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.

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.

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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.

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.

Here we have interstate wars a government on each side and those have been tapering off. Here, however, we see the number of civil wars — both the number of pure civil wars and the number of internationalized civil wars where some foreign power has butted in to prop up the government against an insurgent movement. But notice two things — first of all, even the number of civil wars reached a peak in the early 1990s and, with the end of the cold war, has begun to fall.

Also, the crucial question is which wars kill more people?” The many civil wars that the world has seen recently or the small number of interstate wars that have been tapering off? This graph shows that the — how much damage an interstate war has done per war per year plotted decade by decade. And it shows that the deadliness of interstate wars has been in steady decline.

Here we have the amount of damage done by internationalized civil wars and pure civil wars. And we see that civil wars of the recent decades are far less destructive than the interstate wars of earlier decades. So if you now aggregate the total number of deaths from all wars combined, you get a pattern as follows. Again, I’ll show it as a stacked layer graph.

Here we have the number of — the rate of death from colonial wars which has petered out to zero. The number of deaths from interstate wars which has followed a jagged, bumpy but yet downward trajectory with peaks corresponding to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iran/Iraq war. And here we have the pure civil wars and the internationalized civil wars. And you can see that, despite their number, the limited damage they do results in an overall trend that is bumpy but unmistakably downward. Here we are in the last few years of the first decade of the 21st century with a thin laminate showing that the world has recently had a remarkably low rate of death in warfare.

So the dream of the 1960s folks singers is starting to come true. Namely the world has almost put an end to war. Well, what about genocide? It’s often claimed that more people in the 20th century died from genocide than from war. In fact, the 20th century has been called the Age of Genocide. This is a trend based on one point. And historians who look at genocide through the ages unanimously reject the idea that the 20th century was the age of genocide.

I’ll read to you from page 1 the historian Kurt Jonassohn and Fred Chalk’s The History of Genocide. “Genocide” they note, “has been practiced in all regions of the world and during all periods of history. We know that in ancient times empires have disappeared and the cities destroyed, but we do not know what happened to the bulk of the populations involved in these events. Their fate was simply too unimportant. When they were mentioned at all they were usually lumped together with the herds, oxen and sheep and or livestock. Looking at the available evidence from antiquity one might developed a hypothesis that most wars at the time were genocidal in character.”

What do they have in mind? Well, just think of the Old Testament which has a genocide every few pages commanded, by the way, by God. And so, the Amalekites, Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, and so on were put to the edge of the sword, every last man, woman, and child massacred. Now I don’t believe that these events actually took place. And archaeologists can find no evidence of them. But they do record a common practice of the time. And a common attitude of the time. Namely, there’s nothing particularly wrong with genocide as long as it doesn’t happen to you. More historically plausible are the massacres by the Athenians in Milos, the Romans in Carthage, the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the European wars of religion, and colonization of Americas, Africa, and Australia.

What about the 20th century? This is a period in which we can at least roughly trace out a timeline. Do the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda prove that the world learned nothing from the Holocaust as is often claimed and that nothing has changed. Well here we have a couple of time series on deaths from genocide in the 20th century. And it is undoubtedly true that there was a horrific spike of blood letting in the middle decades of the 20th century. Nonetheless, this was not a new normal. It is not the case that nothing has changed since then and the rate of death of genocide has gone bumpily downward and in the last decade is in fact at a low for the century.

What would be immediate causes of the Long Peace and the New Peace? Three possibilities were put forward by Immanuel Kant more than 200 years ago in his essay, Perpetual Peace, where he argued democracy, trade and an international community were all forces that would disincentivize nations from warring with each other. More recently Bruce Russett and John Oneal have tested Kant’s theory in a large regression analysis, have found all three of these factors increased in the second half of the 20th century and all of them are statistical predictors of peace holding all else constant.

Here we see the trajectory of democracy from 1945 to the present. And you can see that the number of democracies has been increasing. The number of autocracies has been decreasing. Today there are many democracies than autocracies in the world. This is by no means a foregone conclusion. In 1975, not surprisingly, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote an essay in which he said democracy was going to go the way of monarchy. It was an institution that had its day in the sun but that was on its way out. Fortunately, he turned out to be incorrect.

