Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 14, 2018

The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), by Steven Pinker (Thoughts on ‘Womens Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering’)

As you might recall if you read the exchange of comments after my review of On Rape by Germaine Greer, Fourtriplezed and I agreed to read each other’s suggestions: he had never read anything by Greer, and I hadn’t read The Better Angels of Our Nature, the decline of violence in history and its causes (2011) by Steven Pinker.  Mercifully, since the Pinker book is 802 pages long, I wasn’t asked to read the whole book— just the sub chapter in Chapter 7 ‘The Rights Revolution’ which is called ‘Women’s Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering’.  So this is not a ‘book review’, it’s just a response to the part of the book which I was asked to read…

Now, one way to suspect that there might just possibly be too many books in the house, is to find a book on the shelf that has also just been ordered from the library. My answer to this is that mine are all nicely catalogued not only at Goodreads and in an Excel file and in tidy Deweyish shelves, while those of The Spouse have defied all attempts at such librarianish order. It was surely fate that decreed that dusting a small pile of books on top of our History Bookshelves in the sitting-room dislodged the pile and revealed that lo! The Spouse had in fact purchased this Pinker book, (and I must contact the library and let them know that I don’t need their copy any more).

Pinker’s book has been nominated for a swag of awards: the Royal Society Science Book Prize Nominee for Science Books (2012), the Julia Ward Howe Prize Nominee (2012), the Best Book of Ideas Prize Nominee (2012), the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee (2012), and the Cundill History Prize Nominee for Recognition of Excellence (2012).  There are also numerous reviews from people who’ve read the whole book.  See Tim Radford at The Guardian; and (notably) Peter Singer at the NYT.  The admiration seemed to be universal so of course I went looking for another PoV—actually, I went looking for a female reviewer and couldn’t find one, (strange, eh?) but did find John Gray at The Guardian and include him here for balance.  And I do that because I found a couple of examples of intemperate language (such as referring to ‘proclamations from bully pulpits such as the United Nations and its member governments on page 414) which made me feel uneasy about The Better Angels, but not enough to make me want to read the whole book…

So… I read the prescribed chapter, but for good measure, I also read the Preface, which I summarise thus:

Pinker argues that contrary to popular opinion and the impression we get from mass media or our own experiences,

…violence has declined over long stretches of time and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, is not smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue.  But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children. (p.xxi)

He maps the decline of violence by identifying six trends, five inner demons, four better angels and five historical forces:

  • Six trends (chapters 2-7) consists of
    • the Pacification Process (from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering, and horticultural societies…[…] to the first agricultural civilisations with cities and governments, beginning around five thousand years ago. (p.2)] Yes, I hear you.  Pinker has consigned Aboriginal societies from the oldest living civilisation on earth* to the category of ‘anarchy’.
    • the Civilising Process between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century best documented in Europe: the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms …[…] … with centralised authority and an infrastructure of commerce. 
    • the Humanitarian Revolution, beginning in the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.  This brought the first organised attempts to abolish socially sanctioned forms of violence like despotism, slavery, duelling, judicial torture, superstitious killing, sadistic punishment and cruelty to animals. 
    • the Long Peace, dating from the end of WW2.  Pinker says this is unprecedented: the great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another.  [John Gray in his review refutes this because of the number of proxy wars that have taken place].
    • the New Peace, since the end of the Cold War in 1989: a decline in organised conflicts of all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks.
    • the Rights Revolutions, symbolically inaugurated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, has seen a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales, including violence against ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and animals which has led to a cascade of movements from the late 1950s to the present day.

It was this last chapter, and the chapter about violence against women that I was asked to read.

  • The Five Inner Demons are predatory or instrumental violence; dominance; revenge; sadism and ideology;
  • The Four Better Angels are empathy; self-control; moral sense; and reason.
  • The Five Historical Forces are those which favour our peaceable motives and that have driven the multiple declines in violence: 
    • the Leviathan (a state and judiciary with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force);
    • Commerce (trading partners who are more valuable alive than dead);
    • Feminisation (moving away from the glorification of violence);
    • Cosmopolitanism (embracing the perspective of the Other); and
    • Escalating Reason (applying knowledge and rationality to human affairs).

So, to  ‘Womens Rights and the Decline of Rape and Battering’ in the chapter about the Rights Revolutions…

The difficulty I have with Pinker’s approach (in this chapter that I’ve read) is that it is reliant on statistics, and mostly US statistics at that. On this topic, having anything meaningful to say about the prevalence of rape in the past (whether the near past or very long ago) is problematic.  So Pinker leaps over centuries of past violence with this:

The prevalence of rape in human history and the invisibility of the victim in the legal treatment of rape are incomprehensible from the vantage point of contemporary moral sensibilities. But they are all too comprehensible from the vantage point of the genetic interests that shaped human desires and sentiments over the course of evolution, before our sensibilities were shaped by Enlightenment humanism. A rape entangles three parties, each with a different set of interests: the rapist, the men who take a proprietary interest in the woman, and the woman herself. (p. 395)

See, I have a problem just with this paragraph. Why is the woman placed last in that last sentence, eh? And there’s a curious slide in the logic:

  • rape is hard to understand now that we have contemporary moral sensibilities
  • rape is not hard to understand from a genetic/evolutionary PoV
  • we have outgrown those desires and sentiments since the Enlightenment
  • but now I, Pinker, using the present tense ‘entangles’ include the men with a proprietary interest in women, as if we have not outgrown those pre-Enlightenment views…

Hmm. So he goes on to analyse the historical evidence of rape as one of the prime atrocities in the human repertoire with his theories about men with proprietary interests in women.  With not a statistic to be seen, because how could there be, eh?

