The surprising decline in violence – Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

  • Mikey W (510) June 8, 2015

    What is your definition of violence though? Sure there may be less physical violence, but that’s not the only type of violence that exists. And the reason why there might be less physical violence is because people are more psychologically controlled to obey. No reason to rebel if there’s nothing to disagree with. That is psychological violence and manipulation, and it’s more rampant than ever.

    I don’t think we’ve transcended violence at all. It’s merely changed forms and has become more rarified and subtle, especially in the “developed” world. The Stalin’s and the Hitler’s still exist, they’ve only realized that it’s more efficient and less obvious to use psychological manipulation rather than physical.

    I think the concept of violence needs to be expanded. People can’t just be looking for the overt instances of violence, and ignore the more subtle versions. Because a world built on forced peace is not a peaceful world at all.

    • Jordan Bates (4,684)A June 8, 2015

      That’s a really interesting idea, Mikey — that physical violence has decreased while psychological violence is “more rampant than ever.” Still, I would argue that the “psychological violence” to which you refer doesn’t really hold a candle to the psychological violence of knowing that people are frequently getting beheaded, stabbed, raped, shanked, etc. outside your door, as many people knew in various human societies of yesteryear (and some today).

      I agree that consumerism, the media circus, the constant stimulation/distraction, the constant ego encouragement, etc. etc. of our modern world constitute an intricate pacification mechanism that wreaks psychological havoc on a certain number of people. But nonetheless, plenty of people manage to mostly liberate themselves from these traps, and those people can then pretty much express themselves in life in whatever way seems suitable to them, without *really* having to worry too much about anyone killing them.

      Personally, I’d take our situation over that of many, many others in human history. This is an extremely complex topic/question, though, and I don’t mean for this to be the last word at all. I also don’t think Pinker is saying we’ve transcended violence, just that we’re experiencing a downward trend.

      • Mikey W (510) June 8, 2015

        I would take a less physically violent situation as well. But I think the course of human history has been a processes of increasing domestication and control of the species. The more domestication (psychological control), the less overt force needs to be applied. I think that can account for much of the reason why there is less violence nowadays.

        The use of physical violence was just a necessary stage in that process. It’s no longer as necessary as it once was. Hence the fall-off. Humanity has been inflicted with so much physical violence that it has internalized it.

        Would you rather lose your life, or lose your soul? I think that is the predicament we find ourselves in today. Psychological control can inflict a lot more damage than physical in less obvious ways. So personally, I think it does hold a candle.

        • Jordan Bates (4,684)A June 9, 2015

          you’re right — i shouldn’t have said it “doesn’t hold a candle.” i wrote that comment in a bit of a rush. i think you’re making a profound point, one which i don’t think Pinker really considers at all in this talk or in his book on the subject, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” i can still heartily recommend that book though, even after reading just 30 pages or so. some really valuable perspectives on trends in physical violence that one can choose to see through the lens of domestication/manipulation systems gaining sophistication. what you’re saying kind of reminds me of Michelle Foucault’s book “Discipline and Control.” the methods of control have become much more subtle.

          there are more optimistic readings of the present situation out there too, though. some might argue that a large portion of the world is living in a post-scarcity situation, where they don’t have too worry about their basic needs being met, and that this has allowed for more education, contemplation, and concern for such things as human and animal rights, and that this (among other factors) has encouraged us to reclaim a Partnership style of culture. After millennia of Dominator-style culture, various factors may be combining to spark a kind of renaissance of partnership values, in which people see each other as equals and traditional hierarchies break down. I think the end of slavery, the human/animal rights movements of the 20th century, the Occupy movement, and the environmental movement are all strong indications that such a shift may be taking place. Riane Eisler’s book “The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future” introduces this idea of Partnership vs. Dominator culture and dispenses a really compelling narrative of a Dominator paradigm being undermined by Partnership ideas and initiatives arising for various reasons.