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Here we see the trajectory of international trade from the 1890s to the present. And you can see that there has been a skyrocketing of international trade since the end of the Second World War. Here we have membership in intergovernmental organizations from the late 19th century to the present and that has increased with a bump after World War II. And another kind of international community consists of the closest that we have to an international police force namely peace keeping operations. Soldiers in blue helmets from the United Nations and other coalitions. Those have increased particularly after the end of the Cold War but more important than the number of missions is the number of soldiers deployed to get in between warring parties and other investigations have shown that although peace keeping missions don’t always keep the peace and we can always think of some spectacular failures, statistically, they do keep the peace more often than when the two sides are left to fight it out to the bitter end.

Rights Revolutions

The final decline of violence that I discuss, I call the Rights Revolutions. The targeting of violence on smaller scales, directed against vulnerable sectors of the population such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals. The Civil Rights Movement eliminated the practice of lynching which used to take place in the late 19th century at 150 a year. By 1950, that had gone down to zero. More recently, it has taken aims at the hate crime murders of blacks which were never really plentiful. They were about five per year when the FBI started recording them. They have now fallen to one per year. The number of non-lethal hate crimes against blacks, such as intimidation and assault have gone down since the FBI first started recording them.

And the kind of racist attitudes that could erupt in violence against racial minorities has been in steady decline. This graph shows the percentage of white Americans that agree with the statement that black and white students should go to separate schools from 1940 to the present or that say that they would move out if a black family moved in next door. The responses now are in the range of crank opinion and the questions are no longer asked on the surveys because the answers are considered to be noise — indistinguishable from zero.

This is a worldwide trend. Here we have a graph showing the number of countries that discriminate against ethnic minorities with various kinds of Jim Crow or apartheid laws. That has been in steady decline since 1950. The blue line shows countries that have done the opposite, that have bent over backwards to remediate the effects of past discrimination with affirmative action policies. And now, we have more countries with affirmative action policies than with discriminatory policies. The women’s rights movement has seen an 80 percent decrease in the rate of rape since it was first estimated by the FBI in the early 1970s. A similarly dramatic decline in the rate of domestic violence against women. And a sharp decline in the most extreme form of domestic violence namely uxorcide, the murder of wives and girlfriends and mariticide, the murder of husbands and boyfriends. Here we have the rate of murder of female victims, partners and male partners. You can see that actually the decline is steeper for male victims even than female victims. The women’s movement has been very, very good for husbands.

The children’s rights movement has seen a steady decline in the number of American states that allow paddling or corporal punishment in schools. Every opinion poll has shown a decrease in the percentage of people in western societies that approve of spanking. The rate of child abuse both physical and sexual has gone down since they were first measured in 1990. And the victimization of children in school by fights and other nonfatal crimes has also gone down since they were first measured.

The gay rights movement has seen an increase in the number of states that have decriminalized homosexuality both nation states worldwide and states with in the United States of America. It is now at 100 percent following a Supreme Court ruling. Every opinion poll has shown antigay attitudes have been in decline such as whether homosexuality is morally wrong and should be made illegal. And hate crime intimidations has been in in decline since the FBI started measuring them.

Finally the animal rights movement has seen a decline in hunting. An increase in vegetarianism both in the UK and in the U.S. And a sharp decline in the number of motion pictures in which animals were harmed. Now, we face the question why has violence declined on so many scales of time and magnitude? One possibility is that human nature itself has changed and that somehow all of our taste for violence has literally been bred out of us. I consider this hypothesis to be unlikely. For one thing our children still seem to be plenty violent. A large number of 2-year-olds kick, bite, and hit. Little boys, in all cultures, play fight. Grown up little boys and little girls continue to take great pleasure in vicarious violence such as murder mysteries, Greek tragedies, Shakespearean dramas, video games, hockey and movie starring a certain ex-governor of California. And we all seem prone to homicidal fantasies. Social psychologists have asked their subjects the following question, “have you ever fantasized about killing someone you don’t like. Say someone who has stolen your girlfriend or boyfriend or someone who has humiliated you in public?” The results are that about 15 percent of women and more than a third of men frequently think about killing people they don’t like. And more than 60 percent of women and 3 quarters of men at least occasionally fantasize about killing people they don’t like. And the rest of them are lying.

