A History of Violence: Steven Pinker at TEDxNewEngland

A History of Violence: Steven Pinker at TEDxNewEngland


Translator: Raissa Mendes
Reviewer: Leonardo Silva Believe it or not,
and I know most people do not, violence has been in decline
for long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceful era
in our species’ existence. The decline of violence
has not been steady, it has not brought rates
of violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to persuade you that it is
a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars
to the treatment of children and animals. I’m going walk you through
six major historical declines of violence and try to offer explanations
for the declines, in terms of the psychological mechanisms
that impel us toward violence, the psychological mechanisms
that inhibit us from violence, what Abraham Lincoln called
“the better angels of our nature,” and the historical changes
that have favored our better angels. The first decline of violence
I call the Pacification Process. Until around 5,000 years ago,
humans everywhere lived in anarchy, without central government. What was life like
in this state of nature? Well, one way of estimating
rates of violence in non-state versus state societies comes from forensic archeology. You can think of this
as “CSI Paleolithic,” namely what proportion of prehistoric
skeletons have signs of violent trauma, such as bashed-in skulls, decapitations, arrowheads embedded in bones, or mummies found
with ropes around their necks? (Laughter) Here I’ve assembled 21 estimates – as you can see they span quite a range,
but they average out to 15%. Fifteen percent of prehistoric remains
show some signs of violent trauma. Let’s compare that 15% figure
to those of some modern state societies, such as the United States and Europe
in the 20th century, with their two World Wars
and many other wars, that add up to a death rate of 0.6 of 1%. If we try to get the estimate
as big as possible, by throwing in all the genocides, all the man-made famines
across the entire globe, we can push the rate
to, perhaps, as high as 3%. And if we look at the world
in the 21st century, you can not see the bar because it is less
than one pixel high, at 0.03 of 1%. The second decline of violence
can be appreciated by examining this woodcut showing a typical day
in the life of the Middle Ages. (Laughter) And the process that brought
this level of mayhem down has been called the Civilizing Process. In many parts of Europe,
homicide statistics go back 800 years, and historical criminologists
have plotted them over time, such as this graph, which shows homicides per 100,000 per year on a logarithmic scale from 1200 to 2000. And, as you can see,
there’s been a massive decline, so that a contemporary Englishman has about one thirty-fifth
the chance of being murdered as his medieval ancestor. This is true not just in England, but in every country
for which historical data exist – here you see Italy, the Netherlands,
Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. The red line in this graph shows
the average of those five regions. For the sake of comparison, I’ve also put the comparable rate
from non-state societies in the dot on the upper left. The gap between the dot
and the beginning of the graph is what I call the Pacification Process, the further decline,
the civilizing process. The third historical decline
of violence can be appreciated by recalling some of the ways that law and order was brought
to European territories, namely sadistic public
physical punishments, such as breaking on the wheel,
burning at the stake, clawing with iron hooks, sawing in half, and impalement. But in a development called
the Humanitarian Revolution, major countries put an end
to the use of torture as a form of criminal punishment. This timeline shows from 1625 to 1850 the number of major countries
that had judicial torture, and, as you can see,
there was a wave of abolitions in the second half of the 18th century, including the prohibition
of “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Eighth Amendment
to the American Constitution, which took place right
in the middle of this wave. Also abolished during
the Humanitarian Revolution was the profligate use
of the death penalty for nonlethal crimes. In 18th-century England, there were
222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, counterfeiting,
robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of Gypsies, and “strong evidence of malice
in a child 7 to 14 years of age.” By 1861, these had been reduced to four. Now, the death penalty itself has been
abolished in every Western democracy, except the United States. The red line shows the number of European
countries with capital punishment, from 1775 to the present. Most of the abolitions
took place in the 20th century, but the blue line shows
the number of European countries that actually carry out executions, showing that before politicians got around to striking capital punishment
from their countries’ law books, their fellow citizens
had pretty much lost their taste for executing people. I mentioned the United States
is an exception because 33 of the 50 states
still practice capital punishment. But even in the United States, capital punishment
is a shadow of its former self, as you can see from this graph,
which shows the per capita execution rate from colonial times to the present. Nowadays about 40 people
are executed every year in a country that has
more than 16,000 homicides, and the rate has continued
