A (Scientific) History of Violence

September 30, 2011 by Adam Day

Today, something completely different.

In a frankly amazing article/report, scientist Steven Pinker — perhaps best known for writing about the brain and language — has gone some great distance toward proving something that seems kind of intuitively false: which is that we are all now living in one of the most peaceful periods in human history and that violence itself is trending massively downward.

I know, I know, it seems unlikely. But the man has statistics! Despite all the wars we hear about everyday (and for the past couple thousand days), Pinker’s data seems to indicate that, charted over history’s long course, humans are growing more civilized and more peaceful.

It’s certainly disputable. Frankly, given that something like 200 million people died violently in the 20th century, it would seem to me better to argue that the barbarity has lessened, rather than that peace has arrived.

Anyway, go look at his data. He makes a strong case. (And if anyone wants to debate, do it in the comment section!)

Here is Pinker himself, writing the introduction to his argument:

Believe it or not—and I know most people do not—violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it’s a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

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