For such a long book, it never gets boring. I was fascinated from start to finish. Pinker has certainly done his research, and the book is packed with references to current research. His analysis of human violence is comprehensive, covering history, philosophy, neuropsychology, evolutionary biology, genetics, social theory, religious beliefs, child rearing practices, theories on the origins of war, demographic correlates of violence and much more on the demons and angels of our nature.
Contrary to what we might think, he argues convincingly that we are getting more humane. No more do we burn cats (or heretics) alive for entertainment. No more do we torture people to death, or subject children to cruel and unusual punishments and even though our weapons of war are deadlier than ever, every life lost - even our enemies, becomes a source of regret.
The book holds several surprises: that literature may be a cause of our greater tolerance of others, that empathy has a dark side in favouritism, that "mirror neurones" do not necessarily make us more humane, that the Flynn effect (increasing IQ) may also be contributing to our capacity for compassion, that the era of "Flower Power" bucked the downward trend with a sharp increase in crime and violence.
We will never be without violence, but for anyone who despairs at the modern world, there is much hope to be found here. It would seem that the angels of empathy, reason, self-control, prudence, fairness, ethical norms, and human rights are slowly winning out against the demons of instrumental violence, sadism, revenge, rage and ideology.
This is such a great book!
This is a wonderful audiobook, literary full of wonder at the ingenuity of nature. It brought back memories for me as a student of being similarly stunned reading "The Selfish Gene". Early on in this book, Dawkins declares that he prefers the miraculous wonderment of William Paley, to the atheist who cannot see that anything needs explanation about the origins of complex life.
Yet, in "The Blind Watchmaker", he makes the case with brilliant clarity, that the process that has given rise to the creative diversity and seeming design in nature is as much a physical nonrandom process as the sifting of pebbles from sand on a beach. This book explains the principles of Evolution with sparkling clarity.
The audiobook version is read alternately by Richard Dawkins and his wife, Lalla Ward, and initially I found this change odd. However, within a chapter, I came to enjoy the conterpoint of male and female reading voices. It was kind of soothing, and a great innovation. I look forward to other audiobooks being read in this way.. One effect of this was a feeling of familiarity with the author. I came to admire his quest for the Truth, and his contempt for those who would fudge the difficult questions and the evidence to preserve their old beliefs.
And so, there is the unavoidable "G" question. Paley's God is clearly shown by Dawkins to be as redundant to the process of evolution, as to the apparent motions of the planets. Yet, given (possibly) infinite universes, with N dimensions of space and time, one might speculate on the evolution of some transcendent intelligence pulling on our strings in the present!
Perhaps Paley's God too can still be glimpsed in the elegance and power of the principles of evolution itself? But then, as Darwin saw in the ichneumon wasp, there is then the problem of theodicy. After listening to this book, I was left with a vivid impression both of the sheer creative intelligence of Nature, and the cost in pain and death of previous generations.
With Stephen Pinker, you always get a lot of book for your bucks! This one is no exception.
I expected a book about CBT and neuroanatomy. However, I found the first sections of this book unusual - a detailed reverse engineering of our misperceptions to uncover the tricks the brain uses in giving us meaningful information about the world in the form of 3D colour vision, stereo hearing, tactile sensations, heat, cold, pain etc. It is almost a book of AI about how you might go about building a brain from scratch.
Yes, I liked his advocacy of the "computational theory of mind" - combined with the "selfish" gene centred model of evolution. This has rich explanatory power, and he is at pains to show how it differs from the prevalent "academic" view of the SSSM (Standard Social Sciences Model), based on the mind as a blank slate.
My only gripe with him here is that many of his evolutionary examples were a bit cliched - I wish he had tackled some of the more problematic areas of the theory such as the adaptive value of homosexuality, suicide, empathy etc. To be fair, he did do a whole section on altruism.
Perhaps the best bits for me were his detailed analyses of humour and music, not as adaptations, but as biproducts of other adaptive modules like language and status - ways we found to tweak our brain physiology in pleasurable directions, and which we thus developed. He also looks at free will, religion, "the hard problem" of consciousness, and every aspect of what it is to be human.
If you like Pinker's down to earth scientific approach, as I do, this book gives a very interesting perspective on the sometimes odd way our minds work, to envisage the world. Some parts are very detailed, and your interest may sag at times, but the pace and interest soon pick up.