Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & "The Better Angels of Our Nature"

In the wake of the recent attack in Colorado, it's important to remind ourselves that violence is actually in decline, as Harvard's Steven Pinker did during a 2011 interview with ReasonTV.

Here is the original text:

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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  • Caleb Turberville||

    I love me some Pinker. I missed out on the chance to see him speak back in college.

  • ||

    "... and why you're much less likely to get knifed in the face these days."

    Partly because I can carry deadly weapons, namely guns, to defend myself, something opportunistic, blood-sucking cunts like MAIG and the Brady crowd want to stop.

  • affenkopf||

    Not that I disagree with you when it comes to the 2nd amendment but you're also less likely to get knifed in the face these days in countries with gun control.

  • ||

    Yeah, I know my point was pretty much OT, but the horseshit streaming forth from the progressive bloc is infuriating.

  • Generic Stranger||

    Actually, if you're looking at trends you're much more likely to be knifed in countries with gun control than you were in those countries before they had gun control. Violent crime is soaring in, for instance, Great Britain and Australia while it's falling in the US.

  • BakedPenguin||

    The UK does have very bad crime - their violent crime rate is five times ours. However, Australia has a violent crime rate about 1/5 of ours,and 1/20th the UK's.

  • Generic Stranger||

    I'm not talking compared to ours, though you're right with the UK thing. I'm talking compared to their own violent crime rates prior to enacting gun bans. Both the UK and Australia suffered fairly drastic rises soon after instituting gun bans.

    Now, that isn't to say that correlation = causation, but that coupled with our lowering crime rate despite liberalization of gun laws and a massive increase in the number of guns owned per person goes a fairly long way towards disproving any correlation between low crime rates and strict gun control laws.

  • SIV||

    Public hangings, bear-baiting, and even cat burning were popular forms of entertainment.

    What's wrong with bear-baiting?
    The prohibition of which gave rise to the sport of dogfighting. I guess neuroscientist Pinker must be a fan of dogfighting. I suppose it is relatively benign hobby compared to the non-vocational pursuits of those who study phrenology neuroscience as we were so tragically reminded of yesterday morning.

  • Randian||

    I am going to be charitable and assume that you're being stupid and surreal on purpose and that aren't actually putting forth two of the authentically dumbest "points" I will read in a long time.

  • o3||

    fortunately for animals, the state divisions of wildlife regulate ammo capacity...unless one hunts humans wherein the NRA und gun-nuts ensure ammo loads are unlimited.

    the last 3 mass shootings in arizona, norway, and colorado all involved extended mags w this latest featuring a 100 round drum mag.

    *LOOSE THE NRA BALOONS OF JOY FOR ALL TO CELEBRATE*

  • Calidissident||

    I didn't know Norway was known for their permissive gun policies. It amazes me how some people think that people willing to break laws against killing people are going to be stopped by laws against owning guns

  • o3||

    apparently there's alot u dont know. the norway shooter bought his extended mags from the states and had them shipped to norway. thank goodness the NRA protects the right to harvest humans the world over.

  • o3||

    oh and i said ban *EXTENDED MAGS* not ban guns you fool of conflation.

  • shamalam||

    what do you consider extended?

  • ||

    Don't respond to it, dude. It's a fucking sockpuppet. Ignore it. It hates that.

  • o3||

    at least the 100 round drum mags like this killer used

  • ashdex||

    Citing 'extended mags' or other cool sounding media phrases as having facilitated or exacerbated the situation is just plain dumb. I love it when they use 'semi-automatic,' too, presumably to imply that it's a de facto machine gun or to demonstrate that the shooter is a not an a-hole but a SUPER a-hole because he didn't use a pump-action or bolt-action. I assume we're all educated people here. Your education, among other things, was supposed to make you critical thinkers and smarter consumers of news and to not buy in to the sensationalism and emotion of any particular moment. Diploma mills.

  • Calidissident||

    The point is the same. Why would he care about a ban on extended magazines if he's willing to break laws against murder? And was it legal for him to ship into Norway? I doubt it, but those laws didn't stop him. And we all know America is the only place anyone could possibly obtain firearms or magazines.

  • 0x90||

    The point is not the same if you believe that by banning something, you prevent its existence. Some believe this about the practice of abortion; others, apparently, about the production of high capacity magazines. Perhaps interestingly, the intersection of these two particular groups is conspicuously nonexistent.

  • LarryA||

    The difference in the three shootings is that the Arazona killer was almost immediately stopped, whereas in Norway and Colorado he kept shooting until he got tired and quit.

    Turns out the Norway and Colorado shootings, with much higher body counts, were both in "gun free zones."

    There's a lesson there, if you're willing to listen.

  • shamalam||

    Question for Dunphy:

    A while ago you said the FBI classifies assault AGAINST hispanics as assaults against minorities, and assaults BY hispanics as assaults by whites. I may be misstating your point, but I think that is the gist.

    Can you provide a link to that?

  • LibertarianAmazon||

    Don't forget, during the French Revolution, people would go out to watch people beheaded on the guillotine. They wouldn't even show video-taped Jihad beheading on TV these days. And middle ages and Renaissance, people would cheer wile criminals were publicly eviscerated and drawn and quartered. Hangings in the Old West. And before WWI, people would go set up picnics on the hillside to watch the battles on the valleys below. People have movies to create false violence and safe in the knowledge it latex and colored corn starch for blood and guts. People now are horrified by images of real death and violence and news programs warm of such content before showing it.

    Our appetite for destruction has waned. So when people jump up and down about video games being violent inciting violence, I watched horror flicks as a teen, but knew the difference and can't stand the sight of real blood and guts but don't mind the fake stuff because I know no one is actually hurt.

    Our forefathers and ancestors had a greater appetite for violence and death than our modern society truly understands.

  • brushtom||

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