The Decline of Violence: A Long View

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined -  Steven Pinker   History; Psychology; Cultural Development
  • The world is getting more violent!” …….WRONG. It has become less violent.
  • “The Twentieth Century was the most violent century in history!….NO! There have been worse.
  • “Our societies are falling apart!” Nobody can predict the future, but I suspect that every generation has thought both that things were better in the past and the peace that we all wish for has always been elusive.
Author: Steven Pinker
Author: Steven Pinker

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker defies the conventional understanding with data – lots of it. He shows and argues that violence, cruelty and injustice have all decreased both of the millenia and in the last 500 years. The decrease has not been by a trivial pedantic statistician’s t-ratio, but by a qualitative order of size His data relates to warfare, homicide, and lynchings as well as to violence and cruelty against spouses, children, gays and animals.

Violence may have increased in terms of absolute numbers, but adjusted for population size, the overwhelming evidence is that violence has DECLINED SIGNIFICANTLY – by orders of size – over millenia, centuries and decades. Homicide rates have in 600 years declined from about 100 per 100,000 persons per year to 1 per 100,000 per year! Still not zero, but small in comparison to the brutal past. Europe used to have three wars going in any one year not all that long ago but nothing since WW2 (until the Balkans and Crimea/Ukraine).

Click here for a Powerpoint presentation by the Pinker of his thesis.

What are the sources for Pinker’s evidence? Examination of excavated bones from pre-historic humans; ethnographic studies; analysis of church records; secondary archival records from research organisations. Incomplete, but recognised as more comprehensive and taking in a wider time span than anything else. In accord with the best tradition of scientific method, it is now up to another researcher to falsify the hypothesis and with better and more comprehensive data.

Pinker describes a consistent long-term trend that is unlikely to be simply luck – and more likely to be structural. How has this happened? Pinker argues that ethical progress is due to social institutions, norms, cultural practices, and mental tricks employed by societies to change their collective mind and behaviour in a peaceful direction. The heroes are the Guttenberg press, Hobbes, Shakespeare, literature & art while the anti-heroes are the explorers who opened up trade and exploitation/conquest routes.

Humanity’s great project of civilizing itself is far from complete, but we have made progress – with ups and downs along the way. There will always be psychopaths hell-bent on both local and grandiose violence and we are now undoubtedly witnessing a down-period. But with freedom to express through art and literature, meaningful education and science and with empathy and statecraft, the better angels of our nature are likely prevail. In Dowlphin’s mind, one danger is that we become overcome with irrational fear and give up too many freedoms. The other danger is that we succumb to a technological hubris in which we allow our technologies to overwhelm our social empathy.

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