With Libya finishing off a bloody revolution, the war in Afghanistan nearly a decade old, and Mexico engulfed in a savage drug war — it might not seem like it, but we’re living in the most peaceable time in history. That’s more of a commentary on just how violent our past is, rather than the tranquility of the present.
In his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker lays out the difference in stark contrast, quantifying the dramatic decrease in violence over the ages, and uncovering the reasons for its decline. Pinker operates under the premise that the past is like a foreign country, and that we need to be reminded of its brutality. Starting with a tour of human history that stretches back to 8000 BCE, Pinker offers glimpses along the way, and shows how in the early going, violence persisted even as society and culture evolved.
A critical transition took place as humans abandoned nomadic tendencies (a brutal, violent existence for sure) and settled into communities based around agriculture. And yet, the early governments that cropped up were equally as violent, if not more so. Some of the most brutal acts of history have been state sponsored, a hallmark that lasted roughly until the Enlightenment, when torture and slavery were slowly outlawed.
Pinker quantifies the decrease in violence with a truckload of data, smartly presented in more than 100 charts and graphs, depicting things such as homicide rates in Medieval Europe, rates of battle deaths in state-based conflicts, literacy and income levels over time, and even the amount of violence depicted in a 1940s bodybuilding ad. He also cuts against conventional wisdom with an in-depth examination of the 20th century, thought by many to be the most violent century ever. In what he refers to as the “Long Peace” — the world post-1945 has become dramatically less violent. And even in this age of “The Global War on Terror,” Pinker shows that the rates of death from terrorism are below where they were in 1970.
Pinker has kindly agreed to answer reader submitted questions. So, as always, fire away in the comments section.