Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Human Violence

Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature may be a more upbeat book than most people can accept. Pinker argues that the rate of violent human deaths of all kinds across the globe has been declining for several thousand years. 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. 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.”

Violent deaths declined in stages. Judging from skeletal remains thousands of years old, the violent death rate among the earliest humans was roughly 15%. That dropped as the first governments began to constrain local murders, feuds, raids, and battles. Then in 17th and 18th century Europe, the “humanitarian revolution” reduced the frequency of  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 of death stories in the modern media is misleading. In the 20th century, only .7% of all deaths occurred in battles, or about 3% if indirect war deaths from famine and disease are included. In Europe and most of America today, the violent death rate is 1% at its highest.

What has caused this steady reduction? In a word, government. 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 Better Angels of Our Nature 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 noted 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 still seems too dangerous and the bad news never stops.

One reason for the skepticism is demographic. Until 1800, the world numbered fewer than a billion people, it reached 2.5 billion only around 1950, and today soars over 7 billion. This curve skews comparisons of violent death numbers. Ranked by death rate at the time, the deadliest event in world history was the 8th century An Lushan revolt in Tang China, resulting in 36 million deaths, a sixth of the world’s population of about 250 million. Today, relatively few deaths are constantly “breaking news.”

About the future, Pinker makes no predictions. We need to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. I remind myself that my suburban life is almost completely safe from violent death and torture, and that is Pinker’s point. In our era of ideologies and technologies not always under the control of governments, The Better Angels is nonetheless sobering and steadying.

Living Closer

One of the pleasures of meditating regularly has been the sensation of coming closer to my thoughts and to the feelings in my body. With my eyes closed and my thought stream lulled but also more noticeable, thoughts and physical feelings seem more vivid than usual, a little larger, more in front of me. I remember my wife saying when I started meditating that she liked what I was doing because I came out of meditation in a pretty good mood. And indeed, I did feel cheerier than I sometimes do in the morning. I’ve since taken the cheery part a little for granted, but the sensation of nearness remains fresh. And something else has happened.

I began wondering why the meditation experience is pleasant. What is there in this closeness, this being in better touch with myself, that feels good? Is it what people call “the feeling of being alive”? If so, there is some other element to it, a communal feeling of some kind. I think the meditative clarity feels good the way that feeling included with others can feel good. Feeling not alone. Feeling included among the living. It is a quietly joyful feeling, even a tender one. Words don’t work easily here, but I hope you get the idea.

The experiences have shifted my view of what is pleasant and even loving about my close relationships with others. With my wife, daughter, close friends, sometimes animals, even a writer behind a very satisfying book, I think the gladness that I feel, without being fully conscious of it, is a gladness at being included in a life with them. Much as meditation can bring a feeling of being more at home with myself, so my other close connections bring a feeling of inclusiveness not just with a person but with all living things. Perhaps, as a lover’s passion springs in part from the feeling that the lover and the loved one are united as one, so familial love and a sense of “glad to be alive” gain some of their strength from the warmth of a wider belonging.

Many humanists and naturalists, interested in the intersection of community and spirituality, try to understand better what love means and how to create more of it. We look at its roots in our sociality, in how we, other animals, and even plants cooperate. One of these many roots may be how we process closeness itself as a smiling reminder that we are members in good standing among living things. Perhaps one of the underground streams bubbling up in moments of kindness is the feeling that our sense of ourselves is turned up a notch by the reminder that we are alive together with others. This may hold true, ironically, even when the closeness, as in meditation, is with ourselves.

In the Men’s Locker Room

Standing at his locker, an older man says hi how’re you doing to the middle-aged man coming in. “Above ground and breathing,” answers the younger man cheerfully. I laughed even though the quip seemed to be coming from the wrong man. The locker room is full of ghosts.

During the middle of the day, most of the men at this health club are either weakened  from a condition of some sort or more or less old. We work out lightly, swim slowly, and maybe socialize. Our bodies, naked or wrapped in towels, move by the lockers and showers and stop in front of the TVs on Fox or ESPAN.

leanbodyrx.com

leanbodyrx.com

Most of the men recognize friends and chat about ailments and about others who “still live here” or “no longer live there.” In between the tales of sports and business, stories roll out about doctors, meds, procedures, therapies, chemo, dosages, a disabled friend, the grandson finally coming to visit, a wife’s long recovery at rehab and home.

One man told a startling tale—actual news—about an opera fan who scattered his wife’s ashes over the orchestra pit during intermission at the Metropolitan Opera, bringing the performance of “William Tell” to a quick end.

I don’t think any of us find it easy to look at our own or others’ collapsing bodies. And it may just be me but I think that as our aspirations and achievements move behind us, we men live a little in the shadow of the longevity of women (the majority gender at the club) and that extra durability they carry in order to bring the species along.  So in the locker room we are friendly and patient with each other. And above ground and breathing.