Is Human Violence On The Wane?

Considering the Norway shootings, drug wars in Mexico and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, this era may seem as violent as any. But as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, this may actually be the most peaceable period in human history.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Look at the news on any given day, and you're bound to see one violent story after another; either beheading by drug traffickers in Mexico; suicide bombings in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq; two shooting sprees in California this week, alone - the obvious conclusion being of course that we're living in a more and more violent world.

Well, according to my next guest, that obvious conclusion is flat-out wrong. His latest book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," makes the argument that we are, in fact, living in one of the most peaceable eras ever, that our chances of a violent death at the hands of a fellow human are slimmer than ever.

But how can that be following a century with the deadliest war in human history, World War II? We've had mass slaughters by dictators like Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot, and could this just be a temporary lull in the violence? Will climate change - a hotter, drier world - spur more wars over resources like water and food?

Steven Pinker is here to explain his thesis and his new book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." He's also the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard in Cambridge. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Steve.

STEVEN PINKER: Thank you.

FLATOW: So you say violence is declining. You know, it sure seems the other way for a lot of people. I'm sure you've heard this a million times by now.

PINKER: Yes, but one data point is not the same as a trend. So if you look at the papers, and you see all the violent events - which is exactly what the papers gather up and report - you can get a misleading impression if you don't think back to how violent things were in the past, and you don't calibrate the violence that does occur against all of the violence that doesn't occur but could occur, given the size of the Earth's population.

We do have six billion people, and if someone dies peacefully in their sleep in Bolivia or Lithuania or Tanzania, there isn't a camera crew out there to film it. And so, just thinking, wracking your brain, well, how many violent events can I think of, well, sure, every single one of them the news is going to cover.

FLATOW: And so, how do you actually measure? How can you make it an objective measurement over the eons, of how violent?

PINKER: Well, it depends on the kind of violence, but for homicide, for example, the FBI does a pretty good job of tracking that over the decades. And before that, there were a lot of European towns and cities that have homicide statistics going back to the Middle Ages.

And they find that the rate of homicide has fallen, wherever it's been measured in Europe, by about a factor of 35. So that an Englishman today, for example, is 35 times less likely to get killed than his ancestors during the Middle Ages.

And in the United States, as well, there are records - more scattered - but whenever they are unearthed, such as by Randy Roth, an American historian of crime, you find that the earliest periods in American history, where the Northeast was first settled, California was first settled, the South, the West, the rates were about - at least 10 times higher than they are today.

FLATOW: No kidding. How do we know how many people were killed in battles that happened thousands and thousands of years ago? How can we compare those to what we have today?

PINKER: Well, thousands and thousands probably not, although there are ways that atrocitologists - as they sometimes call themselves, such as Matthew White - can try to come within an order of magnitude. One of them is governments in all periods in history are very, very interested in the tax rolls, and they often keep censuses to make sure that they are collecting all the taxes that they can.

And when the census records a population decline after a war, that's one sign that there were large numbers of people who were killed.

FLATOW: The 20th century was one of the bloodiest we know of, with World War II having the highest casualty count ever. How does that stack up with, you know, with violent deaths in other eras?

PINKER: There were plenty of bloodbaths in prior centuries, and the commonly repeated factoid that the 20th century was the most violent in history is misleading in two ways. One of them is that no one ever backs up that claim by talking about any preceding centuries. And in fact, if you try to estimate, let's say, the Mongol invasions or the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in terms of the number of deaths and scale it by the size of the world's population at the time, then World War II probably comes in around ninth place, and World War I doesn't even make the top 10.

So previous centuries had their own carnage and genocides and bloodbaths, and also a century is 100 years, not just 50, and the - World War II was over in 1945, and the second half of the 20th century was a period that has astonished historians by the absence of wars between great powers.

It used to be that the biggest countries of the day were pretty much always at each other's throats. Starting in 1953 with the end of the Korean War, the great powers have not fought any wars with each other, and that's historically unusual.

If you go, then, to the 21st century, the last 10 years or so have had figures that have pretty much hugged the ground. They're the lowest rates of death in war since statistics were systematically kept.

FLATOW: And what do you attribute that to?

