That’s the message of “The Better Angels of our Nature. Why Violence has Declined”, by Steven Pinker, the Harvard-based psychologist. The trends in all kinds of violence – and Pinker’s book has enormous quantities of data to back it – including wars, genocide, murder, domestic violence, and violent crime generally – have all trended down significantly, whether you look at it over thousands of years, hundreds of years, or recent decades. This is an astounding finding, and flies in the teeth of much conventional wisdom – which is partly, I believe, driven by very extensive media coverage of outbreaks of violence around the world. If he’s correct – and I believe he has made a very strong, rigorous case – then this book couldn’t be much more important. What’s behind the fall in violence?
Very briefly: first of all, the establishment of centralised and organized societies in the last few thousand years – with the most significant amount of force being wielded by those at the top – be it warlords, kings – and in modern times, governments and the nation-state. This tamped down the levels of violence compared to more fluid, hunter-gatherer societies in which violence against strangers (ie raiding and competition for scarce resources) was extremely common. For more organized societies, it’s not in the interests of those in power for too many people to kill and maim each other. Just to underline this point, the twentieth century, for all its wars and genocides, actually had much LOWER levels of violence proportionally than primitive societies. ie the chance of an individual suffering or dying by violence was much lower in the twentieth century than it was one thousand, two thousand or three thousand years earlier.
Then came the spread of ideas, and the chance to gain other people’s perspectives after the invention of the printing press (through both non-fiction and realistic fiction – later examples, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin etc). In other words, ideas do matter – and the exchange of knowledge about other people and their thinking tends to be associated with further falls in violence. At the same time there was a massive increase in trade which validates cooperative behaviours. It’s far more conducive to trade if you are friendly and courteous rather than aggressive and violent, overall. You also need your customers to be alive. This was followed by the Enlightenment, and the stirring of the idea of human rights – through Kant, the American and French Revolutions etc. Again, it looks as if the spread of ideas made a huge difference – from the abolition of slavery, to the civil rights revolutions and to legislation protecting minorities. More recently, we have the growth of inter-governmental organizations, that intensify many of these trends – such as the European Union and the UN, which helped draw up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Despite its current economic travails, the EU has been associated with the longest period of peace (or near peace) in its history. Statistically, Western Europe is the safest place to live in world history.
So in other words, the human race is getting something right – and we are succeeding, slowly, in establishing a more civilised and much, much less violent way of cohabiting. I have trouble in thinking of any more important finding than that.
Steven Pinker speaking in 2007 on how pre-modern societies were actually much more violent than current societies: