Steven Pinker searches history for the reasons that violence has shockingly decreased worldwide.
Best-selling author Steven Pinker – the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today – presents a dizzying, immense and revelatory re-evaluation of violence throughout history. His central thesis, which he defends with research, charts, graphs, statistics, and surveys of history and psychology, is that worldwide violence has declined to historically low levels. Therefore, this is a time of unprecedented peace.
Today the British royal family is excoriated for shortcomings ranging from rudeness to infidelity. You’d think people would give them credit for not having had a single relative decapitated, nor a single rival drawn and quartered.Steven Pinker
To clarify the importance of today’s reduced violence, Pinker offers an overview of worldwide violence in every era. The final part of his analysis covers the social and psychological motivations that fuel violence and the individual moral – and broad historical – influences that resist it.
Bill Gates called this “The most inspiring book I’ve ever read.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg chose it for his Year of Books. And The New York Times Book Review wrote, “To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement.”
However, Scientific American raised concerns over Pinker’s methodology and the conclusions it supported, saying, “The biggest problem with the book…is its overreliance on history, which, like the light on a caboose, shows us only where we are not going.” The reviewer, who felt Pinker tended to cherry-pick facts that agreed with his pre-determined conclusions, feared readers would do the same.
Pinker explains that six changing frameworks delineate how human violence decreased over history. The first he cites is the time frame from hunter-gatherers to agricultural societies; the second happened from 1500 AD to the present as homicides declined precipitously. The third occurred in Europe during the Age of Reason, when governments limited nonstate violence.
Pinker details the fourth stage as coming after World War II, when the great powers rejected war as an instrument of policy. The fifth unfolded, he argues, from 1989 to the present, when conflicts around the world lessened dramatically. The sixth, Pinker notes with some satisfaction, is the surprising drop since 1948 in violence against women, minorities, homosexuals and children.
Ötzi the Iceman
In 1991, Pinker recounts, hikers found a 5,000-year-old frozen corpse in the Tyrolean Ötztal valley. The ancient hunter carried an ax, arrows and a dagger. Radiologists discovered that Ötzi – his nickname – had an arrowhead in his shoulder. Ötzi didn’t die by freezing in the mountains, Pinker makes clear, someone killed him.
Analysis using DNA revealed other men’s blood on Ötzi’s arrows and knife. Apparently he killed someone with an arrow, took the weapon back and killed someone else. Someone later killed him. That, to Pinker, is the ancient world in a nutshell.
As people gathered in settlements, he finds, competition for food, wealth and mates led to increased violence.
If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one.Steven Pinker
Pinker writes that old complex societies outlawed treason, blasphemy and witchcraft. But the despots who ruled these societies – including Babylon, Israel, Rome, Samoa, Fiji, Khmer, Aztecs, Incas, Natchez, Ashanti and other African kingdoms – killed on a whim and kept harems of women.
Pinker casts crucifixion as a telling example of the sadism and brutality of old-world authorities. The ancient Romans crucified criminals, political prisoners, prisoners of war and other offenders. Pinker takes a perverse glee in describing crucifixion’s horrors in excessive, precise detail.
Those who lionize the Crusaders as holy warriors may be dismayed by Pinker’s description of Christian Crusader armies traveling from Europe to the Middle East between 1095 and 1208 and slaughtering every Jew they encountered. When Crusaders captured Antioch, Jerusalem or Constantinople, they killed every Muslim and Jew.
Pinker reminds readers that Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, called for burning every synagogue, and every Jewish school and house. Thus the author grounds ancient righteousness in willful, vicious scapegoating.
Pinker can hardly believe the truth: Since World War II there has been astonishingly less violence against minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals. This trend, he avows, contradicts all of human history. The author may anger readers with his assertion that Christianity, Islam and Judaism inspired centuries of violence as they codified the inhumanity of unbelievers; the subservience of women; humankind’s superiority to animals; the ungodliness of homosexuality; and the inherent sinfulness of children. Yet today, Pinker finds to his shock, most people believe that any positive moral framework repudiates these ideas.
According to Pinker, four better angels regulate the human propensity for violence: empathy, self-control, moral sense and reason. Much of the reduction in violence worldwide, he maintains, derives from an increase in recognizing the value of empathy – meaning a selfless awareness of other people’s concerns.
No one wants to live in a world that is Hobbesian or Darwinian (not to mention Malthusian, Machiavellian or Orwellian).Steven Pinker
Pinker suggests that people everywhere now know more about other people around the world than at any time in history, and this knowledge leads to increased understanding and sympathy. Therefore, Pinker says, people feel less afraid of others and act less violently toward them.
Dense and Daunting
Pinker’s themes range from fascinating to dense and daunting as he explains how psychological forces, media hype and habitual thinking prevent you from recognizing the safety of your current world. Professors, students, social theorists and other academics are likely to read every word of this massive, groundbreaking tome.
[Survey respondents] guessed that 20th-century England was about 14% more violent than 14th-century England. In fact, it was 95% less violent.Steven Pinker
Even a diligent scan – combined with deep reading of selected chapters – may change your understanding of the evolution of human society. A less diligent scan will, at the very least, fill your head with new and fascinating historical factoids.
Steven Pinker’s other books include The Blank Slate; Words and Rules; Enlightenment Now; A Sense of Style; and The Language Instinct.