PINKER: Part of it is the rise of democracy, because democracies statistically are less likely to get into wars, at least with each other. Some of it is the growth of trade in a world economy. It makes it cheaper to buy stuff from your neighbor than to conquer them and plunder it. Some of it has to do with the rise of literacy and education, which allows people to see the futility of war and cycles of violence, and try to figure out ways of getting out of it instead of just winning them.

And part of it I think comes from an expansion in human experience, through journalism, history, memoir, fiction, ways in which we take the vantage points of other people and are less likely to dehumanize them or to demonize them than our ancestors might have.

FLATOW: Does the development of nuclear weapons have anything to do with this relatively peaceful period we've had?

PINKER: Probably not. It is a popular hypothesis. One scholar proposed that the nuclear bomb be given the Nobel Peace Prize for scaring the world straight.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PINKER: But for a couple of reasons, I agree with an argument by John Mueller that the post-war period would have unfolded identically even if nuclear weapons had not been invented.

One of them is that World War II proved that conventional war was plenty dangerous, that good old-fashioned tanks and bombers and artillery could pulverize cities; that sieges could cause mass starvation. And they were deterred enough by the prospect of conventional war that they weren't going to get into another one anytime soon.

But also, that nuclear weapons are so disproportionately destructive compared to any war aim other than deterring mutual annihilation, that they ended up being a non-factor in war and with the result that many non-nuclear states challenged nuclear states, knowing that the nuclear capability was a bluff.

So when the Argentinean junta took over the Falkland Islands, they knew that Britain was not going to leave Buenos Aires a radioactive crater. Likewise, when Sadat took over the - tried to invade the Sinai, occupied at the time by Israel, he did so knowing that Israel had the capacity to respond with a nuclear strike, but that they wouldn't.

And the result is that nuclear weapons haven't really altered the course of war much, if at all, over the last 60 years.

FLATOW: The atheist pundits, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, just to name a couple, like to point to religion as a force for violence. Is there a strong connection there, with the Crusades and all kinds of religious warfare?

PINKER: There is a connection. I would say that there's - that any kind of ideology that is demonizing, that is, holds out some group of people as an obstacle to a better world and that posits a utopia, are extremely dangerous. And so I would lump militant religions in with ideologies like communism and Nazism in that regard. The problem being, that if you imagine a utopia, then - which is infinitely good forever - then no matter how violent the means of getting there, you're still ahead of the game. You've still done more good than harm.

Also anyone who opposes your utopia is infinitely evil, and you're justified in wiping them out. The result is that not so much recently but in past centuries, Christianity was indeed a very dangerous force. The Crusades killed perhaps a million people, which proportionally was about the same as the Nazi Holocaust.

The European wars of religion were more deadly than the First World War, proportionally speaking, and in the range of the Second World War in Europe. The Inquisition, the persecution of heretics and infidels and witches, they racked up pretty high death tolls.

So I think Hitchens may have overstated the case when he subtitled his book "How Religion Poisons Everything," because religions change with the times, too. And thanks to the humanitarian currents that I talk about in the book, religions have changed in response. They're not as militant as they used to be. They've become more humanistic with everyone else. And so there have been times when religions have been forces for peace, as well, under this influence.

FLATOW: You describe in your book a startling array of torture devices used in Europe. Any ideas why they were so hung up on torturing their fellow humans in excruciating ways like that? What was there to be learned?

PINKER: Well, all of the early states used torture and execution for victimless crimes, to terrorize their populations - basically to keep them under the thumb of the rulers. But also, torture was witnessed often enough that people developed a taste for it, and they positively craved it.

And people would bring out the whole family to watch a prisoner struggle and scream as his intestines were wound around a spool, or as his limbs were shattered with a sledgehammer while he was still alive. And we have reason to think from studies of the psychology of sadism that even though we're born with an aversion to causing direct physical harm to someone with our bare hands, it's kind of like the aversion to eating strong, spicy food or fear of heights.

You start out with that fear, but once you master it, it can become a source of sophisticated pleasure. And there's reason to believe that crowds in the Middle Ages and ancient kingdoms actually took great delight in the suffering of others.

FLATOW: Talking with Steven Pinker, author of a terrific book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us, @scifri. I would like to hear from you. We'll get back and talk more with Steven after this break, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us.

