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Last updated: 26 March 2017. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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The Decline of Violence?

Gary Fraser explores Steven Pinker's new book about the historical decline in violence


That there has been a relative historical decline in violence may come as a surprise to many readers. We are only twelve years into the twenty first century yet we have experienced the tragedy of 9/11, the bloody mayhem of the second Iraq War and the genocide in Darfur. Surely any claims that violence has declined is counter-intuitive, even absurd. However, when one analyses the data the evidence is irrefutable; not only has violence declined in relative terms, but it has been accompanied by a revolution in our attitude towards violence. This is the subject of Steven Pinker's controversial new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and It's Causes.

Part One: The Historical Decline in Violence

There is a myth, prevalent in certain intellectual circles, that modern man has been made violent by contemporary society, especially capitalistic societies. In contrast to modern man, his primitive counterpart is constructed as peaceful, altruistic and co-operative and inherently communistic. This is the basis for what is known as the Nobel Savage discourse. One of its main proponents, the Romantic philosopher Rousseau (1712-1778), argued that, 'nothing can be more gentle than man in his primitive state'. However, Rousseau, like many of his contemporary philosophers who speculated on human nature, operated in what Pinker calls a 'data vacuum' and consequently his philosophy regarding human nature was nothing more than wishful thinking. The reality of early man was very different. According to archaeologists, human beings lived in a state of violent anarchy until the emergence of civilisation some five thousand years ago.

Moreover, anthropologists note that 60-70% of hunter gatherer groups were at war almost every two years, and that 90% engaged in war once in a generation. Meanwhile, palaeontologists have brought to our attention the discovery that many of our ancestors died incredibly violent deaths. A pre-disposition towards violence therefore is part of our evolutionary past. Moreover, the triggers for violence, the main two being the desire for revenge or the defence of honour are instincts pre-wired into our Stone Age brains. Yet these primitive instincts have been neutralised or kept at bay by continual changes to our environment and over time man, in certain conditions, has evolved to be peaceful, co-operative and empathetic towards his fellow humans.

Pinker traces the development of the first 'civilisations' to when sedentary farmers coalesced into cities and states and developed the first governments. The emergence of a central authority, respected and feared in equal measures, was a crucial development in the taming of the human species. If Rousseau and the early Romantics, including Marx (1818-1883), got the question of human nature wrong, the philosopher best in tune with human nature was Hobbes (1588-1679). For Hobbes, violence in humans is driven by three primary motivations: gain, safety and deterrence, and people living in non-state/non-governmental societies quarrelled about all three. It is only with the emergence of a centralised authority, say a unified kingdom, then later a state - the Leviathan, to use Hobbes biblical reference - that a historically significant statistical decline in violence begins to emerge. However, I am getting ahead of the narrative. Firstly, let's examine Pinker's data.

Pinker's Data

The timescale that Pinker discusses is a period of 10,000 years and in this timeframe he draws upon a plethora of data that point to a historical decline in violence. Firstly, a word about numbers. We should note that Pinker's data is based on relative and not absolute numbers. The relative numbers he uses are calculated as a proportion of the populations. If he was only to use absolute numbers then modern civilised societies are matchless in the destruction they have caused.    

We know that the twentieth century, what with two World Wars and the Holocaust, was in absolute terms the most violent period in human history. However, the twentieth century also had more people than any other period in history. Pinker notes, that in 1950 the population was 2.5 billion which was 2 and a half times the population of 1800, 4 and a half times the population of 1600, 7 times the population of 1300, and 15 times that of 1CE. Therefore, in order to make a proper comparison with the 20th century, Pinker notes that the death rate of a war in 1600 would have to be multiplied by 4.5% in order to compare its destructiveness to the wars that happened in the 20th century.

Using relative data, Pinker notes that out of the twenty one worst things that people have done to one another, fourteen of them occurred in centuries before the 20th century. Proportionately speaking, more people were killed in the Lushan Revolt in the 8th century, the Mongol Conquests of the 13th century, the Middle East Slave Trade between the 7th and 19th century, the fall of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th century, and the wars of Timur Lenk in the 14th and 15th century in comparison to the Second World War or Stalin's crimes in Russia. Moreover, psychologists note that the closer an era is to our vantage point in the present, the more details we can make out and the more emotion we feel. The result is what Pinker calls a 'historical myopia'. This is why the atrocities of the twentieth century stand out, or why the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although statistically low in terms of death rates cmparatively, provoke great moral outrage.

