A less violent world?

Ella Rhodes reports from a lecture by Professor Steven Pinker

Psychologist and author Steven Pinker rounded off a three-day conference from the World Health Organization and the University of Cambridge, which invited eminent researchers to discuss whether levels of homicide and other forms of violence could be reduced by 50 per cent in 30 years. Professor Pinker described this goal as ‘completely attainable’.

In a talk, entitled ‘The Past, The Present and The Future of Violence’, Pinker presented ideas from his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, and gave evidence that, despite recent conflicts, human beings are living in our most peaceful time. Taking the long view across a history of human violence from Biblical times to present day, Pinker said the global fall in homicide rates in the last few decades is just one of many declines in violence across the globe. Capital punishment, torture, war, rape and slavery are also less common.

With particular emphasis on war, Pinker looked at the rate of death from armed conflict, which has remained relatively constant since its decline following the Second World War. There has been a decline, he said, in the rate of war between large powers, such as the US and Russia. He said: ‘There has been zero wars between great powers and zero wars between Western European countries, which, historically, is unusual.’

The New Peace, as Pinker calls it, also includes fewer and shorter civil wars since 1990. He said: ‘Recent civil wars are less deadly than traditional interstate wars. There’s not been a linear decline but a rollercoaster whose trajectory is unmistakably downward.’ He also pointed to statistics that show the rate of rape in the US has fallen since its peak in the early 1970s and domestic violence has also plunged.

What has caused this decline? Pinker said there is likely an environmental cause because humans are hard-wired towards violence: ‘There’s evidence that we harbour violent impulses. We see violence in young children. The most violent age is two – but we don’t categorise that as violence… Older children take tremendous pleasure in vicarious violence.’

Pinker then spoke of the various types of violence and the brain systems that underlie them, as well as the brain systems we have for violence inhibition, which he describes as the better angels of our nature, one of which is self-control: ‘Seventy-five per cent of men have homicidal fantasies, yet far fewer act out those fantasies,’ he said. Other violence inhibition mechanisms include empathy, and morality, although, Pinker said, ‘the world has far too much morality. It can increase violence. If you were to tally up all the violent deaths from moral motives and compare them to instrumental motives, they would be stacked in favour of the moral.’ He listed religious revolutionary wars, blasphemy, treatment of heretics and lynchings as examples. He added: ‘Human moral sense can reduce violence when it is centred on the prevention of harm.’

Professor Pinker also confronted sceptics who had suggested that since the publication of his book in 2011, the levels of violence may have started to rise again. He presented statistics that suggested they were generally continuing to fall globally. Pinker also made predictions about the future of violence, but added these should be taken with a pinch of salt. He said: ‘Some forms of violence, once abolished stay abolished.’ And gave examples including human sacrifice, legal slavery and public torture, adding: ‘Are we going to see a resurgence of breaking people on the wheel? I don’t think so.’ On that basis, Pinker argued, the rate of homicide is likely to continue to fall in functioning states.

Turning to the proclaimed desire seen in many societies for a reduction in violence against women, Pinker said: ‘There have been a number of aspirational statements made… you might write that off but, in fact, a reasonable case can be made for aspirational declarations.’ He said the likelihood of these statements becoming a reality can be surprisingly good.

Pinker did outline some types of violence that might not decline in the near future, including civil wars, violent resistance movements and human rights in the Islamic world. He added: ‘By most qualitative measures much of the Islamic world seems to be sitting out the decline in violence and it’s hard to say that will change soon.’

In summary, he concluded: ‘Overall there’s a strong, realistic, non-romantic case for the possibility of future violence reduction.’

- See also our ‘One on one’ with Steven Pinker in February 2008

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