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FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Steven Pinker, author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Before we get our first phone call in, I want to ask you about something you point out in your book, about homicide rates in America still being several times what they are in Europe.

PINKER: Yes.

FLATOW: I would say first it's the guns, you know, but you say it's not.

PINKER: Not directly. If you subtract out all the homicides committed with firearms, and you just leave the ones committed with ropes and candlesticks and knives and so on, we still kill more people proportionally than Europeans do. So it's not just the guns and the guns might be as much of a symptom as a cause.

America had, for one thing, lived in anarchy for - until much more recently than Europe. We had the Wild West, where the cliche of the cowboy movies was the nearest sheriff is 90 miles away, and so you had to pack a gun and defend yourself.

There was the mountainous South, with the Hatfields and McCoys and Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett, also beyond the reach of the law. And so not only did people have to cultivate a willingness to defend themselves with violence and to defend their reputation with violence, which meant they had to respond to insults to show that they weren't wimps, that became embedded in the culture.

And even when government exerted its control, because America was a democracy, the people decided to keep violence as a prerogative to themselves instead of handing it over to the police force. As one European historian put it: Democracy came too early to America. In Europe, first the government disarmed the population. Then the people took over the government in democracy.

Here, people took over the government before the government had disarmed them, at least in parts of the country like the South and the West that were violent then and continue to be the most violent parts of the country today.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Caleb in White Water, Wisconsin. Hi, Caleb.

CALEB: Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

CALEB: I was wondering if you have anything to say about the rise of social networking and communication on a broad scale through the Internet and how it really appears to be shifting us into a new - what I like to refer to as a civilization of social networking, bringing about a possible world peace in the future. And also how all these networks seem to bring about more peaceful protests, not only locally in the U.S. but on a global scale, also.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for that call.

PINKER: It's a terrific question, and I think it's too soon to know the answer. But I wouldn't be surprised if it indeed had that effect, that often you get toxic ideologies that take over a population through fear and through enforcement.

If you've got a gang of toughs, especially supported by the government or some violent faction, they can intimidate everyone into silence, and it's indeed possible that if you have various kinds of peer-to-peer networking channels that it's less likely that people will assent to some ideology that does no one any good because they are too intimidated to speak out about it.

And also as you note, one of the impediments to peaceful protest is simple coordination: No one wants to be the only guy to stand up and then get instantly picked off by the government goons. But if you have everyone standing up at the same time, then the - at least it's possible for the population to overwhelm the much smaller number of government forces.

And so at least in principle, social networking could be a progressive force - as well as just enabling more and more of the world to know what more and more of the rest of the world is thinking, which also makes it harder to think of other groups of people as subhuman animals, a syndrome that's been all too common in the past and often a prelude to pogroms and genocides.

FLATOW: Do you think the economic downturn we're in right now will result in more rioting, more violence in the West, economic problems leading to violence?

PINKER: It's hard to tell. Ironically, the economic downturn in the United States has been accompanied by a decrease in violent crime. It's gone down three years in a row, defying all expert predictions, except for those experts who realize that there's only a very loose connection between the economy and violent crime.

Even a lot of the protests and riots have been far less deadly than the bread riots of decades and centuries past, when the price of bread would go up, you'd go out and kill some Jews or some rich peasants or some bakers. Now even though the protests are - can be destructive of property at times, they are less destructive of people than they have been in history.

FLATOW: Let's go to Brian in Columbus, Ohio. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hi there. Hey, Ira, we love you in Columbus.

FLATOW: Thank you.

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BRIAN: Truly one of the highlights of my week.

FLATOW: Thank you.

BRIAN: Steven, I wonder if you could touch on violence as covered by the news media, news coverage in your book. I've gotten to the point where I won't watch the first six to eight minutes of local news because it seems the if-it-bleeds-it-leads thing is happening.

PINKER: You're absolutely right, and I think that the reason that people are so misinformed about the rate of violence in the world is that they just get the goriest examples served up to them. And there are always enough of them to fill the evening news.

