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Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence
Ethan Zuckerman, 8 Mar 07

Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, begins his presentation with an image of corpses on a truck, being taken from Auschwitz concentration camp. The image is one of many characteristic of the 20th century, a century that included brutality under Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and the genocide in Rwanda. The 21st century, which has barely started, already includes the brutality of Darfur and the daily destruction in Iraq.

These sorts of images can lead us to thinking that modernity brings terrible violence. Perhaps native people lived in a state of harmony that we’ve departed from.

This, Pinker tells us, is bullshit. “Our ancestors were far more violent than we are.” We’re probably living in the most peaceful time of our species’s existence, a statement that seems almost obscene in light of Darfur and Iraq.

The decline of violence, he tells us, is a fractal phenomenon - we see it over the centuries, the decades and the years. That said, we see a tipping point in the 16th century - the age of reason - particularly in England and Holland.

Until 10,000 years ago, all humans were hunter gatherers. This is the group that some believe lived in primordial harmony - there’s no evidence of this. Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary - from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two world wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare.

Moving slightly further forward, we can see that violent punishment was common in the Bible - Moses tells his followers to kill all the men and married women of a village and rape the virgins. The death penalty was used for murder, idolatry, disrespecting your parents and “collecting sticks on the sabbath”.

The Middle Ages were filled with mutilation and torture as routine punishments for trangressions we’d punish with fines today. This was merely another charming feature of a time that featured pastimes like “cat burning”, dropping cats into a fire for entertainment purposes… Some of the most creative inventions of the Middle Ages were fantastically cruel forms of corporal punishment.

One on one death has plummeted through the middle ages, with an “elbow” of the curve in the 16th century. Despite a slight uptick in the 1960s - “perhaps those who thought that rock and roll would lead to a decline in moral values had it right” - we’ve seen two orders of magnitude fall in one on one violence from the middle ages to today. State sponsored violence has also fallen sharply - we’ve need a 90% reduction in genocide since the end of the cold war. State on state conflicts are dropping every decade.

So why do we so misperceive the violence of our society? For one thing, our reporting is better. AP is more likely to cover a war somewhere on the planet than a 16th century monk. We’re subject to a cognitive illusion - memorable events (brutal murder) are judged to be more probable than they actually are. Finally, our standards tend to change faster than our behavior. We may be offended by capital punishment today because it no longer fits with our vision of ourselves, but it’s worth remembering that not long ago, that sort of punishment was exceedingly common and there wasn’t strong protection of rights in the courts to prevent it from taking place.

So why is violence becoming less common? He offers four explanations:

1) Hobbes got it right. “Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In anarchy, there’s a temptation towards preemptive violence, hurting the other guy before he hurts you. But with the rise of the Leviathan - the State - there’s a monopoly on violence. This helps explain why we still see violence in the absence of the state - zones of anarchy, failed states, street gangs.

2) In the past, we had a widespread sentiment that life was cheap. As we’ve gotten better at prolonging life, we take life more seriously and are more reluctant to take life.

3) We’re seeing more non-zero sum games, as people discover forms of cooperation that can benefit both parties, like trade and shared peace dividends. These zero-sum games come with technology, because it allows us to trade with more people. People become more valuable live than dead - “We shouldn’t bomb the japanese because they built my minivan.”

4) Finally, Pinker leans on Peter Singer to speculate about “the expanding circle”. By default, we empathize with a small group of people, our friends and family. Everyone else is subhuman. But over time, we’ve seen this circle expand, from village to clan to tribe to nation to other races, both sexes and eventually other species. As we learn to expand our circles wider and wider, perhaps violence becomes increasingly unacceptable.

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I would add another possibility to the list of explanations. Perhaps industrialisation has relocated the forces of interpersonal violence elsewhere: internally, through repression, resulting in vastly increased psychosomatic and mental illness; and externally, manifested in extreme violence against natural ecosystems. Just a possibility.

