Bring Your Questions for Author Steven Pinker

Photo credit: Rebecca Goldstein

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.

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  1. frankenduf says:

    haven’t read ur book, but thanks for the justification for an optimistic look at progress- my question: are (international) violence numbers inversely correlated to stratification of armaments?- that is, might part of the reason for overall decreased violence be that 1 nation has far and away the most military might, some wealthy nations have enough to hold their own, while the vast majority of nations have essentially cardboard tanks- so the majority of countries might be too scared to initiate international violence, and even if they do, the combat to squash the military capability is much swifter when one side has a huge advantage

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    • Michael Peters says:

      That might explain some of the reduction post-cold war, but that’s only about 20-30 years and doesn’t explain the longer trend. So I doubt it would have made much of a difference.

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      • Nanno says:

        If you slightly stretch frankenduf’s statement you might consider the cold war to fall within the essence of his statement that the consequences of international violence (war) would also have been too devastating to any party initiating it. (In my opinion in essence why the cold war remained ‘cold’) Pretty much any tank falls into the category “cardboard” when it comes to thermal nuclear weapons.

        Then again there have been times that armaments were divided more equally.

        I personally am wondering why mention is made to state-sponsored brutal acts and not religiously-sponsored or caused brutality, since, in my opinion, those are correlated (separation of religion and state occurred quite late, if at all) and historically much brutality has been done in the name of religion.

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  2. Quin says:

    Dr. Pinker,

    1. How would you describe the role of religions and spirituality in this “Long Peace” since 1945? Is there a continuing place for them going forward?

    2. In light of this history, is the War on Terror justified, even acknowledging some significant missteps (say, the invasion of Iraq)? If so, why? If not, what would have been a more appropriate response to 9/11 and why?

    3. Beyond the strictly pragmatic or utilitarian, do you think there is any warrant or justification for morality and judging when physical violence (especially killing) is appropriate or allowable? If so, what is it?

    Thank you.

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  3. Phil says:

    I feel a little silly asking questions when I haven’t read the book, but here goes …

    Has sports had an influence, one way or another, on the level of violence? Does a rivalry between countries temper the tendency to violence and war, or does it increase it? Does it depend on circumstances, and how?

    Should there be Crips vs. Bloods basketball games on a regular basis?

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  4. BL1Y says:

    Any thoughts on the negative side effects of decreased violence?

    Overpopulation? More sedentary populations? Decreased role for survival of the fittest?

    Not to say that violence is preferable, just wondering about the downsides of peace.

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  5. Jimmy says:

    Why do you hate Malcolm Gladwell?

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      The big red flag that always worries me about Gladwell is that the more I know about the topic he is writing about the more naive slapdash and ill-informed his opinions seem to be.

      He is an excellent writer, but when he strays into fields I know well I can tell he is simply enthused about one particular “expert’s” perspective and is complete naive as to the full state of things. He also has a tendency to make sweeping conclusions that are not really justified by the information at hand, but make for flashy narratives.

      I would guess this is what has grated on Pinker.

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  6. David says:

    Do you believe the overall decline in violence is supported by democratic peace theory, that democracies rarely, if ever, go to war? What about the effects of globalization and the financial tying of many countries?

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  7. Don says:

    Is it possible this “Long Peace” is merely the calm before the storm? World War II happened less than a century ago and was by far the highest casualty war in recorded history (if Wikipedia is to be trusted, of course). I’ve been reading G. K. Chesterton lately, and he had some choice words about the false hope of progressive morality…and he was writing before both WWI and WWII.

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  8. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Point of Conjecture: I once heard that it was exceeding rare to have violence in topless bars. True?

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