Steven Pinker: Humankind Is Getting Nicer

Steven Pinker: Humankind Is Getting Nicer

May 01





Wikipedia on Steven Pinker
Book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Book: Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide
A History of Violence Edge Master Class
Steven Pinker Website


By Nicholas D. Kristof
New York Times
November 23, 2011

Original Link

It’s pretty easy to conclude that the world is spinning down the toilet.

So let me be contrary and offer a reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving. Despite the gloomy mood, the historical backdrop is stunning progress in human decency over recent centuries.

War is declining, and humanity is becoming less violent, less racist and less sexist — and this moral progress has accelerated in recent decades. To put it bluntly, we humans seem to be getting nicer.

That’s the central theme of an astonishingly good book just published by Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard. It’s called “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” and it’s my bet to win the next Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

“Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” Pinker writes, and he describes this decline in violence as possibly “the most important thing that has ever happened in human history.”

He acknowledges: “In a century that began with 9/11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.”

Still, even in a 20th century notorious for world war and genocide, only around 3 percent of humans died from such man-made catastrophes. In contrast, a study of Native-American skeletons from hunter-gather societies found that some 13 percent had died of trauma. And in the 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War reduced Germany’s population by as much as one-third.

Wars make headlines, but there are fewer conflicts today, and they typically don’t kill as many people. Many scholars have made that point, most notably Joshua S. Goldstein in his recent book “Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide.” Goldstein also argues that it’s a myth that civilians are more likely to die in modern wars.

Look also at homicide rates, which are now far lower than in previous centuries. The murder rate in Britain seems to have fallen by more than 90 percent since the 14th century.

Then there are the myriad forms of violence that were once the banal backdrop of daily life. One game in feudal Europe involved men competing to head-butt to death a cat that had been nailed alive to a post. One reason this was considered so entertaining: the possibility that it would claw out a competitor’s eye.

Think of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. One academic study found that modern children’s television programs have 4.8 violent scenes per hour, compared with nursery rhymes with 52.2.

The decline in brutality is true of other cultures as well. When I learned Chinese, I was startled to encounter ideographs like the one of a knife next to a nose: pronounced “yi,” it means “cutting off a nose as punishment.” That’s one Chinese character that students no longer study.

Pinker’s book rang true to me partly because I often report on genocide and human rights abuses. I was aghast that Darfur didn’t prompt more of an international response from Western governments, but I was awed by the way American university students protested on behalf of a people who lived half a world away.

That reflects a larger truth: There is global consensus today that slaughtering civilians is an outrage. Governments may still engage in mass atrocities, but now they hire lobbyists and public relations firms to sanitize the mess.

In contrast, until modern times, genocide was simply a way of waging war. The Bible repeatedly describes God as masterminding genocide (“thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth” — Deuteronomy 20:16), and European-Americans saw nothing offensive about exterminating Native Americans. One of my heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, later a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was unapologetic: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely in the case of the tenth.”

The pace of moral progress has accelerated in the last few decades. Pinker notes that on issues such as civil rights, the role of women, equality for gays, beating of children and treatment of animals, “the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.”

The reasons for these advances are complex but may have to do with the rise of education, the decline of chauvinism and a growing willingness to put ourselves in the shoes (increasingly, even hooves) of others.

Granted, the world still faces brutality and cruelty. That’s what I write about the rest of the year! But let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge remarkable progress and give thanks for the human capacity for compassion and moral growth.


A History of Violence
Edge Master Class 2011

By Steven Pinker
September 27, 2011

Original Link

(Click the link above to see ALL THE CHARTS referred to in this class. The original link also includes a video of Pinker giving the presentation that follows.)

What may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history is that violence has gone down, by dramatic degrees, and in many dimensions all over the world and in many spheres of behavior: genocide, war, human sacrifice, torture, slavery, and the treatment of racial minorities, women, children, and animals…


A History of Violence

Believe it or not — and I know most people do not — violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it’s a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

I’m going to present six major historical declines of violence; in each case, cite their immediate causes in terms of what historians have told us are the likely historical antecedents in that era; and then speculate on their ultimate causes, in terms of general historical forces acting on human nature.

The first major decline of violence I call the “Pacification Process.” Until about five thousand years ago, humans lived in anarchy without central government. What was life like in this state of nature? This is a question that thinkers have speculated on for centuries, most prominently Hobbs, who famously said that in a state of nature “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” A century later he was countered by Jean Jacques Rousseau, who says, “Nothing could be more gentle than man in his primitive state.”