          that doesn’t mean everything is rosy, or that our present society doesn’t look kind of like a Huxleyan dystopia. but i think it’s unjustified to assume that if these mechanisms weren’t in place, people would be more physically violent (not saying that’s what you’re assuming). Thus the decline in physical violence still stands alone as something of a triumph (or a happy alignment of circumstances) that we can celebrate. But we should nonetheless remain vigilant of the cultural/media simulacra and its pacifying/manipulating/psychologically terrorizing potential. we certainly aren’t living in a utopia, nor should we ever expect to be.

          didn’t mean to bombard you with book titles, but they all seemed to come up naturally. if you’re interested, here are links to more info about each of those books:

          • Mikey W (510) June 10, 2015

            Don’t worry about the book recommendations, I always appreciate them and I’ll give them a look. I actually had been meaning to give you a book recommendation. It’s called “The Ascent of Humanity” by Charles Eisenstein. In it, he talks about a general belief that people within western culture have- that through the use of force, technology, and control we are heading towards some sort of techno-utopia. The scientists and politicians and doctors will eventually figure it all out, so they say, and the history of humanity has been a steady trend upwards.

            He also talks about a convergence of crises that are starting to happen right now (socially, politically, economically, ecologically) that are “birthing” use into a new way of being, and I think this has a lot to do with the Partnership shift you’re talking about. Don’t get me wrong, I see where you are coming from. I’m not completely pessimistic. I see the new world rising through the cracks. But its a small minority right now.

            Unfortunately, while that partnership culture is arising, the old dominator culture is going through death throws (an exaggerated semblance of life right before its final demise). It is becoming more violent and more controlling. Hence why you see all this increased surveillance, militarized police forces, unprecedented consumerism and escapism and vanity, corporate takeovers of governments, the general trend towards fascism and totalitarianism in the west etc etc etc. The Dominator culture, as you’ve referred to it, knows it’s time is up. It’s leaders are doing everything in their power to maintain control. The rulers of our society know this. I wouldn’t be surprised if violence becomes a last resort tactic in the near future, especially in terms of these protest clashes in the US.

            I think Pinker’s idea generally falls into the “Ascent” ideology. It’s easy to make arguments like “look at how long our life spans are,” or “look at how many diseases have been eradicated by our science” and assume based on these factors that we are ascending. But I think this is a narrow point of view, and also a dangerous one, because it assumes fundamentally that we are on the right track.

            Another aspect that Pinker does not take into consideration is our wholesale destruction of the environment on a scale unprecedented in human history. That is also violence. We’re on the verge of destroying the planet that sustains us. It’s insanity. Does violence only count when its directed at other people (I’m not saying you agree with this)? Maybe in some ways, we’ve turned our violence away from each other and directed it towards different outlets, different superficially but fundamentally the same?

            • Jordan Bates (4,684)A June 10, 2015

              Ah, right on. I just downloaded ‘Sacred Economics’ by Eisenstein, been meaning to engage his work for a while. I wonder if he’ll discuss some of those same ideas in ‘Sacred Economics.’ You make some more great point, really lucid insight, thank you. I think it’s wise to point out the violence being done to the natural environment, the species we’re brutalizing and wiping out, not to mention the perpetual genocide of the billions of animals we kill every year for food.

              Maybe I am a foolish idealist, but I’d nonetheless assert that the very fact that we’re aware of these things and having this conversation from a conscientious perspective that considers all sentient beings is indicative of potential for hope. It might be, as you say, a small minority of the global population that is thinking about these things and working toward a more equitable, humane, sustainable world, but I think it is nonetheless a much larger percentage than ever before. Everyday folks who aren’t particularly intellectual or educated are opening up to ideas of all sentient beings being equal in suffering, the destruction of the natural environment being an egregious misstep, etc. That’s pretty astonishing, considering that thinking beyond one’s immediate environment/tribe/experience was, for most of human history, pretty unheard of (though one could certainly argue that many indigenous peoples possessed a consciousness/reverence of the whole Earth).

              So I do have hope, and I think the Internet is a tool that can help to “boost consciousness,” as HE’s tagline says — to spread kernels of perspective, wisdom, compassion, and serious thinking among the masses of the world. This conversation gives me hope. I’m still definitely concerned that circumstances are such that things are likely to remain unfavorable or get worse (if you want to read the best thing ever on the idea that arbitrary circumstances end up dictating the direction of society, read this: I’m also concerned that just because more people can be pushed to reflect on things nowadays, that doesn’t mean more people are really reflecting rationally and from a place of kindness/compassion. there are many rabbit holes of thought that lead people to absurd, almost anti-human conclusions.

