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.

The Spiritual and the Sentimental

The word sentimental doesn’t get good press. “Having or arousing feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way” is how the usual definitions run. “Exaggerated and self-indulgent” emotion does sound pretty unwholesome. But I see no reason to disdain tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia, and I think they even have a place in religious feeling as well.

Unlike emotions with more voltage like anger or joy, sentimentality about a person, a place, a pet, a song or even a smell amounts to a quiet but vivid sense of the thing itself and how fleeting it is or was. I am sentimental about people I’ve known in the past but also about those I feel close to today. I’m being sentimental about them whenever I stop for a moment to take a mental snapshot of them, in the hope that doing so will hold them from fading away. The old saw about taking time to smell the roses is sentimental for the same reason.

Sentimentality is about the fleeting nature of things, ultimately about the swift passage of life itself, about stepping into the river that never stops moving. It can also be about merging. The desire to hold on to a moment or a memory can shape itself into a craving to lose oneself in it. The object of nostalgia may be a mother or father or other figure from childhood, but it may also be a god, nature, the cosmos, eternity, or mystery itself. Sentimentality and spirituality overlap here.

I’m not saying that spirituality is sentimental, nor that sentimentality is spiritual. I’m sensing, though, that some of my spiritual moments and my sentimental ones have a thread of emotion in common. They both mourn the frailty of worldly things in time. We are always in the present moment, which thus is a constant, but the past is no such thing.

Darwin and the Buddha

To us, Charles Darwin and Gautama Buddha belong to different worlds. Yet their visions of life were and are similar and even interlocking in interesting ways.

Their writings and teachings differ of course in many respects. (I’ll focus on On the Origin of Species and the Dhammapada, a widely read collection of the Buddha’s sayings.)

In Origins, Darwin did not discuss human evolution at all, leaving that hot-button issue for another book. Instead, with an eye to the past, he analyzed plants and animals to establish natural selection and fertility as the keys to the variation of species that we see around us.

The Buddha, on the other hand, focused exclusively on humans, on the pain of our sharply felt disappointments and mental anguish, potentially eased by disciplined renunciations. And in contrast to Darwin’s study of biological history, the Buddha’s eye was on the future, on the path forward that could bring his followers out of suffering. Finally, while Darwinian evolution moved on inexorably, the Buddha persuaded his followers that their future was in their own hands, that they must turn inward, grasp the nature of change and expectation, and calm their cravings.

So here are two different visions of different living things struggling through life in different ways with different routes towards relief. And yet similarities link them, for both accounts follow a logic built from the same basic pieces.

First, for both thinkers, the struggles of  ordinary and everyday life make up the starting point, the driver, for the consequences and possibilities that followed. As different as the two books are, they jointly rest on the premise that for humans, animals, and plants alike, daily life is difficult and unstable. Whether in a plant stunted by inadequate sunlight or a woman torn by conflict between family and career, it is the everyday pairing of struggle and need that sets the stage for the changes that the thinkers were exploring.

And for both Darwin and the Buddha, such changes consisted of a series of steps. For Darwin, the steps were the random and inherited variations that benefited organisms over succeeding generations. Though each step was small, the eventual result could be a new, unique species. For the Buddha, the steps included a disciplined practice of correct understanding, the extinguishing of selfish desires, and future rebirths. Such steps took time, but the result could be a person’s permanent liberation from worldly turmoil.

The two visions are not only parallel but complementary. The worldly struggles of people described by the Buddha resemble the struggles also of Darwin’s plants and animals. And the scores of generations over which Darwin’s new species emerge are a version of multiple Buddhist rebirths.

These combined variations on the themes of daily struggle, incremental change, and final resolution offer a rich vision: living things experience conditions that are not easily or perfectly satisfied, but the future offers paths and steps from pain towards peace. In place of a deity to oversee the  process of the cosmos, both men unveiled a reality in which ordinary life drives needs and the course of time transforms them.


My thanks to Elaine Smith for her assistance.