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The best of times

I ran across an interesting quote by linguist Steven Pinker in the july 5th issue of New Scientist:

“My next book will be on the decline of violence and its implications. Rates of murder, warfare, genocide, torture and deadly riots are lower now than at any moment in human history. Assuming that we have’t changed biologically, then what has changed in our psychology and soceity to make that possible?”

The interview went on to suggest several reasonable possibilities, including the spread of the concept of a fair and impartial judiciary but left out two which I think may be very important: wealth and freedom.

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16 comments to The best of times

  • Dare I say it “Pax Americana”

  • Laird

    No, Taylor, you dare not! I don’t want my taxes being used to police the world unless I get a direct return on my investment (and I don’t mean some amorphous “peace is good for business” crap; the return has to be tangible).

    If there is to be a “Pax Americana” is should be modelled on the old “Pax Romana”. That means building an empire and having the courage to call it such. The conquered provinces would be under the control of military governors; they would have to carry their own weight economically; and they would pay monetary tribute to “New Rome” (aka Washington, DC). Don’t have the stomach for military conquest and empire-building? Then keep our troops (and tax dollars) at home and let the rest of the world police itself.

  • “”My next book will be on the decline of violence and its implications. Rates of murder, warfare, genocide, torture and deadly riots are lower now than at any moment in human history.”

    A big claim for a linguist. I would posit that it is impossible to collate valid data for any of this from an historical point of view.

  • Even if it is lower now (which I doubt), I can hardly see it as being a pattern of continual decline. Or for that matter the same pattern in different countries. Or for that matter similar causes for decline in the different types of violence (murder rates for instance fall as better medical attention is available).

  • veryretired

    Many ancient cultures were warrior societies engaged in never ending feuds and clan/tribal vendettas. The surviving tribes in undeveloped areas in the deep jungles operated on this model within living memory.

    It is not unbelievable, therefore, that the current lull in mass murder brought about by the defeat of the various totalitarian isms of the 20th century has led to some abatement in that area.

    The intrusion of commercial culture into previously undeveloped, clan based societies tends to reduce the need for killing over stolen pigs or previously homicide inducing causes, although humans are relentlessly inventive in their ability to find new ways and reasons to kill each other.

    Some studies of primitive cultures have found that a large percentage of their male deaths were caused by violence. I was just reading about that in Ferguson’s “War of the World”, if I recall correctly.

    Certainly, in the US, a vastly disproportionate percentage of minority young men are killed by violence, mostly over drug turf, but judged from a global historical perspective, the numbers might not be as bad as the repeated civil disturbances in the history of Europe and Asia, when rival warlords caused the deaths of thousands in repeated disputes.

    The various tribal cultures of North and South America were mostly of the warrior type, and recent non-politically correct research findings have shown that they were violent and continuously at war with their neighbors.

    I don’t particularly buy into the Pax Americana meme simply because there are way too many places in the world where people are being killed in large numbers by traditional, coercive states or collections of warlords.

    The fact that there are no major international wars is the result of two happy concurrent situations—Europe is exhasted and its militarists silenced, at least for the time being; and the Japanese and Chinese are totally enmeshed in the commercial world order, which, for the time being, at least, blunts some of their historically active militarism.

    It would be a fine thing if the lunatic prohibition of various drugs could be repealed and their commerce rationalized. That would certainly alleviate some of the world’s more violent infighting to control an illegal trade wherein force is the only arbiter.

    As to the violently repressive regimes around the globe, well, that would require a global moral awakening far beyond the power of any single nation’s military or commercial capabilities.

    There will be plenty of significant challenges ahead for future generations to confront. The capacity of the human race for evil has not disappeared, but merely waits for the weak spot in the dam through which it can burst through and flood the world with blood and death yet again.

    Only the Shadow knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.

  • Pax Americana? Oh please. The affluence of a globalised somewhat capitalist order is obvious explaination.

  • Doug

    Violence is decreasing while CO2 is increasing – it must be down to global warming!

    Where do I pick up my nobel prize?

  • nick g.

