Reason TV offers a fascinating interview with Dr. Steven Pinker, whose new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that humans are living in one of the least-violent eras of our history. Why have we become less violent over the ages? In large part it’s the institutions we have built, Pinker argues, and as civilization expands and matures, we can expect to see further declines in violence:
Just a couple of centuries ago, violence was pervasive. Slavery was widespread; wife and child beating an acceptable practice; heretics and witches burned at the stake; pogroms and race riots common, and warfare nearly constant. Public hangings, bear-baiting, and even cat burning were popular forms of entertainment. By examining collections of ancient skeletons and scrutinizing current day tribal societies, anthropologists have found that people were nine times more likely to be killed in tribal warfare than to die of war and genocide in even the war-torn 20th century. The murder rate in medieval Europe was 30 times higher than today.
What happened? Human nature did not change, but our institutions did, encouraging people to restrain their natural tendencies toward violence. Over the course of more than 850 pages of data and analysis, Pinker identifies a series of institutional changes that have led to decreasing levels of life-threatening violence. The rise of states 5,000 years ago dramatically reduced tribal conflict. In recent centuries, the spread of courtly manners, literacy, commerce, and democracy have reduced violence even more. Polite behavior requires self-restraint; literacy encourages empathy; commerce switches encounters from zero-sum to positive-sum gains; and democracy restrains the excesses of government.
Like some that Pinker mentions near the beginning of this interview, it’s almost counterintuitive to me that we are living in a less violent era, especially looking back at the carnage of the 20th century. However, we have to remember that the 20th century also brought us the technology to comprehend the scope of global violence, as well as national and regional; for the first time in human history, that knowledge became broadly and immediately available. Massacres, starvations, and genocides of earlier times only got hazy reporting, and only well read and understood by the privileged few who could access the information.
So if we are living in an increasingly less-violent age, then it behooves us to understand the mechanisms that allow for it. It’s not just that we have institutions that outsource vengeance and blood debts to the presumably disinterested third party of government, although that’s certainly part of it, but also the nature of those institutions. After all, we’re currently seeing a wave of violence in north Africa and southwestern Asia in nations that had established dictatorial institutions that delivered those same services. For millenia, humans have had empires of various natures that ensured themselves of a monopoly on force, and yet we didn’t see particularly peaceful times in those days.
The key to less violence is the establishment of accountable institutions — in other words, systems of self-government. As we expand those models around the world, we will see less violence and more win-win transactional relations between groups of people. It’s a fascinating topic, and I may pick up the book as a vacation read.