What the news media don't cover are stories such as some country in Africa that we dimly remember was at war a few years ago, and the war fizzled out, and that doesn't make the news. Or the international disputes that everyone says is going to lead - are going to lead to a war any day now, and then they back off grumbling, and everyone forgets about it, and that isn't covered by the news.

So there is, I think, a bias for things that go bang. There's a bias against both statistical studies of how many countries really are at war or how often - how many people are killed in a terrorist attack as opposed to other causes, how many wars break out as opposed to how many broke out in the past. And you could be misled by just the explosions and shootings and gunfights.

FLATOW: Thanks, Brian.

BRIAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Talking with Steven Pinker, author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined." An interesting tweet coming in from Manford(ph). She says: What about the recent upswing of torture flicks? Doesn't that have the same effect as public viewing of torture in the Middle Ages?

PINKER: Well, it's interesting that the - you can go to the cineplex and see the most gory, gruesome, blood-spattered movie, and then as the trailer rolls out at the end - the rolling credits, I mean - it says no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PINKER: People, I think, are reasonably good at distinguishing between simulated violence and the real thing, and the taste for consuming simulated violence in sports and entertainment, I don't think that's gone down. It's not clear that it's gone up. If you look at the history of violent entertainment, and Harold Schechter has a wonderful book called "Violent Pastimes."

Back in Shakespearian times, they had dummies with pig bladders filled with blood that would spatter when they were stabbed during a fight scene, the penny dreadfuls of the 19th century, the Grand Guignol, the pulp fiction all had women in danger of violent sexual torture. This was all underground but immensely popular, and it's really not clear that we have that much more of it now than people did underground in the past.

FLATOW: Sean(ph) in Bedminster, New Jersey, hi, welcome.

SEAN: Yes, hello.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

SEAN: Have you considered factoring in longevity or life expectancy into your calculations?

FLATOW: Yeah, would that affect how long you live, how you're going to die violently, in the old days? Yeah.

PINKER: Yes, you mean whether violence shortened people's lives in the past more than it does now, or whether living longer...

SEAN: Or that people live longer now so that by shortening their lives, you're shortening more life overall?

PINKER: Yes, well, it's possible that as people live longer and are less likely to be felled by other causes, like disease or accidents, they put a greater value on their own lives and perhaps by extension on the lives of others.

If getting into a stupid fight means that you're gambling away 15 years of your life, or signing up for a war, as opposed to gambling away 55 years of your life, it's possible that you value your life more under those circumstances. On the other hand - so that makes sense as a plausible conjecture.

On the other hand, the big increases in longevity really started to take off in the second half of the 19th century with the public health revolution, and a number of these declines are much earlier than that. The humanitarian reforms of the Enlightenment, for example, were concentrated in the 18th century, before affluence or longevity had significantly increased.

Homicide rates began their decline really in the late Middle Ages. So I suspect that there is a connection but that it can't be the only explanation.

FLATOW: Because I was wondering something along those lines, about if people were dying - if life expectancy - and people were dying of diseases, plagues, whatever, they didn't have a chance to die from a violent act. They would die from something else. So maybe statistics are buried there someplace.

PINKER: Yes, although that would suggest that you'd expect the rates of violent deaths to be lower rather than higher, which is what they were in the past.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah, because I was wondering if that - I'm sure that's all factored into what you're saying here. One of the other things that you point out in the book - and those of us who lived through the '60s and '70s, 1960s and '70s, remember what a violent time that was, you know. Yet, is that an anomaly? Was that an anomaly in reversal of the trend, or does that still hold true?

PINKER: That was an anomaly. None of the experts predicted it. It's true that there was a youth bulge in the '60s, the baby boom, as it was called. And it's true that younger people commit more violence than older people. But the size of the increase was much bigger than what you'd expect based on the number of 15- to 30-year-olds alone. The American homicide rate increased by a factor of about two and a half, whereas the young population increased by only about 15 percent. So demographics, by themselves, can't explain it.

And it is true that through the '60s, '70s and '80s, rates of homicide were higher than they were in the '50s, though they're still much lower than they were in the Middle Ages or during the early colonial periods or the periods of Western expansion. So it wasn't a reversal all the way back to the bad old days. But it did - it was a local reversal. Then in the '90s, for reasons that no one completely understands, the rate came down again. It didn't quite make it all the way back to its low point of the 1950s, but it's almost there. So the lowest American homicide rate was in the late '50s of about four per 100,000 per year. The year 2010, we're at 4.8, almost as low as in the good old days of the '50s.