              So it’s a wildly complex stage on which we’re all operating nowadays. If nothing else, I’m interested to see where it all goes in my lifetime, and to try to do my part to push things in a direction that future generations will appreciate.

              • Mikey W (510) June 12, 2015

                I actually haven’t read Sacred Economics yet. But I would guess he does talk about these things in it, because the economic system that’s been created is deeply connected to his views on human nature.

                “Maybe I am a foolish idealist, but I’d nonetheless assert that the very fact that we’re aware of these things and having this conversation from a conscientious perspective that considers all sentient beings is indicative of potential for hope.”

                I agree. But why is it that people become aware of things only when they get to the breaking point? I have hope too. But (and I’m not accusing you of this) you can’t have hope out of ignorance of the enormity of the situation. A hope based on false idealism and wishful thinking. There are always two or more sides to a situation. And this is exactly why I think it is premature for Pinker to automatically assume this trend that he sees to be a “good” thing.

                Personally, I happen to focus on the “negative” side, because I think it is oftentimes overlooked. For instance, I see where you’re coming from with the internet. But I can personally attest in my own life that the internet can cause further isolation and distraction and lead you down these rabbit holes of ideas that you referred too. The internet is an amplifying tool of human consciousness, for better or worse. Since it is an amplifying tool, we have the ability to use it for unprecedented degrees of imprisonment OR liberation. Or maybe a bit of both at the same time.

                It definitely is a complex stage we are at. I think we’re at a turning point right now. And as Eckhart Tolle points out, “We are witnessing not only an unprecedented influx of consciousness at this time but also an entrenchment and intensification of the ego.” And “ego” I think is what causes the violence and control system that we live in, both interpersonally and collectively. And as another thinker pointed out (I forget his name but you can google the quote), “Things are getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster, simultaneously.”

        • Tyler Schwartz (4) June 10, 2015

          You and Foucault are in total agreement on this one. If you want to stroke your insight ego and get deeper into the process (and impact) of our domestication you should check out his book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.”

          • Jordan Bates (4,684)A June 10, 2015

            i already recommended that book to him in my long-ass comment. ^^

            • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 11, 2015

              This is a great interview with the School of Life. many of Pinker’s ideas are challenged:

            • Tyler Schwartz (4) June 12, 2015

              So you did, sir! So you did. It’s powerful stuff. I’m a bit of a fatalist so I really dig his view of humans as fundamentally unchanging in motivation thoughout the iterations of law enforcement, instead, warping and deflecting the preserved channels of power and control toward and away from several different groups of people as bodies of government changed/complicated.

              Personally, I think Pinker does adopt a pretty narrow definition of violence based on gross empiricism here, but this is the same guy who has argued for years that language and thought are instinctual in the human animal. His work as a linguist has looked to deny psychological explanations for why we do, say and think things time and time again. No surprise that he’d dismiss the idea of systemized social violence equating to physical violence. Then again, I do feel like less people are living in exile, unable to return to their home countries under threat of death, now (maybe? Less per-capita?) — I don’t know, is the physiological violence today more subtle but equally oppressive, or is it in fact a weaker form of what once was? We actively engage in self-surveillance (though I suppose the public actively engaged in executions). Sorry, I know I’m late to the party, but I feel like, considering my relatively low level of wealth, I’m more free today than I would have been 200 years ago. Eventually, as you’ve said, resources will hopefully equalize (though my descendants probably won’t be the first to have regenerative nanobots in their blood, let me tell you), but in a society of free individuals, we’ll always need laws to ensure the interests of enterprise (though I guess a society of legally-approved plunderers is fine too), and methods of control to enforce those laws.

              • Mikey W (510) June 12, 2015

                “considering my relatively low level of wealth, I’m more free today than I would have been 200 years ago.”