to go down over the last decade. Finally, the Humanitarian Revolution
saw the abolition of slavery. Now, slavery used to be legal
all over the globe. No one seemed to think
there was anything wrong with it. The Bible had no problem
with it, for example. Democratic Athens was
a slaveholding society … But starting in the second half
of the 18th century, there was a trickle of abolitions which grew into a wave
that swept over the entire world. As of 1980, when Mauritania
abolished capital punishment, we’re living through a unique era
in human history, in which slavery is illegal
everywhere on Earth. The fourth decline of violence
has been called the Long Peace. And I’m going to skip a number of graphs because the most relevant statistic for the Long Peace is zero. It refers to the historically
unprecedented decline in interstate war. So here are some examples
of the statistic zero that symbolizes this era. There were no wars between
the United States and the Soviet Union, contrary to every expert prediction that
World War III was just a matter of time. No nuclear weapon has been exploded
in war since Nagasaki; again, contrary to all
the predictions from experts that nuclear war was inevitable. There’ve been no wars
between any two great powers since the end of the Korean war in 1953, following half a millennium
in which the great powers were constantly at each other’s throats. There’ve been no wars
between Western European countries since the end of World War II. For the sake of comparison, prior to 1945, Western European countries alone
started two new wars a year, for 600 years. That number fell, as of 1946, to zero. And there’ve been no wars
between developed countries. The 44 countries
with the highest GDP per capita have not fought each other since 1946. And that might even seem
banal and unexceptional that we think of wars as taking place
in poor backward parts of the world, but for most of human history, it was the big rich developed countries
that were constantly waging war, and because they could afford
big destructive armies, those wars did the most damage. Well, what about the rest of the world? In a process that I call the New Peace, the long peace is starting to spread
to the rest of the world. And I’ll illustrate it with one graph,
a stacked layer graph, with the thickness of each layer
corresponds to the rate of death of war in a particular category
from 1946 to the present. Here is the rate of death
from colonial wars, which tapered off to zero as European
empires gave up their colonies. Here we have the rate
of death from interstate wars, wars with a country on each side, which shows a spiky but downward trend, with bumps corresponding
to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Iran-Iraq War. Here we have the rate
of death from civil wars and internationalized civil wars, where some country
butts in on a civil war. The height of the entire stack
represents the worldwide rate of death from all wars combined. And, as you can see, the graph shows
a bumpy but unmistakable downward trend. In the first decade of the 21st century, you see a thin laminate of layers showing the unprecedentedly
low rate in deaths of war from all categories. Finally we have the Rights Revolutions, the targeting of violence
on smaller scales directed against vulnerable
sectors of the population, such as African Americans, women, children, and animals. The Civil Rights Revolution first put
an end to the practice of lynching. By the end of the 19th century, about 150 African Americans
were lynched every year – that’s three a week. By the 1950s, that fell to zero. The kind of racist attitudes
that licensed attacks on African Americans have been in steady decline. This graph shows the percentage of white
Americans that agree with the statement “black and white students
should go to separate schools,” and “if a black family moved in
next door, I would move out.” The percentages have fallen
from a majority of white Americans to the single digits, which is
the range of crank opinion. The question is no longer even
included in public opinion polls. The Women’s Rights Revolution has reduced the rate of rape by 80%,
since its peak in the 1970s, and has brought about a similar decline
in rates of domestic violence. The Children’s Rights Revolution has reduced the number of American
states with corporal punishment, that is, strapping
and paddling in schools. Approval of spanking and other forms of corporal punishment
of children by their parents has been in decline
in polls in every Western country. And rates of child abuse,
both physical and sexual, have been in decline
since they have been first measured. The Animal Rights Revolution
has seen a decline in hunting, a rise in vegetarianism,
both in the UK and in the US, and a dramatic decline
in the number of motion pictures in which animals were harmed. Well, this brings up the question, “Why has violence declined
on so many scales of time and magnitude?” I don’t believe it’s because
human nature itself has changed and that our violent inclinations
have literally been bred out of us, but rather that human nature
has always been extraordinarily complex and it has comprised both inclinations
that tempt us toward violence and inhibitions that inhibit us. What are the motives for violence? I don’t believe there is
any one part of the brain that contains an aggression instinct; rather, we have distinct motives
such as simple exploitation, the harming of a person
