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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Steven?

STEVEN PINKER: Oh, hi.

RAZ: Is that Steve Pinker?

PINKER: It is. Hi, Steve Pinker here.

RAZ: How would you define violence?

PINKER: I don't use a particularly exotic definition of violence, just intentional infliction of harm on a sentient creature. Or if you want, rape, homicide, assault, kidnapping, whether by an individual or by an organized group such as a government.

RAZ: Steven Pinker's a psychology professor at Harvard and he's studied violence and how common it is. And here's how he starts his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN PINKER TED TALK)

PINKER: During the 20th century we witnessed the atrocities of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Rwanda, and other genocides.

RAZ: Not to mention this century. Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Good morning. A masked gunman is reported to ...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ... last night, war in Mali. A deadly ...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ... Fighting has broken out once again here in eastern Congo, in the region ...

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN PINKER TED TALK)

PINKER: This has led to a common understanding of our situation, namely that modernity has brought us terrible violence and perhaps that native peoples lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from, to our peril.

RAZ: So with all this in mind, a few years ago Steven Pinker was researching violence, how it seemed to be everywhere, how our world seemed so violent. And he came to a startling conclusion: that it's not true.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN PINKER TED TALK)

PINKER: That in fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are. That violence has been in decline for long stretches of time. And that today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. Now in the decade of Darfur and Iraq, a statement like that might seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene, but I'm going to try to convince you that that is the correct picture.

RAZ: My whole life, and your whole life, and anybody who turns on the History Channel or Discovery Channel in any given weekend will come away saying that the 20th century was the most violent in history, and that's not true.

PINKER: It's not true for two reasons. One of them is that people who make that claim never look at any other century. They just say well, there sure was a lot of violence in the 20th century, which there was.

RAZ: With Stalin and Pol Pot and Hitler.

PINKER: Yes. And, you know, Genghis Khan in the 14th century and the European wars of religion at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th. So it's just an elementary error of logic and arithmetic to say there was lots of violence in the 20th century, therefore it was the most violent century. You've got to look at other centuries. And when you do, and when you scale it against the population of the world in those centuries, it's not at all clear that the 20th was the most violent. And there's a second reason why that claim is misleading, which is that it concentrates really on the first half of the 20th century, ignoring the fact that the second half of the 20th century, though it had some bad wars and atrocities too, also had a historically unprecedented development, which is that great powers and developed states stopped waging war against each other. The second half of the 20th century, these big rich countries thought the better of declaring war on each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN PINKER TED TALK)

PINKER: The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades, and over years. Although there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the 16th century. One sees it all over the world although not homogeneously. It's especially evident in the West, beginning with England and Holland around the time of the Enlightenment. Let me take you on a journey from several powers of 10, from the millennium scale to the year scale, to try to persuade you of this. Until 10,000 years ago all humans lived as hunter-gatherers without permanent settlements or government. And this is the state that's commonly thought to be one of primordial harmony. But the archaeologist, Lawrence Keeley, looking at casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers namely, which is our best source of evidence about this way of life, has shown a rather different conclusion. Here's a graph that he put together showing the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in a number of foraging or hunting and gathering societies. The red bars correspond to the likelihood that a man will die at the hands of another man, as opposed to passing away of natural causes, in a variety of foraging societies in the New Guinea highlands and the Amazon rainforest. And they range from a rate of almost a 60 percent chance that a man will die at the hands of another man to, in the case of the Gebusi, only a 15 percent chance. The tiny, little blue bar in the lower left-hand corner plots the corresponding statistic from the United States and Europe in the 20th century, and it includes all the deaths of both world wars. If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century, there would have been 2 billion deaths rather than 100 million.

RAZ: But the big question is why? I mean, why is there a decline?

PINKER: While we're the same biological species that we were a couple of thousand years ago, we act on our violent impulses less often. One of these historical forces, for example, is good government. A state that has a dispute resolution system will generally have lower rates of violence than if you settle your disputes like the Corleones.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN PINKER TED TALK)

PINKER: We can look at the way of life of early civilizations, such as the ones described in the Bible. And in this supposed source of our moral values, one can read descriptions of what was expected in warfare, such as the following from Numbers 31. "And they warred against the Midianites as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew all the males. And Moses said unto them, have you saved all the women alive? Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him, but all the women children that have not known a man by lying with them keep alive for yourselves."

In other words, kill the men, kill the children. If you see any virgins, then you can keep them alive so that you can rape them. And you can find four or five passages in the Bible of this ilk.

Also in the Bible, one sees that the death penalty was the accepted punishment for crimes such as homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents, and picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

RAZ: Do you think that we've, like as humans, have become more peaceful? Like, are we becoming more peaceful or is it just that we're organized better?

PINKER: I think it's mostly that we're organized better. So it's not impossible that there was literal Darwinian natural selection taking place that weeded out the hotheads and the psychopaths and allowed the more peaceful, cooperative individuals to see the next generation. And so the genes that encourage violence were selected out. I mean, it's mathematically possible. But I doubt that that was a major cause simply because we know that rates of violence can kind of yo-yo up and down on very small time-scales. If you look at something like the halving of the American homicide rate from 1992, or the transformation of Germany from the world's most warlike culture to the world's most pacifistic culture, those events occurred way too rapidly to be attributed to Darwinian natural selection. Since we know that rates of violence can change for reasons other than genetic changes in our species, the simplest, most parsimonious hypothesis is that that was enough to account for all of the changes over history.

RAZ: You have to admit, though, that the Germans are pretty rabid pacifists.

(LAUGHTER)

PINKER: Yes, militant pacifists.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEVEN PINKER TED TALK)

PINKER: Whatever its causes, the decline of violence, I think, has profound implications. It should force us to ask not just why is there war, but also why is there peace? Not just what are we doing wrong? But also, what have we been doing right? Because we have been doing something right, and it sure would be good to find out what it is. Thank you very much.

(APPLAUSE)

PINKER: I think all of us have impulses or inclinations that can erupt in violence, such as revenge, exploitation of other people. So those can certainly fester inside us and lead to violence. And what we have to counteract them are other parts of the brain that implement emotions like sympathy, self-control, reason, and a sense of fairness. I think human life consists of a constant tension inside the skull between those and other components of human nature, and what erupts in actual behavior depends on the outcome of that internal struggle.

RAZ: And so if we're on this trajectory, right, we're heading to a great place. I mean the end of that line is like the Garden of Eden.

PINKER: I doubt it. And I'm not a utopian, although I am something of an optimist. I think it's the kind of thing that you chip away at, bit by bit. I doubt that we'll ever get to a time at which rates of violence will be zero. And just as we chip away at disease and hunger and other nuisances of life, I think our species has set its ingenuity to chipping away at violence. I suspect that the long-term trajectory will continue to improve but erratically and probably not to zero, given that some of these violent impulses are part of human nature.

RAZ: Steven Pinker. He teaches at Harvard. His book on violence is called "The Better Angels of Our Nature." You can see his other TED Talks, including an amazing one on language, at TED.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF "CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: Can't we all just get along? We've all been fighting for too long...

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