Andrew Anthony in The Guardian:
Human nature is a highly contested concept, but whatever it may amount to, it doesn't seem to involve a thirst for good news. Which may be a problem for Steven Pinker, who has dedicated much of his academic life to the study of human nature, because his latest book is full of good news.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, the celebrated evolutionary psychologist and bestselling author argues that we – the human race – are becoming progressively less violent. To the consumer of 24-hour news, steeped in images of conflict and war, that may sound plain wrong. But Pinker supports his case with a wealth of data.
Drawing on the work of the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, Pinker recently concluded that the chance of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors meeting a bloody end was somewhere between 15% and 60%. In the 20th century, which included two world wars and the mass killers Stalin and Hitler, the likelihood of a European or American dying a violent death was less than 1%.
Pinker shows that, with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages. It may come as a surprise to fans of Inspector Morse but Oxford in the 1300s, Pinker tells us, was 110 times more murderous than it is today. With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls this movement away from killing the “civilising process”.