that happens to be an obstacle on the path towards
something that you want, resulting in forms of violence
such as rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals. There’s dominance, the drive among individuals to climb
the pecking order and become alpha male, and a corresponding motive among groups for racial, national,
or religious supremacy. There’s revenge or moralistic violence, in which you feel
not only is violence permissible, but it is mandatory in order to punish
those who have wronged you, resulting in vendettas, rough justice,
and cruel punishments. And perhaps, most destructive of all
are utopian ideologies, belief systems from militant religions, nationalism, Naziism, communism that hold out the prospect of a world
that will be infinitely good forever. As captured in the saying, “You can’t make
an omelet without breaking eggs,” namely if you have a belief system
in which the world will be perfect, well, killing people who stand in the way
is a price worth paying, which is why, paradoxically,
the worst atrocities in human history were committed in pursuit
of a moralistic utopian goal. Well, what do we have on the other side
to counteract these violent inclinations? What are the better angels of our nature? There’s self-control,
circuitry in the prefrontal cortex that can anticipate
the consequences of behavior and inhibit our violent impulses. There’s empathy, the ability
to feel others’ pain. There’s the moral sense,
a system of norms and taboos that govern what we feel
is appropriate behavior. And finally, there’s reason, cognitive processes that allow us
to engage in objective, detached analysis. Well, the final question is: How do we put the history
back together with the psychology? Which historical developments
bring out of our better angels and stay our hands before they
can commit acts of bloodshed? The first possibility
is that Thomas Hobbes got it right when he extolled “The Leviathan,” a state and judicial system with a monopoly on
the legitimate use of force. A state with a monopoly on violence can neutralize your incentive
to attack your neighbors by imposing penalties
that cancel out your anticipated gain. Just as important, it neutralizes
your neighbors’ incentive to attack you, and so you no longer have to maintain
a belligerent macho stance to deter them, nor do you have
to pursue vengeance after the fact. And this can tamp down rates of violence by circumventing the self-serving biases that lead everyone in a dispute
to think they’re on side of the angels and that their enemy
is perfidious and aggressive, and thereby reduce the cycles of vendetta, in which both sides always think
that there’s still a score to settle. A second mechanism
has been called Gentle Commerce, the idea that whereas plunder
is a zero-sum game, the advantage to the aggressor
is canceled out by the loss to the victim. Trade is a positive-sum game,
one in which everybody wins. And as improving technology
allows the trade of goods and ideas over longer distances, among larger
groups of people, and at lower cost, it becomes cheaper to buy
stuff than to plunder it, and other people become
more valuable to you alive than dead. (Laughter) A third possibility has been called
the Expanding Circle, and it builds on the biological fact that evolution has given us all
a sense of empathy. Unfortunately, by default, we apply our empathy only
to a narrow circle of blood relatives, close allies, and cute
little fuzzy animals. But over the course of history, the expansion of literacy, travel,
and cosmopolitanism has led us to enlarge
our circle of empathy, from just the family
to the village, the clan, the tribe, the nation, other races,
both sexes, children, and perhaps eventually to other species. Finally, there’s the Escalator of Reason, the possibility
that the growth of literacy, education and public discourse has encouraged people to think more
abstractly and more universally. People rise above
their parochial vantage point. This makes it harder to privilege
your own interests over someone else’s just because I’m me and you’re not. It allows people to stand back and recognize the futility
of cycles of violence and increasingly see violence
as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won. Finally, what is the common denominator? Is it a massive coincidence
that these four forces have all pushed
in a “peaceward” direction? Or is there some reason
why they have all unfolded in this way? I think there is a reason, and that is that violence is what
game theorists call a social dilemma. It’s always tempting
to an aggressor to exploit a victim, but of course it is ruinous to a victim. So, since aggressors and victims
change places over the long run – anyone can be a [victim] or an aggressor – all parties would really be better off if everyone could agree
to renounce violence. The dilemma is, how do you get the other guy to renounce
violence at the same time as you do? Because if you beat
your swords into plowshares, but the other guy keeps his as swords, you could find yourself
at the wrong end of an invading army. One can well imagine
that over the course of history, human experience and human ingenuity have gradually chipped away
at this problem just like we’ve dealt with other scourges
of the human condition, like pestilence and hunger, and the common denominator
among these four forces is that all of them work to increase the material, emotional,
and cognitive incentives of all parties to avoid violence simultaneously. Thank you very much.