A more likely possibility is that human nature is extraordinarily complex and has always comprised both inclinations towards violence as we see in the homicidal fantasies and inclinations that counteract them. What Abraham Lincoln called the ‘better angels of our nature’. The circumstances of increasingly favored our peaceable inclinations. That is the ability to have a homicidal fantasy but not act on it. Among the motives for violence are raw exploitation — the elimination of a person that happens to be an obstacle toward something that you want, resulting in violence such as rape, plunder, conquest and the elimination of rivals. The quest for dominance either by individuals, to climb the pecking order and become alpha male, or among groups, the struggle for the supremacy of one’s ethnic group, race, nation, or religion.

There’s a large category of moralistic violence. Violence that’s considered to be justified or even mandatory namely violence committed in retaliation for a prior harm resulting in vendettas rough justice and cruel punishments. And then, there are ideologies that license violence such as militant religions, nationalism, Nazism, and communism which justify violence by kind of cost-benefit analysis having to do with some utopia that they envision. If your belief system holds out the prospect of a future world that will be infinitely good forever, well, then you can commit as much violence as you want in order to attain that perfect world and you’re still ahead of the game. The benefits outweigh the costs.

Also, imagine that you reveal your vision of an infinitely perfect world and there are some people who don’t get with the program and might even stand in your way as you try to bring heaven to earth. How evil are they? Well, you do the math. They are arbitrarily evil and deserve arbitrarily severe punishment which is why it has been ideologies which have racked up some of the highest death tolls in history. What do we have on the other side to counteract these motives for violence? There’s self-control, the ability to anticipate the consequences of behavior and inhibit violent impulses. There’s empathy, the ability to feel other’s pain. There’s the moral sense, which comprises a set of intuitions some of which such as tribalism, authority, and puritanism can actually increase violence but at least one of which — a sense of fairness– can decrease it. And then there’s reason, the cognitive processes that allow us to engage in objective, detached analysis.

The key question then is, which historical developments bring out our “better angels” and stay our hand before they can allow us to engage in bloodshed? One possibility is that Hobbes got it right when he called for a Leviathan, a state and justice system with monopoly on the use of violence, which can bring about peace. First of all by eliminating the incentives for exploitive attack by punishing any aggressor and canceling out his anticipated gain. That can quiet everyone down because not only are you deterred from aggression but you know that your neighbors are deterred from aggressing against you so you don’t have to maintain a belligerent stance. You don’t have to contemplate preemptive attack to do it to them before they do it to you. You don’t have to have a hair trigger for retaliation to deter others. And it circumvents self-serving biases by which both sides always believe that their opponent’s attacks are unprovoked aggression while their own attacks are justified retaliation when you have two parties both intoxicated by these self-serving illusions that can stoke cycles of revenge and bloodfeud which the Leviathan can nip in the bud.

Some historical evidence comes from the pacifying and civilizing effects of the states that I mentioned from the outset of the talk and the fact you can watch this movie run in reverse when governments retreat zones of anarchy such as the American wild west where the cliché of the old cowboy movies was that the nearest sheriff was 200 miles away so you have to defend yourself with your 6 shooter. In failed states, in collapsed empires, and in Mafias and street gangs which deal in contraband and so can’t avail themselves of the dispute resolution apparatus of the state.

If you’ve been cheated in a drug deal it’s not as if you can file a lawsuit or if you feel nervous you can’t call 9-1-1. And so, dealers in contraband operating in these economic zones of anarchy have to defend their interests with the credible threat of violence.

A second pacifying force is the concept of gentle commerce. The idea that plunder is a zero sum game. The plunderer’s gain is the vanquished’s loss whereas trade is a positive sum game one in which everyone can win. And that as, over the centuries, technology improves to allow the trade of goods and ideas over longer distances, among larger groups of people, and at lower cost, more and more of the rest of the world becomes more valuable alive than dead. Much has been written about the rivalry between the United States and China for global economic supremacy. Nonetheless, I think it’s unlikely that the two countries will go to war. Among other things they make all our stuff and we owe them too much money.

