June 11, 2009

The steady decline of violence in the world

In this post, Seeing our predicament as a problem that can be solved, Steven Pinker is quoted who says that the processes of enlightenment and reason will continue to drive violence down. Also, here is a post, What have we done right?, in which Pinker's TED 2007 on that subject in mentioned. Pinker has now written an interesting article, Why is There Peace?, in which he shows that the common belief that our times show unpredecented violence is completely wrong. Using historic evidence, he shows how the opposite is true: step by step the use of violence in the world is declining. Pinker offers some explanation why many believe the opposite to be the case. Also he provides some different hypotheses for the reasons violence is constantly declining. Finally, he warns against complacency and urges us to understand what makes peace possible.

Why is there peace?
By Steven Pinker

Over the past century, violent images from World War II concentration camps, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, and many other times and places have been seared into our collective consciousness. These images have led to a common belief that technology, centralized nation-states, and modern values have brought about unprecedented violence. Our seemingly troubled times are routinely contrasted with idyllic images of hunter-gatherer societies, which allegedly lived in a state of harmony with nature and each other. The doctrine of the noble savage—the idea that humans are peaceable by nature and corrupted by modern institutions—pops up frequently in the writing of public intellectuals like, for example, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who argued that "war is not an instinct but an invention." But now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler. In fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are today. Indeed, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth. Read the article here.

Update 6/14
: here is the TED 2007 video by Steven Pinker on the subject:


  1. I like Pinker and I like Lomborg because they direct our attention to what is here that is working vs. the usual dichotomy offered by the harbingers of doom: now = hell, somewhere / someplace else = heaven, no in-between

  2. agree, what I like here is that he provides both a reason for optimism and a warning against complacency. Where I think doom thinking is often mistaken is that it places us in a corner from which we can't escape. It is fatalistic. Warnings are important, facing brutal facts is essential (there are and have always been local disasters), taking action to improve things remains essential. But undermining hope is a mistake

  3. Coert, Thank you for posting and commenting on this topic. I remember arguing this very point while in grad school, a class on developmental theory if I recall, a number of years back. Thank you for reminding me as it does give one hope! We cannot underemphasize the importance of positive dialog. This also reminds me of some of the points that were made in Bowling for Columbine.

  4. If we take a look at the List of ongoing conflicts we see that there are only 7 major conflicts in the entire world. If US stops this "terrorists" nonsense and legalizes drugs (just like Portugal successfully did)... than we will have that list cut in half. If a part of the money spent in Iraq is redirected to Somalia and Darfur as educational aid... the list becomes even shorter.

    "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

  5. It would be wonderful if the world would further civilize and find ways to put a halt much sooner to conflicts like Darfur and Somalia and to genocides like in Rwanda. I don't believe will be able to entirely ban out conflicts but I have a strong hope these types of tragedies will become much rarer and briefer.

  6. banning a conflict only makes it stronger. Fear is never solved by fear.

    Love is the answer and people just need to start learning the way of Love...

    As de Chardin said:
    "The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."

    I have high hopes. Even today I discovered something in this direction: Nonviolent Communication

  7. Hi Peter, thanks!

    I find it interesting to have a look at what Pinker says may be reasons violence has actually declined:

    1)increases in self-control,
    2)increases in long-term planning
    3)increases in sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others.
    4)giving the state a monopoly on violence and the power to inflict penalties
    5)we have learned to value life more because we live longer
    6)non-zero-sumness has increased in life
    7) Evolution gives us more and more empathy

    It seems to me that there is both an essential role for more love and for more effective control

  8. Thanks for posting this Coert. I wrote a comment on the original article and decided to paste it below since I only knew of the article because you linked to it here.

    Finally, someone who can speak credibly on the fact that in many ways the world of today really is better than the world of tomorrow.

    Many people romanticize the past as less violent. It was in the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" that I first learned that many pre-historical groups of humans had high murder rates. Only with the advent of chiefdoms and supporting religious beliefs did people give up the power to avenge and kill to those in power. And the world has been much better for it.

    By the way your ideas resonate with those of positive approaches to organizational development and human performance such as Solutions Focus and Appreciative Inquiry. Those approaches show that when people look to understand the causes for good situations they are able to use that knowledge to make things even better.

  9. Hi Rodney, and violence is just one aspect of how things actually get better and better without us realizing it (have you seen Matt Ridley's book The Rational Optimist?

  10. Hi Coert,
    Thanks for this post. I never looked at the world this way. Of course i was aware of the fact that people were quite violent in the past, but I had the idea nothing really had changed since then... This is a new way of thinking and surely one that is hope-giving!


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