In a recent article published in The New Republic, and posted at The Edge, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker argues in A History of Violence that violence has been declining over the long term development of human society. Today, Pinker says, violence is probably at one of its lowest points in human history. Pinker acknowledges that this claim is, to say the least, counter-intuitive.
"In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion."
Pinker cites a number of possible explanations for the decline in violence, including:
- Stable central governments which possess a monopoly on the use of force, which, in turn, make individuals more secure and less likely to attack each other;
- Improved life expectancy which reduces the belief that "life is cheap" and instead makes life seem more precious and worth protecting;
- The development of interdependent trading societies which provide a powerful disincentive for war between them;
- Evolution which for some reason may have given humans a "kernel of empathy" that has expanded over time from including only immediate family and friends to a broader more generalized concern for each other’s welfare.
I have no idea whether Pinker’s claim is correct. The historical studies he describes sound plausible, though it is also possible that documented evidence from past centuries is so spotty that just about any hypothesis could be supported.
Nonetheless, I want to believe him. I want to believe that we as a species are becoming less violent over time. I hope Pinker is right.
It certainly seems that violence is more pervasive in societies where some of the above factors are absent.
On March 27, 2007, I saw an interview with Newt Gingrich on the Charlie Rose Show. Gingrich pointed out that American feeling against the Iraq War is just as intense as it was against the Vietnam or even Korean Wars (time index 42:15) even though 55,000 US soldiers were killed in Vietnam, and 35,000 in Korea. To date, less than 3,500 Americans have died in Iraq yet the public is solidly against the war.
Could it be that here too is evidence of Pinker’s trend? Is America itself becoming less violent?
I certainly hope so.