In reality, both of these gentlemen were talking through their hats: They had no idea what life was like in a state of nature. But today we can do better, because there are two sources of evidence of what rates of violence were like in pre-state societies.

One is forensic archaeology. You can think of it as “CSI Paleolithic”. What proportion of prehistoric skeletons have signs of violent trauma, such as bashed-in skulls, decapitated skeletons, femurs with bronze arrowheads embedded in them, and mummies found with ropes around their necks?

There are 20 archaeological samples that I know of for which these analyses have been done. I’ve plotted here the percentage of deaths due to violent trauma. They range as high as 60 percent, and the average is a little bit more than 15 percent.

Let’s compare that rate with those of modern states, and let’s stack the deck against modernity by picking some of the most violent eras that we can think of. This is the United States and Europe in the 20th century. This is the entire world in the 20th century — and I’ve thrown in not only the wars, but also the genocides and the manmade famines. It’s about three percent, compared to the 15 percent rate in pre-state societies. And here is the world in the first decade of the 21st century. The bar in the graph would be less than a pixel, about a three one-hundredths of one percent.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


The other method of measuring violence in pre-state societies is ethnographic vital statistics. What is the rate of death by violence in people who have recently lived outside of state control, namely hunter-gatherers, hunter-horticulturalists, and other tribal groups?

There are 27 samples that I know of, where ethnographic demographers that have done the calculation. I’ve plotted them as war deaths per 100,000 people per year. They go as high as 1500, but the average across these 27 non-state societies is a little bit more than 500. Again, let’s stack the deck against modernity by picking some of the most violent modern societies for comparison, such as, for example, Germany in the 20th century, with its two world war: its rate is around 135, compared to 524 for the non-state societies. Russia in the 20th century, with two world wars, a revolution, and a civil war, is about 130. Japan in the 20th century, about 30. United States in the 20th century, with two world wars plus five wars in Asia, is about a pixel.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Now, here is the world as a whole in the 20th century. This is another version of the figure that I alluded to earlier, which includes all the wars, genocides and man-made famines; it amounts to around 60. And this is the world in the first decade of the 21st century, which again is far shorter than one pixel.

So: not to put too fine a point on it, but when it comes to life in a state of nature, Hobbs was right, Rousseau was wrong.

What was the immediate cause? It was almost certainly the rise and expansion of states. Anyone who is familiar with world history knows about the various paxes — the pax Romana, pax Islamica, pax Hispanica, and so on. It’s the historian’s term for the phenomenon in which, when a state expands or an empire imposes hegemony over a territory, they try to stamp out tribal raiding and feuding. That is what drives the statistics down.

It’s not that these early states had any benevolent interest in the welfare of their subjects, but rather, that tribal raiding and feuding is a nuisance to imperial overlords. For the same reason that a farmer will take steps to prevent its cattle from killing each other  — it’s a dead loss to the farmer — Imperial overlords tend to frown on tribal battles that just shuffle resources and destroy the tax base at a net loss to them.

The second major historical decline of violence can be captured in this woodcut of a typical day in the life in the Middle Ages. The decline has been called the “Civilizing Process.”


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


It’s best illustrated by looking at homicide statistics, which go back in many parts of Europe to the 13th century. The historical criminologist Manual Eisner has assembled every estimate that he could find of homicide rates from records in England going back to about 1200.

I’ve plotted them here on a logarithmic scale, so that the scale goes from 100 homicides per 100,000 per year, to ten, to one, to a tenth of a homicide. And as you can see, there’s an almost two order-of-magnitude decline in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present.

So a contemporary Englishman has about a 50-fold less chance of being murdered than his compatriot in the Middle Ages. (By the way, this high point here of 100 per 100,000 per year comes from Oxford.)

This is a phenomenon that is not restricted to England. It is true of every European country for which statistics are available. Again, here is a logarithmic scale, and the homicide rates goes from between ten and 100 down to a very narrow window of about one per 100,000 per year.

Here is an average of the five western European regions. And just to connect it to the previous historical development, I’ve plotted the non-state societies average up here, which is about 500 per 100,000 per year. (This gap is what I called the pacification process.) Then the civilizing process consists of this additional 30- to 50-fold reduction in the rate of homicide to the present.

The immediate cause was first identified by Norbert Elias in his classic book The Civilizing Process, from which I got the name for this development. In the transition from Middle Ages to modernity there was a consolidation of centralized states and kingdoms throughout Europe. Criminal justice was nationalized, and warlords, feuding, and brigandage were replaced by “the king’s justice.”

