Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Violent Deaths

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, 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.”

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 lives 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 very 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. But today, despite the global billions, even a handful of deaths rate as “breaking news.”

About the future, Pinker makes no predictions. By implication he suggests that we need to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. At a time when ideologies and technologies seem beyond the control of government and decency alike, The Better Angels is sobering and steadying.

Dylann Roof and the Southern Code

“Someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me,” Dylann Roof wrote on the Web about defending the white race. On June 17, 2015, to the black members of the Charleston church whom he was about to shoot, he allegedly said, “I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.”

Roof’s perceptions of his personal obligation to take revenge were not personal quirks or even purely a matter of racism. They place him in a long tradition of violence in the American South.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker’s study of declining violent deaths globally, Pinker examines the exception that is America and especially the American South.

It’s not that America is gun-happy. Even if you subtract all the killings with firearms and count only the ones with rope, knives, lead pipes, wrenches, candlesticks, and so on, Americans commit murders at a higher rate than Europeans. (Kindle location 2255)

Within the U. S., murder rates by gun and other means have been the lowest in the northern band of states from New England to the northwest, and highest in the south.

The difference is not just a matter of southern racial conflict. Today, although blacks show higher rates of violence than whites nationally, the South is highest for the rates of both races. “Southern whites are more violent than northern whites, and southern blacks are more violent than northern blacks” (2278).

Why has the South had such a long history of violence? …[In Europe, monarchs controlled arms before nations became democratic. But] in America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms—which, as the Second Amendment famously affirms, they reserved the right to keep and bear. In other words Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. (2354)

Dylann Roof was following a social contract of a different kind, the South’s venerable code of honor. The code stipulates that homicides in the cause of personal grievances or defense of self and property, while punishable, need not be viewed too severely. Even today, “Southerners do not outkill northerners in homicides carried out during robberies…, only in those sparked by quarrels” (2371).

Here is the basis for Roof’s self-proclaimed role as avenger of the white race. His state of mind, the availability of guns, the paranoia of racism, all played roles in the killing. But beneath them is the region’s historical weakness in the legal constraints, the cultural inhibitions, and the empathy that, for Pinker, are what a society needs if deadly violence is to decline.

Police Brutality and the Brain

The brutality against Michael Brown, Eric Garner, the prisoners tortured by the CIA, the inmates on Riker’s Island in New York, the noncombatants executed by the Islamic State—I find myself asking the old, naive question, how can people be this brutal to one another?

For these are not the brutalities of one person attacking another to rob or rape or murder. Nor are they the horrors of the battlefield, the war for turf. They are the brutalities of members of dominant groups who already exert control over apparent violators or actual captives. This brutality is not a power struggle. Power has already been achieved, or so it seems. So why the brutality?

Many believe that it comes from the dark side of disturbed cops or fanatical ideologues or even humanity itself, the fury of our animal brain that killed to eat or defend itself. The implication of such a diagnosis is that if we were better managed or trained or screened or socialized, the demons might step back. But the dynamics behind coercive brutality seem to be not so simple and not so correctable.

A helpful book is Race and Police Brutality: Roots of an Urban Dilemma by Malcolm D. Holmes and Brad W. Smith (2008). Their thesis is that police brutality is rooted in our emotions about groups, our own and others, as well as in our aggressiveness.

Tension (


Holmes and Smith point out that it is difficult to imagine two groups more opposite from each other than a group of police officers on patrol and the minority residents of the neighborhood they are patrolling. The police see themselves as safeguarding society from its worst elements, with the tacit approval of law-abiding citizens. The residents of the ghetto or barrio believe that most of those citizens are biased against them and that they, the residents, are trying to hold the line against oppression.  Both groups have grown up learning the stereotypes of the other, heard the tales of violence, and learned the signs of danger (the weapon, the uniform). “The police and minority groups members see one another as ongoing threats. They both believe that the other is a danger to them.”

“These subjective perceptions of danger reaffirm group identity and reinforce group cohesion” (502). Here is the essential situation that underlies each particular stand-off on the street: all humans are attached to, and quick to defend, the groups they belong to. Tightly knit, organized groups are a unique human achievement. They evolved over several million years when the more casual linkages among earlier primates were no longer adequate for finding food and protection. Our brains evolved to provide nuanced social emotions such as loyalty to hold groups together and prompt them to organize. The result is football teams and nations, businesses and religion. And universally, people have the same basic emotions about groups: they favor members of their own and denigrate and often dehumanize members of competing or opposing ones.

So a police patrol in a minority neighborhood is a situation deeply primed for violence. It is surprising that it does not explode more often than it does. Police are restrained not only by regulations about excessive force but also by the risk of losing control of a tense situation. So what is it that finally triggers a gun shot or a chokehold?

It is the sequence of aggression. Smith and Holmes describe two types of aggression, and brutality results when one follows the other. Emotional aggression is immediate, passionate. It is a lashing out that arises from a surge of fear, anger, or frustration. The other type of aggression is instrumental—aggression that achieves a purpose. An assassin may calmly kill for pay. A husband may beat his wife in order to establish dominance.

On the street, in the heat of the moment, a police officer who feels threatened, who thinks he or she sees a weapon, feels a surge of aggression towards a man who is arguing. A few seconds or minutes pass by and the impulse may dissipate. Or, on the other hand, it may strengthen; roughing up the guy may serve a purpose; it may, in the mind of the officer, reestablish authority at the scene, defend the status of the police, dispense “justice” that the courts failed to deliver, or send a message to the community (1644). Brutality results.

When we think of coercive brutality, we usually picture two individuals—Darren Wilson and Michael Brown, a prisoner and his CIA tormenter, the hooded ISIL figure and the kneeling victim. But it is really the ingroups and the outgroups that are at work more than autonomous individuals. We are passionate about the rightness of our own groups and callous about the ones that challenge ours. Ingroups are a triumph of the human mind, one of the jewels of evolution, but when the tension is high, when a figure looks threatening and there might be a weapon, when violence seems justifiable, brutality happens.