The Long Peace

Between 1500 and the year 2000 there was a gradual decline in war between the great powers to the point where zero is the number of times that the great powers have fought each other since 1953. Moreover, as of 1984 the major powers have remained at peace with one another for the longest stretch of time since the Roman Empire. This truly is a major historical development. Pinker argues that we are living in an era that future historians might one day might call the Long Peace

Of course, it has not been a Long Peace for the peoples of Africa, South America or the Middle East, places where the great powers have used violence in order secure dominance and control over vital resources. Yet death rates from imperialist plunder have declined over time and so too has the moral justifications used by the great powers for using violence. From the 18th century onwards, historians note that leaders of armies and nations, rather than appearing bellicose and gladiatorial, instead proclaimed that war had been forced upon them. This evolved into the twentieth century discourse of 'humanitarian intervention'. Whilst cynics might dismiss this discourse as mere camouflage to cover the ruling class's desire for plunder and mayhem, a view that maybe partially true, I also share Pinker's view that the changing narratives reflect wider cultural changes and a deeper sensitivity taking place in the population at large in our attitude towards violence.

The Decline in Homicide

The Long Peace is not just the only good news. The other is that the overall trend in the homicide rate is downwards. Pinker explains how in 1981 the political scientist Ted Robert Gurr, using old court and county records, calculated thirty estimates of homicide rates at various times in English history, combined them with modern records from London, and plotted them on a graph. The graph revealed that between the 13th and 20th century homicide in various parts of England plummeted by a factor of ten, fifty and in some cases a hundred; from 110 homicides per 100,000 people per year in 14th century Oxford to less than 1 homicide per 100,000 in mid-20th century London. A similar pattern occurred across much of mainland Europe and Pinker draws upon data produced by the criminologist Manual Eisner who used coroner's inquests, court cases and local records to plot his graph. The graph shows that the decline is far from small; the homicide rate plummeted from between 4 and 100 homicides per 100,000 people in the Middle Ages to around 0.8 per 100,000 in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, in America, long noted for its violence, there are still reasons to be cheerful. Whilst America has experienced higher homicide rates than Europe, with its homicide level peaking to an alarming level in the mid-1970s, criminologists have noted that the overall trend for homicide in recent years is downwards. In fact, America now has a homicide level comparable to its 1960s level. Yet even during America's worst years, Pinker's data puts the US homicide rate into historical perspective. The recent worst was the year 1980 when homicide stood at 10.2% per 100,000; however this was a quarter of the rate for Western Europe in 1450, a 10th of the rate of the traditional Inuit, and a 50th of the average rate in non-state societies.

When we examine homicide rates across the world, one thing stands out completely, namely the marked differences between societies with strong states, law and order and effective policing compared to non state societies in the grip of social anarchy.

The Empathy Revolution

In the past one hundred years or more a revolution has taken place in how human beings relate to one another. The result is that men and women alive today are less racist, sexist and homophobic than previous generations. In addition to this, they will be more understanding about the rights of children, disabled people, the sick and the mentally ill. The empathy revolution has changed our attitudes towards violence which in turn has reduced violence in societies where fundamental human rights are recognised in law.

In his research into racism in America, the sociologist Lawrence Bobo found that in the 1940s and 50s a majority of white people opposed integration in schooling, whilst in the 1960s around a half of white people said they would not want to live next door to black neighbours. However, by the 1980s, the percentage of people with these overtly racist attitudes was so low as to be in the single digits. Meanwhile, nothing short of a revolution has occurred the way Western societies treat women, which has led to a substantial decline in violence against women. For example, according to the US Bureau of Justice, a steady decline in rape occurred in the US since the 1950s. The rate began to fall around 1979, dropped steeply in the mid-1990s and continues to bounce downwards. Another 20th century revolution was in our attitudes towards children. One example is the stigmatisation of child abuse. Pinker reports one study in the 1970s which noted that only 10% of Americans thought child abuse was an issue, yet by the 1990s that figure had risen to 90%.

Pinker argues that in the last five hundred years we have witnessed a qualitative decline in human violence. In this relatively compressed historical period we have eliminated brutal practices such as cutting off noses and human sacrifice; witnessed a massive decline in torture, executions and flogging; witnessed the abolition of slavery and the falling out of fashion of blood sports and during those years our empathy extended towards animals.

In fact, it might be the case that our increasing sensitivity towards anything considered violent has reached the point of absurdity? For example, in America, some infant schools have banned the game dodge ball, whilst in England many schools forbid children playing musical chairs. According to the school governors the reasons for banning these games is that they are just too violent! Compare this to the 16th century Danish practice of nailing the ears of adolescents to fences for having committed minor misdemeanours or the cruel practice of child labour.

