Despite the fatalistic cries of politicians, preachers and news anchors, we may actually be living in the least-violent period of human civilization. Experimental psychologist/author Steven Pinker traces the decline of violence in his weighty new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” though he admits that his findings seem a bit counterintuitive.

“There’s a quirk of the human mind that we estimate how dangerous something is by how easily we can think of examples,” Pinker says. “Well, it’s easy to think of examples of things blowing up and massacres and serial killers and senseless violence. It’s not so easy to conjure up images of all those people who died peacefully in bed.”

Still, more of us are doing just that than our ancestors did. With hard numbers and a quick wit, Pinker recounts just how risky daily life was in the “good old days,” from a recap of unpleasantness throughout the Bible to the nastiness underlying the supposedly courtly era of knights and damsels in distress (usually, it turns out, from other knights).

Pinker hesitates to predict whether the trend will continue, and says he’s written not a book of optimism but gratitude.


“Most of us are extremely lucky to be living in the current era, where any one of us has a very small chance of dying violently. That wasn’t always true of human history. But I don’t think we’re going to go back to burning heretics at the stake any time soon.”

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