At Harvard: Steven Pinker on violence

By Anne Pycha   “The dreams of the 1960s folk singers are almost coming true,” said Steven Pinker of Harvard University’s Psychology Department. His evidence for this statement came from a mixed bag of sources: forensic studies on the bones of ancient people, homicide rates in England, changes in use of capital punishment across Europe, number of deaths from genocide worldwide, and crime statistics from the United States. It’s hard to know if Bob Dylan or Joan Baez would be satisfied, but Pinker argued that the evidence adds up: violence is in overall decline, and we now live in an era of unprecedented peacefulness.

Pinker develops these ideas in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which he presented at the Science Writers 2011 conference in Flagstaff, Arizona on October 17. Some of his least convincing evidence comes from statistics that submit most easily to re-interpretation. For example, Pinker acknowledged that an unprecedented number of people died violently during the two World Wars, but shows that if we interpret those numbers in light of the total world population at the time, a relatively small percentage of this population died violently.


Contrast that with the nineteenth century. Fewer people died violent deaths. But by Pinker’s measure, the nineteenth century was far more violent than the twentieth, because a greater percentage of the world’s population — which was smaller then — died in war. The upshot is that, despite the trench warfare of World War I and the Nazi-initiated genocide of Jews in World War II, the twentieth century has been peaceful. The validity of this claim, of course, depends upon the relative importance we confer on absolute numbers versus percentages.

But Pinker offered compelling evidence too. For example, he cited the work of forensic anthropologists working on ancient human remains. When we go back 5000 years or more in human history, to communities that had not yet developed formal governments, we find burial grounds that hold large numbers of bashed skulls, chests with arrowheads lodged inside, and other signs of warfare or brutality. On average across ancient sites that have been studied, approximately 15% of the population appears to have died a violent death. Crucially, when we look at comparable figures from societies of today, that figure is far lower.

There’s converging evidence from the contemporary world. Some hunter-gatherers live outside government jurisdiction even today. When researchers studied these communities, they found that rates of violent death far superseded those found in contemporary governed communities. That’s a nice comparison because it controls for historical era. Borrowing from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, Pinker argued that governments — which typically possess a monopoly on violence, eliminating the incentives for personal attacks — act as a pacifying force.

Pinker at Science Writers 2011, Flagstaff, AZ

Why now? History has surely afforded other opportunities for a decline in violence. Organized governments, for example, have been around for quite some time. Pinker discussed several possible options, but didn’t offer a comprehensive explanation to this question. Perhaps that’s intellectually honest. If no single factor explains this trend, the best we can do is to describe how various disparate factors have converged. These include the rise of global commerce (“other people become more valuable alive than dead,” said Pinker) as well as rising average IQs (“people with higher IQs are less prone to violence”).

But there’s one surprising factor: reading. During the eighteenth century, book publishing increased. So did literacy. For the first time, people began to regularly read history, literature, journalism, and travel narratives. As Pinker argued, the more you read, the more you inhabit other people’s minds. He cited laboratory evidence showing that simply asking subjects to read a passage increases the likelihood that they will see things from the narrator’s point of view. It’s possible, then, that increased literacy caused us to expand our circle of empathy beyond our immediate friends and family, and acted as a check on our tendency to commit violence toward others.

If peace is upon us, what is fuelling the perception that we live in violent times? An audience member in Flagstaff posed this question to Pinker, who replied that there is a veritable flood of violence in the news. Furthermore, the human mind estimates the probability of an event, such as a stabbing or gunshot, according to the ease of remembering specific examples. An interesting answer, and one that revealed the experimental psychologist lurking behind the historian of violence.



One response to “At Harvard: Steven Pinker on violence

  1. Dear Steven, I have found that wars are triggered by some solar-geomagnetic disturbances, which are associated with planetary positions. My book describes it more clearly. Which can be found on “Planetary Influences”.

    Buryl Payne, Ph.D.
    Former Professor at Boston University

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