Violence is a thing of the past, says professor

In a major new book, Harvard professor Steven Pinker says that when it comes to violence, we've never had it so good. Is killing part of human nature?

For most people, to think of the defining historical moments of the last hundred years is to think about war, destruction and genocide. The trenches, the holocaust, Stalin's purges, Pol Pot, Rwanda, 9/11 – the history of the 20th Century has been written in blood.

Turn back to the earliest chapters of humanity's story, and the picture becomes much rosier. Our distant Neolithic ancestors, we imagine, lived in a world far removed from the industrial-scale slaughter of the modern age. Existing in harmony with nature, early men were primitive, but innocent of murder and war.

This, in much of the world, is the conventional view. It is also wrong – if a new book* by psychologist Steven Pinker is to be believed. The Harvard professor cites archaeological evidence to show that as many as 60% of Neolithic men were violently killed by their fellow humans. The equivalent figure for 20th Century Europe and America – including the effect of one genocide and two world wars – is less than 1%.

In fact, says Pinker, humans are currently living in an unprecedentedly peaceful age. Murder rates across much of the world are as low as they have ever been. Fewer people than ever are dying in wars. Our whole attitude to violence has profoundly changed.

In the Middle Ages, he points out, torture and mutilation were common forms of punishment for criminals. In Renaissance France, burning live cats was a popular form of entertainment. Ancient texts meanwhile are full of massacres, from the sack of Troy to the slaughter of the Midianites in the Bible.

The 15th Century Mongol general Tamerlane was famous for building vast pyramids from the skulls of slaughtered enemies.

Now, although it may not feel like it, such cruelty and bloodshed is largely a thing of the past. Why? Pinker cites a few possible causes. Most important, perhaps, is the political emergence of strong, centralised states. Humans living in anarchy are violent and afraid. Humans with a strong government, on the other hand, know that aggression and murder will be punished. That diminishes fear and, in a way, gives us the confidence to be peaceful and kind.

Human nature

Pinker's book gives a new perspective in an old argument. On one hand is the view that morality is something that is natural in humans – that by living in harmony with nature we would achieve a state of peace and social virtue.

On the other is the view most famously expressed by the 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who took a dim view of humanity's natural condition: Life in 'a state of nature', he wrote, is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'

*The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. (Viking Adult, 2011)

You Decide

  1. Is morality something we are born with or something we learn from others?
  2. Steven Pinker once said: 'We're living in primate heaven. We're warm, dry, we're not hungry, we don't have fleas and ticks and infections. So why are we so miserable?' How would you respond to that question?

Activities

  1. Watch Steven Pinker giving a lecture on the decline of violencehere. What do you think? Draft a letter to him with your response to his argument.
  2. Is life in a state of nature really 'nasty brutish and short'? Organise a class debate on the question and see if you can sway any opinions.

Some People Say...

“Cruelty is always unnatural.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How controversial is Pinker's thesis?
It could certainly cause the odd fight. The most dangerous idea is that there is something particularly valuable about 'civilisation'. He could be accused of putting western ideas of 'progress' ahead of other cultural norms.
It also seems very odd to say the 20th Century was non-violent!
The 20th Century saw murder on a massive scale – millions of people cruelly killed. But, at the same time, the total world population was rapidly growing. That means a smallerpercentage of people were meeting violent ends than ever before.
But the total amount of murder and violence was rising?
Indeed. Theabsolute number of acts of violence was rising but the proportion of people to encounter violence was falling. It's debateable which number is the more important.

Word Watch

Genocide
The destruction of an ethnic, religious or national group. Although definitions of genocide are fairly well accepted, the application of the term is often hugely controversial.
Pol Pot
a Cambodian dictator. Under his leadership, as many as 2.5 million people died either through state murder or because of oppressive policies.
Neolithic
The Neolithic is the New Stone Age (from the Greek neo meaning 'new' and lithos meaning 'stone'). Beginning in around 9,500 BC, it saw the development of the first agriculture.
Troy
The story of Troy is one of the most famous episodes in Greek mythology. When the city of Troy is captured by the Greeks, all the Trojan men, women and children are slaughtered or taken as slaves. This was standard procedure for ancient sieges.
Midianites
The story of the Midianites is one of the most problematic passages in the Old Testament. In it, the Hebrews under Moses kill every single male and most of the females of the Midianite tribe. Some people claim this is the earliest recorded genocide.
Thomas Hobbes
Born in 1588, Thomas Hobbes is one of England's most famous thinkers. His famous work, Leviathan, laid the foundations for later political philosophy.

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