Some historical evidence comes from statistical studies. A number of regressions that show that countries with open economies and a greater dependence on international trade, holding all else constant, get embroiled in fewer wars, host fewer civil wars, and are wracked by fewer genocides.

A third possibility has been called the expanding circle — the idea that evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy but unfortunately by default we apply it only to a narrow circle of good friends, close relatives and cute, warm, fuzzy, little things. But over history, one can see the circle of empathy expanding to embrace the village, the clan, the tribe, the nation, other races, both sexes, children, eventually other species. It’s not a coincidence that the author of the book called The Expanding Circle, Peter Singer, who’s also the author of the book Animal Liberation. They are both versions of the same idea. This just begs the question of what expanded the circle and the technologies of cosmopolitanism that I mentioned earlier are a plausible cause that namely the increased consumption of history, literature, and journalism. And indeed a number of laboratory studies have shown that if you get someone to adopt the perspective a real or fictitious person by reading a first person account then you become more sympathetic not just to that individual but to the category that that individual represents.

Some historical evidence comes from the fact that the Humanitarian Revolution of the 18th century was proceeded by the so called Republic of Letters. The exchange of information via print. The second half of the 20th century which had the Long Peace and the Rights Revolutions occurred in the electronic global village. And though it’s too soon to tell what’s going to happen in the 21st century, if the Color Revolutions and Arab Spring end up successful it’s long been noted that they were fostered by the rise of the Internet and social media.

Finally there’s the escalator of reason, the possibility that the expansion of literacy education and public discourse encouraged people to just more abstractly and more universally. People would rise above their parochial vantage point. They were less likely to privilege their own interests over others. They replaced a morality based on tribal authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. It encouraged them to stand back and recognize the futility of cycles of violence and increasingly to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won. Historical evidence includes the fact that abstract reasoning abilities, believe it or not, as measured by IQ tests, has increased over the century the so called Flynn effect where IQ scores rose by three points a decade throughout the 20th century.

Other studies have shown that, holding all else equal, people in societies with higher levels of education and measured commit fewer crimes. Cooperate more in experimental games, have more classically liberal attitudes such as opposition to racism and are more receptive to democracy in the decade to come.

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The final question that I’ll pose is why so many of these forces have pushed in the same direction? My best guess is that violence is what game theorists call social dilemma. It is always tempting to a aggressor to exploit a victim but of course it’s ruinous to the victim. In the long run since anyone can potentially been an aggressor or victim, all parties are better off if all parties agree to avoid violence. The human dilemma is how to get the other guy to refrain from violence at the same time as you do, because if you unilaterally renounce violence, you will be a sitting duck unless the other guy decides to do so at the same time. One can imagine that over the course of history human experience and human ingenuity have gradually chipped away at this problem just like we have gradually mastered other scourges of nature like pestilence and hunger. In fact, all of the pacifying forces that I have mentioned serve to increase the emotional, material, and cognitive incentives of all parties to avoid violence simultaneously.

Regardless of the exact causes, I think the decline of violence has implications that are profound. Among other things, it calls for a reorientation of our efforts towards violence reduction from a moralistic mind set to an empirical mind set. That is, instead of asking ‘why is there war’ perhaps we should ask ‘why is there peace’. Instead of ‘what are we doing wrong’ perhaps we should ask ‘what are we doing right’ because we have been doing something right and it seems to me it sure would be good to know what exactly it is.

Also I think the decline of violence calls for a reassessment of modernity of the centuries-long trend that has eroded family, tribe, tradition, and religion and seen the ascendancy of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science. Now everyone acknowledges the gifts of modernity: longer and healthier lives, less ignorance and superstition. Richer experiences, but there’s always been a current of nostalgia and romanticism that have questioned the price. Namely is it worth it if we have to suffer from terrorism, genocide, world wars and nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, despite impressions, I hope to have shown that the long-term trend –though certainly halting and incomplete– is that violence of all kinds is decreasing. This I believe calls for a rehabilitation of the concept of modernity and progress and it’s cause for gratitude for the institutions of civilization and enlightenment that have made it possible.

Thank you very much. Thank-you. Thanks very much.

