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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Here we have a timeline from 1650 to 1850 showing a number of major states in the era that abolished cruel physical punishments, including the United States with its famous prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the eighth amendment to the constitution. Also abolished during this period was the profligate application of the death penalty for nonlethal crimes. 18th century England had 222 capital offenses on the books including poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies and strong evidence of malice in a child 7 to 14 years of age. The death penalty was not just on the — in the law books, but was exuberantly applied.

Samuel Johnson writes of a girl 7 years old who was hanged for stealing a petticoat. By 1861 the number of capital crimes had been reduced to 4. Likewise, in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, the death penalty was prescribed and used for thefts, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting.

Here we have a graph that extends from 1650 to the year 2000 showing the percentage of American executions for crimes other than murder. In the colonial and early federal period a majority of the executions were for nonlethal crimes. In recent years the only crime other than murder that has been punished by death has been conspiracy to commit murder. The death penalty itself, of course, has been abolished throughout the western world except in the United States. This timeline shows that just about every European country has abolished capital punishment. Most of the abolitions have taken place in the last 60 years or so but well before that European countries lost their taste for executing people.

The blue line shows the number of European countries that actually execute people whether or not they have capital punishment on the books. And you can see that there has been a steady erosion of the application of the death penalty before it was stricken from the law books. Now, the United States is famously an outlier or I should say 34 of the 50 states are outliers because 16 has abolished it a number of that has increased by five in just the last decade. But even in the United States, the death penalty is a shadow of its former self.

Here we have a graph from 1625 to 2000 showing the number of American executions per capita. The graph shows that the execution rate has plunged. Today for all its notoriety, the death penalty is applied approximately 45 times a year in a country that has almost 17,000 homicides. Also abolished during the humanitarian revolution were witch hunts, religious persecution, such as burning heretics at the stake. Dueling, blood sports, debtors prisons and perhaps most famously, slavery. Slavery used to be legal everywhere on earth.

As you can see the number of states that abolished slavery in the 1600. But in a process that began in the second half of the 18th century it was targeted for elimination in country after country; a process that reached its completion in 1980 when the last spot on earth, Mauritania, finally abolished slavery. And so, for the first time in history, slavery is now illegal everywhere on earth.

What were the immediate causes of the humanitarian revolution? One might guess that it was due to affluence. Perhaps as people’s lives become longer and more pleasant, they put a higher value on their own lives and, by extension, on life in general. Unfortunately, the timing doesn’t work. If you look at per capita income in England, you see that it really only took off with the advent of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Prior to that, income was largely flat barely above the middle ages. Yet these humanitarian reforms were concentrated in the 18th century.

A more likely hypothesis is that it was a gift of printing and literacy. The only technology to have shown an increase in productivity prior to the industrial revolution was book production. This graph from 1500 to 1850 shows that efficiency in book production went up by a factor of 25 prior to the 18th century. The technology was put into use and there was an exponential increase in the number of books published per decade in England in the 18th century. Kind of an early Moore’s law. And not surprisingly, there were more people who could read these books. In the 18th century, for the first time, a majority of Englishmen were literate.

Why should literacy matter? Well, there’s a reason we also call this era the Enlightenment. Namely with widespread literacy, knowledge began to replace superstition and ignorance. If a large percentage of the population is disabused of certain notions such as that Jews poison wells, heretics go to hell, witches cause crop failures, children are possessed by the devil, Africans are brutish, and so on. That will undermine many rationales for institutionalized violence. As Voltaire said in this era, those who can make you believe leave absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Also literacy is a technology of cosmopolitanism of exposing people to new ideas and ways of life and perspectives. It is plausible that, as people consume more fiction and history and journalism, they tend to get into the habit of imagining life from other people’s point of view. And it is also plausible that that could expand their circle of empathy and lead to less cruelty. That is, if you habitually try to imagine what life was like from other people’s points of view perhaps you take a little less pleasure in watching them be burned to death. This is a point I will return to later in the talk.

Long Peace

The fourth decline of violence has been called the long peace. And it speaks to the widespread belief that the 20th century was the most violent in history. However, no one who makes this claim, ever cites numbers from any century other than the 20th. So it is a trend that has been projected from one data point. In fact, even if you just look at the proceeding century often held up as a peaceful predecessor, you see that it was far from peaceful. It is true that there were two interludes in the 19th century in which Europe had a relative lull in war.

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But, if you look at the entire century and you look at the entire world, you see there were many episodes of mass violence including the Napoleonic Wars with 4 million deaths, the Taiping Rebellion in China, the most destructive civil war in history with 20 million deaths, the most destructive war in American history the Civil War with 650,000. The conquests of Shaka Zulu in southern Africa which killed perhaps one to two million people.