Simultaneously, there was a growing infrastructure of commerce: a development of the institutions of money and finance, and of technologies of transportation and time keeping. The result was to shift the incentive structure from zero-sum plunder to positive-sum trade.

The third historical decline of violence pertains to the fact that those first states, though they did bring down rates of feuding and vendetta and blood revenge, were rather nasty contraptions, which kept people in a state of awe with techniques such as breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, sawing in half, impalement, and clawing. In a process that historians call the “Humanitarian Revolution”, these forms of institutionalized violence were eventually abolished. The momentum for this movement was concentrated in the 18th century.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


This graph shows the abolition of judicial torture (that is, torture as a form of punishment) in the major countries of the day, including the famous prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment by the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Also during this period there was a reduction in the use of the death penalty for non-lethal crimes. In 18th century England there were 222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies, and “strong evidence of malice in a child seven to 14 years of age.” By 1861 the number of capital crimes was down to four.

Similarly, in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, the death penalty was prescribed and used for theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft. We have statistics for capital punishment in the United States since colonial times. As you can see, in the 17th century a majority of executions were for crimes other than homicide. In current times, the only crime that is punished by capital punishment other than homicide is conspiracy to commit homicide.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


The death penalty itself, of course, has been abolished in most of Europe. Most of the abolitions were concentrated in the last fifty years. This is the number of European countries with capital punishment. Currently, only Russia and Belarus have it had on the books.

But interestingly, even before capital punishment was abolished by the stroke of a pen, it had fallen into disuse. You can see that the percentage of European countries that actually carry out executions has always been far lower, and the decline began much earlier.

Now the United States, of course, notoriously is the only Western democracy that has capital punishment (though only in two-thirds of the states), a number that has been dwindling. And to say that the United States has the death penalty is a bit of a fiction. If you look at the number of executions as a proportion of the population, it has been plunging since colonial times. Today, out of about 16,500 homicides per year, there are about 50 executions, and that rate has been in decline as well.

Other abolitions during the humanitarian revolution include witch hunts, religious persecution, dueling, blood sports, debtors prisons, and of course most famously, slavery.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


This graph shows the cumulative number of countries that abolished slavery. For the first time in history, slavery is illegal everywhere in the world. The last countries to abolish it were Saudi Arabia in 1962, and Mauritania in 1980.

What were the immediate causes of the humanitarian revolution? A plausible first guess is affluence. One might surmise that as one’s own life becomes more pleasant, one places a higher value on life in general. However, I don’t think the timing works.

This is a graph of per capita income in England over the last 800 years. Most economic historians say that the world saw virtually no increase in affluence until the time of the Industrial Revolution starting in the early decades of the 19th century. But most of the reforms that I’ve been talking about were concentrated in the 18th century, when income growth was pretty much flat.

However, there is one technology that showed a precocious increase in productivity before the Industrial Revolution, and that was printing. Here’s a graph showing the efficiency in book production, which increased 25-fold by 1700. The efficiency was put into use, and resulted in an exponential growth in the number of books published per year in England, France, and other western European countries.

And there were more literate people around to read them. By the 18th century a majority of men in England were literate.

Why should literacy matter? A number of the causes are summed up by the term “Enlightenment.” For one thing, knowledge replaced superstition and ignorance: beliefs such as that Jews poisoned wells, heretics go to hell, witches cause crop failures, children are possessed, and Africans are brutish. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

Also, literacy gives rise to cosmopolitanism. It is plausible that the reading of history, journalism, and fiction puts people into the habit of inhabiting other peoples’ minds, which could increase empathy and therefore make cruelty less appealing. This is a point I’ll return to later in the talk.

The fourth historical decline of violence has been called the “Long Peace.” It speaks to the widespread belief that the 20th century was the most violent in history, which would seem to go against everything that I’ve said so far. Peculiarly, one never sees, in any of the claims that the 20th century was the most violent in history, any numbers from any century other than the 20th.

There’s no question that there was a lot of violence in the 20th century. But take, for comparison, the so-called peaceful 19th century. That “peaceful” century had the Napoleonic wars, with four million deaths, one of the worst in history; the Taiping Rebellion in China, by far the worst civil war in history, with 20 million deaths; the worst war in American history, the Civil War; the reign of Shaka Zulu in southern Africa, resulting in one to two million deaths; the war of the Triple Alliance, which is probably the most destructive interstate war in history in terms of percentage of the population killed, namely 60 percent of Paraguay; the African slave raiding wars (no one has any idea what the death toll was); and of course, imperial wars in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.

