You are less likely to die a violent death today than at any other time in human history. In fact, violence has been declining for centuries. That is 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 (Viking). The title, taken from Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, refers to the way in which the modern world encourages people to suppress their inner demons and let their better angels fly.
Just a couple of centuries ago, violence was pervasive. Slavery was widespread, wife and child beating were acceptable practices, heretics and witches were burned at the stake, pogroms and race riots were common, and warfare was nearly constant. Public hangings, bearbaiting, and even cat burning were popular forms of entertainment. By examining collections of ancient skeletons and scrutinizing contemporary tribal societies, anthropologists have found that people were nine times as likely to die violent deaths in the prehistoric period than in modern times, even allowing for the world wars and genocides of the 20th century. Europe’s murder rate was 30 times higher in the Middle Ages than it is today.
What happened? Human nature did not change, but our institutions did, encouraging people to restrain their natural tendencies toward violence. In more than 800 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 changes zero-sum encounters into mutually beneficial exchanges, and democracy restrains the excesses of government.
Pinker is the author of seven books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, about which reason interviewed him in 2002 (“Biology vs. the Blank Slate,” October 2002). A native of Montreal, Pinker received his bachelor’s degree from McGill University in 1976 and his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1979. After serving on the faculties of Harvard and Stanford, he moved to MIT in the early 1980s. He returned to Harvard in 2003 as the Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology.
Pinker dropped by reason’s Washington, D.C., office in October to talk with Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey about ideology, empathy, and why you are much less likely to get knifed in the face these days. To see a video of this interview, go to reason.tv.
reason: Why has violence declined? I think most people would be astonished to hear that.
Steven Pinker: First of all, I have to convince people that there’s a fact that needs to be explained—namely, that violence has declined. And it has, as I demonstrate with 100 graphs and data sets. The reasons, I think, are multiple. One of them is the spread of government, the outsourcing of revenge to a more or less disinterested third party. That tends to ramp down your rates of vendetta and blood feud for all the reasons that we’re familiar with from The Sopranos and The Godfather. If you’ve got a disinterested third party, they’re more likely to nip that cycle in the bud. Not necessarily because they have any benevolent interest in the welfare of their subject peoples, especially in the early governments. Their motive was closer to the motive of a farmer who doesn’t want his livestock killing each other. Namely, it’s a deadweight loss to him.
But even without this benevolent interest, you find that with the first states in the transition from hunting and gathering to settled ways of life, violence goes down, and in the consolidation of kingdoms during the transition from medieval times to modernity, rates of homicide go way down.
reason: What else?
Pinker: A second one is the growth of commerce; opportunities for positive-sum exchange, as opposed to zero-sum plunder. When it’s cheaper to buy something than to steal it, that changes the incentives, and you get each side valuing the other more alive than dead—the theory of gentle commerce [that comes] from the Enlightenment.
reason: How much has violence declined?
Pinker: [During] the transition from tribal societies to settled states, there was a reduction from about a 15 percent chance of dying violently down to about a 3 percent chance in the first states.
reason: One of the claims that I was most struck by is that rates of violence in Europe have dropped 30-fold from the medieval period.
Pinker: That’s right. Rates of homicide can be estimated more accurately than crimes with fuzzier definitions, like assault and rape, because a dead body always gets people’s attention, or a missing person. The homicide records go back in many parts of Europe to the 1200s. And they all show an astonishing trend. Namely, that the rates of homicide have plummeted, from anywhere from 30 to 100 per 100,000 per year down to the [current] European average, which is between one and two per 100,000 per year.
reason: I was at a conference a while back where I outlined your thesis briefly to a panel of fairly distinguished political scientists and economists. They rejected it out of hand, retorting, “The 20th century was horrible. Millions died.” Why is it that most people tend to believe violence is increasing?
Pinker: Well, millions died in centuries before the 20th. People confuse a data point with the trend. They remember the horrific episodes of violence in the 20th century, but one occurrence is not a trend. And despite universal predictions that World War I to World War II was just the beginning of a sequence where World War III would be even worse, World War III didn’t happen. And in fact, from the spike of the Second World War, there’s been a historically unusual period of peace among developed countries.
reason: Let’s go through some of the reasons and processes by which the world became less violent. It began with what you call the pacification process, which involved the creation of states.
Pinker: The first states seemed to have in their wake a massive reduction of death in tribal raiding and feuding, basically because it’s a nuisance to the overlords. So you have things like the Pax Romana, the Pax Islamica, the Pax Sinica, in China, where the emperors would much rather have the peasants alive to stock their tax rolls and armies, and be slaves or serfs. So they had a selfish interest in preventing too much internecine feuding among their subject peoples and basically kept them from each other’s throats. Not that it was a life that we would consider particularly pleasant. You’re substituting a lot of violence among tribes and villages and clans for a lesser amount—but still a brutal form of violence—from the state against its citizens.