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Histories of Violence

A guide to essential books about violence

Here are some of the most important books about violence, its evolution, and its uses during the twentieth century.

    • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651). "And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This pithy description of life in a state of nature is just one example of the lively prose in this seventeenth-century masterpiece. Hobbes's analysis of the roots and varieties of violence is uncannily modern, and anticipated many insights from game theory and evolutionary psychology. He also was the first cognitive scientist, outlining a computational theory of memory, imagination, and reasoning.
    • Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Homicide (1988). This is the book that sold me on evolutionary psychology. Daly and Wilson use homicide statistics as an assay for human conflict, together with vivid accounts from history, journalism, and anthropology. They select each of the pairings of killer and victim--fratricide, filicide, parricide, infanticide, uxoricide, stepparent-stepchild, acquaintances, feuds %amp% duels, amok killers, and so on--and test predictions from evolutionary theory on their rates and patterns. The book is endlessly insightful and beautifully written.
    •  Lawrence Keeley, War Before Civilization (1997). An archeologist looks at skeletons, weapons, and ethnographic accounts of tribal warfare. Forget the noble savage: Hobbes was right. War has always been hell.
    • James Payne, A History of Force (2004). An engaging and insightful look at the decline of torture, war, genocide, homicide, slavery, and cruelty over human history. Payne, a former Yale political scientist, is now an unaffiliated scholar. This apparently self-published book intermittently reveals an eccentric anarchist ideology (especially in the final chapters), but it is intelligent, extensively documented, and endlessly eye-opening.

By Steven Pinker