John Naughton Saturday 15 October 2011 19.47 BST
Steven Pinker claims in his new book that far from being the bloodiest era in human history, ours is a time when violence has been in steep decline. Here, he explains how mankind turned its back on brutality
...This is a big idea if ever I saw one, and it requires a massive tome (700 pages plus footnotes) to deal with it. In the first place, Pinker has to locate, analyse and explain the empirical and other data that support his thesis: that, however you measure it, the past was not just a different country, but also a far more violent one. And then he has to provide some explanations for why the long-term reduction in violence happened. To do that he ranges far beyond his own professional territory – into forensic archaeology, political philosophy, intellectual and social history, population dynamics, statistics and international relations. He identifies a number of forces that were key factors in curbing mankind's capacity for inhumanity: the slow emergence of states capable of playing the role of Hobbes's "Leviathan"; the pacifying impact of commerce and trade on behaviour; the impact of the Enlightenment on the way people thought about others; the evolution of notions of etiquette over the centuries; the way print and literacy expanded the "circle of empathy" beyond people's immediate family; the importance of women in civilising men; and the "long peace" that followed the second world war.
The Better Angels is a long, absorbing and sometimes horrifying book, because in order to establish his case Pinker has to dwell at some length not just on the savagery of the past, but on the way brutality and cruelty was – until relatively recently – taken for granted. If you want to know about medieval forms of torture, or the favourite tools of the Inquisition, or how Tamerlane's troops operated, then you will find ample material here. The ingenuity of human barbarism knows no limits. What's even more salutary, however, is the realisation that it's not all that long ago since people were routinely hung, drawn and quartered in England; or that flogging and keelhauling were routine methods of maintaining discipline in the Royal Navy; or that nobody batted an eye at the flogging of children as late as the 1950s.
and a link to the book for sale on Amazon...