(Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

We are probably living in the most peaceful era in the history of our species, author Steven Pinker says. That may be hard to believe for regular viewers of the evening news. But the Harvard psychologist’s research finds that when it comes to war, genocide, capital punishment, rape, hate crimes and slavery, things are definitely looking up. Pinker joins us to discuss his latest book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Do you think global violence is on the decline?

Guests:
Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist and professor at Harvard University, and author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    OhMyGosh I follow Steven Pinker on Twitter and he posts the best links!!

    Have often thought with the birth of the Internet that such fast sharing of violence in a given area of the world, gets passed along in email, and now FB, Twitter so quickly that it alters the minds perception to the point of thinking there is more violence occurring rather than limited violence in a given area.

    Show an ad for a product enough time and even if not many people are buying said product people are led to believe everyone is.

  • Fred

    Pinker was on NPR yesterday making this claim. I suppose he’s on the interview circuit to sell his book. The first mistake he and his partner made on NPR was failing to include 500,000 dead Iraqis in the discussion. He cited 50,000 dead Americans as “proof” that the Iraq war was relatively non-lethal compared to other wars. Somehow dead Iraqis don’t matter to him.
    The second mistake was that he made no mention of the violence that Israel has done to the Palestinians, many of whom are closer genetically to the original Jews of Palestine than are most Eastern European Jews. Yet he had the gall to refer to what’s happened to Native Americans, even while Native Palestinians don’t figure in his calculations.
    Third, he discounted the War on Drugs, which has ruined or ended countless lives, as have the drugs themselves. History has shown that drugs are the currency used by the CIA to run their dirty wars. These drugs often shipped into the USA by the CIA (google Mena Arkansas) and even distributed into ghettos (and Wall St).
    What goal Pinker has in making his claim is hard to imagine. The military industrial complex is enormously expensive and should be downsized dramatically, but I doubt that is his aim.

    • Alex

      The prison-industrial complex is also enormously expensive. The violence that occurs in prison by guards and by prisoners constitute a war against the poor by society’s thugs.
      The recent revelation that rap music was pushed by the music industry just after that the music industry’s leaders invested heavily in the private prison corporations raises the question of whether the USA is not indeed run by violent thugs.

    • greg

      Gee Fred, maybe you should take Steven’s position as Chair of the Harvard psych dept. Maybe you should be listed as one of the top 100 intellectuals in the world. Do you really think your off-the-cuff scribbles here are a challenge to the culmination of years of research by Pinker? Please keep your opinions confined to the informed group at the community college.

    • SlySy

      Again you are completely missing the point. Nowhere does Pinker deny violence exists. What he is saying is that, no matter how much violence there is nowadays, it is less than there used to be.

  • Guest

    The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,018 active hate groups in the United States in 2011. Only organizations and their chapters known to be active during 2011 are included.

    All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

    The SPLC list is compiled using hate group publications and websites, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports.

    Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing. Websites appearing to be merely the work of a single individual, rather than the publication of a group, are not included in this list. Listing here does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity.

  • Guest

    The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,018 active hate groups in the United States in 2011. Only organizations and their chapters known to be active during 2011 are included.

    All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

    This list was compiled using hate group publications and websites, citizen and law enforcement reports, field sources and news reports.

    Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing. Websites appearing to be merely the work of a single individual, rather than the publication of a group, are not included in this list. Listing here does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity.

    • Alex

      The SPLC refuses to count the physical attacks on Occupy by police like the NYPD’s white-shirts as anything akin to hate crimes. The SPLC is an implicitly authoritarian organization, it’s just authoritarian on behalf of USA’s 1%.

      • Guest

        I’m confident the SPLC does not prosecute many (if any) cases on behalf of the wealthiest Americans. The SPLC is interested in promoting tolerance, not economic activism.

  • Guest

    Sorry for the double post — not my fault, Disqus was out of synch I guess.

  • chrisco

    Thanks for your work. I am extreme left-wing too, but I do understand math and would not have the criticisms that you are an apologist for US imperialism.

