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Violence has decreased over time

Ben Pile at Climate Resistance notes Steven Pinker’s latest book:

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.

Says another:

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.

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14 comments to Violence has decreased over time

  • MAS

    http://fbnews-mas.blogspot.com/ – cognitive statistic.
    If not too much trouble, please click on one of the ads on the blog will help me to something very

  • Ian

    Presumably it’s an elaboration of what he discusses here:

  • Laird

    You suggest that technology makes us less violent, and in a sense I suppose that’s true, but I would rather say that it is our (relative) wealth which makes us less violent. Technology contributes to that, certainly, but the real source is a reasonable level of personal freedom, some measure of free-market capitalism, and (as you already mentioned) the rule of law.

    Unfortunately, all of those are in decline right now, so if I’m correct we’re likely to see a long-term rise in the overall level of violence.

  • Maybe our much deplored high incarceration rates, coupled with better police work in recent decades, have something to do with it.

  • Pat

    Taking as read for now the point that violence has decreased.
    I think it far more likely that this would be caused by a decreased human will to violence than by some authority imposing it. Why would the Authority impose this? Is the authority not human?
    May I suggest that the magnificently greater communication available today enables more and more people to see each other as people and that this would be a more than adequate explanation to this phenomenon

  • 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.

    I think Steven Pinker probably agrees with that. He would merely add that the rule of law and an embrace of commerce are both parasitic on and necessary precursors of technological advancement. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem – the one feeds the other and vice versa – but in any case technology surely plays an important role.

  • Myno

    Technology and government, especially Western government, have conspired to provide so many more non-violent options as potential resolutions to conflicts.

  • Rob

    Rather than a comparison with Mediaeval history, wouldn’t it be better to compare with the Britain which existed between, say, 1900 and 1960?

    The murder rate now is over twice what it was then, even though medical emergency services are massively better now.

  • Richard Thomas

    Trade, specialisation and a general increase in the standard of living for the less-well-off (Even the poorest live better than kings of old).

  • Yes, I probably should have said wealth instead of technology, though the two are intimately connected.

  • Midwesterner

    Societal violence correlates to self control. I don’t mean emotional self restraint, I mean control of your own fate. When people are helpless to alter their personal fate, violence is a reasonable alternative.

    Equality before the law coupled with the lawfully protected rights of personal life, liberty and property, is the foundation of peace. When you possess something you don’t want to loose and you have available the civil means to retain it, engaging in unlawful violence causes you to loose what you have rather than gain more.

    To the extent that a civilization is governed by laws rather than men, it is a peaceful society. As long as the laws apply to everyone equally without distinction, even stupid laws do not trigger violence. To the extent that the law is bent to the uses of some at the expense of others, society degrades into violence.

    It really is that simple.

  • veryretired

    Mid has a big piece of the puzzle. The great part of human history was essentially lawless, since even societies which had elaborate codes of law were still governed by the whim of the autocrat, and the corrupted favoritism of a nobility which was exempted from most law as long as the lord in question remained in the monarch’s favor.

    One of the drawbacks of the clan/feudal structure, which so many human organizations adopt by design or default, is that the inner circle invariably begins to see itself as outside and above the rules which apply to everyone else.

    Another element which plays a large role in all cultures is the teaching by the group elders about proper behaviour towards others, both within and without of the group.

    A large part of our common human heritage is that of hunter/warrior clans, and the internal rules were very strict, often resulting in death sentences for things considered very minor today. And, as harsh as the rule toward members could be, the view of outsiders was often little more than enslave or kill on sight.

    James Michener usually began his novels with an historical survey of the area and people, trying to give a background context for the particular story he wanted to tell. In the book “Centennial”, which takes place in the American southwest, he describes the ferocity of the native Apache culture, wondering how such a cruel ethic could have developed.

    The answer, as it was across the globe, was that humans generally accepted the attitudes and behaviors they have been taught to believe are correct.

    People down through history have accepted and practised the most bizarre beliefs imaginable because they have never known any alternatives.

    It is rare anywhere in our cultural records to find someone who can truly and deeply question the ruling ethos and survive.

    The concept of individual rights, and the dignity of the common man and woman as discrete persons who cannot be transgressed upon with impunity, evolved slowly through many permutations. As we can see in the daily headlines, many questions that are considered extremely important to our society’s health and well-being still revolve around the issue of how a particular law or course of action impacts the rights and dignity of the individual.

    This emphasis is a fundamental revolution in the way societal relations are fashioned. My own take on the overall issue is that violence will decline as the value of the person is upheld and expanded, and will increase as that valuation goes the other way.

    But, as many have pointed out, that respect often rests on the fact that our wealth and general level of security allows us to see others as less of a threat.

    If the crash that looms on the horizon of many worst case scenarios occurs, we may have the misfortune of observing whether or not our fine ideals can survive the type of turmoil and scarcity that will ensue.

    The world is still a harsh and dangerous place, and violence is still considered a legitimate method for dealing with all sorts of problems.

    We all must travel down the road.

  • john malpas

    Be patient.
    Plenty of time for more vigorous world war.
    Maybe the Chinese get a bit too impatient as the american power wanes. Or some mad religious person starts things going.
    You can’t deny that killing capacity is at an all time high.

  • Richard Thomas

    You can’t deny that killing capacity is at an all time high.

    That may actually be the reason why violence has declined.

    It’s one thing when a bunch of people gang up to club some poor individual with blunt objects, it’s another when it’s automatic weapons and rocket launchers.

    Though maybe not.