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Mankind living in more peaceful era than in past, Pinker says

Steven Pinker (right) talks with faculty and staff from UB's cognitive sciences disciplines during a late-afternoon session in the Center for the Arts Screening Room. The session was moderated by Paul Luce (left), professor of psychology.


Published March 28, 2013

“Violence of all kinds is decreasing.”
Steven Pinker, Distinguished Speakers Series Lecturer

While images of school shootings and violence across the world beset our consciousness, we, in fact, are living in a peaceful era compared to the ages that preceded us. This was the central argument of noted cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his Distinguished Speakers Series address last night in the Center for the Arts Mainstage theater.

Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of bestselling books like “The Language Instinct” and “The Blank Slate,” presented a lecture built on themes of his most recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” (Penguin, 2012).

“Believe it or not—and I know most people do not,” Pinker said, “we may be living in the most peaceful period in human existence.” While this relative peace isn’t guaranteed to continue, it is nonetheless “a persistent, historical development.” Furthermore, this pacific trend is scalable across both “millennia and in years,” he said. Throughout his lecture, Pinker pointed to elaborate slides of statistical information concerning historical forces of violence and pacification from ancient times to the present.

Pinker’s slides also included images of medieval forms of punishment and other visuals to bolster his argument. Clearly practiced in delivering this particular lecture, he punctuated his points with wry humor and agreeably answered audience questions following his address.

Pinker cited Thomas Hobbes’s famous remark in his 1651 work, “Leviathan,” that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Pinker contrasted Hobbes’ bleak assessment with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s comment a century later that “nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state.”

“Both men were speculating from the armchair,” Pinker said. “Neither had any idea what life was like in the non-state societies.” Today, however, we can attain more accurate insights because of the advantages of forensic archaeology and also ethnographic studies and evidence, he pointed out.

With forensic archaeology, for instance, historic skeletons show decapitations, embedded arrowheads and other evidence of a violent demise. In fact, estimates are that 50 percent of prehistoric skeletons “have signs of violent trauma,” Pinker said.

Pinker traced how a civilizing process gradually became more apparent in human history, certainly, in a country like England where homicide estimates are available from the Middle Ages onward. A person living in England today, he said, has “a 135th chance of being murdered as did his medieval ancestor.” Gradually, as Western European principalities were consolidated and other medieval political structures altered or replaced, criminal justice systems were nationalized, Pinker explained. The rule of warlords gave way to “the king’s justice.” Economic developments also had a significant role in stemming some of the brutal violence of the distant past.

Meanwhile, sadistic practices, such as sawing a person in half or impalement, thankfully became outmoded or outlawed as a “humanitarian revolution” ensued. “Country after country replaced these forms of corporal punishment,” Pinker noted. These developments were generally characteristic of the late 18th century and were seen in the U.S. with the adoption of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution forbidding cruel and unusual punishment. Similar progress can be seen with the death penalty, which was once imposed for such crimes as “robbing the rabbit warren,” and in the U.S. specifically, for such offenses as witchcraft.

Assertions that the 20th century was the most violent epoch are unfounded, Pinker said. Almost never are these impressions or statements based on statistical or scientific comparisons with any other century. “There is only one data point.”

In fact, Pinker argued, there has been a decline in inter-state war, and no nuclear wars since Nagasaki, “confounding every expert prognostication” at the time. And whereas war between France and Germany, for example, is now inconceivable, such inter-state conflict was relatively constant in Western Europe for at least 600 years. Pinker added that the number of world civil wars also declined after 1945. Moreover, conflicts now tend to be local or regional. And while these engender much misery, the death toll is far less than was the case with inter-state warfare, he said.

Pinker also traced the rise of “rights revolutions,” giving examples of positive campaigns to recognize obligations to, and the needs of, minorities, women, children and animals. He again cited declines in the numbers of abuses in each of these groups. What initially were laws and policies to eliminate discrimination have evolved in many countries into more active measures such as affirmative action. For instance, the U.S. has seen a sharp decline in the number of states that allow corporal punishment in schools.

As to why violence is apparently diminishing, it would be tempting to think that it has been “bred out of us” in an evolutionary sense. But we still see violence in 2-year-olds who kick and bite, Pinker said. And we all know that many adults vicariously take pleasure in violence by playing certain video games, watching or reading Shakespeare, seeing violent movies, or even playing or observing hockey, he said, to audience laughter.

A more likely explanation is that we’re capable of counteracting violent tendencies that are part of our “complex human nature,” thus invoking “our better angels,” to use Lincoln’s phrase, Pinker said.

As to which historical developments bring out our “angels and stay our hands” from fomenting violence, Pinker traced several factors. They include expanding one’s circle of empathy so it can extend further than “close friends, blood relatives and cute, little fuzzy animals.” Historical forces of cosmopolitanism, along with exposure to journalism, literature and other sources of education, may allow violence-prone individuals to gradually understand, rather than demonize, their foes.

Whatever is the explanation for historical trends toward peace, the implications are “profound,” Pinker said. They should lead to a reconsideration of a “moralistic mindset”—when it comes to issues of war and peace—to one that is empirically based. The question, he said, is not “Why is there war?” but “Why is there peace?”

In any case, “violence of all kinds is decreasing,” Pinker said, and this long-term trend should inspire “gratitude” for the historical forces that make it possible.