Steven Pinker: The surprising decline in violence (1)
Images like this, from the Auschwitz concentration camp, have been seared into our consciousness during the twentieth century and have given us a new understanding of who we are, where we've come from and the times we live in.
During the twentieth century, we witnessed the atrocities of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Rwanda and other genocides, and even though the twenty-first century is only seven years old, we have already witnessed an ongoing genocide in Darfur and the daily horrors of Iraq. This has led to a common understanding of our situation, namely that modernity has brought us terrible violence, and perhaps that native peoples lived in a state of harmony that we have departed from, to our peril. Here is an example from an op-ed on Thanksgiving, in the Boston Globe a couple of years ago, where the writer wrote, "The Indian life was a difficult one, but there were no employment problems, community harmony was strong, substance abuse unknown, crime nearly non-existent, what warfare there was between tribes was largely ritualistic and seldom resulted in indiscriminate or wholesale slaughter.
Now, you're all familiar with this treacle. We teach it to our children. We hear it on television and in storybooks. Now, the original title of this session was, "Everything You Know Is Wrong," and I'm going to present evidence that this particular part of our common understanding is wrong, that, in fact, our ancestors were far more violent than we are, that violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that today we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. Now, in the decade of Darfur and Iraq, a statement like that might seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.
But I'm going to try to convince you that that is the correct picture. The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon. You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years, although there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the sixteenth century. One sees it all over the world, although not homogeneously. It's especially evident in the West, beginning with England and Holland around the time of the Enlightenment. Let me take you on a journey of several powers of 10 -- from the millennium scale to the year scale -- to try to persuade you of this.
Until 10,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers, without permanent settlements or government. And this is the state that's commonly thought to be one of primordial harmony. But the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, looking at casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers, which is our best source of evidence about this way of life, has shown a rather different conclusion. Here is a graph that he put together showing the percentage of male deaths due to warfare in a number of foraging, or hunting and gathering societies.
The red bars correspond to the likelihood that a man will die at the hands of another man, as opposed to passing away of natural causes, in a variety of foraging societies in the New Guinea Highlands and the Amazon Rainforest. And they range from a rate of almost a 60 percent chance that a man will die at the hands of another man to, in the case of the Gebusi, only a 15 percent chance. The tiny, little blue bar in the lower left-hand corner plots the corresponding statistic from United States and Europe in the twentieth century, and includes all the deaths of both World Wars. If the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million. Also at the millennium scale, we can look at the way of life of early civilizations such as the ones described in the Bible.
And in this supposed source of our moral values, one can read descriptions of what was expected in warfare, such as the following from Numbers 31: "And they warred against the Midianites as the Lord commanded Moses, and they slew all the males. And Moses said unto them, 'Have you saved all the women alive? Now, therefore, kill every male among the little ones and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him, but all the women children that have not know a man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.'" In other words, kill the men; kill the children; if you see any virgins, then you can keep them alive so that you can rape them. You can find four or five passages in the Bible of this ilk. Also in the Bible, one sees that the death penalty was the accepted punishment for crimes such as homosexuality, adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, talking back to your parents -- (Laughter) -- and picking up sticks on the Sabbath. Well, let's click the zoom lens down one order of magnitude, and look at the century scale. Although we don't have statistics for warfare throughout the Middle Ages to modern times, we know just from conventional history -- the evidence was under our nose all along that there has been a reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. For example, any social history will reveal that mutilation and torture were routine forms of criminal punishment.
The kind of infraction today that would give you a fine, in those days would result in your tongue being cut out, your ears being cut off, you being blinded, a hand being chopped off and so on. There were numerous ingenious forms of sadistic capital punishment: burning at the stake, disemboweling, breaking on the wheel, being pulled apart by horses and so on. The death penalty was a sanction for a long list of non-violent crimes: criticizing the king, stealing a loaf of bread. Slavery, of course, was the preferred labor-saving device, and cruelty was a popular form of entertainment. Perhaps the most vivid example was the practice of cat burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and lowered in a sling into a fire, and the spectators shrieked in laughter as the cat, howling in pain, was burned to death. What about one-on-one murder?
Well, there, there are good statistics, because many municipalities recorded the cause of death. The criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured all of the historical records across Europe for homicide rates in any village, hamlet, town, county that he could find, and he supplemented them with national data, when nations started keeping statistics. He plotted on a logarithmic scale, going from 100 deaths per 100,000 people per year, which was approximately the rate of homicide in the Middle Ages. And the figure plummets down to less than one homicide per 100,000 people per year in seven or eight European countries. Then, there is a slight uptick in the 1960s. The people who said that rock 'n' roll would lead to the decline of moral values actually had a grain of truth to that. But there was a decline from at least two orders of magnitude in homicide from the Middle Ages to the present, and the elbow occurred in the early sixteenth century. Let's click down now to the decade scale.
According to non-governmental organizations that keep such statistics, since 1945, in Europe and the Americas, there has been a steep decline in interstate wars, in deadly ethnic riots or pogroms, and in military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, there's been a steep decline in deaths in interstate wars. The yellow bars here show the number of deaths per war per year from 1950 to the present. And, as you can see, the death rate goes down from 65,000 deaths per conflict per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 deaths per conflict per year in this decade, as horrific as it is. Even in the year scale, one can see a decline of violence. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been fewer civil wars, fewer genocides -- indeed, a 90 percent reduction since post-World War II highs -- and even a reversal of the 1960s uptick in homicide and violent crime. This is from the FBI Uniform Crime Statistics. You can see that there is a fairly low rate of violence in the '50s and the '60s, then it soared upward for several decades, and began a precipitous decline, starting in the 1990s, so that it went back to the level that was last enjoyed in 1960. President Clinton, if you're here, thank you. (Laughter)