50 Comments on "A History of Violence: Steven Pinker at TEDxNewEngland"


  1. Another amazing presentation from Steven Pinker! It is excellent to see so many aspects of human violence addressed. Perhaps a future talk will go even farther to show how other key acts of human violence fit into this trend. For example, I did not hear the word 'abortion' mentioned. I hope that isn't viewed as the "third rail" of this general topic. Obviously not as safe as analyzing, say, slavery. But it would make for an added dimension of awareness.

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  2. Dustin: You'll find a much more complete treatment, including abortion and infanticide in Pinker's book "The Better Angels Of Our Nature". I highly recommend it to anyone willing to tackle an information-rich book of about 700 pages.

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  3. Violence may have declined but nobody said anything about a decline in stupidity I suppose.

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  4. The European version I have is 800 pages long! Luckily, Pinker is a great writer, so it's not a hurdle to get through 🙂

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  5. Pinker doesn't make that claim, however. He proposes it as one possibility ("Maybe Hobbes was right"), but also lays out multiple alternatives.

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  6. I thought TED had a policy against hosting obviously ideologically motivated speakers? Hah, just kidding, I know that TED is a technocentric fascist entity relying on the masses of stupefied comicon shut-ins and scientifically illiterate marketers to float on the wave of a retards thumbs up.

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  7. the security industry claims to be the fastest growing industry. And rates of anxiety have increased significantly in western nations, with the prescription of anti anxiety drugs undergoing a massive increase .

    So the fear of violence is increasing and yet the rates of violence is decreasing – wonder who is benefiting?

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  8. Good point. I think the news media, which sensationalizes violence, along with our politicians, who employ fear to keep the defense industry and military growing, contribute much to the present anxiety of American society.

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  9. the inclusion of violence against the environment and its nonhuman creatures would be enough to refute his misleadingly optimistic argument. not to mention the dispossession of people from their land, subsistence and culture by capital, unemployment, increasing disparity between the rich and poor, the subtle socio-psychological violence of anomie and generalized anxiety,'mood disorders'. failure to tally these insidious forms of structural violence is itself a kind of violence of interpretation.

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  10. Per 100,000 people, but the worlds population has doubled over the past 2 generations? Doesn't this affect the figures?

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  11. badly needs a new hair doo; he uses veneer statistics that obfuscates the truth that don't show the huge increase on attacks on teachers , general student violence and expulsion rates since the banning of corporal punishment & the anti smacking laws passage. The picture is very grim and shows that there has being an alarming escalation of violence in schools since physical discipline was abolished. This is the big picture he chooses to ignore. The man is causing evil without knowing it.

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  12. i still dont understand why sometimes you can 'reply' and others not, way to go youtube.  anyways, Rahimah you start with an ad hominem and go on to say he's missing the big picture, but by him citing the trends over a millenia and your references claiming to dispute it only applying to a very small ammount of time using the brainwashings of the media (violence in schools isnt up, you're only blinded by the media) i think it's clear who is causing evil (spreading ignorance) without knowing it.

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  13. A moment of violence is not always as bad as a life of fear. Our bodies can recover (but not always), but we carry our fears with us to our dreams which effect our lives and can sometimes be more damaging in the long run if we let our fears rule our lives.

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  14. I found it not clear about the date 5000 years ago and its realationship with civilization so i google it and found: The Bronze Age occurred roughly between 3000 BC and 2500 BC. The previous millennium had seen the emergence of advanced, urbanized civilizations, new bronze metallurgy extending the productivity of agricultural work, and highly developed ways of communication in the form of writing. In the 3rd millennium BC, the growth of these riches, both intellectually and physically, became a source of contention on a political stage, and rulers sought the accumulation of more wealth and more power. Along with this came the first appearances of mega architecture, imperialism, organized absolutism and internal revolution.
    The civilizations of Sumer and Akkad in Mesopotamia became a collection of volatile city-states in which warfare was common.[citation needed] Uninterrupted conflicts drained all available resources, energies and populations. In this millennium, larger empires succeeded the last, and conquerors grew in stature until the great Sargon of Akkad pushed his empire to the whole of Mesopotamia and beyond. It would not be surpassed in size until Assyrian times 1,500 years later.

    So there was civilization, he starts with a false premise. Finish it watching at…1:42

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  15. I think it's an interesting argument that prehistorical people were more violent because they lacked government. If anything, organized government created more violence because it created social structures and surplus to fuss over. In prehistoric (hunter/gather) times, it would seem that there weren't elitist classes and mostly everything would be shared within the group. 