These remarks are all qualitative, meant to damp down the tendency to think that just because in Europe there was a span of several decades without war, that the world as a whole was peaceful in the 19th century as a whole.

Now, it is undoubtedly true that the Second World War was the deadliest event in human history in terms of number of lives lost. But it’s not so clear that it was the deadliest event in terms of percentage of the world population. Here is a graph that I’ve adapted from a forthcoming book by Matthew White entitled The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities. White calls himself an “atrocitologist.” He tries to fit numbers to wars, genocides, and manmade famines throughout history.




Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Here we see 2500 years of human history, with White’s top 100 atrocities, which I have scaled by the estimated size of the world population at the time. As you can see, World War II just barely makes the top ten. There are many events more deadly than World War I. And events which killed from a tenth of one percent of the population of the world to ten percent were pretty much evenly sprinkled over 2500 years of history.

Now this funnel-like concentration of points in the last few centuries does not mean that in ancient times they only committed big atrocities, whereas now we commit both big and little atrocities. It’s rather an artifact of “historical myopia”: the closer you get to the present, the more information you have. The smaller atrocities in the past were trees falling in the forest with no one to hear them, or not even deemed worthy of being written down.

Let’s zoom in now on the last 500 years. There is a data set from Jack Levy on trends in great power war. These are wars that involve the 800-pound gorillas of the day, that is the countries that can project military power outside their boundaries, which account for a disproportionate amount of the damage due to war (because wars fall along a power law distribution of damage).

The first graph shows the percentage of time that the great powers were at war. We see that five hundred years ago, the great powers were pretty much always at war with one another, and then the proportion of each quarter-century filled with great-power wars declined steadily. The next one shows the duration of wars involving the great powers — also a decline. Here is one that shows the number of great-power wars initiated per year, and that figure, too, declines steadily over the half-millennium.

But now we see a graph of the deadliness of war, which shows a trend that goes in the opposite direction—though wars involving great powers were fewer in number, they did more damage per country per year. Even that trend, though, did an about-face after 1950, when for the first time in modern history, great-power wars became simultaneously fewer in number, shorter in duration, and less deadly per unit time.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Now let’s zoom in on the last century, the 20th century. Here is a graph showing deaths in war all over the world, not just those involving the great powers. It shows that the increase in deadliness of war did indeed result in two horrific spikes of bloodletting centered on the two world wars. But since then there has been a long stretch without that degree of bloodletting. The fact that the 20th century comprises 100 years, not just 50 years, is one of the reasons why it’s misleading to say that the 20th century was the most violent in history.

[QUESTION: Which population figures are you using to calculate rates of death in war?]

The denominator here is the world population, not the population size of countries involved in each war. There are arguments for doing it either way. The problem is that you can make the numbers go all over the place depending on the choice of the denominator, whether you choose the country that initiated the war, the collateral damage in other countries, the neighboring countries, and so on. So in all cases I’ve plotted deaths as a proportion of world population.

The extraordinary 65-year stretch since the end of the Second World War has been called the “Long Peace”, and has perhaps the most striking statistics of all, zero. There were zero wars between the United States and the Soviet Union (the two superpowers of the era), contrary to every expert prediction. No nuclear weapon has been used in war since Nagasaki, again, confounding everyone’s expectations. There have been no wars between any subset of the great powers since the end of the Korean War in 1953. There have been zero wars between Western European countries. The extraordinary thing about this fact is how un-extraordinary it sounds. If I say I’m going to predict that in my lifetime France and Germany will not go to war, everyone will say, “Yeah, yeah; of course they won’t go to war.” But that is an extraordinary statement when you consider that before 1945, Western European countries initiated two new wars per year for more than 600 years. That number has now stood at zero for 65 years.

And there have been zero wars between developed countries at all. We take it for granted nowadays that war is something that happens only in poor, primitive countries. That, too, is an extraordinary development; war used to be something that rich countries did, too. Europe, which traditionally has been the part of the world with the biggest military might, is no longer picking on countries in other parts of the world, or hurling artillery shells at one other with the rest of the world suffering collateral damage. This change has been extraordinary.

Now, what about the rest of the world? What has happened in the other continents while Europe has been racking up its peaceful zeros?

First let’s look at the number of wars. These graphs start at 1946 and they span the entire globe. I’ll divide it into the different categories of war.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


One kind of war has vanished off the face of the earth. The colonial war (red), which used to be quite destructive, no longer exists, because the European powers have given up their colonies. (This is, by the way, a stacked layer graph, so the relevant visual variable is the thickness of the layers.)