                That’s not necessarily a given, in my opinion. I would argue that there are unprecedented potentials for both freedom OR enslavement currently. The warfare is mostly psychological now. People’s minds could not be controlled in the past to the extent to which they potentially can be today. But there was also a certain baseline level of control that existed because of the physical, technological and social constraints of the time. The physical violence and control in the past could not break people’s spirits and minds to the extent that psychological manipulation can today. The thing about psychological warfare is that it is subtle to see, but also easier to escape in some ways. You can’t break out of a physical prison with physical bars so easily. So if you can avoid or undo a lot of the conditioning and traumas, there’s the potential for unprecedented freedom. Except I think when enough people start waking up, there will be a backlash in the form of physical violence probably on scales never seen before, unfortunately (because the controlling powers will feel threatened and see it as a last resort… like Hitler’s “final solution”). Maybe this can be prevented, but I’m not sure. .I think things are going to get worse before they get better.

                I feel that violence has not lessened over time, it has just moved into different realms. And yes, there is a certain percentage of the population that is “waking up,” but it still does not negate this idea that violence is still all pervasive. I would argue that it’s actually on the rise in many ways. Violence and force, to me, go hand in hand. And we exert more force and control on our planet, and on ourselves and others, than ever before.

          • Mikey W (510) June 11, 2015

            This book has been sitting on my desk for quite some time. I’ve been meaning to get to it.

        • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 11, 2015

          “But I think the course of human history has been a processes of increasing domestication and control of the species.”

          Again, this is victimization. Do we not want to be domesticated? The woods and the forests are all around us. We can no go camping in the woods without fear of being murdered (in most places), but many of us don’t. Brain control or personal preference?

          • Mikey W (510) June 11, 2015

            We’re doing it to ourselves. Everyone is involved. It’s not victimization. Two types of people exist in society. Those who want to control, and those who want to be controlled. It’s a mutually parasitical relationship. Neither side is more to blame. I think you’re making some assumptions about my argument.

            • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 12, 2015

              I probably am making assumptions, but I can only go on what I’ve read here. I disagree that there are two types of people in society, I think there is an unquantifiable number of types and many of the people who seem to want to be in control in one context will abdicate control in another. To describe the interaction between doms and subs as parasitical is unfair because of our associations with parasites. I think you could just as well describe this relationship as between a pilot and a passenger. Or a mother and a newborn.

      • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 11, 2015

        “Personally, I’d take our situation over that of many, many others in human history.”

        Uh… YEAH! :)

    • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 11, 2015

      “And the reason why there might be less physical violence is because people are more psychologically controlled to obey. No reason to rebel if there’s nothing to disagree with. That is psychological violence and manipulation, and it’s more rampant than ever.”

      So is self-control and self-manipulation violence? Your argument seems to presuppose that we don’t want to live in non-violent worlds, rather that a non-violent world has been violently forced upon us. You see why I struggle to accept this?

      • Mikey W (510) June 11, 2015

        “So is self-control and self-manipulation violence?”

        I would say, yes, self-control and self-manipulation are violence against a person’s own nature. I think the definition of violence needs to be broadened. If it remains to be seen only in the narrow realm of physical harm being committed towards other people, we are in danger of ignoring and overlooking its other manifestations.

        “Your argument seems to presuppose that we don’t want to live in non-violent worlds, rather that a non-violent world has been violently forced upon us.”

        I’m not sure what you mean by this. Can you word it in a different way? I don’t think you can force a non-violent world onto people. Which is why all attempts at utopia fail.

        • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 12, 2015

          If self-control is violence and your nature is to be violent then you are forever unable to escape violence. I don’t accept this.

          With my other comment, here is the rewording:
          Your argument seems to presuppose that we don’t want to live in physically non-violent worlds, rather that a physically non-violent world has been abusively forced upon us with mental violence like mind control. You’ve created a closed loop. If domestication is our choice then mind control is not needed and, therefore, there is no mental violence; if mind control is needed you presuppose we want to live in physically violent environments but have been “coerced” away from our ideal. You see why I struggle to accept this?

