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Steven Pinker’s War and Peace, Abridged

By Steven Pinker | October 20, 2011 | 24 comments

If you're curious about Steven Pinker's massive new book, check out this Greater Good essay for a distilled version.

Earlier this month, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker published his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which argues that we are currently living in the most peaceful era of human history. The seeds of Pinker’s exhaustive new book can be found in his Greater Good essay “Why Is There Peace?”, which is below. Read it, then check out Jason Marsh’s review of Better Angels.

Over the past century, violent images from World War II concentration camps, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, and many other times and places have been seared into our collective consciousness. These images have led to a common belief that technology, centralized nation-states, and modern values have brought about unprecedented violence.

Felix Möckel

Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like, for example, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that “war is not an instinct but an invention.”

But now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.

A history of violence

In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, that statement might seem hallucinatory or even obscene. But if we consider the evidence, we find that the decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon: We can see the decline over millennia, centuries, decades, and years. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers—which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago—he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. If the death rate of tribal warfare had prevailed in the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million, horrible as that is.

Ancient texts reveal a stunning lack of regard for human life. In the Bible, the supposed source of all our moral values, the Hebrews are urged by God to slaughter every last resident of an invaded city. “Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites,” reads a typical passage in the book of Samuel. “Make war on them until you have wiped them out.” The Bible also prescribes death by stoning as the penalty for a long list of nonviolent infractions, including idolatry, blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, disrespecting one’s parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. The Hebrews, of course, were no more murderous than other tribes; one also finds frequent boasts of torture and genocide in the early histories of the Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Chinese.

But from the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Many conventional histories reveal that mutilation and torture were routine forms of punishment for infractions that today would result in a fine. In Europe before the Enlightenment, crimes like shoplifting or blocking the king’s driveway with your oxcart might have resulted in your tongue being cut out, your hands being chopped off, and so on. Many of these punishments were administered publicly, and cruelty was a popular form of entertainment.

We also have very good statistics for the history of one-on-one murder, because for centuries many European municipalities have recorded causes of death. When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

And since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, we’ve seen steep declines in the number of deaths from interstate wars, ethnic riots, and military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, the number of battle deaths has fallen from 65,000 per conflict per year to less than 2,000 deaths in this decade. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 percent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime.

Given these facts, why do so many people imagine that we live in an age of violence and killing? The first reason, I believe, is that we have better reporting. As political scientist James Payne once quipped, the Associated Press is a better chronicler of wars across the globe than were 16th-century monks. There’s also a cognitive illusion at work. Cognitive psychologists know that the easier it is to recall an event, the more likely we are to believe it will happen again. Gory war zone images from TV are burned into memory, but we never see reports of many more people dying in their beds of old age. And in the realms of opinion and advocacy, no one ever attracted supporters and donors by saying that things just seem to be getting better and better. Taken together, all these factors help create an atmosphere of dread in the contemporary mind, one that does not stand the test of reality.

Finally, there is the fact that our behavior often falls short of our rising expectations. Violence has gone down in part because people got sick of carnage and cruelty. That’s a psychological process that seems to be continuing, but it outpaces changes in behavior. So today some of us are outraged—rightly so—if a murderer is executed in Texas by lethal injection after a 15-year appeal process. We don’t consider that a couple of hundred years ago a person could be burned at the stake for criticizing the king after a trial that lasted 10 minutes. Today we should look at capital punishment as evidence of how high our standards have risen, rather than how low our behavior can sink.

Expanding the circle

Why has violence declined? Social psychologists find that at least 80 percent of people have fantasized about killing someone they don’t like. And modern humans still take pleasure in viewing violence, if we are to judge by the popularity of murder mysteries, Shakespearean dramas, the Saw movie franchise, Grand Theft Auto, and hockey.

What has changed, of course, is people’s willingness to act on these fantasies. The sociologist Norbert Elias suggested that European modernity accelerated a “civilizing process” marked by increases in self-control, long-term planning, and sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others. These are precisely the functions that today’s cognitive neuroscientists attribute to the prefrontal cortex. But this only raises the question of why humans have increasingly exercised that part of their brains. No one knows why our behavior has come under the control of the better angels of our nature, but there are four plausible suggestions.

The first is that the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short—not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta.

These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by journalist Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people’s moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the Golden Rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one’s own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that “there but for fortune go I.”

Whatever its causes, the decline of violence has profound implications. It is not a license for complacency: We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to end it, and so we should work to end the appalling violence in our time. Nor is it necessarily grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.

But the phenomenon does force us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man’s inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” If our behavior has improved so much since the days of the Bible, we must be doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.

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About The Author

Steven Pinker, Ph.D., is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in Harvard University's psychology department. He is the author of eight books, most recently The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which elaborates on the thesis presented in this essay--which was itself originally adapted from a lecture he delivered at the 2007 TED Conference in Monterey, California.

  

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Very interesting, and good news, obviously. From what I read, social norms are more important than self-control. Planned torture is a controlled situation, whereas punching someone would be more about impulse. Although it does not seem like harming others via scams or theft has gone down. If it’s true that humans developed language and diversified from other animals via understanding of their prey and hunting / predicting their behavior (Shipman), then it makes sense that animals would be dead last on the list of those spared from violence, I suppose.