Here (blue) we see the fate of interstate wars, wars between two sovereign states. These have also been dwindling since the end of the Second World War. However, the number of civil wars — both pure civil wars within a country (green) and internationalized civil wars (orange), where some foreign country butts in, usually on the side of the government defending itself against an insurgency — —increased until about 1990, and then has shown somewhat of a decrease as well.

So since 1946 there have been fewer wars between states, but there been more civil wars, mainly because newly independent states with inept governments were challenged by insurgent movements, and both sides were armed by the Cold War powers. But even civil wars declined after 1991 with the end of the Cold War and the stoking of these proxy wars by the superpowers.

The crucial question now is: what kills more people, the fewer number of wars between countries, or the greater number of wars within countries? This graph shows the deadliness of interstate wars since the 1950s, that is, how many people are killed in a particular year of war. As you can see, the numbers has plummeted (I’ve already talked about that fact).

The tall blue bars represent deaths in interstate war, and as you can see they have plummeted over the decades. Much shorter are the internationalized civil wars (orange) and the civil wars (green). The fact that we have more civil wars and fewer interstate wars means that the total number of people has gone down, because the interstate wars of the past killed far more people than the civil wars of the present.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


Now let’s put the numbers back together, and instead of looking at the number of wars, look at number of deaths, again scaled by world population. This stacked-layer graph shows the number of people killed in wars since 1946. Here are the colonial wars (red). Here we see the number of people killed in interstate wars (blue), with spikes corresponding to the eras of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iran/Iraq War. These are the numbers of people killed in civil wars (green) and internationalized civil wars (orange).

The trajectory has been, to be sure, bumpy, but in the first decade of the 21st century, we are actually living in a time that even in comparison to recent decades is comparatively peaceable. In fact, one could almost say that the dream of the 1960s folk singers is coming true: the world is putting an end to war.

What about genocide? The last couple of graphs plot what are called “state-based conflicts, where you have two organized armed forces fighting, at least one of which is a government. What about cases in which governments kill their own citizens? Again, there’s a cliché that the 20th century was the Age of Genocide. But the claim is never made with any systemic comparison of previous centuries.

Historians who have tried to track genocide over the centuries are unanimous that the notion that the 20th was “a century of genocide” is a myth. Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, their The History and Sociology of Genocide, write on page one, “Genocide has been practiced in all regions of the world and during all periods in history.”

What did change during the 20th century was that for the first time people started to care about genocide. It’s the century in which the word “genocide” was coined and in which, for the first time, genocide was considered a bad thing, something to be denied instead of boasted about.

As Chalk and Jonassohn say of ancient histories, “We know that empires have disappeared and that cities were destroyed, and we suspect that some wars were genocidal in their results. But we do not know what happened to the bulk of the populations involved in these events. Their fate was simply too unimportant. When they were mentioned at all, they were usually lumped together with the herds of ox and sheep and other livestock.”

To give some examples: if Old Testament history were taken literally, there were genocides on almost every page; the Amalakites, Amarites, Canaanites, Hivites, Hitites, Jevasites, Midianites, Parazites and many other. Also, genocides were committed by the Athenians in Melos; by the Romans in Carthage; and during the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the European wars of religion, and the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Australia.


Click graphic to see full-sized version.


We have something even resembling numbers only for the 20th century. But if we plot those numbers, they refute the impression that the massacres in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur are indications that nothing has changed, that the world has learned nothing since the Holocaust. This graph shows the best estimates that we can find of rates of death in genocide. Is certainly true that there was a burst of genocides from the 1930s to the early ’50s in Europe, and from the ’20s through the ’70s in Asia. But the trend since World War II has been downward. It is definitely not the case that “nothing has changed” since the era of the Second World War. Even with the Rwanda genocide, a small proportion of the world’s population, compared to earlier decades, is massacred by their governments.

So what are the immediate causes of the Long Peace, and what I call the new peace (that is, the Post-Cold War era)? They were anticipated by Immanuel Kant in his remarkable essay, “Perpetual Peace” from 1795, in which he suggested that democracy, trade and an international community were pacifying forces. The hypothesis has been taken up again by a pair of political scientists, Bruce Russett and John Oneal, who have shown that all three forces increased in the second half of the 20th century. In a set of regression analyses, they showed that all of them are statistical predictors of peace, holding everything else constant.

Specifically, the number of democracies has increased since the Second World War, and again since the end of the Cold War, relative to the number of autocracies. There’s been a steady increase in international trade since the end of the Second World War. There’s been a continuous increase in the number of intergovernmental organizations that countries have entered into. And especially since the end of the Cold War in 1990, there’s been an increase in the number of international peace-keeping missions, and even more importantly, the number of international peace keepers that have kept themselves in between warring nations mostly in the developing world.

