Steven Pinker is the author of many major books on language and cognition. In his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, Pinker argues that, contrary to popular belief, violence has declined and that humankind has become progressively less violent, over millenia and decades. Can this be true, though? The images of global conflict we see daily on our screens suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. Extraordinarily, however, Pinker shows violence within and between societies – both murder and warfare – has actually declined from prehistory to today.
Debunking both the idea of the ‘noble savage’ and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a ‘nasty, brutish and short’ life, Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. He ranges over everything from art to religion, international trade to individual table manners, and shows how life has changed across the centuries and around the world – not simply through the huge benefits of organised government, but also because of the extraordinary power of progressive ideas. Why has this come about? And what does it tell us about ourselves? It takes one of the world’s greatest psychologists to have the ambition and the breadth of understanding to appreciate and explain this story, to show us our very natures. Better Angels of our Nature has already generated huge debate internationally. This debate continues in this session.
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Until 2003, he taught in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. He conducts research on language and cognition, writes for publications such as The New York Times, Time and Slate, and is the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought, among others.
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