Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Violence

Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature may be the most upbeat book you’ll ever come across. Pinker argues that the rate of violent human deaths of all kinds across the globe has been declining since our pre-history. The 20th century was a bloody horror, but it is also an example of our selective memory; we forget that the second half of the century was relatively peaceful and that humans, as David Hume observed, always tend to “blame the present and admire the past.”

Pinker: "To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders."

Pinker: “To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders.”

The decline happened in stages. Judging from skeletal remains thousands of years old, the violent death rate for the earliest humans was roughly 15%. That dropped as the first governments began to constrain local murders, feuds, raids, and battles. In 17th and 18th century Europe, the “humanitarian revolution” raised questions about forms of violence that had been common for centuries: slavery, torture, cruel punishment, even dueling. Since the end of World War II, the world has seen a “long peace” with no wars pitting major nations against each other and no nuclear holocaust. Most recently, the “Rights Revolution” has reduced violence against minorities, women, children, gay people, and animals.

The prominence and repetition of death stories in the modern media—“if it bleeds, it leads”—is misleading. In the 20th century, only .7% of all deaths occurred in battles, or about 3% if indirect deaths from war-caused famine and disease are included (Kindle location 1428). In Europe and most of America today, the violent death rate is 1% at its highest.

It helps to remember that until 1800, the world numbered fewer than a billion people, that it slowly reached 2.5 billion around 1950, and today soars over 7 billion. This curve skews comparisons of “worst” violent death events. To rank it by death rate at the time, the deadliest event in world history was the 8th century An Lushan revolt in Tang China, resulting in the 36 million deaths, a sixth of the world’s population of about 250 million.

Compared to the 15 % violent death rate in pre-state societies, even bad government is better than no government for reducing violence. And expanding education that enables people to glimpse the life of others seems to have been crucial as well.

The book has received high praise and some hard criticism. Reviewers have questioned Pinker’s comparison of six-year-long modern wars with the century-long Mongol conquest and have pointed out the book’s omission of Mao, Stalin, and the impact of colonialism. Many reviewers seem admiring of the book but not convinced. The modern world seems too dangerous, and the bad news never stops.

Pinker makes no predictions about the future. We have to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. I remind myself, though, that my suburban life is almost completely safe from violent death and torture, and that is Pinker’s point. In our era of 24/7 terrorism and extremism, The Better Angels is sobering and steadying.

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