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Filmed on Monday October 8, 02012

Steven Pinker

The Decline of Violence

Harvard Psychologist Pinker is the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence; The Blank Slate; How the Mind Works; and The Language Instinct.

Steven Pinker changes the world twice in his new book, THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined.

First, he presents exhaustive evidence that the tragic view of history is wrong and always has been. A close examination of the data shows that in every millennium, century, and decade, humans have been drastically reducing violence, cruelty, and injustice---right down to the present year. A trend that consistent is not luck; it has to be structural.

So, second, he boldly founds a discipline that might as well be called “psychohistory.” As a Harvard psychologist and public intellectual (author of The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate), he sought causes for the phenomenon he’s reporting---why violence has declined. Real ethical progress, he found, came from a sequence of institutions, norms, cultural practices, and mental tricks employed by whole societies to change their collective mind and behavior in a peaceful direction.

Humanity’s great project of civilizing itself is far from complete, but Pinker’s survey of how far we’ve come builds confidence that the task will be completed, and he illuminates how to get there.

The Long Peace

“Nothing can be more gentle than man in his primitive state,” declared Rousseau in the 18th century. A century earlier, Thomas Hobbes wrote, “In the state of nature the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The evidence shows that Rousseau was wrong and Hobbes was right, said Pinker. Forensic archaeology (“CSI Paleolithic”) reveals that 15 percent of prehistoric skeletons show signs of violent trauma. Ethnographic vital statistics of surviving non-state societies and pockets of anarchy show, on average, 524 war deaths per 100,000 people per year.

Germany in the 20th century, wracked by two world wars, had 144 war deaths per 100,000 per year. Russia had 135. Japan had 27. The US in the 20th century had 5.7. In this 21st century the whole world has a war death rate of 0.3 per 100,000 people per year. In primitive societies 15 percent of people died violently; now 0.03 percent do. Violence is 1/500th of what it used to be.

The change came by stages, each with a different dynamic. Pinker identified: 1) The Pacification Process brought about by the rise and expansion of states, which monopolized violence to keep their citizens from killing each other. 2) The Humanizing Process. States consolidated, enforcing “the king’s justice.” With improving infrastructure, commerce grew, and the zero-sum game of plunder was replaced by the positive-sum game of trade. 3) The Humanitarian Revolution. Following ideas of The Enlightenment, the expansion of literacy, and growing cosmopolitanism, reason guided people to reject slavery, reduce capital crimes toward zero, and challenge superstitious demonizing of witches, Jews, etc. Voltaire wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

4) The Long Peace. Since 1945 there has been zero use of nuclear weapons, zero combat between the Cold War superpowers, just one war between great powers (US and China in Korea, ending 1953), zero wars in western Europe (there used to be two new wars a year there, for 600 years), and zero wars between developed countries or expansion of their borders by conquest. 5) The New Peace is the spreading of the Long Peace to the rest of the world, largely through the decline of ideology, and the spread of democracy, trade, and international organizations such as the UN. Colonial wars ended; civil wars did flare up. 6) The Rights Revolution, increasingly powerful worldwide, insists on protection from injustice for blacks, women, children, gays, and animals. Even domestic violence is down.

Such a powerful long-term trend is the result of human ingenuity bearing down on the problem of violence the same way it has on hunger and plague. Something psychologists call the “circle of empathy” has expanded steadily from family to village to clan to tribe to nation to other races to other species. In addition, “humanitarian reforms are often preceded by new technologies for spreading ideas.” It is sometimes fashionable to despise modernity. A more appropriate response is gratitude.

In the Q & A, one questioner noted that violence is clearly down, but fear of violence is still way up. Social psychologist Pinker observed that we base our fears irrationally on anecdotes instead of statistics---one terrorist attack here, one child abduction there. In a world of 7 billion what is the actual risk for any individual? It is approaching zero. That trend is so solid we can count on it and take it further still.

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