Last night, I headed down to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring psychologist Dr Steven Pinker of Harvard University. Dr Pinker's lecture, which covered the subject of his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, concerned the decline in violent behavior throughout human history.
Dr Pinker began his lecture by stating that (contrary to the impression one might get while watching the news) violence is in decline. The decline is not steady, it's not guaranteed, and violence will probably never disappear. This decline is occurring on all levels- from wars and genocides to the treatment of children and animals. Dr Pinker characterizes this decline as happening in a series of "Great Pacifications".
According to Dr Pinker, the first great decline in violence was the pacification processm which occurred with the end of the state of anarchy which characterized most of human existence. He referenced Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan which characterized human lives in the absence of society thusly:
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
The alternative view, promulgated by Rousseau (who never used the term "noble savage"), was that human nature was fundamentally sympathetic to other humans. Both Hobbes' and Rousseau's views were purely speculative.
In order to make a better determination of the nature of violence in prehistoric societies, forensic archaeologists (Dr Pinker likened them to CSI: Paleolithic) began to collect evidence of unhealed wounds in human remains. While estimates vary, Dr Pinker put the figure of death by violence in the "State of Nature" at fifteen percent. The rate today, even given the lethality of modern war and related violence, is three percent.
Ethnographic studies of hunter/gatherer or horticulturist societies suggest that the rate of violent death in these societies is 524 per 100,000 people. In contrast, even given the carnage of two world wars, the rate of death by violence in 20th Century Germany was 144 per 100,000, the rate of violent death in 20th Century Japan was 27 per 100,000 and the rate of violent death in the U.S. was 3.7 per 100,000. While warfare in "primitive" societies tends to be ritualized and less lethal than modern war, raids and ambushes make up a larger percentage of violent acts.
A second "great pacification" was named "The Civilizing Process" by Dr Pinker- involving the rise of states and the resultant "Paxes", with the Pax Romana being the best-known example (as a TV Tropes junkie, I'd refer to it as the "trope namer"). With centralized authority, the incidents of raiding and feuding are reduced- retribution tends to be handled by the state rather than through ongoing private vendettas. Dr Pinker displayed several graphs depicting the downward trend of homicides in Europe from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era (with a slight uptick in the 20th Century, with its war and genocides). Much of the period involved the consolidation of principalities and the resultant rule of law. The growth of trade also had an effect- zero sum plundering gave way to mutually beneficial trade.
The third pacification was the "Humanitarian Revolution", in which punishment by torture, mutilation, and execution began to fall by the wayside. A succinct expression of this humanist revolution is the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
In 18th Century England, there were 222 capital crimes, which dwindled down to four capital crimes by 1861. The vast majority of European countries have abolished the death penalty- Dr Pinker quipped, the Europeans have "lost their taste for death".
The humanitarian revolution also saw the end of witch-hunts, the drastic reduction in religious persecution, and the abolition of slavery and bloodsports. Dr Pinker cited the invention of printing and the subsequent increase in literacy as a major factor in the humanitarian revolution- the explosion of literacy led to the Enlightenment, in which knowledge replaced superstition, undermining the rationale for many violent behaviors. As Voltaire put it, roughly condensed: "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."
Another factor in the humanitarian revolution was cosmopolitanism- with increased contact between societies, an expansion of the "circle of empathy" resulted.
The fourth pacification Dr Pinker termed the "Long Peace", which occurred after the end of World War Two. While the 20th Century is often characterized as being extraordinarily violent, the 19th Century was characterized by destructive wars beginning with the Napoleonic Wars, through the Taiping Rebellion in China, the War of the Triple Alliance in South America, Shaka Zulu's conquest of South Africa, and the American Civil War. Dr Pinker cited "atrocitologist" Matthew White's The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, which posits that World War Two, with all it's carnage, was probably 9th in the ranking of the world's worst wars from 500 BCE to 2000 CE.
The "Long Peace" of the post 1946 era was characterized by no wars between the U.S. and Russia, no use of nukes in war, no "great powers" wars since Korea, and no European wars. Before 1945, there were two new wars in Europe per year. Between 1946 and 2008, battle deaths declined as well. Dr Pinker cited Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch as an inspiration of the Long Peace- the spread of democratic governance and international community should lead to peace.
The fifth pacification Dr Pinker termed the "Rights Revolutions"- the civil rights, women's rights, children's rights, gay rights, and animal rights movements led to a decrease in violence. Lynchings are down dramatically, and hate crimes legislation is working to reduce violence even further.
Dr Pinker then discussed reasons for the decline in violence. He asserted that the decline has happened to rapidly to be evolutionary. The decline in violence is due to social/institutional changes. Dr Pinker then enumerated different categories of violence and discussed the neural pathways involved in such behaviors.
His first reason for violence was rage, which is generally thought to involve the amygdala. Dominance is another reason for violence, which is thought to involve the amygdala and the insula. The rage and dominance "circuits" are distinct but similar. Revenge is believed to involve a two-step process- the first involving the amygdala, insula, and the second stage involving the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex- it's similar to the striving/seeking "circuit" and dopamine is involved, meaning that revenge is, indeed, sweet. Instrumental violence is violence as a means to an end- predation, plunder, conquest, the elimination of rivals- it involves higher cognitive functions- reasoning. Utopian ideologies, the belief that violence can lead to a greater, even unlimited, good, also involves higher cognitive functions, such as cost/benefit analysis. To use a crude proverb, one cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
Dr Pinker then described the neurology of our "better angels". Empathy involves the insula and the orbitofrontal cortex. Moral sense involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the temporoparietal junction. Reason primarily involves the frontal lobe.
Regarding social reasons for the decline of violence, Pinker cited several. Gentle commerce is one- plunder is a zero sum game while trade is a positive sum game- both parties benefit from fair trade. An expanding circle of sympathy- an "elastic" empathy that allows us to think well of the "other" makes us less likely to engage in violence with said "others". An "escalator of reason" allows people to rise above cruelty- violence is seen as a problem to be solved, not a contest to be won.
Dr Pinker then asked why so many forces push us in the same direction, and answered that violence is a dilemma- it is less of a benefit to the victor than a loss to the victim. All of the forces reducing violence improve outcomes for a vast majority of people. Dr Pinker concluded by exhorting us to examine what we are doing right, and to reassess modernity- modernity is better than nostalgia.
In the follow-up Q&A session, the Bastard was not able to get a question in edgewise in the packed house (the line for the lecture went down the block). Here's a short video of Dr Pinker being interviewed about the subject of his talk. Crack a beer or two (or six) and bask in the boozy, brainy Secret Science glow:
As an aside, back in 2009, when the lecture was still taking place at the lovely Union Hall, I joked to a reporter from NPR that the SSC would eventually have to move to Yankee Stadium. The last couple of SRO lectures convince me that our wonderful hosts, Andy and Jim (and their great, great staff) are going to have to open up a bigger venue. Once again, I can't say enough about what my great and good friends Margaret and Dorian are accomplishing.