Steven Pinker and the decline in human violence

Are we really living through one of the less violent periods in human history? Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says so and has a book and the graphs to prove it.

New book argues we have seen dramatic reductions in war deaths, family violence, racism, rape and murder

Steven Pinker certainly has his work cut out for him. The celebrated Harvard psychologist and author of books on the language instinct and how the mind works, wants to convince us of something that seems unlikely.

"Believe it or not," says the former Montrealer, "we may be living in the most peaceful time of our species' existence."

Yips! What will we media types do! We give credence to good-news stories but they are not our bread and butter. Conflict and violence are.

Still, so is contrarian opinion and Pinker fills this category nicely, with statistics to boot.

At the same time, Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, really is a good-news story, if you can believe it and can cast your mind from the nightly gore on the TV screens.

The title is a reference to Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address. And for those of you, like me, who haven't read every single word of this massive 800-page tome, Pinker is media savvy enough to provide thorough, written summaries and talks, especially on the science website Edge, where he teaches a "master class."

He's an excellent writer and speaker, a careful teacher and clear as a bell.

What civilizing process?

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. (Rebecca Goldstein/Viking Press)

OK. The evidence? He has truckloads of it, which I will try to reduce to a small trailer.

Pinker divides the history of human violence into distinct periods, the first being what he calls the "pacification process."

Until 5,000 or so years ago "humans lived in anarchy without a central government," he says. No idyllic garden back then. Life was, in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short.

The proof can be found in the skeletons with their broken bones and bashed skulls, which researchers use to calculate the rate of violent trauma in ancient societies at between 60 and 15 per cent.

Even at the low end, there wouldn't have been enough TV reporting, had it existed, to cover all the killings that were happening.

Another period in history, Pinker calls "the civilizing process." That meant that your chances of being murdered in medieval England was 50 times greater than they are today.


As well, he posits, the death toll from wars in Europe has also plunged over the years. Can you imagine, Pinker asks, a war between France and Germany today?

Throughout much of Europe's history, two wars a year were the norm. It was a bloody continent embroiled in constant conflict.

But what about the 20th century, often cited as the bloodiest in history?

Citing Mathew White, a self-proclaimed "atrociologist" and the author of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities, the Second World War just about makes history's top 10.

Throughout most of human history, there were atrocities and mass killings that nobody ever remembers now. Like the Mongols ravaging the steppes of Europe and Asia, invading the Middle East, sacking cities like Baghdad and killing millions through their conquests.

Today's violence, even when piped in via the local news, is minor when stacked up against history's death count.

But, but …

But, but, I constantly butted my way through this book. The Congo's wars have killed up to five million, the mainstream media and even a Lancet study reported. (An overestimate, Pinker argues). And all told, more than a hundred million people died violently in twentieth-century conflicts.

In rebuttal, Pinker points out that the killing rate in terms of per capita population has drastically declined, even in that most recent and horrible of centuries.

It doesn't seem like that, of course, after you've spent a lifetime watching movies and documentaries, and reading chronicles of genocide, from the Armenian massacre to the Cambodian killing fields, and considering the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and a host of lesser scoundrels.

But Pinker tells us that most wars in history were fought with standing armies between principalities and nations where large numbers were killed at a time.

Now, if states battle each other, they do so covertly, like India and Pakistan, funding insurgencies and guerilla wars.

These conflicts can be ugly and murderous, but, for the statistician, small potatoes.

The big trend

One of the reasons for the historical reduction in violence, Pinker argues, is the growth of the state and the way it monopolizes the use of force. (Just think, for example, of how the Toronto police arrested a shopkeeper who tried to apprehend a thief outside his own store.)

A thousand voices no doubt will shout at Pinker — how about those states that kill their own citizens? All I can do is invite you to sift through some of his charts and graphs, Pinker is trying to take the overview.

In 18th century England, there were 222 capital offences on the books, including for poaching and raiding a rabbit warren. Today, there is no capital punishment in Britain, nor in much of the world.

Executions are still big news in the U.S. But Pinker argues that, for all the outcry, there are only about 50 executions a year in a country that had more than 18,000 homicides last year.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, most executions in America were for "theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft."

Even in the U.S. today you don't get executed for stealing a horse or a car. That's progress.

Pinker is famously an advocate of reason, education and the rule of law — he's a big Enlightenment guy. But even he sounds some cautionary warnings.

Just because violence has declined over the course of history doesn't mean it always will. There are unforeseen circumstances, environmental crises, wars for scant resources. History can bite you in the behind.

And of course, if you're in the middle of an outbreak of violence, Pinker's graphs won't offer much consolation. A gun pointed at you doesn't always bring out the better angels of human nature.