    Either the prospect of a Democrat President has brought peace to the world, or leftoid journoes are squeamish about going to violent areas, so it only seems as if there is less violence?

  • Soupmonkey

    The decline of violent crime in major US cities has been somewhat documented, if not validated. The problem lies in the increase of crime in small to medium sized towns across the US.

    My hometown, a mid-sized town in southern Georgia has seen its murder rate triple in one year. The official explanation is of course drugs and a depressed economy. No, sorry, don’t buy it. There has always been drugs for as long as I can remember(50 years), the economy has had its ups and downs. But the level of violence in this town now is beginning to equal that of its birth after the civil war when it was a timber town full of drunken loggers.

    I just get the feeling no one wants to face the facts. Whatever they may turn out to be.

  • Dale Amon

    What I find interesting in the comment to date is how many of them have made an assumption of locality, defining ‘decline in violence’ as meaning ‘decline in violence in America in the last 20 years’.

    If that is the assumption you made, you are not even in the ballpark of the discussion.

    We are talking about violence in a global context of centuries and millennium. Whether violence is up or down in some small town in one largish nation on the planet over an inconsequential period of time is immaterial to what he is claiming.

    I am neither believing nor disbelieving his claim, although my gut feel (not a valid scientific method of weighing truth) would be that he is correct. From what I have read, humans in their ‘natural’ tribal state live exceedingly violent existences.

    Also, when I say Pinker is a linguist, I do not mean it in the sense of ‘a person who translates languages’ but in the academic research sense. He analyzes the way humans use language; what the commonalities are, what parts of the brain are activated, how languages and migrations worked together, how languages reflect conceptual frameworks of people over vast periods of time, and in general, how our way of seeing the world has changed with over thousands of years.

    The fact that he is studying changes in violence over those periods is not at all surprising.

    I would also note that while we may take WWI and WWII as examples of how the 20th century was hyper-violent… even then, if you were not a member of one of a handful of countries your chances of living to a reasonable age without being murdered or killed in battle (or raped and carted off) were far higher than in a tribal society in days of yore.

  • This ignores the bloodbath in Africa and third world slaughter in general.Whilst there may not be major wars there are numerous conflict around the world. Nobody knows the exactly what is going on in China,where the line between police action and military action is blurred.Executions continue in Tibet,
    As for tribal warfare,state actors have it beaten all hands down for carnage.

  • Laura

    I’m a linguist, and I’ve greatly enjoyed Pinker’s books on linguistics. But I’d be quite wary of Pinker Books outside that field.

    In undergrad and grad school linguistic classes we study a lot of Chomsky and Chomsky-influence theories — which is fine, because there’s no debating the enormous and possitive effect the man had in the field of linguistics.

    However! There is also no debating that the man is batshit crazy about every other topic, so I’d rather walk on hot coals than read anything by Chomsky outside linguistics.

    Now, Pinker studied linguistics directly under Chomsky. For years. This fact automatically makes me sceptical about Pinker’s views of history and economic and political change. The fact that he didn’t mention the effects of wealth and freedom in his perceived decrease in worldwide violence only feeds my trepidation that he probably drank an awful lot of Chomsky’s kool-aid at the faculty gatherings.

    I don’t have any confidence that I will respect and enjoy this new Pinker book as I have his previous ones.

  • James

    I am pretty sure that Stephen Pinker has rather different political views from Chomsky, who according to the Ministry of Misinformation/Wiki is a ‘libertarian socialist’, whatever that is. Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist type, which can often be taken as a proxy for ‘not a socialist’.

    It is hardly a novel concept, it’s been noted before by all kinds of academic commentators, I am sure something similar was noted in Keegan’s ‘A History of Warfare’

  • Laird

    A “libertarian socialist” is no more a libertarian than a “communist economist” is an economist.

  • nick g.

    Libertarian socialists DO exist. They believe in liberty by SMALL governments, not small in powers, but small in reach. They probably think that Communes are good for everyone, though you’d have to ignore the evidence that kibbutzes are commercialising. We should never forget that Libertarian is a broad description- not everyone thinks that Anarcho-Capitalism is the only way to go!