Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker has written a slew of fascinating books about evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, including How The Mind Works
, The Language Instinct
, and The Blank Slate
. At the recent TED Conference
, Pinker shifted his sights to the evolution of violence. Forget the romantic notion of the noble savage, he says. A deep look at the history of violence seems to reveal that modern culture may be making us less violent over time, not more. "Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth," Pinker says. The latest edition of the fantastic Edge
newsletter includes an essay Pinker wrote based on his talk. It originally appeared in the New Republic. From the essay:
The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century.
At the widest-angle view, one can see a whopping difference across the millennia that separate us from our pre-state ancestors. Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts–such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men–suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.
The New Republic's Web site also features Pinker's picks of essential books about the history of violence in the twentieth century. From the list:
• Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651). "And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." This pithy description of life in a state of nature is just one example of the lively prose in this seventeenth-century masterpiece. Hobbes's analysis of the roots and varieties of violence is uncannily modern, and anticipated many insights from game theory and evolutionary psychology. He also was the first cognitive scientist, outlining a computational theory of memory, imagination, and reasoning.
• Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Homicide (1988). This is the book that sold me on evolutionary psychology. Daly and Wilson use homicide statistics as an assay for human conflict, together with vivid accounts from history, journalism, and anthropology. They select each of the pairings of killer and victim--fratricide, filicide, parricide, infanticide, uxoricide, stepparent-stepchild, acquaintances, feuds & duels, amok killers, and so on--and test predictions from evolutionary theory on their rates and patterns. The book is endlessly insightful and beautifully written.
• Lawrence Keeley, War Before Civilization (1997). An archeologist looks at skeletons, weapons, and ethnographic accounts of tribal warfare. Forget the noble savage: Hobbes was right. War has always been hell.
With the cacophony of an election year ablaze with unparalleled drama being fought on the front lines of Twitter, we find ourselves slowing down and staring at it like a bad accident. The need for escapist relief is perhaps more dire than usual right now. This fall, if it’s drama you crave, but the Hillary […]
Today a future without schools. Instead of gathering students into a room and teaching them, everybody learns on their own time, on tablets and guided by artificial intelligence. Flash Forward: RSS | iTunes | Twitter | Facebook | Web | Patreon | RedditIn this episode we talk to a computer scientist who developed an artificially […]
Where are our petabyte drives? Brian Hayes takes us through the reasons storage is “stuck” in the low terabytes. The tl;dr is that we got such exceptional capacity growth in the late 90s and early 00s we don’t need much more right now, so the focus since then has been on SSDs, networking, interfaces, etc, […]
If you’re like us, packing and unpacking are two of your least favorite aspects of traveling. Specifically with multi-destination trips, our suitcases usually end in wrinkled clothing, toothpaste stains, and a misplaced deodorant.The good news is that we’ve found a suitcase that eliminates the disastrous effects of packing and unpacking: The Rolo Travel Bag ($42.99). You essentially use it […]
Finding quality icons is a challenge for designers, and can also get pretty costly if you use them often. And when you’ve got a lot to do, the last thing you want to spend your time on is creating new icons from scratch That’s why we recommend using the Noun Project ($49). Noun Project is a site […]
While Netflix and Hulu have seemingly dominated the streaming market with their limited selections, we’ve looked a little outside the box and found something pretty great as an alternative. SelectTV combines all the content of cable with the convenience of streaming, and it’s affordable too.SelectTV is an online subscription service that packs an impressive library of over […]