Steven Pinker on how the world has gotten much more peaceful

While revolution rages in Libya and we fear for our future, we should pay attention to writer and researcher Steven Pinker in this TED speech when he argues–convincingly–that we humans are far more peaceful than at any point in our past history, that much better reporting and a much lower tolerance for cruelty make us more sensitive, and that the modern state works so well in removing the need for individual violence and one-upsmanship.

Here’s the transcript, selected portions below.

[O]ur common understanding is wrong: [o]ur ancestors were far more violent than we are, [v]iolence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and [t]oday we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

[. . . .]

The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years, although there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the 16th century. One sees it all over the world, although not homogeneously. It’s especially evident in the West, beginning with England and Holland around the time of the Enlightenment.

Let me take you on a journey of several powers of 10 — from the millennium scale to the year scale — to try to persuade you of this. Until 10,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, without permanent settlements or government. And this is the state that’s commonly thought to be one of primordial harmony. But the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, looking at casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers — which is our best source of evidence about this way of life — has shown a rather different conclusion.

Here is a graph that he put together showing the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in a number of foraging or hunting and gathering societies. The red bars correspond to the likelihood that a man will die at the hands of another man, as opposed to passing away of natural causes, in a variety of foraging societies in the New Guinea Highlands and the Amazon Rainforest. And they range from a rate of almost a 60 percent chance that a man will die at the hands of another man to, in the case of the Gebusi, only a 15 percent chance. The tiny little blue bar in the lower left hand corner plots the corresponding statistic from United States and Europe in the 20th century, and includes all the deaths of both World Wars. If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million.

Also at the millennium scale, we can look at the way of life of early civilizations such as the ones described in the Bible. And in this supposed source of our moral values one can read descriptions of what was expected in warfare, such as the following from Numbers 31: “And they warred against the Midianites as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew all the males. And Moses said unto them, ‘Have you saved all the women alive? Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him, but all the women children that have not know a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.'” In other words, kill the men, kill the children, if you see any virgins then you can keep them alive so that you can rape them. You can find four or five passages in the Bible of this ilk. Also in the Bible one sees that the death penalty was the accepted punishment for crimes such as homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents — (Laughter) — and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Well, let’s click the zoom lens down one order of magnitude and look at the century scale. Although we don’t have statistics for warfare throughout the Middle Ages to modern times, we know just from conventional history — the evidence has been under our nose all along that there has been a reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence.

For example, any social history will reveal that mutilation and torture were routine forms of criminal punishment. The kind of infraction today that would give you a fine, in those days would result in your tongue being cut out, your ears being cut off, you being blinded, a hand being chopped off and so on. There were numerous ingenious forms of sadistic capital punishment: burning at the stake, disemboweling, breaking on the wheel, being pulled apart by horses and so on. The death penalty was a sanction for a long list of non-violent crimes: criticizing the king, stealing a loaf of bread. Slavery, of course, was the preferred labor-saving device, and cruelty was a popular form of entertainment. Perhaps the most vivid example was the practice of cat burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and lowered in a sling into a fire, and the spectators shrieked in laughter as the cat, howling in pain, was burned to death.

What about one-on-one murder? Well, there there are good statistics, because many municipalities recorded the cause of death. The criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured all of the historical records across Europe for homicide rates in any village, hamlet, town, county that he could find, and he supplemented them with national data when nations started keeping statistics. He plotted on a logarithmic scale, going from 100 deaths per 100,000 people per year, which was approximately the rate of homicide in the Middle Ages. And the figure plummets down to less than one homicide per 100,000 people per year in seven or eight European countries. Then there is a slight uptick in the 1960s. The people who said that rock ‘n roll would lead to the decline of moral values actually had a grain of truth to that. But there was a decline from at least two orders of magnitude in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present, and the elbow occurred in the early 16th century.

Go, read and watch.

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3 Responses to Steven Pinker on how the world has gotten much more peaceful

  1. Danny says:

    When he mentioned the fact that there was an uptick in violence in the 60s when the baby boom generation came into adulthood, it made me think that demography is part of the story: 15-25 year old males used to make up a far larger proportion of the population, and that is the section of the population that is the most violent. Having a population with the average age of 20 rather than 40 as in the developed countries today is going to have an enormous effect on the culture, including society’s attitude towards violence.

  2. Noel Maurer says:

    We fear for our future? Because of the Libyan civil war? Huh? What are you talking about, Randy?

    (I’m not commenting on Pinker because he and others have been pointing this out for a long time, including on my blog. What I want to know is what you’re talking about in that first sentence.)

  3. Mike says:

    google, steven pinker stinker psychology today. Then look at the US military budget….and read some Chomsky. You aren’t seeing peaceful people, you are seeing conformity.

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