Question & Answer Session

Steven Pinker: And there’s a microphone over there.

Audience #1: Thank you for coming. I found your book very interesting, how you look at things they did in the past like slavery and recreational cat burning that we just think as unthinkable. Hundred years from now what do we do that they are going to look back on and say how could they possibly have done that?

Steven Pinker: It’s quite possible that our treatment of animals in factory farms will fall under that category. I think it’s hard to predict. Some people might argue that our tolerance of poverty in the developing world, the bottom billion could fall into that category, depending on what happens they might consider the indifference to the state of environment and its effects on future generations. Those are three possibilities. What we’re seeing now, by the way, catching it in the act of something that was formerly unexceptionable now becoming unthinkable, is bullying in the schoolyard which used to be just part of childhood. ‘Boys will be boys’ all of a sudden that shifted into the category of ‘intolerable, primitive violence’.

Audience #2: I was wondering what you think of the role of religion across history since many of the beliefs at the core of religion seem to be quite peaceful and represent all these values that we value and yet they’ve been around a very long time by your own statistics don’t seem to show much correlation to anything?

Steven Pinker: Most values of most religions are not at all peaceable. They include the toxic notion of the immortality of the soul which means that, if you kill someone, you’ve just sent them off to a better world. Just a rite of passage like a bar mitzvah or a midlife crisis. If you believe this is the only life we have, I think that increases the value of life. Also the religions that hold out the prospect of a future utopia, messianic age, a kingdom of heaven on earth, often write into their chronology one last spasm of violence that brings about a perfect world and justifies violence committed as a means to that end.

Religions have also sanctified authority so that the defiance of an ecclesiastical hierarchy is considered a heinous crime hence the burning of heretics. It has licensed the maltreatment of animals, which in the Judeo-Christian tradition, were put on earth for the benefit of humans. It’s licensed the beating of children since they’re possessed by the devil or subject to original sin and have to have the devil literally beaten out of them to say nothing of the treatment of homosexuality and other punishment of violences of standards of purity — sexual, dress, food, and so on. So, and it’s not surprising that religions have been responsible for some of the worst blood lettings in history such as the Crusades, the European wars of religion, the Taiping Rebellion in China was religiously motivated. This is not to say religions are always bad. There have been some periods in history when some religions have done good. There is the Quaker movement which was both pacifist and abolitionist. Although they were a little late to the party because 100 years before they were already briefs against slavery by John Locke and others. And of course, the opponents of the abolitionist movements were themselves religious and there were plenty of preachers who defended slavery.

But at least that religion at that time in history can be credited with having done some good. And there are some other examples as well. So I would say that Christopher Hitchens went– made an overstatement when he said that religion poisons everything. That’s going too far. But I think it has poisoned a lot of things.

Audience #3: So your main metric for measuring violence was deaths. The medical field has grown lot over the centuries. So what was death in the 17th century was just injury now. Can you say something about the correlation between the growth in medical field and the death and violence now?

Steven Pinker: I think that the advance in medicine has accounted for some small part of the decline in certain sectors like number of American soldiers who have died in war. But I don’t think it’s been a major factor partly because, until the 20th century, most doctors were quacks who killed as many people as they saved. And also there were many forms of violence where there’s just no — medical treatment was completely irrelevant. Capital punishment — the whole point is you kill the person. Doesn’t matter how well the doctors are at saving someone who’s been swinging from a noose. Sieges in warfare. The doctors couldn’t get in no matter what you did. Massive bombing like Dresden and Hiroshima. Medical care may help at the margins but for someone who’s been vaporized, medical care is kind of beside the point.

And other cases where whatever life saving care may have been available, they were kept away. Indeed, I think the application of life saving medical care, particularly in wartime, is itself a reflection of some of these humanitarian currents. It used to be that soldiers were just expendable. They were cannon fodder. Now at enormous expense, modern countries have tried to treat every soldier’s life as precious and the deployment of medical care is in part a reflection in decrease in tolerance for violence.

Audience #4: So do you think like the negative effects of technology advancement of technology?

Steven Pinker: So can you lower the microphone.

