Steven Pinker Speaks at Authors@Google Event Transcript

Renowned linguist, psychologist, Harvard professor Steven Pinker talks at Authors@Google event about his about The Better Angels of our Nature and argues that violence has been in decline…below is the full transcript of the talk at the event…


Female Presenter: Today’s speaker — I’m not going to go on and on about all of his qualifications because you already know that. So I’m going to turn it right away to data because he likes data. In 2007, our speaker came here and spoke about his book ‘The Stuff of Thought’. Now when that YouTube video went up, it rapidly ascended the charts. He has over 175,000 views now. For a talk that is an hour 15 minutes, that is a lot of eyeball time. I appreciate that. He’s in the top 15 out of 1100 plus videos. And he’s in the company of Lady Gaga, Conan O’Brien, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky and someone we all love, Randall Monroe.

Now, today we are fortunate enough to have him come speak to us, the linguist, psychologist, Harvard professor, I’ll throw that in, to speak about his new book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined’. Please welcome Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker – The Author, Psychologist, Harvard Professor

Believe it or not — and I know most people do not — violence has been in decline for long stretches of time. And we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence. The decline of violence has not been steady. It has not brought violence down to zero and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to persuade you that it is a persistent historical development visible on scales from millennia to years from wars to genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals. I’m going to walk you through six major historical declines of violence, identify their immediate causes in terms of particular historical events of the era. And then try to tie them together in terms of their ultimate causes. That is, general historical forces interacting with human nature.

Pacification Process

The first historical decline I call the pacification process. Until 5,000 years ago, people everywhere lived in a state of anarchy without central government. What was life like in this so-called state of nature? This is a question that thinkers have speculated on for hundreds of years.

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Thomas Hobbes famously said that a state of nature the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. A century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau countered that “nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state.” Both men were talking through their hats. Neither of them had any idea what life was like in a state of nature.

But today we can do better because there are two sources of evidence about rates of violence in non-state societies. The first is forensic archeology. You can think of this as CSI Paleolithic. Mainly what proportion of prehistoric skeletons have signs of violent trauma such as bashed in skulls, decapitations, arrow heads embedded in bones, or mummies found with ropes around their necks?

There are, I found 20 estimates and they span quite a range, but the average is 15%. That is, 15% of people in these samples died violently. Let’s compare that 15% sample to those from some more recent periods for example Europe and the United States in the 20th century at 6/10th of a percentage point. If we include the entire century, the entire world and all violent deaths, including those from genocides and man-made famines, we can get the figure up to about 3% and if we look at the world as a whole in the year 2005, the bar is less than a pixel high. It comes in at 3/100ths of a percentage point.

The second source of evidence of violence in non-state societies comes from ethnographic. The wave of government that expanded out of the first civilizations left a few pockets on earth in which the people still lived in anarchy until recently namely hunter gatherers and hunter horticulturalists. Ethnographers, in many cases, have tabulated the various kinds of death in those societies. Here are 27 estimates. And once again they span quite a range, but their average is 524 per 100,000 per year. That is about a half of a percentage point per year. Again, let’s compare that to some figures for states and I’ll pick some notoriously violent states in their most violent periods for comparison just to stack the deck against states.

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Here we have Germany in the 20th century, two world wars, and the figure is 160 per 100,000 per year. Here is Russia in the 20th century, two world wars and a civil war at 140. Here is Japan in the 20th century, a world war that ended with two nuclear strikes at about 40. Here is the United States in the 20th century, two world wars and half a dozen other foreign wars, less than 4 per 100,000 per year. Here’s the world as a whole in the 20th century again throwing in all the genocides and man-made famines, indirect deaths from war and it comes up to 60 per 100,000 per year. And here’s the world in the year 2005, less than a pixel high, with a rate of about 3/10ths of battle death per 100,000 per year.

So when it comes to life in a state of nature, not to put too fine a point on it, but Hobbes was right, Rousseau was wrong. The immediate cause was the rise in the expansion of states leading to the Paxes or pieces that history students read about, the Pax Romana, Pax Islamica, Pax Hispanica, and so on. Where the conquest by a state or empire tends to drive down rates of violence in the subjugated people not because the early kings and emperors had a benevolent interest in the welfare of their citizens but rather because tribal raiding and feuding is a nuisance to imperial overlords since it just settles scores among them or shuffles resources at a dead loss to the king or emperor who just as soon keep the people alive to supply him with taxes and soldiers and slaves.

So just as a farmer has incentive to prevent his cattle from killing each other, so a king or emperor has an interest in stamping out the nuisance of tribal raiding and feuding.

Civilizing Process

The second historical decline of violence can be illustrated by this wood cut of a day in the life of middle ages. And the process that brought this under control, for reasons that will soon become clear, has been called the civilizing process. In many parts of Europe, homicide statistics go back literally hundreds of years and historical criminologists have plotted them over time. Here we have a plot of the number of estimates of homicide in England 1200 to the present plotted on a logarithmic scale from a tenth of a homicide per 100 thousand per year to 1 to 10 to 100.

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As you can see there is a dramatic decline over the centuries so that a contemporary Englishman has approximately 1/35th chance of being murdered as his medieval ancestor. This process unfolded not just in England but in every European country for which we have data. This graph shows Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. Here we have the average of those regions.

And for the sake of comparison, I’ve also plotted the 524 per 100 thousand per year for nonstate societies. This gap is what I call the pacification process. This subsequent decline I’m calling the civilizing process. The name comes from a classic book by the German sociologist, Norbert Elias, who argued that in the transition from middle ages to modernity, Europe underwent consolidation of central states and kingdoms, out of the patchwork of baronies, principalities and duchies, with it criminal justice was nationalized and the constant feuding among the war lords of the era, otherwise known as knights, gave way to the king’s justice.

At the same time, there was a growing infrastructure of commerce. There were financial instruments such as money and contracts that could be recognized within the borders of the newly consolidated states and there were advances in the technology of trade — better roads and carts and instruments of time keeping — which shifted the incentive structure from zero sum plunder to positive sum trade, a point that I will return to.

Humanitarian Revolution

The third historical decline of violence can be illustrated by considering some of the ways in which the early kingdoms enforced law and order within their boundaries, punishments such as breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake clawing, sawing in half, and impalement. But in a process that’s been called the humanitarian revolution, these brutal, sadistic forms of corporal punishment were abolished. They were abolished within a fairly narrow window centered in the second half of the 18th century.

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