Q&A with Stephen Pinker
How does it feel to reach the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?
Exhilarating. Though several American pundits predicted that Better Angels would be a shoo-in for our major book prizes, so far it has come up empty-handed. I’ve learned never to count your prizes before they hatch, but even making the shortlist for this Prize is a thrill. And then there’s the prize’s namesake: one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language; a fellow lexicographer; and one of the 18th-century writers I quote in Better Angels who made our collective sensibilities more enlightened and humane.
What research did you do for writing your book?
There were three strands. One consisted of every quantitative dataset I could find that plotted rates of violence over time—war, genocide, terrorism, murder, rape, child abuse, you name it. The second was qualitative histories–military, political, and intellectual—that tried to explain the changes in institutions and sensibilities that drove rates of violence down. The third was research in neuroscience and psychology on the mental systems that can impel us to violence, such as dominance, revenge, and sadism, and the mental systems that can inhibit those impulses, such as self-control, empathy, reason, and the moral sense.
How do you feel about the status/ popularity of non-fiction books in general?
My impression is that even in the age of Twitter, blogging, and TED talks they continue to be a vital medium for the cultivation and exchange of ideas. Big ideas are still best presented in book form, where claims can be documented, qualifications stated, and objections anticipated. I receive an endless stream of correspondence from people of all ages all over the world on each of my non-fiction books.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
Among popular science books, I’d have to single out Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker, which presents difficult ideas with vividness, lucidity, and wit. Among the books that went into the research of Better Angels, my favourite may be John Mueller’s equally lucid and witty Retreat from Doomsday, which presciently explained how major war was becoming obsolete. The book came out in 1989 and is out of print, but his subsequent books Quiet Cataclysm (1995) and The Remnants of War (2004) continue the theme with reference to subsequent world events.
What are you working on next?
A style manual for the 21st century, which will use insights from cognitive science and linguistics to offer advice on how to craft clear and graceful prose.