On Martha’s Bookshelf: The Better Angels of Our Nature

I’m in the middle of Steven Pinker’s delicious book The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. In case you think violence is not declining, you are perhaps basing your generalizations on television news reports, rumors, and your personal experience of fear and pain. In fact, while violence will always be part of the human experience, Pinker makes a very good case that overall violence has dropped precipitously throughout recorded history. His analysis of the reasons why are fascinating and beautifully written. Yum!
This is a topic that has always fascinated me. The pendulum of human behavior seems to swing back and forth between tolerance and intolerance, aggression and empathy, violence and non-violence. But historically the pendulum itself—the whole darn mechanism—creeps erratically but inexorably toward more justice, more compassion, and more equality. Why?
It amazes me that human societies keep moving toward an ideal that has never existed. A truly just, equal and non-violent society exists nowhere but the human imagination—yet many, many, many people imagine it. With all our brutality, for every one human that gladly commits atrocities there may be thousands who work their entire lives toward ideals of goodness.
This impresses me every time I go to Africa. I used to be terrified by the entire continent, basing my phobia on my high school reading of the Heart of Darkness, pictures of bloated bodies clogging the rivers of Rwanda, and stories from the regimes of sociopathic dictators. What you don’t see in the newspaper are the millions of acts of kindness that most Africans, including the very poorest, perform every day, all day.
Yes, there are dangers and evil is real, but so is something Africans call Ubuntu. Ubuntu means, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” This is a poor and approximate translation. What Ubuntu means in practice is that children orphaned by AIDS are often lovingly absorbed by people who aren’t even related to them and who have very little on which to support themselves, let alone feed another mouth. It means that a woman who has just done eight hours of backbreaking work will take time to try and teach me, a clumsy American, how to dance. When African friends shake my hand, they don’t let go quickly. They hold my hand as if it is the most precious object on earth, smiling at me as if my happiness is the only thing that matters.
So violence gets most of the airtime but Ubuntu is what humans bring to a world that has never once seen perfect peace. We are collectively imagining a world in which violence continually loses ground and Ubuntu continually gains. And what we imagine, we create. If I haven’t convinced you, read this book and call me back.


  1. Anne says

    This really struck a chord. In Ireland – there is an old proverb which means “we live in the shelter of each other” which captures the same idea. And there’s a great charity called bothar.org (Bothar means road in Gaelic) and they organise to send farm animals to Africa. An animal is sent to a village – they are given help on taking care of it and the first born of that animal is given to someone else in the village…

  2. Mindy Osburn says

    I read the book a few months ago – very heartening. Regarding Africa – the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is flat out the sweetest set of books I’ve ever read that were not sickeningly sentimental. Even the cranky characters are good-hearted in the end.

    I was having a discussion with a very religious friend who told me he envied me my worldview that the vast majority of people are kindhearted. He told me that was not his experience – I continue to wonder how much his coloring book is colored by his pessimism. Now I can point to Steven Pinker as proof.

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