The final historical development I call the Rights Revolutions. This is the reduction of systemic violence at smaller scales against vulnerable populations such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals.

The civil rights revolution saw a reduction in the once socially-sanctioned practice of lynching. There used to be 150 lynchings per year in the United States, over the course of the 20th century the number has gone down to zero. Hate crime murders of blacks, which started to be recorded in the mid-1990s, went down from the single digits to one per year. Non-lethal hate crimes such as intimidation and assault have also been in decline since they were first measured.

Also, the kinds of racist attitudes that encourage violence against minorities, such as the percentage of Americans saying that they would move if a black family moved in next door, or believe that black and white students should go to separate schools, has now fallen into the noise — the range of crank opinion — and is basically indistinguishable from zero.

This is a trend that has taken place not just in the United States, but worldwide. The number of countries that have laws on the books that discriminate against ethnic, religious, or racial minorities has been in steady decline. In fact, the number of countries that have tried to tilt the scale in the other direction with affirmative action and remedial discrimination policies has increased. So now more countries in the world discriminate in favor of disadvantaged minorities than discriminate against them.

The women’s rights movement has seen an 80 percent reduction in rape since the early ’70s when it was put on the agenda as a feminist issue. There has also been a two-thirds decline in domestic violence, spousal abuse, or wife beating, and a 50 percent decline in husband beating. In the most extreme form of domestic violence, namely uxoricide and matricide, there’s been a decline both in the number of wives that are murdered by their husband’s and the number of husbands that have been murdered by their wives. In fact, the decrease is much more dramatic for husbands. Feminism has been very good to men, who are now much more likely to survive a marriage without getting murdered by their wives.

The children’s rights movement has seen a decline in the United States of the number of states that permit corporal punishment in schools, such as “paddling” and “hiding.” In much of Europe, it’s been abolished outright. But even in the United States, it’s been in decline. The approval of spanking and the implementation of spanking have been in decline in every country in which they have been measured. Here are data from the United States, New Zealand and Sweden. In fact, spanking, even by parents, is illegal in many European countries now. Child abuse, too, has been in decline since statistics were recorded in the early 1990s. And violence in schools, such as fighting and bullying, has been in decline.

The gay rights movement has seen an increase in the number of states in the world, and American states, that have decriminalized homosexuality (it used to be a felony). Anti-gay attitudes have been in steady decline, such as whether homosexuality is “morally wrong,” whether it should be made illegal, and whether gay people should be denied equal opportunity. Hate crimes of intimidation against gays have been in decline since they were first measured.

The animal rights movement has seen a decline in hunting, an increase in vegetarianism, and a decrease in the number of motion pictures in which animals have been harmed.

The key question now is: Why has violence declined over so many different scales of time and magnitude? One possibility is that human nature has changed, and that people have lost their inclinations towards violence. I consider this to be unlikely. For one thing, people continue to take enormous pleasure, and allocate a lot of their disposable income, to consuming simulated violence, such as in murder mysteries, Greek tragedy, Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games and hockey.

But perhaps more to the point are studies of homicidal fantasies, which ask people the following question: “Have you ever fantasized about killing someone you don’t like?” When you ask that question of a demographic with a very low rate of actual violence, namely American university students, you find that about 15 percent of the women and a third of the men frequently fantasize about killing people they don’t like; and more than 60 percent of women and three-quarters of men at least occasionally fantasize about killing people they don’t like. And the rest of them are lying — or at least might sympathize with Clarence Darrow when he said, “I’ve never killed a man, but I’ve taken great pleasure in reading many obituaries.”

A more likely possibility is that human nature comprises inclinations toward violence and inclinations that counteract them — what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.” Historical circumstances have increasingly favored these peaceable inclinations.

What are the parts of human nature that militate toward violence? I count five, depending on how you lump or split them.

There’s raw exploitation, that is, seeking something that you want where a living thing happens to be in the way; examples include rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals. There’s nothing particularly fancy in the psychology of this kind of violence other than a zeroing out of whatever inclinations would inhibit us from that kind of exploitation.

There’s the drive toward dominance, both the competition among individuals to be alpha male, and the competition among groups for ethnic, racial, national or religious supremacy or pre-eminence.

There’s the thirst for revenge, the kind of moralistic violence that inspires vendettas, rough justice, and cruel punishments.