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  16. Forcing people to give you money is an act of violence — it's theft. Pay the tax or go to jail is not consent of the governed, it's theft. I have very little doubt Steven Pinker would rationalize that forcing people to give you money is not stealing when government does it.

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  17. Otzi the Iceman had the blood of two people on an arrowhead in his possession, the blood of a third on his knife, the blood of a fourth on his coat (perhaps from carrying a wounded companion), and was himself mortally wounded by an arrow and possibly killed with a blow to the head.

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  18. @Sebastian Koehn That doesn't mean societies got more violent, it just means organized warfare increased.  But these states suppressed the pattern of incessant low-level warfare and raiding that had characterized life beforehand.  So the overall violent death rate fell, according to evidence presented in his book.  The rest of the video goes into very hard to refute statistics about murder rates in the Middle Ages and the abolition of judicial torture and slavery which you would have found out if you had kept watching.

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  19. trade – means exchange with profit and because you do not create any thing, you suck dry creators of necessities for life.

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  20. Violence is not merely killing another. It is violence when we use a sharp word, when we make a gesture to brush away a person, when we obey because there is fear. So violence isn’t merely organized butchery in the name of God, in the name of society or country. Violence is much more subtle, much deeper, and we are inquiring into the very depths of violence. When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you know why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of humankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or system; he is concerned with the total understanding of humankind.

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  21. About the Death Penalty in England in the 18th century: while it is true, that it was also used for very minor offenses, most offenders where not executed, but deported to colonies like Australia.

    So it was basically a tool to force poor people to help the British Empire in colonization.

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  22. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape. His graphs and numbers while interesting when taken as a whole I think you will find that within individual groups violence has in fact increased and will continue to increase as time marches ever onwards.

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  23. The US has moved away from physical torture to, financial torture. If you've ever been unfortunate enough to undergo the process, even if your crime was non-violent in nature, you'll learn this first hand.

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  24. One point I ponder is whether violence has decreased or perhaps it has only changed forms. Look how much emotional, psychological and spiritual violence goes on now in schools, prisons, and work places. I would also add that schools, work places, and prisons are very similar places.

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  25. Here I go again… I thought the talk was good, but seemed like there was/is something amiss in his ideas. A couple things came to mind like school shootings being on the rise. From the 60's, there were periods of Years between shootings. Now if you fart wrong five people duck for cover. Another thing comes from the Bible and goes something to the tune of "When they say 'Peace and Safety' sudden destruction comes… I forgot where that is, but you get the idea I hope…

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  26. Hunting is not violence. I left you when you said we should all be slaves of the state. Bye now.

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  27. This is encouraging as it does show the trajection of history upward, but it's completely western focused. Every country he listed is in the global north and west. I'm watching this video conducting research on the nature of violence and the middle east/MENA region, which is left untouched. Also the cold war wasn't really zero wars, while the feared world war III did not break out, numerous bloody proxy wars did throughout the global south. A good talk, but not without some flaws and limitations.

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  28. So first his statistical samples are too selective – no suicide levels, no prison incarceration levels and no talk about the biggest killer of 20th and 21st century war, not death in battle but wars’ byproducts famine, disease and population displacement. Second he chooses deliberately skewed measures – death in battle per 100,000 people doesn’t give a great analysis given that world population has risen so dramatically. On that scale you could say there has been a ‘big drop in US population in the last 50 years’ because proportionally there has compared to world population. Thirdly he looks for social causes, ignoring the basic fact that correlation doesn’t equal causation. An equally good reason for less violence in Europe and America could be post war birth control meaning less battles for resources in countries that were already rich, (the freakonomics reason of legalized abortion might sound too jarring next to less violence against children for any pro-lifers in the audience?) or perhaps TV and media’s rise meaning a socialized population with similar ethics. The talk of “commerce” is also interesting – why doesn’t he just say capitalism caused less violence. Finally he has literally no time measure that is consistent – violence is going down because it has since the Middle Ages is the start point but then its all about declines since a rather convenient mid 1950s start date. This talk exposes the weakness of TED as a format – fundamentally you can’t talk rationally about something like this in this length of time without interlocutors.

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  29. The animal rights section of his presentation is an intentional obfuscation of the truth. 150 million animals slaughtered EVERY DAY as a result of the meat industry. Any statistics on that? An otherwise convincing TEDx talk rendered completely untrustworthy. Which other statistics were cherry picked or ignored to fit a certain narrative?

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