Writing back in 2011, he inadvertently wanders onto shaky ground in the Trump era when he writes that now every level of the criminal justice system has been mandated to take sexual assaults seriously. The US has a president who has boasted about his behaviour towards women yet people still voted for him anyway.

Then there’s his definition of rape, which he does use to back up his theory with stats from the 1970s onwards.  He’s scornful about what he called junk statistics and factoids:

The facts of rape are elusive, because rape is notoriously underreported, and at the same time often overreported…[…] … Junk statistics from advocacy groups are slung around and become common knowledge, such as the incredible factoid that one in four university students has been raped. (The claim was based on a commodious definition of rape that the alleged victims themselves never accepted; it included, for example, any incident in which a woman consented to sex after having had too much to drink and regretted it afterwards.) (p. 401, underlining of the intemperate ‘commodious’ mine.)

The definition used by the statistical evidence he uses is this, surveying a large and stratified sample of the population without the distorting factor of how many victims report a crime to the police:

Rape was defined broadly but not too broadly; it included sexual acts coerced by verbal threats as well as by physical force, and it included rapes that were either attempted or completed, of men or of women, homosexual or heterosexual. (p.402).

That sounds fine, doesn’t it? But what does a large and stratified sample mean? Wouldn’t common sense tell us that a higher percentage of young women in places like universities would be more likely to be pressured into unwanted sexual activity? I’m no statistician, so I’m not qualified to say, but intemperate words like junk statistics and commodious definitions make me wary.

And then, (how I wish Greer had tackled this chapter somewhere!) there is this:

Common sense never gets in the way of a sacred custom that has accompanied a decline of violence, and today rape centres unanimously insist that “rape or sexual assault is not an act of sex or lust—it’s about aggression, power, and humiliation, using sex as the weapon. The rapist’s goal is domination.” (p.406)

Pinker’s response to this is to quote a journalist.  And then he goes on to say…

Because of the sacred belief, rape counsellors foist advice on students that no responsible parent would ever give a daughter… (p.406, underlining mine)

… citing the same journalist interviewing ‘the campus rape bureaucracy’ about the guidelines they give to students.

When [LH: Heather] McDonald asked the associate directors of an [LH:unnamed] Office of Sexual Assault Prevention at an [LH:unnamed] major university whether they encouraged students to exercise good judgement with guidelines like “Don’t get drunk, don’t get into bed with a guy, and don’t take off your clothes or allow them to be removed,” she replied, “I am uncomfortable with the idea.  This indicates that if [female students] are raped it could be their fault—it is never their fault—and how one dresses does not invite rape or violence… I would never allow my staff or myself to send the message it is the victim’s fault due to their dress or lack of restraint in any way.”

Fortunately the students whom McDonald interviewed did not let this sexual correctness get in the way of their own common sense.  The party line of the campus rape bureaucracy, however interesting it may be as a topic in the sociology of belief, is a sideshow to a more significant historical development: that in recent decades, a widening of social attitudes and law enforcement to embrace the perspective of women has driven down the incidence of a major category of violence. (p.406, underlining mine.)

Well, as Tim Radford at The Guardian says in the second last paragraph of his favourable review:

The close grain of the argument, the liveliness of the writing, the sheer mass and density of the evidence he produces […] never quite still the reader’s unease.

I’d like to believe this optimistic view of the world. We all would.  But I think Germaine Greer’s On Rape  is a good deal more useful for confronting this issue and acting as a catalyst for change.  I am pleased that FourTripleZed has read his first Germaine Greer despite the discomfort that he acknowledges in his review at Goodreads, and I really wish that more blokes would have the courage to do the same.

*Elsewhere, without a comment to refute it, Pinker quotes a US federal court dismissing a Native American claim, the judgement declaring that no human culture has ever been in continuous existence for nine millennia. The absence of a correction to this suggests to me that Pinker does not know the longevity of Australian Aboriginal culture, which is unambiguously dated to 50,000 years, with genetic research implying 80,000 years and maybe longer. 

Author: Steven Pinker
Title: The Better Angels of Our Nature, the decline of violence in history and its causes
Publisher: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2011, 802 pages
ISBN: 9781846140945
Source: The Spouse.



  1. As you say, the “statistics” cited are from the US and, if they have any real content, they may apply in other affluent western countries. They do not address rape as a weapon in war or the problem of forced marriage. My own suspicion is that increased freedom of movement for young women probably means there are more rapes (and no, I don’t believe the solution is less freedom of movement).