          • Mikey W (510) June 13, 2015

            It’s a misperception that our nature is to be violent. It’s a stage in our development of our species. We seek control over our own nature, and the natural world around us, based on this illusory perception. We started out as untamed, and the world around us was untamed nature as well. We became afraid of the chaos and uncertainty around us, and over thousands of years have sought control and dominion of nature based on this fearful perception of it. We willingly gave up our free will, and formed societies which seek to control, coordinate, and tame human behavior and impulses. Just like we seek to tame and control the forces of nature in the world, with countless dire consequences. We willfully give up our freedom in exchange for the perceived security and stability of society. But that security is based on control and force.

            Again, I am interchanging the word violence with control/force. In a broad context, violence and the controller mindset (dominator mindset, as Jordan calls it) are synonymous. Our seeking to control the world and force it into our human realm of understanding is violence.

            I could see why you struggle to understand what I’m saying based on the circularity of the argument that you yourself are creating. But you can really invalidate anything by creating circular arguments. You’ve created the closed loop yourself based on presumptions and over analyzing the “presuppositions” that don’t exist for anyone except you.

            • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 13, 2015

              Hey Mikey, I’m just engaging in some fun debate, nothing too serious. “It’s a misperception that our nature is to be violent.” I’m not making a claim what our nature is meant to be like or not, I’ve read books like The Fall that tracks our origins back to non-violent matriarchal societies — I get your frame. But you can’t say that my nature isn’t to be violent. You can’t say of a murderer who lusts after blood that their nature is not to be violent — that to view things that way is a misperception. I totally see where you’re coming from, although I feel like you’re an idealist arguing from a closed loop. How could we ever live in a physically non-violent world AND a mentally non-violent world? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

              • Mikey W (510) June 14, 2015

                The more people control themselves, and allow themselves to be controlled by other people and institutions, the more repressed they will be. On the surface, this control could appear to be a good thing, because it could for a time being make people appear less violent. I think that is probably the trend Pinker is seeing. The method to make people and nature “behave” eventually reaches its breaking point though. Things can only be repressed and controlled for so long. Right now, we are witnessing the results of thousands of years of control in our economic, ecological, social, political, etc. systems.

                The way I see it, people usually act violently not because it is in their deepest nature to do so, but because they are rebelling from the control and force placed upon them by themselves, the culture, their parents, school, government, etc. They see no other outlet. It’s the conditioning that makes them act violently. The institutionalization. Bad parenting. Traumatic Experiences. See the picture? From personal experience, I know the times I lash out have been when I feel trapped, and can’t see any way out.

                We have placed increasing amounts of control on ourselves over the centuries. Have you heard the saying, “force begets force”? You see, for example, how through the use of force, the US creates terrorism, and then they just use more fore/control to try and solve the problem they created before? And then it just gets bigger, and they use more force? They do that to their own population as well. Increasingly more fore, control, standardization, surveillance. It’s actually terrifying and mind-boggling to watch.

                I’m not sure if this answers any of your questions, but hopefully it clarifies some things. What do you think? Do you think we are becoming truly less violent over time?

  • bj (0) June 14, 2015

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    • Jordan Bates (4,684)A June 15, 2015


      thank you so much for bringing this huge point into the discussion. i think Pinker is referring specifically to human-against-human violence, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t consider violence against all sentient lifeforms to be equally horrendous and to be avoided. you might be interested in the book ‘Animal Liberation’ by Peter Singer.

      i’m interested in the page you tried to link, but the link seems to be broken.

      • Jon Brooks (4,512)A June 15, 2015

        Yeah, also non-sentient lifeforms. I’ve seen terrible violence against beautiful trees and plant life. The maxim Da Vinci lived by: “Respect all life.”

  • bj (0) June 14, 2015

    I guess he doesn’t know/doesn’t care about the incomprehensible suffering of animals. He must not know using animals in ‘research’, about setting living dogs on fire, peeling their skin off while they are alive, dragging them behind vehicles, the electric prods used to kill fur animals… factory farming, the shipping of animals from one continent to another so most of the them die… the killing of the bees with poison. this sadistic behavior has increased because it’s not such a good idea to torture humans…

    So animal abuse increases and he doesn’t care. Jerk.