Emmy | 12:20 pm, October 22, 2011 | Link

 

Steve Pinker’s book will do a wonderful job of raising
social issue awareness throughout the States: I feel
the internet itself promotes peaceable objectives and
encourages ethnical social engagement which may
highlight the global good of developing human
progress through peace and prosperity.

Louise Woodcock | 10:26 am, October 23, 2011 | Link

 

Although it’s probably not as well recorded, it would
be interesting to see whether other crimes like theft
have gone down as well. If only murder had gone
down then the life is cheap theory would most likely
be correct. It has been shown that violence on TV and
video games lead to more violence in children so as
violence diminished in our lives the social pressure to
be violent would also have diminished.  I wonder if
crimes of passion have also diminished because
society’s monopoly on violence may stop people from
committing premeditated murder but do these
pressures play a role in an unthinking attack?

Harry Cooke | 5:34 pm, October 24, 2011 | Link

 

Pinker’s theory is quite alluring, but we must consider other forces at work as well. To understand the real cause and effect relationship, it’s critical to look at the impact of several other factors: 
1) the Nature of Democracies in diminishing the impact of megalomaniacs,
2) the United Nations’ policy of early intervention before violence gets out of hand,
3) the Role of the US and NATO as the world’s policeman, and
4) Intertwined Economies as major factors that have reduced violence.

Regarding wars, the carnage from the first half of the 20th century was horrific. Pinker’s figure of 100 million killed in the 20th century is misleading, it was closer to 150 million. Had we not stopped Hitler, and had we given Stalin and Mao a free reign, the killing would have been far worse and would be continuing to this day.

Stopping world carnage has much more to do with eliminating psychopaths before they gain too much ground. Virtually all the carnage can be traced back to psychopathic leaders.

Can violence return? Yes. The high level of violence in our schools today is unprecedented, as is the level of depression in our society.

The absence of a major war in Europe in the last 65 years is linked to its decisions to intertwine economies (based on a simple economic idea that few want to kill their customer).

What’s more, there is a very strong correlation between high-trust countries, prosperity, and peace. People are far more prosperous in low corruption/high trust counties, which leads to a more stable society. 

By the same token, high corruption is more likely to trigger warfare and also result in high levels of poverty.

If Trust is any measure of our “edginess,” approximately 20% (or less) in Western Nations trust their leaders. In many Western countries, politicians are trusted less than used car dealers. Democracy is in peril; and reactive, threatened, societies are even more restless. We could find that violence is separated from peace by a thin veil. Just look at what happened to Germany in the 1930s.  Neville Chamberlain “trusted” Hitler by thinking naively.

Vigilence is still important—it took U.S. intervention into the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s to catalyze a reluctant Europe to unite against the genocide within its borders.

Robert Porter Lynch | 12:30 pm, November 1, 2011 | Link

 
Jason Marsh's avatar

@Robert Porter Lynch: Thanks for your comment. I think you’ll be pleased to see that, in his book-length treatment of this subject, Pinker explores the positive influence of several of the factors you identify, particularly the rise of democracies and of global (or at least increasingly international) commerce. I’m curious to hear what you think of the book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (about which you can learn a bit more in this review I wrote last month).

Jason Marsh | 2:48 pm, November 1, 2011 | Link

 

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War is a dreadful thing.

Jesus Christ | 4:23 pm, January 4, 2012 | Link

 

“Over the past century, violent images from World War II concentration camps, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, and many other times and places have been seared into our collective consciousness. These images have led to a common belief that technology, centralized nation-states, and modern values have brought about unprecedented violence.” Could be…

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Peace is better than war, I think everybody agrees on this. What are the benefits of the war but to leave the sadness and loss of life? Would not it be nice if we could live together in peace?

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Violence is on the decline… Yeah, right, just open the tv and see how much of what you see is violence. It might not always be real, but it’s still here for everyone to see.

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Holiday Compensation Claims | 12:17 am, January 21, 2012 | Link

 

It’s a good article but I’m not really surprised by what you have to say. People in general are much better off now than in years gone by in developed countries. We have better standards of living, better education, more things to do, and the lesson of history. These all are reasons why violence is not so bad today. In other less affluent countries I would beg to differ on what you have to say though. In fact i think it’s just the opposite, and one thing to remember is that we are all capable of violence in the right or wrong circumstances, this is one thing that history also tells us when you look at examples such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Al May | 4:34 pm, January 21, 2012 | Link

 

Steve Pinker’s book will do a wonderful job of raising
social issue awareness throughout the States: I feel
the internet itself promotes peaceable objectives and
encourages ethnical social engagement which may
highlight the global good of developing human
progress through peace and prosperity.

hguhf | 9:18 am, February 28, 2012 | Link

 

Good article, but on the whole I agree with the comment made by Al May. Although people are capable of extreme violence I feel lucky to have been born in a “civilised” country. Yes we still have violence and murders but mostly they are either to do with drugs, alcohol, family or gangs and it is extremely unlikely to happen on oneself (touch wood).

Cystinuria | 1:36 am, April 1, 2012 | Link

 
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