the rise of empathy | October 18, 2011

Steven Pinker in The Guardian and on Colbert: Violence is Declining

The Guardian published a massive feature this week on renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. In his latest, and arguably most ambitious, book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker “challenges one of our deepest but unexamined assumptions – that current and recent times have been the most violent in human history.”

Pinker explains the book himself, in a Q&A attached to the story:

Believe it or not, violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species' existence. The decline has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from world wars and genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

The fact that violence is so pervasive in history, but nonetheless can be brought down, tells us that human nature includes both inclinations toward violence and inclinations toward peace – what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" – and that historical changes have increasingly favoured our better angels. These changes include the development of government, commerce, literacy, and the mixing of ideas and peoples, all of which encourage people to inhibit their impulses, expand their empathy, extricate themselves from their parochial vantage points, and treat violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

Pinker also appeared [Canadians, click here] on Colbert last night, to explain the decline in violence, saying this about the trends in world wars:

The last 55 years have an unusually low rate of death and warfare. So, the rate of killing went down. It wasn't part of an escalating trend, which everyone predicted at the time: World War I, 7.5 million, World War II, 15 million on the battlefield, and World War III would be worse. But, it didn't turn out that way. First, the great powers and developed states stopped going to war with each other, and that spread to the rest of the world. If you plot the rate of death in warfare since World War II, it's a bumpy downhill decline. As a proportion of the world's population, we're at an all-time low since the Second World War.