  • Vinton

    I agree that overall humanity has decreased in violent acts but I am curious if there have been changes in structural violence and if war has changed its face into concepts like interventions or operations. Very few conflicts now need a declaration of war. Turkey and Syria are fighting but they are not at war.

  • George

    This seems like good news to hear. I appreciate the consideration that it is simply our perception that violence and war is more widespread then it actually has ever been. I am wondering, what were the first motivations for this study and work? Mr. Pinker is brave to come out with this unique vision of the world and our media culture.

  • Sam

    It seems that the only way to fairly make the thesis that violence is on the way down is to take a very particular, limited definition of violence which ignores systemic economic and social violence. States do not fight wars as often as they used to, but there remains a significant amount of internal violence towards various groups within states despite the improvements of living standards. Examples include the brutal assault on peasants in Colombia who live in Coca farming territory, coups , the fact that America’s prison population has skyrocketed while prison conditions remain terrible, and support for violent dictatorships in the Arab world, Africa and Latin America. Global warming is its own form of extreme violence against the people of the global south, who are unable to respond to the changes in their environment, to say nothing of the lingering effects of 500 years of Imperialism. This kind of worldwide political and economic violence has only increased since the age of sail. Extreme forms like slavery may be gone, but generally speaking social and economic violence remains a big problem and has not been “trending down” since the 70s. Also, many estimates are much higher on the number of Iraqi war dead, up to 500,000.

    • Sam

      on global warming – pinker might say that such violence is “unintentional”, however the reality is that the people who don’t do anything about it only don’t do so because it is in their material interests to continue polluting.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Earlier, Steven mentioned the media promoting the perception of ever-increasing violence. I am reminded of Michael Moore’s film, Bowling for Columbine, where he he gives examples to support his argument that America has a “fear culture”. Comments? Is there less violence, but more fear-based messages? Fay

  • Conrad

    What do you think about violent video games?

    They are certainly becoming more common, but mostly because they are increasingly technically possible, thus available. Is there any activity in the past (before video games) that can modern video games can be compared to, in order to see a trend?

    Do you see video games as being cathartic and decreasing violent tendencies, or the opposite?

    thanks,

    Conrad
    San Luis Obispo

  • James Ivey

    I’m amazed at how peaceful we’ve become in just a few generations.

    A few generations ago, we carpet-bombed entire cities, trying to kill _all_ civilians living there. We even obliterated 2 cities with nuclear weapons. And we call that generation “the greatest generation.”

    Now, a handful of civilian deaths from drones brings huge outcries.

    A generation or 2 ago and during my lifetime, lynching people because of the color of their skin or whom they love was relatively common-place. People would take pictures with their children at lynchings.

    Now, lynching is so rare that we know all the victims of the last few decades by name.

    Clearly, we are not yet violence-free. But comparison of today with just a few generations ago is staggering.

  • Hank

    Steven Pinker: the Norman Angell of the 21st century.

  • Conrad

    Here is a recent article (blog post?) from CNN:
    http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/08/u-s-sports-going-the-way-of-the-gladiators/comment-page-5/

    U.S. sports going the way of the gladiators?Are American sports fans turning into the citizens of ancient Rome, turning up to sports events to see mayhem akin to gladiators fighting for their very lives?Stars in two of the country’s most prominent sports were asking those kinds of questions Sunday.Dale Earnhardt Jr., arguably the sport’s most popular personality in NASCAR racing, said he wonders if fans are “bloodthirsty.”…..

  • chrisco

    He is really almost caricaturing the hard left here on more than one occasion. Most on the left realize that power centers around the world are problematic and it is not only the US or that the US has some unique lock on imperialism etc. We are just leading that movement.

    P.S. Lennon was an Enlightenment philosopher and hard left, too (I know you meant another guy).

    • Guest

      John Lennon was not an Enlightenment philosopher. Reason was not his primary concern.

      • chrisco

        “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us. Above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us. And the world will be one.”

        That’s some Enlightenment philosophy to me.

  • Sam

    Not to make excuses for the actions in the Russian Revolution, it is strange to call Lenin one of history’s “mass murderers” while minimizing America’s violence, when many more civilians were killed in Vietnam and the violence of the Russian Revolution was a response to the extreme socio-economic violence of Tsarist Imperialism.

