A Thrashing for Violence

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Thrashing for Violence


Byline: Ian Morris

The Better Angels Of Our Nature

by Steven Pinker Allen Lane [pounds sterling]30 [pounds sterling]25 inc p&p *****

Every time you pick up a newspaper, you are reminded that the world is a dangerous place. We are assailed by warmongers, mad dictators, terrorists with bombs in their underwear, serial killers and rioting hoodies. Just leaving home in the morning seems like a daring gamble.

But then again, says Steven Pinker in this remarkable book, maybe it isn't.

Mustering an extraordinary array of evidence and his own speciality of psychology, he shows that every imaginable kind of violence - war, murder, torture, rape, assault, wifebeating, corporal punishment, cruelty to animals - has declined massively in the past few centuries.

And the pace of decline has speeded up in the last two generations. Sounds unlikely? Well, 700 years ago, roughly one Londoner in every 100 could expect to be murdered. Today, the figure is less than one in 50,000. In the Stone Age, raiding and feuding typically killed one person in ten.

Now fast-forward to the 20th Century. Despite two world wars, multiple genocides, and nuclear weapons, we still managed to kill somewhere only between one in 50 and one in 100 of the planet's population. And in the first decade of the 21st Century, the global rate of violent death fell well below one in 2,000. The world has never been more peaceful.

'The decline of violence,' Pinker concludes, 'may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.' He is absolutely right, and his book will change the way you see the world. It's a big book in every sense. At times it delves deep into statistics and neuroscience, and there are almost 100 graphs. But, hard as it can be to pick up an 800-page book, Pinker's powerful ideas, vivid stories and sparkling prose make this one harder still to put down.

Almost every page contains extraordinary information. We learn, for instance, that Louisiana was the last state in the USA to ban cockfighting - in 2008. …

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