Steven Pinker on the History of Violence

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.