FLATOW: Yeah. And, once again, you would say that that's different for American than - versus Europeans...

PINKER: Yes, a lot of European countries are in the range of one to two, not bouncing between four and 10, as the United States has been. So yes, we are a much more homicidal country. We're also a more execution-happy country. Every other Western democracy has abolished capital punishment, as have 30 - 15 of the 50 states. But 35 of them still have it, which is going against the tide. On the other hand, even - for all its notoriety, American capital punishment is a shadow of its former self, and we execute far, far, far fewer people than we did in the early days of the republic.

FLATOW: What have we been doing right, then, as a society, to curb violence? What works? What doesn't - perhaps from a government point of view?

PINKER: Yeah. I think good government is important. But - that is halfway decent, not too corrupt a judicial system and police force that not only deter people from preying on their neighbors, but gives them the confidence that their neighbors are being deterred so that they don't have to be macho and tough and respond to any insult to prove that they're not punching bags. Aside from government, enough economic opportunities for trade and exchange, that it's cheaper to buy things than to steal them.

I think education helps, not only having skills that you can parlay into productive lines of work, but also knowing some history, you're less likely to think that your side is always right and that the other side is always evil. You realize that everyone always thinks that, and they can't all be right. You kind of realize that violence can be a self-defeating strategy, because it just gives the other guy an incentive to attack you back in revenge. And if you could figure out a way in which both sides can stop attacking, each might be better off. So I think there's a diffuse effect of education and intelligence and reason, but one that I think you can detect.

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. My guest is Steven Pinker, author of "Better Angels of Our Nature." He's also a Harvard College professor of psychology at Harvard. We'll see if we can get a call or two in before the break. Let's go to California. Hi, there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Harvey, go ahead.

HARVEY: Yes. Hello.

FLATOW: Yes.

HARVEY: Yeah, this is Harvey from Oakland. Yeah, I want to mention, you know, as to how violent the Middle Ages were, if anyone remembers the Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," if you'll remember that the pilgrims were all traveling in a convoy because the countryside was so dangerous.

PINKER: Yes, indeed. That's a terrific example. And, in fact, when - people are shocked when I say that the - that earlier periods were more violent. I just remind them of all of the violence in the great works of literature, and Chaucer's a great example. I didn't mention that in the book. I should have. I wish I had, now that you remind me.

But if you look at the Homeric epics, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," where they were massacring each other with swords and kidnapping and abducting women. You look at the Old Testament, where God commands the Israelites to commit one genocide after another. You look at the medieval knightly tales like Lancelot, where knights were chopping off each other's body parts. You look at Shakespeare, with the mutilations and tortures and killings, and indeed the "Canterbury Tales" - it gives you the impression that violence was a part of everyday life, and the statistics bear that out. It really was a part of everyday life.

FLATOW: Was there anything, in all this research, in this tremendous amount of research you did on this book, that surprised you?

PINKER: No matter how inured you get to atrocities, you're still always stunned and shocked by how cruel and wasteful Homo sapiens can be. Just when you think you could not possibly be shocked, you read about another massacre, another atrocity, another orgy of sadism and torture. Our species is endlessly inventive and seems to waste no opportunity to massacre each other in gruesome ways. But on the other hand, I was also surprised - especially for more recent periods - at seeing how many different kinds of violence have gone down.

When I began the book, I knew that hunter-gatherer societies have higher rates of death than modern ones, and I knew that homicide had come down since the Middle Ages. But I didn't realize, for example, that rape has declined by 80 percent since the early '70s when the statistics were first gathered, or that spanking is down and child abuse and criminalization of homosexuality and killing of wives and husbands. Category after category, the curves come down, and that was also surprising.

FLATOW: Steven Pinker, we've run out of time, but I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

PINKER: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Author of a terrific book. It's a great read. It's - you'll enjoy all the statistics in there, "The Better Angels of Our Nature." And he - "Violence Has Declined - Why Violence Has Declined." And I think - I advise you to pick it up. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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