Part Two: Explaining the Historical Decline in Violence

Readers should note that that a whole book could be written as to why violence has declined over time. In the short space of time that I have left the best I can offer is a surface approach that briefly touches on a number of crucial developments. Pinker discusses war a great deal. One thing that is noticeable is that the advent of democracy correlates well to a decline in war between the great powers. Democracies it would seem do not go to war with another, whilst an unprecedented growth in international trade also correlates well with the period of the Long Peace. In addition to this, democracies, have led the way in the recent human rights revolution. Pinker notes, that the European Enlightenment ushered in a transformation of human life by science, technology and reason, which undoubtedly contributed towards a reduction in violence. I will touch on this in a moment, but before I do, I want to note that Pinker argues that when one takes a long view of history the most consistent form of violence reducer is the state.

The Leviathan

The Roman historian Tacitus noted that 'formerly we suffered from crimes: now we suffer from laws'. Hobbes was correct, a Leviathan, with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force can defuse the human instinct for exploitative attack and revenge. According to Pinker, when bands, tribes and chiefdoms came under the control of the first states, the suppression of raiding and feuding reduced the rates of violent death fivefold. Moreover, when the fiefs of Europe coalesced into kingdoms and then sovereign states, the consolidation of law enforcement eventually brought down the homicide rate another thirty fold.

Pinker concludes that a measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the form of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred. In modern times he argues that a mixture of prison and effective policing has contributed towards a substantial decline in violence, particularly in the US. This might be an uncomfortable truth for left libertarians, but the fact that an argument is politically uncomfortable does not make it wrong.

A consensus is emerging in American criminology that increased police numbers contributed towards a reduction in the violent crime rate, especially in cities like New York where visible policing transformed the city in the 1990s. The criminologist, Frank Zimring, author of The Great American Crime Decline, argues that more aggressive policing reduced violent crime by 35% in some American states. Meanwhile, Pinker personally recalls an incident in his native Montreal in the late 1960s when the police went on strike. Within hours of the strike there were six bank robberies, 12 arsons, 100 reports of looting and 2 homicides.

Pinker explains why prison played a part in bringing down the violent crime rate. He notes that it is a known criminological fact that a small number of people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. In one study of a large American city, a team of criminologists discovered that 6% of the male population had committed more than half of the offences in the city. Pinker argues that imprisonment physically removes the most crime prone individuals form the streets, incapacitating them and sub-contracting the crimes they would have committed from the statistics. Moreover, incarceration is especially effective when a small number of people commit a disproportionate amount of crime.

The Age Of Liberalism

The European Enlightenment paved the way for a liberal discourse framed around the rights of the individual. In the 20th century this discourse was at the root of social movements that ushered in the Empathy Revolution.

Pinker argues that classical liberalism, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual over the constraints of tribe, tradition, and authority, played a substantial part in the decline of human violence. He notes, that throughout the past 100 years Western societies have become more liberal concluding that today's conservatives are more liberal than yesterday's liberals and that conservatism, on the subject of social issues, is well to the left of where it stood even thirty years ago. Pinker highlights that in every issue touched upon by the discourse of human rights, from interracial marriage, the liberation of women, the tolerance of same sex activity to the punishment of children, the attitudes of conservatives have followed the thought pattern of liberals.

Violence and Intelligence

Over time human beings have become more intelligent and putting it simply, an intelligent species is less likely to be violent. Pinker argues that we are living in an 'intellectual renaissance'. Modern science has given us an understanding of particle physics, geology, genetics, molecular biology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. The age of stupid this certainly is not. In fact, we have seen a rise in the quality of everyone's thinking. For example, the philosopher James Flynn discovered in his enquiries into IQ tests that average IQ scores showed a steady increase over time. He then discovered that the makers of the tests have gradually been making the tests more difficult in order to even out average intelligence. When later generations were given the same sets of questions as earlier ones got more they got more of them correct. If the average teenager alive today could be put in a time machine and sent back to 1950 and take a 1950 IQ test Flynn concluded that they would have an IQ of 118. If they went back further to 1910 they would have an IQ of 130 easily besting the 1910 average of 98%. According to Flynn, a typical person alive today is smarter than 98% of people in 1910. Moreover, if a typical person from 1910 could take an IQ test today, they would probably score about 70%, a rate that would put them bordering on the fringes of mental disability.

We should note that the increases in the tests are not gains in general intelligence or raw brain power but gains in categories that demonstrate abstract reasoning. One of the main reasons that our intelligence has increased is that modern people increasingly view the world through the spectacles of science. Furthermore, the language of science has enabled us to think in the abstract. People now intuitively grasp the meaning of scientific terms such as proportional, percentage, correlation, causation, empirical, statistical, etc. Pinker concludes that our ancestors were thoroughly stupid, and this is why they believed in things like gods demand sacrifices, witches cast spells, heretics go to hell and kings rule by divine right, and many more pieces of religious and superstitious nonsense.

