In this startling new book, the bestselling cognitive scientist Steven Pinker shows that the world of the past was much worse. With the help of more than a hundred graphs and maps, Pinker presents some astonishing numbers. Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition. Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.
Sounds good, and all very plausible. But how to explain it?
Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
I am not sure about that government bit. Perhaps “rule of law” might be more accurate. Perhaps the Amazon reviews can shed some light. Says one reviewer:
Pinker challenges the two prevailing views of human nature – Rousseau’s view that the noble savage has been corrupted by civilization, and Hobbes’s idea that human greed and violence can only be curbed by strong government. The first view is common on the left of the political spectrum, the second among conservatives. The reviewers who think poorly of the book may have been upset by the fact that Pinker rejects both positions. Instead he shows, with a mass of evidence and interpretation, that violence has declined through history. We seem likely to have started with the high levels of inter-group killing found in our chimpanzee cousins, eventually to be tamed by the slow development of effective government, peaceful trading and eventually Enlightenment thinking.
Words like `democracy’, `government’ or `gentle commerce’ are not seriously analyzed. Consequentially, his view of history is a very mechanical one: we were extremely violent in the past and thanks to the Leviathan and `gentle commerce’ we have become better persons. We either accept the political and economical assets of our era or we risk going back to violence and chaos.
My sense is that Pinker’s evidence for decreasing violence over time will be very interesting to see, but his explanations for why this is so will be less interesting. I think the answer is that technology makes us less violent, by making our lives overall so much more comfortable that violence seems even more out of the ordinary, and so to be avoided, than it otherwise would.