Not such a violent world after all

Pick up a newspaper and you can be forgiven for thinking that acts of violence are on the rise. One of our most celebrated psychologists says it just isn't so.

by Diana Grier Ayton

Author and psychologist Steven Pinker (Rebecca Goldstein)

You’re not alone if you think we’re living in an age of escalating violence. Unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ethnic cleansing and recent tribal conflicts in Darfur, Somalia and Congo have produced hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Closer to home, we’re rocked by accounts of gang shootings on city streets, child abductions and disturbed students who rampage through schools with automatic weapons blazing. Surely we’ve reached some sort of pinnacle of visiting hurt on each other.

According to author and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, BA’76, DSc’99, the opposite is true. In his latest book The Better Angels of Our Nature (a phrase borrowed from Abraham Lincoln), Pinker widens the lens to examine violent behaviour over the course of recorded human history and presents evidence of a steep decline, especially in the last few decades. And this downward trajectory occurs at all levels – in families, neighbourhoods, between armed factions and among nations and states.

Pinker starts with the Bible. For sheer, hair-raising gore, not much beats the Old Testament and its scorched-earth punishments where enemies were wiped out to the last living being. The Middle Ages, featuring Crusades and inquisitions, raised torture of heretics and infidels to an excruciating art. What of Camelot and the knightly virtues? Pinker dismisses them as good P.R. Feudal knights were ruthless warlords, he says, who “engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry…which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders.”

The civilizing factors that turned people to their “better angels” included the centralization of authority and governance, the establishment of trade between states and the widening of “circles of empathy” as people began to know others beyond their families and tribes.

Progress was slow, as early systems of law often sanctioned barbaric practices. Pinker quotes diarist Samuel Pepys who cheerfully recounts a day in 1660 that included a morning visit “to see Major-general Harris hanged, drawn and quartered.” The hanging portion was not fatal as the victim was intended to suffer through subsequent disemboweling and castration. Pepys, noting that the public reacted with “shouts of joy,” then apparently enjoyed a lunch of oysters.

Pinker kicked up some dust in earlier works, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate, by suggesting we are pre-disposed to violence and that nature is a stronger element than nurture in shaping character. While that still holds true in his estimation, there are other factors at play. “I had to anticipate the objection of people who fear that if you say that humans have any innate tendency toward violence, that dooms us all to perpetual war and strife. Even if we do have impulses that lead to violence, we also have impulses that steer us away,” says Pinker.

He offers 700 pages of exhaustive argument to support the decline of violence, perhaps “the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.” Pinker warns against complacency, however, as our inner demons seemed poised to play havoc – witness the two World Wars and an uptick in violence in the 1960s. He calls these “random spasms,” rather than reversals of the continuing trend, though even he has conceded one chilling reality: “The world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.”

Pinker is persuasive in urging us to shift our focus from why there is war and violence to why we are enjoying a period of historically unprecedented peace. If it is to continue, we need to know what we’re doing right.