The Decline of Violence: Neuroscientist Steven Pinker on the Triumph of Peace and Prosperity over Death and Destruction

By Bailey, Ronald | Reason, February 2012 | Go to article overview

The Decline of Violence: Neuroscientist Steven Pinker on the Triumph of Peace and Prosperity over Death and Destruction


Bailey, Ronald, Reason


YOU ARE LESS likely to die a violent death today than at any other rime in human history. In fact, violence has been declining for centuries. That is the arresting claim made by Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking). The title, taken from Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, refers to the way in which the modern world encourages people to suppress their inner demons and let their better angels fly.

Just a couple of centuries ago, violence was pervasive. Slavery was widespread, wife and child beating were acceptable practices, heretics and witches were burned at the stake, pogroms and race riots were common, and warfare was nearly constant. Public hangings, bearbaiting, and even cat burning were popular forms of entertainment. By examining collections of ancient skeletons and scrutinizing contemporary tribal societies, anthropologists have found that people were nine times as likely to die violent deaths in the prehistoric period than in modern times, even allowing for the world wars and genocides of the 20th century. Europe's murder rate was 30 times higher in the Middle Ages than it is today.

What happened? Human nature did not change, but our institutions did, encouraging people to restrain their natural tendencies toward violence. In more than 800 pages of data and analysis, Pinker identifies a series of institutional changes that have led to decreasing levels of life-threatening violence. The rise of states 5,000 years ago dramatically reduced tribal conflict. In recent centuries, the spread of courtly manners, literacy, commerce, and democracy have reduced violence even more. Polite behavior requires self-restraint, literacy encourages empathy, commerce changes zero-sum encounters into mutually beneficial exchanges, and democracy restrains the excesses of government.

Pinker is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, about which reason interviewed him in 2002 ("Biology vs. the Blank Slate," October 2002). A native of Montreal, Pinker received his bachelor's degree from McGill University in 1976 and his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1979. After serving on the faculties of Harvard and Stanford, he moved to MIT in the early 1980s. He returned to Harvard in 2003 as the Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology.

Pinker dropped by reason's Washington, D.C., office in October to talk with Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey about ideology, empathy, and why you are much less likely to get knifed in the face these days. To see a video of this interview, go to reason.tv.

reason: Why has violence declined? I think most people would be astonished to hear that.

Steven Pinker: First of all, I have to convince people that there's a fact that needs to be explained--namely, that violence has declined. And it has, as I demonstrate with 100 graphs and data sets. The reasons, I think, are multiple. One of them is the spread of government, the outsourcing of revenge to a more or less disinterested third party. That tends to ramp down your rates of vendetta and blood feud for all the reasons that we're familiar with from The Sopranos and The Godfather. If you've got a disinterested third party, they're more likely to nip that cycle in the bud. Not necessarily because they have any benevolent interest in the welfare of their subject peoples, especially in the early governments. Their motive was closer to the motive of a farmer who doesn't want his livestock killing each other. Namely, it's a deadweight loss to him.

But even without this benevolent interest, you find that with the first states in the transition from hunting and gathering to settled ways of life, violence goes down, and in the consolidation of kingdoms during the transition from medieval times to modernity, rates of homicide go way down. …

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