And then there’s ideology which might be the biggest contributor of all (such as in militant religions, nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and communism), leading to large-scale violence via a pernicious cost- benefit analysis. What these ideologies have in common is that they posit a utopia that is infinitely good for infinitely long. You do the math: if the ends are infinitely good, then the means can be arbitrarily violent and you’re still on the positive side of the moral ledger. Also, what do you do with people who learn about an infinitely perfect world nonetheless oppose it? Well, they are arbitrarily evil, and deserve arbitrarily severe punishment.

Now let’s turn to the brighter side, our so-called better angels.

They include the faculty of self-control: the ability to anticipate the consequences of behavior, and inhibit violent impulses. There’s the faculty of empathy (more technically, sympathy), the ability to feel others’ pain. There’s the moral sense, which comprise a variety of intuitions including tribalism, authority, purity, and fairness. The moral sense actually goes in both directions: it can push people to be more violent or less violent, depending on how it is deployed. And then there is reason, the cognitive faculties that allow us to engage in objective, detached analysis.

Now we face the crucial question: Which historical developments bring out our better angels? I’m going to suggest there are four.

The first implies that Hobbes got it right: a Leviathan, namely a state and justice system with a monopoly on legitimate use of violence, can reduce aggregate violence by eliminating the incentives for exploitative attack; by reducing the need for deterrence and vengeance (because Leviathan is going to deter your enemies so you don’t have to), and by circumventing self-serving biases. One of the major discoveries of social and evolutionary psychology in the past several decades is that people tend to exaggerate their adversary’s malevolence and exaggerate their own innocence. Self-serving biases can stoke cycles of revenge when you have two sides, each of them intoxicated with their own sense of rectitude and moral infallibility.

Historical evidence that the Leviathan is a major pacifying force includes the first two historical developments that I spoke of, namely the Pacifying and Civilizing Processes, both of which were consequences of the rise of states. Also the fact that reversals in the trends, where violence re-erupts, tend to take place in zones of anarchy, like the American Wild West, failed states, collapsed empires, and mafias and street gangs that deal in contraband (so they can’t call in the court system to enforce their interests in business disputes but have to resort to intimidation and revenge). A final kind of evidence is the demonstrable effectiveness of international peace-keepers, who use a kind of soft power on the international stage to keep warring parties apart.

The second pacifying force is identified by the theory of “Gentle Commerce.” Plunder is a zero-sum or even a negative sum game: the victors’ gain is the loser’s loss. Trade, in contrast, is a positive-sum game. (We will hear more from both Leda and Martin that reciprocal altruism, such as gains in trade, can result in both sides being better off after an interaction.) Over the course of history, improvements in technology have allowed goods and ideas to be traded over longer distances, among larger groups of people, and at lower cost, all of which change the incentive structure so that other people become more valuable alive than dead. To be concrete: I doubt that the United States is going to declare war on China (though there’s much that we don’t like about that country), because they make all our stuff. And I doubt China will declare war on us, because we owe them too much money.

Some historical evidence comes from statistical studies showing that countries with open economies and greater international trade are less likely to engage in war, are less likely to host civil wars, and have genocides.

A third pacifying force is what Peter Singer called the “Expanding Circle,” although Charles Darwin in first stated the idea in The Descent of Man. According to this theory, evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy. That’s the good news; the bad news is that by default, we apply it only to a narrow circle of allies and family. But over history, one can see the circle of empathy expanding: from the village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to more recently to other races, both sexes, children, and even other species.

This just begs the question of what expanded the circle. I think one can argue that the forces of cosmopolitanism pushed it outward: exposure to history, literature, media, journalism, and travel encourages people to adopt the perspective of a real or fictitious other person. Experiments by Daniel Batson and others have shown that reading a person’s words indeed leads to an increase in empathy, not just for that person, but also for the category that the person represents.

Historical evidence includes the timing of the Humanitarian Revolution of the 18th century, which was preceded by the Republic of Letters, the great increase in written discourse. Similarly, the Long Peace and Rights Revolutions in the second half of the 20th century were simultaneous with the “electronic global village.” And perhaps — this is highly speculative — but it’s often been stated that the rise of the Internet and of social media might have been behind the color revolutions and the Arab Spring of the 21st century.

I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an “escalator of reason.” As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

What’s the evidence for reason being a pacifying force which has helped to propel the decline of violence? We do know that abstract reasoning abilities (as measured by the most abstract components of an IQ test) have increased in the 20th century. The so-called Flynn Effect consists of an increase of about three IQ points per decade since the beginning of the 20th century, and the gains have been concentrated not in factual knowledge such as vocabulary and information, but rather, in abstract reasoning (such as in Similarities questions, like “What do an egg and a seed have in common?” and “What do an inch and a pound have in common.”)