Pinker even argues, and takes great fun in doing so, that smarter people are more liberal. He notes that intelligence, is a consequence of the interchange-ability of perspectives and that this is inherent to reason itself. This definition of intelligence is linked to liberalism. As noted, the rights of the individual and an ability to think of perspectives other than our own, is at the heart of liberalism. As a consequence Pinker notes that people are no longer confined to the small worlds of family, village and tribe and he argues that this has resulted in a decline in patriotism, tribalism and trust in hierarchies, three things that can ignite violence and group against group conflict.

The US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health appears to back Pinker's thesis that liberals are on average more intelligent. 20,000 participants took part in the research and they were given a series of political and social questions that identified them as being on a scale between 'very conservative' and 'very liberal'. After completing their questionnaires the participants were given an IQ tests and the tests revealed that 'liberal' and 'very liberal' people had on average a higher IQ than those who were 'very conservative'.

The Feminisation of Society

One of the things that I have not touched on, but must mention, is that the effect the role played by women in reducing violence. In fact, a contribution towards a reduction in violence might be modern feminism's greatest achievement. We know that on average, women are less violent than men. Violence, Pinker concludes is a male past time. He argues that cultures that empower women tend to move away from the glorification of violence and are less likely to breed dangerous sub-cultures of rootless young men. Meanwhile, various criminological studies have shown that men with a stable job and an emotional commitment to a woman are less likely to become involved in violent crime. Meanwhile, studies have shown that marriage or long term cohabitation reduces a man's testosterone levels. According to Pinker, the delaying of marriage in the 1970s and 80s might explain why the violent crime rate shot upwards in these decades, especially when compared to the 'golden age of marriage' in the 1940s and 1950s when the violent crime rate was relatively low. Pinker notes that violent crime rates remain high in communities with low rates of marriage and long term co-habitation.


I want to focus on my conclusion on the implications of Pinker's book for the political left. Pinker argues that the decline in violence may well be the most significant yet least appreciated development in the history of our species. Why then could such a significant development go by unnoticed? Perhaps there is a tendency, and it is particularly true of the political left, to believe that progress can only be made by focusing on the negative. Furthermore, Pinker argues that there is an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about civilisation, modernity and Western society. Again it is hard not to disagree with this analysis.

In recent years a fashionable anti-Enlightenment discourse has resulted in a bizarre alliance of 'critical theorists', 'post-modernists' and 'cultural Marxists' on the left with defenders of religion on the right. This discourse has encouraged sections of the left to become cheerleaders for religious zealots, so long as the zealots are fighting Yankee imperialists. Moreover, the discourse has created a backlash against science. The result is that significant scientific developments in fields such as cognitive psychology, behavioural genetics and neuro-science, developments that have provided us with a better understanding of what it means to be human, have nonetheless been casually dismissed as 'biologically reductionist' or 'right wing'.

Eric Hoffer once observed that intellectuals cannot operate at room temperature: they need daring opinions, clever theories, sweeping ideologies and grand utopian visions. Yet these grand utopian dreams, based on a 19th century romantic view of human nature, ultimately became responsible for many 20th century nightmares. The primary reason for this is that the left got the question of human nature wrong. This romanticised and somewhat dangerous view of human nature led to sections of the left arguing against the need for a Leviathan. However, a withering away of the state instead of ushering in an era of utopian communism would probably ignite opportunistic violence, anarchy and pillage. Pinker's book demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the state, with a monopoly on the use of force is absolutely essential in order to tame and keep at bay primitive human impulses.

This is not to deny that addressing poverty and inequality do not contribute to a decline in violence. It is a criminological fact that levels of violence correlate well with low socio-economic status. However, we also know that poorer people are less likely to use the criminal justice system than say their middle class counter-parts and that their lack of faith in the system leads to many poorer communities resorting to what Pinker calls 'self help' measures in the pursuit of justice. This self help (e.g. revenge attacks, vigilantism, use of force to resolve monetary disputes etc) is responsible for countless instances of violent crime. Moreover, many of the triggers of violent crime are moralistic in motive and cannot be explained away by poverty alone. Pinker notes, that the most common motives for homicide are retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting a romantic partner. Homicide, he argues is a private act of capital punishment.

Let me finish on a positive note. The decline in violence may well be the most significant development in the history of our species. Of course our world is still scarred by poverty, war and exploitation, all of which are powerful reminders of the fact that we need to fight for a better world than the one we currently have. But we should also acknowledge that there are still reasons to be cheerful. The historical decline in violence is surely one of them.

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature: the Decline of Violence and it's causes is published by Penguin Books, 2011.

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