastern Mediterranean in that era.
Today one often reads that total war, which targets an entire society rather than just its armed forces, is a modern invention. Total war has been blamed on the emergence of nation-states, on universalist ideologies, and on technologies that allow killing at a distance. But if Homer’s depictions are accurate (and they do jibe with archaeology, ethnography, and history), then the wars in archaic Greece were as total as anything in the modern age. Agamemnon explains to King Menelaus his plans for war:
Menelaus, my soft-hearted brother, why are you so concerned for these men? Did the Trojans treat you as handsomely when they stayed in your palace? No: we are not going to leave a single one of them alive, down to the babies in their mothers’ wombs—not even they must live. The whole people must be wiped out of existence, and none be left to think of them and shed a tear.
In his book The Rape of Troy, the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall discusses how archaic Greek wars were carried out:
Fast ships with shallow drafts are rowed onto beaches and seaside communities are sacked before neighbors can lend defensive support. The men are usually killed, livestock and other portable wealth are plundered, and women are carried off to live among the victors and perform sexual and menial labors. Homeric men live with the possibility of sudden, violent death, and the women live in fear for their men and children, and of sails on the horizon that may harbinger new lives of rape and slavery.
"My favorite book of the last decade is [Steven] Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature. It is a long but profound look at the reduction in violence and discrimination over time."--Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft
"For anyone interested in human nature, the material is engrossing, and when the going gets heavy, Pinker knows how to lighten it with ironic comments and a touch of humor. . . . A supremely important book. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement." — The New York Times Book Review
"An extraordinary range of research . . . a masterly effort." — The Wall Street Journal
"Better Angels is a monumental achievement. His book should make it much harder for pessimists to cling to their gloomy vision of the future. Whether war is an ancient adaptation or a pernicious cultural infection, we are learning how to overcome it."
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