  2. It strikes me that it’s a subject he might better have left alone because at the end of the day all he’s got is some stats from the 1970s to now and only in one country. But part of his overall thesis seems to be that Feminism is one of his historical forces that leads to less violence, so he could hardly leave it out.

    But I’m serious about wanting Greer (or someone else with scholarly expertise) to tackle this section, because it seems to be a bit of a mess to me, and if he’s reduced to deriding some of the contemporary discussion around it, then he needs to be taken to task. This is not the job of a mere book blogger. It’s an influential book, widely admired, and this section needs a proper analysis.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic reading Lisa. I still have over 200 pages of Pinker’s book to read so have a way to go. After reading the book to the end I will reread both what you have written and the sub chapter and re-evaluate.

    By way of explanation to my reading life I have been a reader of predominantly history for the vast majority of my life. A subject such as violence to Women would, sadly, have been almost a passing thought to many of the historians I have read. Holocaust reading would be the exception then that in truth covers more than the subject at hand. My reading of Aus Lit is of only recent origin. (Oh to have my reading life back)

    With Pinker’s book I read many reviews on GoodReads hence its attraction. I rarely read reviews prior to reading a book as I prefer a clean slate as it were. I can say that apart from it being US centric (as you made comment, though it is not as bad as some I have read might add) I am finding the book rather compelling generally. Interestingly when I got Greers book I ended up having a discussion with the bookseller about our discussion and buddy read and he recommended to me Factfulness by Dr Hans Rosling so I grabbed that. (Just what I needed another book! And I also walked out with The Plains by Gerald Murnane and The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower.) Factfulness is a touch too populist in style for me to be honest but it is interesting nonetheless. He covers the drop in violence fleetingly. In general this might be a better book on the subject of “Better Times” for any of your readers who are interested in the subject. I do realise this is an ANZ Lit blog so my apologies for going of track here.

    Hopefully you find my eventual review stimulating and also a sincere thanks for the discussion so far. You have opened my thinking up into direction I would once have given little thought to.


    • I must thank you for introducing me to this book, because it is influential and although I have my doubts about this particular section of it, I still think his ideas are still well worth thinking about. I have heard sad stories about old ladies being too afraid to go out on the streets, even though Melbourne is one of the safest cities in the world. We have let ourselves become scared of crime that is statistically unlikely to happen…
      However, as I said to Bill above, rape is a separate issue because the crime statistics don’t even hint at the full extent of the problem.
      I like the sound of your bookseller: I can only second his recommendations of Gerald Murnane and Elizabeth Harrower!


  4. Fascinating and depressing. I’m very worried by the quotes you give and not remotely convinced. And I really doubt we’re living in a safer world than we were across the board. Just because we’re not having world wars in the west or it might seem safer for women to go out (I would question that), doesn’t mean there aren’t atrocities taking place all over the world, all the time. Rape is still used as a war tactic. His comments about universities are reprehensible. I won’t be reading this one, and I think you’re brave to do so.


    • I’m really surprised that he hasn’t been taken to task about this problematic chapter… *chuckle* maybe it takes an obscure blogger in the antipodes to challenge it? But seriously, where are the feminist writers like Susan Brownmiller, Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan who would have had the scholarly expertise to tackle it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Quite, and well done to you for taking it on (and I wouldn’t call you obscure). I do fret a bit about the lack of decent feminist writing now. There is quite a lot of mainstream stuff, but it lacks the academic rigour I’d like to see…


    • I’m not sure I would be too keen to dismiss this book because of Lisa’s review. I have shown this chapter to my very feminist sister and she had little problem with it per se. I showed her Lisa’s comments and she took them on-board as well. “Tough subject to please all” was her comment. Pinker asks later with Women being in charge would the world be a better place? Has the world been more peaceful because more women are in charge, and will it become more peaceful if more women are in charge? He gives a qualified yes. I am off the opinion that he is very supportive in general about women rights and a force for a peaceful future.

      Lisa is also correct on her comment about an elderly lady fearing going out. I am reading at the same time Factfullness by Hans Rosling and he discusses how easy we fear what we have least to fear. An insane individual in Melbourne makes massive news, all are now fearful but each day many more of us die in car accidents, drown in the bath, get bitten by snakes or have a tractor roll over on us.

      I do think that the Chapter on Rape may be the weakest so far. Also I read Guys item in the Guardian (could not help myself) and am utterly convinced he has not read the entire book and has been selective. I will cover that in my eventual Goodreads review.

      Thanks for your patience with this subject Lisa but it has been a fascinating subject for a newbie such as myself. I have a week off over Christmas and have given myself a big talking to and will get into a few Aus novels.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha ha, don’t we all give ourselves a big talking to about the other books we think we should have read!


  5. […] The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker (Thoughts on ‘Womens Rights and the Decline of R… – Lisa Hill has her reservations about Pinker’s provocative but popular history of violence. She shares her thoughts on Chapter 7, ‘The Rights Revolution’ at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog. […]


  6. This sounds like a heavy (literally and metaphorically) read and also a bit of a complicated one.


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