    • Sam

      Also, Ronald Reagan’s puppet government in Guatemala killed 200,000 innocent people, which is around as many killed by the Cheka in the Russian Revolution. So by his standard, there are two equivalent conflicts, where a smaller country produced much more violence per capita with the support of the world’s biggest empire of the time. Of course, I’m sure Pinker would dismiss this as “far left” ideology.

      As for the badness of anarchy and the goodness of law and order, why are “Autonomous zones” run by
      local indigenous communes some of the least violent places in Mexico?
      Imposing “good government” was America’s response to social problems, while imposing a sort of ordered anarchy was the response of others, and their response seems to have worked much better.

  • chrisco

    It is really hard to talk statistics with people. It is like talking to the wall. Anecdotes rule. The caller, for instance, is saying billions of animals are abused, there is sexual slavery etc. YES BUT IT USED TO BE WAY WORSE. The idea of animal abuse used to not even be a CONCEPT for humanity. There was no such thing, it would have been like an oxymoron.

    • jcb

      I am surprised by the number of people here (this isn’t some Fox News site after all) who fail to realize this. Thanks, Chrisco. Poor Pinker must get very weary of having people (who haven’t bothered to distinguish between “better” and “perfectly fine!”) point out to him that there is still much terrible violence in the world.

    • Guest

      I agree with the spirit of your comment, but I thought that caller had a very valid point about the animal abuse in the food industry. The methods and quantities we use today in industrialized food production result in a far higher number of, and in my opinion more brutal, animal deaths. We have never been as “efficient” or “productive” in slaughtering as we are today. This is why I have been a pescatarian for years. For me, this point brings Pinky’s argument down. (Narf!) If he were not to include animals in his claims, I would have few qualms with his work here.

      • chrisco

        Thanks. It is true that there is now mass, industrialized animal abuse. It is quite horrible what happens. But hundreds or thousands of years ago, there were not BILLIONS of people to feed. (I am a vegetarian by the way because I object to factory farming of animals.) Animals were not industrialized centuries ago so in that respect it was better, if only because there were billions of less animals under human control. But animal torture etc. was routine. Individual animals were subject to routine barbaric cruelty and it was the absolute norm. Sadly, it still is in some parts of the world. Beasts of burden indeed.

        The concept that animals be treated humanely was extremely marginal whereas now it is mainstream. In that respect, it is much better today. If we were living by 15th century moral standards towards animals today, I think the animals would be incredibly worse off.

        • Guest

          Again, we agree in spirit. But if you’re defending Pinker, then I must point out you can’t have it both ways. If this is a purely mathematical thesis, which he insists it is, and we are now required to feed BILLIONS of people with corresponding numbers of animals, then we must count those animals in his trend and I remain confident that this undermines his conclusion.

  • Douglas

    It is my understanding that ancient, primitive cultures had very high rates of violence. Is that true worldwide? Were there any isolated societies that were more peaceful? What about primitive societies today?

    • Vivek

      Doug, there were societies much more peaceful in the past than we are led to believe. Indian (as in the country India) history of peace goes back thousands of years. It is evidenced by the fact that science, arts, music, health care, spirituality were all so developed — things that require peace in the society as a prerequisite. And these were not “primitive” societies. Of course, you will never find only peace — peace and violence are complementary opposite values that coexist in life at all times.

  • Will in Berkeley

    Steven Pinker is exactly what public policy discussions need. Fact based analysis. Any serious examination of history will support his argument that violence is declining. Examine the punishments of cutting off noses and ears (and other parts), once widely applied in Europe and elsewhere. Slavery is no longer accepted in most of the world, Countries are not invading their neighbors for the purpose of enslavement, as was policy for empires from the Romans to the Mongols. Things are definitely getting better.

  • Carolyn

    Regarding the violence gender divide – Do women advocate for war at a greater rate when responsibility to protect R2P is the primary reason for intervention? I’m thinking of Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton on Libya.

