You are less likely to die a violent death today than at any other time in human history. In fact, violence has been on a steady decline for centuries now. That's the arresting claim made by Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker in his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Just a couple of centuries ago, violence was pervasive. Slavery was widespread; wife and child beating an acceptable practice; heretics and witches burned at the stake; pogroms and race riots common, and warfare nearly constant. Public hangings, bear-baiting, and even cat burning were popular forms of entertainment. By examining collections of ancient skeletons and scrutinizing current day tribal societies, anthropologists have found that people were nine times more likely to be killed in tribal warfare than to die of war and genocide in even the war-torn 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was 30 times higher than today.

What happened? Human nature did not change, but our institutions did, encouraging people to restrain their natural tendencies toward violence. Over the course of more than 850 pages of data and analysis, Pinker identifies a series of institutional changes that have led to decreasing levels of life-threatening violence. The rise of states 5,000 years ago dramatically reduced tribal conflict. In recent centuries, the spread of courtly manners, literacy, commerce, and democracy have reduced violence even more. Polite behavior requires self-restraint; literacy encourages empathy; commerce switches encounters from zero-sum to positive-sum gains; and democracy restrains the excesses of government.

Pinker dropped by Reason’s Washington, D.C., office to talk with Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey about ideology, empathy, and why you’re much less likely to get knifed in the face these days.

Approximately 9.30 minutes.

Shot and edited by Jim Epstein; additional camera Joshua Swain.

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