It's disingenuous to use statistics about violence in surviving contemporary hunter-gatherers to infer levels of violence among human cultures in all of the nearly 200,000 years of hunter-gatherer life prior to the rise of agriculture. Those tribes that have survived that past 500 years of hideous genocide that the industrial world is built on have been subject to pressures - both direct violence as well as geographical and cultural displacement - that render any contemporary data useless for inferring prehistoric conditions.

Richard Dawkins relies on a variant of the "straw man" principle in trouncing spirituality, taking monotheistic ideology as its sole representative. Pinker seems equally fond of the straw man, taking a relatively rare (and harmless) form of romanticization of archaic culture, casting it as "the opposition", and easily defeating it. It's a complex issue as to whether hunter-gatherer life is more or less violent than agricultural or industrialised life. I personally side with the view that in general, allowing for natural variations, hunter-gatherer social structures contain much less organised violence and violence against local ecologies than both agricultural and industrialised societies do. (Note: "much less", not "none".) It's debatable, but it's not "bullshit". For a representative of industrialised society, standing at the end of centuries of brutal persecution and repression of non-industrial cultures, to smugly proclaim "progress" is dubious at best.

Finally, and I know this isn't the arena to get a warm reception for this view, but I think Pinker's judgements should also be acknowledged as potentially premature. He seems to have an implicit allegiance to the "ladder" view of evolution - a simplistic linear fantasy that ignores the "radiating bush" metaphor that more accurately reflects Darwinian evolution, as well as ignores the cyclicity obvious from a cursory study of natural history. History has not ended; and we face the possibility of the worst descent into violent competition for resources humans have seen. Facing this is a huge challenge. Conceited proclamations of superiority, moral or otherwise, over the societies we've exterminated is surely not the best approach to this challenge.

Posted by: Gyrus on 9 Mar 07

i second the suggestion that we've been riding a bubble of cost-shifting and if we can't get those unpaid bills handled, if we see something like lovelock's prediction come true, going from billions to thousands, then 20-60% of all males looks like small potatoes, regardless of what ~future~ nasty brutish things we do.

also that 2% figure is a little off, probably. with the population expansion in the 20th century i'd want to adjust war fatalities for population inflation, since the biggest wars and mass killings took place before industrial food systems were installed. it's also a little strange to say that the atomic era was/is peaceful. the fact that new conventional war could have led to completely erasing the world doesn't sound like a less violent situation to me. constant violence became absolute violence.

i like many things said but will take one more thing to task, which is the idea that "zones of anarchy" are violent by their own making. no secret, for instance, that afghanistan became what it was because it was caught in crossfire between two violence monopoly states. the casualties in that fight were largely locals, and the resulting collapse of civil society led to criminal activity up to and including the 9/11 attacks. it is the same to look at slums around the world, created by policies which have favored total, export-oriented industrialization of the labor force over sustainable development. those situations, and the poverty and instability that thrive within them, were the creations of the leviathans, not of the residents.

furthermore the drug trade and the arms trade are both heavily supported by state money. generally this hobbesian argument doesn't move me.

Posted by: hibiscus on 10 Mar 07

There is one other thing he forgets I think: less religion. For one religion was/is a great incentive for wars and persecution and secondly, as people tend to believe less in an afterlife (a better one than the life here) they are less inclined to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield...

Posted by: Ronald on 15 Mar 07

Where the Hell is Pinker getting his statistics on Hunter-gatherer violence? Did he just make it up or did he cite any sources? 20% to 60% of males deaths due to violence sounds far beyond any statistics that I've be able to come across.

Posted by: Richard on 16 Mar 07

There aren't a lot of footnotes in an 18 minute talk, Richard, but yes, Pinker was citing data that he's got footnoted elsewhere. The death statistics had to do with tribes that currently practice hunter-gatherer lifestyle - I believe these were groups in Papua New Guinea. Those tribes saw very, very high male death rates from intertribal violence.

Posted by: Ethan Zuckerman on 16 Mar 07

I wonder, if given the choice of lifestyles, whether it is a better life to be happy as the hunter gatherer papuan highlander or to be the "man in full" living in the world of today. When asked, the hunter gatherers seem to appreciate their lives and only crave the products of modern urban life after acquiring the most superficial and superstitious understanding of what it could do for them in their primitive condition. My point is that the idea of having a modern lifestyle doesn't equate with happiness.

