Is human violence on the decline?
Posted on September 22, 2011
Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker claims the answer is a resounding “yes” in his forthcoming book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. The British newspaper The Guardian just published a feature article on the book. Here’s a snippet:
Drawing on the work of the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, Pinker recently concluded that the chance of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors meeting a bloody end was somewhere between 15% and 60%. In the 20th century, which included two world wars and the mass killers Stalin and Hitler, the likelihood of a European or American dying a violent death was less than 1%.
Pinker shows that, with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages. It may come as a surprise to fans of Inspector Morse but Oxford in the 1300s, Pinker tells us, was 110 times more murderous than it is today. With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls this movement away from killing the “civilising process”.
And to what might we credit this supposed decline in violence? The growth of the civilized, governed society, Pinker says.
[Jean-Jacques] Rousseau believed that modern society corrupted human nature, whereas for [Thomas] Hobbes modern society was a necessary protection from human nature. It’s Pinker’s contention that without the pacifying influence of a commonly recognised state, we are prone to make life the nasty, brutish and short experience that Hobbes described.
But which mode of behaviour reflects our true nature? Killing each other or organising a state? For Pinker, it’s not a matter of either/or. “The way to explain the decline in violence,” he writes, “is to identify the changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.”
For more, you’ll just have to buy the book.