Using data stretching back to the Prehistoric Age, Dr. Pinker, a renowned psychologist and author, said that deadly violence among humans has steadily decreased over centuries.
Dr. Steven Pinker gives a talk on violence through history on Dec. 10 during a Readers and Writers series event.
Photo credit: Ira Fox
Primary reasons for this decline, Dr. Pinker said, include the spread of democratic society and literacy, and with it the rise of commerce, education and mass media. He further argued that people feel empathy toward other cultures when reading about them. That, along with a heightened grasp of morality and reason, overcomes the need to express dominance, revenge or exploitation through deadly violence.
“Over the course of history, a number of these institutions and norms have increasingly brought out our better angels,” said Dr. Pinker, the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, whose 2011 book “Better Angels of Our Nature” details his findings of violence through history.
Dr. Pinker spoke to Weill Cornell Medicine students, faculty and staff on Dec. 10 about his work as part of the Readers and Writers series, which aims to impart insights on the human condition through the words of acclaimed and respected authors. The series, now in its fourth year, seeks to expose medical students to disciplines and subjects they wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity explore.
Starting with Prehistoric Age skeleton findings, Dr. Pinker detailed six distinct declines in violence over world history. Pacification, civilization and humanitarianism compose the earliest declines in violence, marked by such events as the nationalization of criminal justice; the rise of commerce and transportation, emphasizing trade over plunder; the abolition of judicial torture; and decrease of capital crime and execution.
Two longer periods of time without major wars have marked the decline of violence since 1500, Dr. Pinker said. Great world powers began to wage peace instead of major war, most noticeably since 1946, a period called “The Long Peace”; and since the two world wars of the 20th century, there have been “fewer wars of all kinds,” Dr. Pinker said, coining that era “The New Peace.” This period is also marked, he said, by “changing attitudes of war,” as people now deride — instead of celebrate with honor — violence against other nations.
Dr. Pinker said that in the last 60 years, the world has seen decrease in violence thanks to an era he called “The Rights Revolutions.” Racially fueled hate crimes have lessened, as have rapes and domestic violence against women, school violence and child abuse, hate crimes against gays and lesbians, and animal hunting.
While he feared hypothesizing strongly about the future of violence, Dr. Pinker said he believed these types of violence could decrease substantially over the next 50 to 100 years. He added that there’s a possibility that interstate war and war in the Western Hemisphere could disappear entirely over the coming decades. Greater acceptance of world cultures and lifestyles, plus female empowerment, are likely contributing to this current decrease of deadly violence, he said.
In fact, responding to an audience member’s question regarding the effect of women’s empowerment on the global decline in violence, Dr. Pinker admitted with more women in power, violence should continue to decline.
“There is reason to think that with the empowerment of women, certain categories of violence will go down,” Dr. Pinker said, specifically referencing territorial or pride-based violence. Men are almost entirely responsible, for example, for deadly acts that result from a fight over a parking spot, Dr. Pinker noted.
With that, however, civil wars — like those occurring in African and Middle Eastern nations — and what Dr. Pinker called “cheap, low death and high-publicity violence” such as rampage shootings and terrorism may continue to plague our world in future decades.
While the rise of mass media has helped to instill a sense of empathy in people, leading in part to a decrease in deadly violence, Dr. Pinker warned that, today, “the news is a systematically misleading way to understand the world.” He said news outlets tend to report stories of violence, leading people to often believe that violence is a global normality.
The Readers and Writers series, established by Dr. Anna Fels, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, has brought authors Malcolm Gladwell, Jonathan Franzen, Jamaica Kincaid, E. L. Doctorow, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, Woody Allen, Oliver Sacks, Andrew Solomon and Jeffrey Eugenides to the institution. Dr. Pinker’s talk marked the first Readers and Writers event presented in partnership with the The Rockefeller University’s Insight Lecture Series.
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