March 10th, 2007
Psychologist Steven Pinker claims that we are living in the least violent of all times. I don’t know if he is correct, but it worth pondering, as we contemplate Iraq, Darfur, Haiti, afghanistan, and the many other vicious battles going on, that perhaps there is some progress after all.
The decline of violence, he tells us, is a fractal phenomenon – we see it over the centuries, the decades and the years. That said, we see a tipping point in the 16th century – the age of reason – particularly in England and Holland.
Until 10,000 years ago, all humans were hunter gatherers. This is the group that some believe lived in primordial harmony – there’s no evidence of this. Studying current hunter-gatherer tribes, the percent of male adults who die in violence is extraordinary – from 20 to 60% of all males. Even during the violent 20th century, with two world wars, less than 2% of males worldwide died in warfare.
Moving slightly further forward, we can see that violent punishment was common in the Bible – Moses tells his followers to kill all the men and married women of a village and rape the virgins. The death penalty was used for murder, idolatry, disrespecting your parents and “collecting sticks on the sabbath”.
The Middle Ages were filled with mutilation and torture as routine punishments for trangressions we’d punish with fines today. This was merely another charming feature of a time that featured pastimes like “cat burning”, dropping cats into a fire for entertainment purposes… Some of the most creative inventions of the Middle Ages were fantastically cruel forms of corporal punishment.
What explanations does Pinker give for this decline?
So why is violence becoming less common? He offers four explanations:
1) Hobbes got it right. “Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In anarchy, there’s a temptation towards preemptive violence, hurting the other guy before he hurts you. But with the rise of the Leviathan – the State – there’s a monopoly on violence. This helps explain why we still see violence in the absence of the state – zones of anarchy, failed states, street gangs.
2) In the past, we had a widespread sentiment that life was cheap. As we’ve gotten better at prolonging life, we take life more seriously and are more reluctant to take life.
3) We’re seeing more non-zero sum games, as people discover forms of cooperation that can benefit both parties, like trade and shared peace dividends. These zero-sum games come with technology, because it allows us to trade with more people. People become more valuable live than dead – “We shouldn’t bomb the japanese because they built my minivan.”
4) Finally, Pinker leans on Peter Singer to speculate about “the expanding circle”. By default, we empathize with a small group of people, our friends and family. Everyone else is subhuman. But over time, we’ve seen this circle expand, from village to clan to tribe to nation to other races, both sexes and eventually other species. As we learn to expand our circles wider and wider, perhaps violence becomes increasingly unacceptable.