I don’t want to leave any continent out so here’s one from South America. The War of the Triple Alliance killed perhaps 60 percent of the population of Paraguay which might make it the most destructive war between countries in history, proportionally speaking. And then, there were slave raiding wars in Africa and Imperial wars in Africa, Asia and the South Pacific whose death tolls are impossible to estimate. Also, while it is true that the Second World War claimed the largest number of lives of any catastrophe in history, it’s not clear that it was the deadliest event in terms of the proportion of the world’s population because many, many more people lived in the middle of the 20th century than in any proceeding century.

Here I’ve plotted the 100 worst things that people have ever done to each other that we know of. The numbers come from a man who calls himself an atrocitologist, Matthew White, from his forthcoming book, “The Great Book of Horrible Things.” I’ve taken White’s estimated death tolls and scaled them by the population of the world at the time. When you do that, you see that World War II only comes in at ninth place and World War I doesn’t even make the top ten. Moreover, the worst atrocities in history are pretty evenly sprinkled over 2500 years of human history.

Now of course you can’t help but notice there also is a funnel of data points as you get closer to the present in the last 500 years. Presumably that does not mean that in ancient times they only committed massive atrocities and more recently we commit massive, medium sized and small atrocities. A more plausible explanation is that the historical record is far more complete the closer you get to the present. So let’s zoom in on the last 500 years — the period for which the data can actually be plotted more continuously.

The political scientist Jack Levy has assembled a data set of Great Power Wars. These are wars that involve one of the 800 pound gorillas of the day. Namely countries that can project military force beyond their own borders and which account for the majority of deaths in war from all wars combined. The first time series shows the percentage of years the great powers fought each other from 1500 to the last quarter of the 20th century. And as you can see, in a few centuries ago, the great powers were pretty much always at war. The line hits 100 percent a number of times. That’s just what great powers did.

And more recently, they’ve hardly ever been at war. Here we see the duration of wars involving a great power from 1500 to 2000. Which shows another decline. There used to be things like the 30 years war, the 80 years war, the 100 years war. The 20th century had the 6-day war.

Here we have the frequency of wars involving a great power, which again shows a decline in how often a great power would pick a fight that ended in war. However, there is one trend that goes in the opposite direction that gets worse. And that is how many deaths could be amassed once a war began per country per year. And here we have an increase — it’s plotted on a logarithmic scale. So it’s an exponential increase. Until 1950 when the curve does a U-turn. So we are now living through a period where for the first time in history, both the frequency of wars and the amount of damage that they do per country per year, has been in decline.

If you combine these measures into an aggregate graph of total number of people killed in wars involving a great power, you get a jagged line, but one that ends in a point that is a minimum in this time series. That is, we are living in a time that has a record low number of deaths in wars involving a great power. If we now zoom in on the last century for which the — instead of plotting it as four data points — we get the following curve where undoubtedly the 20th century did have two blood baths, corresponding to the two world wars, but it was not an escalating series or a new normal but rather more like a last gasp. And the last 60 years the rate of death in warfare is historically quite low. This is the period that has been called the long peace. The fact that since 1946 there has been historically unprecedented decline in war between countries, that is, interstate wars.

There were zero wars between the two biggest great powers the so-called superpowers the U.S. and the Soviet Union contrary to all predictions by the experts of the era as those of us who lived through the era recall. No nuclear weapon has been used since Nagasaki, again contrary to expert prediction. There have been no wars between the great powers since the end of the Korean War in 1953. No wars between western European countries. A fact that almost seems boring and banal like who would ever expect say, France and Germany, to fight a war? Needless to say this is a historically unusual state of affairs.

In fact, prior to 1945, western European countries started two new wars a year for 600 years. That went down to zero. And there have been no wars between developed countries – the 40 or so with the highest GDP per capita. Again that might seem too obvious to mention. We think of wars as things that happen in remote, poor parts of the world. But for most of history, it was the rich countries that were constantly at each other’s throats.

Well, what about the rest of the world other than the great powers or the rich and European states? Well there’s a little appreciated process that I call the ‘new peace’ that applies to the world as a whole. Since 1946, as I mentioned, there have been fewer interstate wars. There have been however more civil wars as newly independent states with inept governments fought off insurgent movements in civil wars with both sides armed financed and egged on by the Cold War superpowers.

Let me just show you that time series. I’ll show it as a stacked layer graph where the thickness of each layer corresponds to the number of wars. And for this graph a war is defined as a armed conflict with a government on least on one side that results in as few as 25 deaths a year. So it’s an inclusive graph. The bottom most layer shows the number of colonial wars and that’s a category of war that no longer exists as the European empires gave up their colonies.

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