It’s been shown that people (both at the level of individuals and of entire societies) who have higher levels of education and measured intelligence commit fewer violent crimes, cooperate more in experimental games (we’ll hear today from Martin Nowak and Leda Cosmides about these games), have more classically-liberal attitudes, are less likely to be racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and are more receptive to democracy.

Whatever the causes of the decline of violence, it has profound implications. One of them is it calls for a reorientation of our efforts toward violence reduction from a moralistic mindset to an empirical mindset. It leads us to ask not just the question “Why is there war?” but, what might be a better question, “Why is there peace?” Not just “What are we doing wrong?” but “What have we been doing right?” Because we have been doing something right, and it seems to me that’s it’s important to understand what it is.

In addition, the decline of violence has implications for our assessment of modernity: the centuries-long erosion of family, tribe, tradition and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science.

Now, everyone acknowledges that modernity has given us longer and healthier lives, less ignorance and superstition, and richer experiences. But there is a widespread romantic movement which questions the price. Is it really worth it to have a few years of better health if the price is muggings, terrorism, holocausts, world wars, gulags, and nuclear weapons?

I argue that despite impressions, the long-term trend, though certainly halting and incomplete, is that violence of all kinds is decreasing. This calls for a rehabilitation of a concept of modernity and progress, and for a sense of gratitude for the institutions of civilization and enlightenment that have made it possible.


1 comment

  1. L.N.

    Hmmm… I think we’d all like to believe this… enough so that Pinker will probably make a tidy sum on the talk circuit…

    But I think there are some obvious problems…

    Chief among those is that the time scale Pinker considers is way too short to conclude that there has been any change in human nature.

    Nearly all the improvements Pinker claims take place during the fossil-fuel industrial era — which is a magnificent era we are enjoying that will soon prove all too short-lived. Human civilization has artificially and temporarily provided enough for many, based on fossil-fuel energy and EROEI.

    If anything, our imagining that human nature has changed for the nicer leaves us far less prepared for the conflicts and suffering that will come as the fossil-fuel era dwindles.

    Fossil-fuels have also enabled an unprecedented degree of systemic controls that obviate violence in many ways. No need to kill or maim when people are held helpless in other ways.

    Here are a few other “problems” with Pinker’s analysis:
    • Pinker doesn’t look at incarceration rates.
    • Pinker lists the U.S. — and other nations who participate in torture — as not participating in torture, even though, despite laws and treaties on paper, they do torture; there might not be “judicial torture” but torture is still taking place, with the blessing of governments and citizenry.
    • Pinker weights all violence rates against total population — that may seem reasonable, but it is not reasonable if one is looking for changes in human nature — to gauge changes in human nature, Pinker might weight violence rates against total population in the societies/countries in which they occur, or total numbers of people rather than proportions; at the very least, an honest analysis would show total numbers on the same charts as proportions.
    • Pinker ignores acts of genocide that have been labeled something else by the dominant forces (U.S. and U.N.), e.g. over a million civilians killed in Iraq, alone, by U.S.-led forces — that’s over 5% of the total Iraqi population; another 5-10% have been forced to flee the country.
    • Pinker doesn’t look at wealth disparity, let alone gauging wealth in terms of quality-of-life measures such as access to natural resources, leisure time, etc. — in this area, recent trends are not “nice” at all.
    • Pinker fails to consider new forms of violence, such as large-scale poisoning and/or theft of natural resources, and the associated pre-mature deaths due to these sorts of activities — they aren’t typically CALLED warfare, but, really, they are a form of warfare.
    • Systems of economic and legislative slavery today dictate many behaviors and also essentially make share-croppers of most people, with the same benefits for the “overlords,” but we do not call these new forms of enslavement, “slavery.”
    • All by itself, it appears to me that the slide entitled, “Hundred Worst Wars & Atrocities” could be interpreted as belying Pinker’s thesis.

    Pinker also ignores the fact that there were many societies in which the common people worked out systems of cooperation. In many instances, violence was the result of the power/wealth-lust of the dregs who seem to inevitably work their way into leadership roles. So Pinker might be arguing that human “leaders” have become nicer. But I would argue that is not the case — our leaders have simply changed tools. Now they favor the kinds of shackles that can sink beneath the skin, so that people feel free while still enslaved. However, I believe that when resource shortages arise as overpopulation causes massive ecosystem and farm-land collapse, those tools are certain to revert to the kinds of violence we can more easily recognize as violence.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.