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.