Audience #4: So do you think the negative effects of advancement of technology such as like nuclear weapons and better weapons and all that have their instilled sort of fear to do wars and violence in general and sort of in in some sense resolving the human dilemma?

Steven Pinker: That’s sometimes called the theory of the nuclear peace and one scientist proposed the nuclear bomb be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m skeptical because of arguments by John Mueller suggested that the trajectory of war would have unfolded in exactly the same way if nuclear weapons have never been invented. Two reasons — one of them is: World War II proved that conventional warfare with good old fashioned tanks and artillery and aerial bombardment could do so much damage that it served as a deterrent that was plenty scary enough to keep the superpowers away from any thoughts of having a rematch any time soon.

The other is that nuclear weapons are so disproportionately destructive compared to any strategic war aim other than in the “Strange-Lovian” all out annihilation that they’ve almost been irrelevant in the actual conduct of wars and associated deterrents. They’ve fallen into a taboo category and are just not considered an option, a live option on the menu of war fighting strategies. Countries know that which is why, very often, a non-nuclear power has defied a nuclear one. Just what the situation you expect nuclear deterrents to be most effective. When Argentina tried to conquer the Falkland Islands, they knew that Britain would not retaliate by turning Buenos Aires into a radioactive crater. The nuclear effect had become, by all intents and purposes, a bluff. And so, that’s why I think two reasons why I don’t think it’s been the major factor.

Audience #5: One quick question which is why or what do you see in the projection of total peace keeping force head count given that that was one of the stabilizing influences and seemed to be on a rather painful trajectory. Have you extrapolated where that takes us?

Steven Pinker: The number of peace keeping forces on a painful trajectory.

Audience #5: Well, in the sense that the growth is very large at least over the last couple of decades and it wasn’t clear whether it was asymptoting or needed to be a continuous increase in tax to maintain stability.

Steven Pinker: Oh, I see. I consider it highly benevolent development given the studies that show peace keeping works. And here I’m borrowing from a book by Joshua Goldstein called Winning the War on War where he argues that it’s the — that exponential increase in number of blue helmeted soldiers, where they’re actually seriously armed and prepared to use the arms, that drives down the total rate of death in war. Kind of an international Leviathan. The limiting step there is the reluctance of third parties to put their own citizens at risk to prevent wars involving other countries. It’s kind of an act of altruism.

Audience #5: And then the second question is the previous one of the previous questions was around medical science and the degree to which it reduced death as opposed to perhaps a more a metric of the damage to society not just individuals but if you twisted that around a little bit and you said that the survival rate from more moderate wounds has increased dramatically compared to say the civil war where getting a splinter could kill you in the wrong environment. These people coming back now diffuse an awareness of war that previously wasn’t available because it was a critical discontinuous step function. The person either came back or never came back but they never came back injured. Is there any correlation that you could consider there?

Steven Pinker: Would that be a pacifying force as people are reminded of the human costs of war.

Audience #5: Well, and it’s a really visual force when you see people with amputations.

Steven Pinker: It’s conceivable. I think there are a number of technologies that make the human cost of war more visible to more people even if you don’t know someone you might have seen their story on television for example which would not have been true in the past. So war I think is less often an abstraction something that’s just glorious and thrilling and spiritual and holy which was the attitude towards war the end of the 19th century. The realities of the first world war conveyed by literature, first hand accounts, and so on did start to scare people straight.

Audience #6: So concurrently with the decline in violence over the last century there’s been also an increase kind of alarming in the number of people in the United States incarcerated. Is there any concern that some of this decline in violence is coming at a cost of decline in freedom. Sort of like a strange impasse we come to where what to do with this space left by violent uprisings?

Steven Pinker: I think that is a valid concern. The American incarceration binge has probably been one of the factors that has led the rate of violent crime to plummet since 1992. It almost has to just removing that number of risky people from the streets. But it’s obviously well past the point of diminishing returns to a point of decreasing returns in terms of societal welfare. So yes, I think that is a major concern. It’s one of several areas by the way in which the United States is a misleading example of what’s happening to the western world. That in many regards the United States is not on the cutting edge of the reproduction of violence but kind of a pulling up the middle.

Female Presenter: Thanks Steven for coming. It was a great talk.

Steven Pinker: Thanks.


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