Violence Has Decreased Over Time. Seriously.

Book cover: The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

This was originally going to be a book review of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. However, at 800 pages, it’s a serious commitment, and I only made it partway through. Still, he had me convinced, and I wanted to share my thoughts on what I did get through.

In the book, Pinker attempts to convince readers that violence actually has declined over time, as counterintuitive as that may seen. Part of why the book is so long is that Pinker provides a ton of statistics and graphs to prove his point. I truly have no idea how he managed to write this book in anything less than 20 years; the amount of information crammed into it is just incredible.

Violence, religion, and the Old Testament

Pinker points to the Old Testament as an example of significant violence being par for the course back in the day. “Like Jesus, the early Christian saints found a place next to God by being tortured to death in ingenious ways. For more than a millennium, Christian martyrologies described these torments with pornographic relish.” He adds, “The voyeurism in the martyrologies was employed not to evoke outrage against torture but to inspire reverence for the bravery of the martyrs.”

Regarding religious violence, Pinker writes, “Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful. The human toll of the persecution of heretics and nonbelievers in medieval and early modern Christendom beggars the imagination.” Whether or not the explanation is entirely accurate, the end result is the same. Not so very Christian of them…

The civilizing process

While people seem to do a lot of murdering each other now, what we tend to overlook is how much worse things were before. In general, homicide rates are lower when there is effective government compared to nonstate societies, and Pinker describes how the “civilizing process” theory accounts for this. And by the way, fairly useless Western governments in recent years are still in the “effective government” category; a failed state like Yemen or Somalia not so much. The homicide rate in 20th century England was a whopping 95% lower than in 14th century England.

Oh, and the saying to cut off your nose to spite your face? Cutting off people’s noses was an actual spiteful thing people did back in medieval Europe. Im general, the Middle Ages were incredibly violent, and Pinker describes Medieval Christendom as a “culture of cruelty.” Torture was a popular form of entertainment that was “woven into the fabric of public life.”

The book addressed how violence evolved in the United States, including regional differences. “Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In much of American history, legitimate force was also wielded by posses, vigilantes, lynch mobs, company police, detective agencies, and Pinkertons, and even more often kept as a prerogative of the individual.”

Many of us are familiar with the Brothers Grimm fairytales, but no one seems to be particularly concerned with the “murder, infanticide, cannibalism, mutilation, and sexual abuse” that they contain.

While we may think of genocide as being a relatively new thing, wiping out a bunch of civilians is not a new thing. Do you remember learning about sackings and razings in history class, like when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths? Same kind of thing with civilian-killing en masse, just with morally more acceptable-sounding names.

Nude Visigoth soldiers getting ready to pull down a statue of the Roman emperor
Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410, by J.N. Sylvestre, 1890 CE. Musée Paul Valéry

I’m guessing that the Visigoth soldiers weren’t actually fighting naked and the artist is just taking artistic liberties. And maybe it’s just me, but at first glance, does it not look like the dude on the left has a freakishly large penis flopping down over other dude’s foot?

What’s different now?

I didn’t make it to the later part of the book where he talked about what’s happening now, but a couple of things come to mind for me. One is that there are a shit ton more people running around now than there were even back when I was a kid.

To pull a random made-up totally unrealistic number out of my ass, let’s say that there was a constant rate of 1 violent death per million people throughout history. In year zero (or more like the dividing line between 1 BCE and 1 CE, I suppose), when the population was 190 million, about 190 people worldwide would have died violent deaths. In 1700, the 600 million worldwide population would have meant 600 violent deaths. In 1800, 990 violent deaths. In 2022, that would be 7900 violent deaths. And sure, these numbers are made up, but the point remains, there would still be increased absolute numbers of violent deaths even if rates of violence were going down.

The other factor is that we live in the information age. We can easy find out what’s happening right now in some of the most remote parts of the world. Before the internet, it was a lot harder to find out what was going on elsewhere. It was even harder before the telephone, and way the hell harder before the telegraph. The minutiae of violence around the world that we’re bombarded with today wasn’t even remotely on anybody’s radar even 30 years ago.

So there you have it, a quick look at some of Steven Pinker’s points in the first half of Better Angels of Our Nature. I was going in prepared to believe it, partly because Steven Pinker is an academic crush of mine and partly because I know the Middle Ages were all kinds of violent, and he pretty quickly had me convinced.

And here’s a picture, which I have to include because his hair is absolutely magnificent.

Steven Pinker with grey curly hair
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology and a Harvard College professor and he is the author of the new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.” Rose Lincoln /Harvard Staff Photographer

Contented sigh….