Posted by: dogu4 on 16 Mar 07

He must have been taking a nap during the Holocaust and the Communist purges.

Posted by: Bleepless on 16 Mar 07

I would also like to know what exactly he defines as being "violent"? It seems to me that if we're basing the definition on purely physical violence, it is misleading to the extreme because the options for killing people off seem to have multiplied over the years and don't necessarily require direct physical violence, but that doesn't somehow make us better. What about deaths that originated through what can be considered economic warfare? Examples can include deaths through sanctions, deaths through starvation/malnutrition as a result of crops/dams etc. being destroyed, deaths through forced displacement, deaths through economic structural adjustment that has helped create the world's massive slums and, consequently, low average life expectancy.

Are these any less violent? Or is it just that it's easier not to assign (or accept) responsibility for these deaths?

Posted by: Craig on 18 Mar 07

Greetings, I posted this comment a while back on the TED Blog website:

I'm a big fan of Pinker's work on language and found his piece on the "History of Violence" published in The New Republic particularly interesting.

In The Third Side, William Ury also investigates pre-historical evidence of mass violence. He finds that australopithecines and two species of early humans — Homo erectus and Homo habilis — are known to have shared the same habitats in Africa from two and a half million years ago to a million and a half years ago, yet the fossil record reveals no evidence of violence having occurred between them. Drawing on the work of the world-renowned anthropologist Louis Leaky, Ury learns that, “in the old hunting days we were too busy making a living […] And you didn’t really have that much energy left at night for going out and quarreling with a neighbor. Maybe in a cave, with your close neighbor. But going fifteen miles away to get into battle –nonsense. You might lose someone you needed for getting then next day’s hunt.” This would seem to run counter to Pinker's history.

Direct violence is on the decline, but how about structural violence and systemic risk or simply vulnerability and human security? Which is worse, direct or structural violence? In the Western/Christian tradition, conflict resolution is about alleviating immediate pain. In the Arab/Muslim tradition, the focus is on justice. In “Les Damnés de la Terre,” Frantz Fanon argued that the major weapon of the colonizers was the imposition of their image of the colonized on the subjugated people.

I would suggest that the powerlessness of a citizen who has been rendered a dysfunctional spectator by the repressive polices crafted by an elite is not qualitatively different from vulnerability to physical violence during conflict. Peter Uvin’s recent field research in Burundi suggests that local communities tend to view peace in structural terms. “When the stomach is not full, there can be no peace” was a common refrain he heard. Poverty is increasing, not even stabilizing in the developing world. In other words, structural violence is on the rise.

Also, the recent literature on Fourth Generation Warfare suggests that this type of warfare poses a greater threat to peace and security than previous forms of warfare. In any case, the reduction in direct violence may perhaps reflect an ‘evolution’ in warfare, ie, a change in tactics to pursue strategies more “efficiently.” One no longer has to eliminate large numbers of people to influence foreign policy. My suggestion is that part of the decline in war casualties is due to a shift in warfare tactics that reflect not higher morals but a question of more efficient tactics to meet one’s goal, eg, global insurgency, etc.

Finally, the fact that the nuclear weapons used against Japan killed some 100,000 individuals in a matter of minutes makes me think we are no less peaceful in a qualitative sense. The temporal component, the fact that it may no longer take 30 years of war to kill 100,000’s of people but now just a matter of minutes is for me a higher scale and more indiscriminate form of violence. I don’t see our era as any less barbaric.


Posted by: Patrick Meier on 23 Mar 07

A Century of War by John V. Denson (

"This century is the bloodiest in all history. More than 170 million people were killed by governments with 10 million being killed in World War I and 50 million killed in World II. In regard to the 50 million killed in World War II, it is significant that nearly 70 percent were innocent civilians, mainly as a result of the bombing of cities by Great Britain and America."

Posted by: pete on 25 Mar 07



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