  • TfromSF

    What about the transfers and different forms of violence now that were
    not possible in the past? Yes we are not raiding, raping, and butchering
    each other as much anymore. But what about the “economic violence”
    effects of financial crises, climate change, hidden health effects of
    stress/pollutants, and globalization? Of course average human wealth,
    quality of life, and life expectancy have risen since WWII, but could
    suffering be taking different, more subtle forms now?

  • Paul

    I’m simply not convinced that violence rates can be quantitatively measured by the number of deaths. For example, it makes sense that the number of people dying in wars is decreasing, but this is not necessarily, as Pinker implies, a representation of moral progress. It is more likely economical (soldiers represent the middle class in most nations and a nation can’t survive without its middle class) or a result of improved military techniques. Thus, the entities are still violent, but the form is very different.

    Also, violence has likely shifted from physical to deeply psychological. Point being, it is far too simplistic to suggest violence is decreasing, as measured by the number of deaths or physically violent acts, because it ignores how violence has evolved. Psychological exploitation is now more economically sensible than murder. It’s not moral progress.

  • Vivek

    Prof Pinker’s analysis is what gives academicians a bad name. Take one part of the problem, collect some data on it, interpret it in a manner suitable to come to a conclusion that sounds interesting declare that to be the truth.

    Here are some of the issues I have with his analysis:

    1. It defines violence very narrowly. Assuming road rage is not violence. Assuming corruption is not violence. Assuming suicide is not violence. Assuming violence to nature and other beings as not violence. I agree that he as to make some assumptions to do any kind of analysis — but he is not clarifying his assumptions and just speaking about his conclusions.

    2. Judging the past on the basis of the morals of today. What is considered part of life today was considered violence in the past (for example, just a few years ago at the time of Mahatma Gandhi, being angry was frowned upon in schools and considered violent. Now the society attaches pride to anger.) And vice-versa — cutting off the nose of a king who lost in the war was standard practice in the past but would be considered a ghastly act today.

    3. By coming to the conclusion Prof Pinker has, he is marginalizing the greatest problem facing society. We, as a society, do not know how to safely handle our negative emotions. Neither at school, nor at home are we taught how to do this. We keep getting told “don’t get angry” – and never taught how not to get angry.
    And this lies at the root of all forms of violence (self inflicted or inflicted on others) that we see today.

  • jcb

    Some people here should have paid attention to what Pinker repeatedly took pains to explain: He is saying that in general violence is declining. He is NOT saying that there is no violence or that today’s violence is somehow acceptable and we can all relax and start congratulating ourselves.

  • Gary Kay

    Speaking as a long-time history buff, I can say that Mr. Pinker is just one of many persons who have lost touch with reality. It’s totally impossible to quantify violence. So much violence has always gone unreported and even unnoticed. Mr. Pinker may as well claim that there has also been an improvement in human nature. And that’s something that will never happen. The only way to decrease violence is to decrease the population. And quite often that is done through the medium of violence.

  • Greg

    Do you think that Steven, the chair of the Harvard psychology dept. (not to mention MIT), a man with huge intellect, didn’t do his research. Please shut your holes and listen. It’s been so enlightening to hear your angry piffle to and read your unlettered opinions.

  • Peter Bromley

    Professor Pinker’s thesis provokes much confusion. His research is impeccable; yet from on air and online comments, people seem at best confused by facts and their reality. On the surface better angels are in their ascendency, they are attached to tricky egos. Those egos are nimble, resilient, often vindictive and powerfully violent. Violence turns inward in the form of self loathing, insufficiency, depression and assault on self and others. Indeed, our unconscious patterns are addictions and as violent to oneself and others as clubbing another on the head. The ego will do anything to not feel anxiety, panic, shame, guilt. In that doing, a theatre of violence reigns, unless one has journeyed to transcend this condition and free the better angels sourced from greater consciousness, found in spirit and soul. Why do I know this? My own journey within, as well as research, study and counsel to leaders and employees of hundreds of organizations. Their unconsciousness colludes to create a battlefield – and massive blindspot – that impairs fulfillment, meaningfulness, well-being, health, sustainability, safety and bottom line performance – however measured. While wars on the surface may be in decline, the war within escalates exponentially.

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