Now it’s over to you. Are you open to entertaining the idea that rates of violence have decreased over time?

The Better Angels of Our Nature is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

21 thoughts on “Violence Has Decreased Over Time. Seriously.”

  1. People seem to be less interested in statistics and the truth these days, and more interested in emotional opinions (and here in the U.S., Trump’s presidency and his self-serving, warped definitions of words like “true”, “fact”, “news”, etc. did nothing to improve this dismal state).

    The sad truth is that we live in a culture of fear; one that can be traced back to haunting images from the Vietnam War on the evening news… and followed through to contemporary media coverage, driven by the awful statement “If it bleeds, it leads.” Add to that the myopic media diet (customized to individual tastes through social media algorithms) that many citizens consume and it’s easy to see why people still believe that violence is ever on the rise.

    But I, like you, my beautiful friend, choose to stay sociologically literate. I look to the experts and empirical data to inform my opinions, and am not afraid of having those opinions challenged. I do believe that violence has decreased; but am also frightened by the ethnocentric views of the far right that are (once again) stirring up racial tensions here in the United States.

    The white-washed version of history that is taught in our K-12 educational institutions does little to create a more informed, conscientious society… and in my humble opinion, we are desperately in need of one.

    1. Very good points. A more informed, conscientious society would be a very good thing. I would like to see schools put more of an emphasis on critically evaluating information and the source it’s coming from, as that seems to be sorely lacking in the US in particular.

      1. Yes, I agree. The most recent issue is the blatant misconstruing of “Critical Race Theory” (a buzzword for conservatives who clearly don’t understand it themselves), and the affront to teaching anything that might evoke negative emotions in our children.

        As more and more states begin to enact laws that give parents more influence in the classroom than teachers — and leave educators vulnerable to the threat of frivolous law suits — I fear that we are building a path of destruction rather than one that could repair the damages incurred thus far.

        1. The critical race theory issue is bizarre, and it really is frightening that politicians would legislate regarding something they clearly don’t even remotely understand.

  2. Have you ever read the violent crime statistics in the 90s drop equated to the legalization of abortion? It’s compelling, like this stuff but something just won’t let me go all in.

    1. It’s an interesting hypothesis, and I can see how that might work, but it seems like it would be very difficult to establish causation rather than simply correlation.

  3. Interesting, I think I tend to believe it because:

    – we as a species have supposedly been warring since our civilisations became complex, and would bet we frequently clubbed each other to death as cave-persons.

    – the % of the world population dying from non-violent causes is meant to be the highest it’s ever been. It’s not in the top 10 causes of deaths among various countries grouped by income, as per WHO. Whereas I would have guessed violence dramatically altered life expectancies back in, say, WWI and II.

    – The Human Rights Declaration is a relatively modern invention (1940s)

    – Anecdotally, I’ve lived in places that have seen shifts in attitudes + laws, re: physical punishment of children, in my own lifetime. I see this as continuous steps society is taking towards normalising non-violence.

    These are pretty broad brush strokes! I think of the relative statistic as a win for humanity. Guess it’s quite an optimistic view. ☮️

    1. Very good points. I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that human rights have only been a thing for a very short period of time in the grand scheme of things.

  4. Now it’s over to you. Are you open to entertaining the idea that rates of violence have decreased over time?

    No. I think there are very brief periods of peace in different countries (never at the same time IMO), and that over time (well to right now) violence is horribly wide spread. Partially due to the easy access to the internet. You can find, if you’re inclined to look, a huge variety of ugly and mean and cruel and heart breaking acts of ‘man against man” so to speak. This world is very very ugly to me right now though too. I’m a depressive, whaddyagonnado? They haven’t gotten the right mix of window cleaner to clean that “through a glass darkly” thing I have going on. 🙂

  5. Great review, Ashley!

    I’ve seen similar arguments before. It’s an interesting debate. Society is probably a million times better than it used to be in the Middle Ages. But humanity being what it is, we’ll always find ways to tear things down. I’m also interested in the population explosion. I guess that happened around the time of the Industrial Revolution. We’re not killing each other as much anymore, but we’re certainly killing the planet. The earth won’t be able to support so many people.

    I’m rambling, but some of the climate change predictions I’ve read are pretty harrowing. It’s not just global warming, but ecosystem collapse, including reduced food and water supply. That could very well throw us back into Middle Age-style violence!

      1. Indeed. If what they say is true (and I believe it is), the worst effects could start as early as 2040. Crazy to think about, less than 20 years from now.

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