Readers, rejoice: we are living at a time that is not only the healthiest, wealthiest and best-educated in history but also by far the least violent.
That is the message from Steven Pinker, Harvard psychology professor and one of the world’s most celebrated science writers. He expects it to be controversial, given our constant exposure to stories in the media about contemporary violence and horrific images of mass carnage in the recent past.
To demonstrate that people have become progressively more peaceful since Neolithic times – and that the trend is continuing into the 21st century – Pinker devotes much of The Better Angels of Our Nature to a historical and statistical analysis of violence at all scales and of many types, from warfare between tribes and nations to individual murders, from torture and rape to slavery and cruelty to animals. This takes up about two-thirds of the book, before Pinker the historian hands over to the more familiar figure of Pinker the psychologist, who analyses why the “inner demons” behind violent behaviour are giving way to the “better angels” of co-operation and altruism.
Unlike the sceptical reader set up by Pinker in his introduction, who laments the growing violence of the modern world and refuses to believe that things are getting better, I felt that I knew enough about the past to accept his basic thesis before I started the book. Even so, I was astonished by the extent to which violence has declined in every shape, form and scale.
In his statistical argument Pinker rightly focuses on the rate of violence relative to the size of population, rather than the number of violent acts. What matters to an individual living at a particular time and place is their risk of becoming a victim of violence. In moral terms too, Pinker believes the experience of those who enjoy full lives should be included in any reckoning.
The second world war was the worst episode in human history in terms of absolute numbers killed on the battlefield and indirect deaths of non-combatants. But when adjusted for population size, the death toll of 55m makes it only the ninth most deadly event over the past 1,200 years.
The worst of all, according to Pinker’s interpretation of figures from the “atrocitologist” Matthew White, was the eighth-century An Lushan revolt and civil war that killed 36m in and around China (equivalent to 429m deaths in the mid-20th century). Second worst was the 13th-century Mongol conquests (40m deaths, equivalent to 278m in the mid-20th century). Although statistics for ancient atrocities are far from reliable, they are good enough – combined with contemporary accounts – to demonstrate the astonishing bloodlust of past warlords.
Pinker begins his pacification story thousands of years ago with the transition from the hunting, gathering and gardening societies of prehistory to more settled agricultural civilisations with cities and governments. Anyone who has read recent forensic archaeology reports about bodies and skeletons excavated from stone and bronze-age European burial sites will be struck by the frequent evidence of violence. Pinker estimates that the end of raiding and feuding between prehistoric tribes led to a fivefold decrease in violent death rates.
But, by today’s standards, life remained nasty, brutish and short. The next stage, according to Pinker, was the “civilisation process” after the Middle Ages, in which a patchwork of feudal territories was consolidated into large nations with an infrastructure of commerce and the authority to enforce law and order. While nations still went to war, the advent of centralised government greatly reduced the violence between individuals and small groups.
Analysis of court records and official documents shows an astonishing decline in murder across western Europe between the 13th and 20th centuries. Murder rates fell between tenfold and a hundredfold. For example, the murder rate per 100,000 people was 110 in 14th-century Oxford and less than one in 20th-century London.
“The discovery confounds every stereotype about the idyllic past and the degenerate present,” Pinker says. When he surveyed public perceptions in an internet questionnaire, the average guess was that 20th-century England was about 14 per cent more violent than 14th-century England; in fact it was 95 per cent less violent.
Pinker proposes several historical forces that have promoted peaceful behaviour by suppressing the “inner demons” of human psychology and stimulating our “better angels”. Besides government and commerce, they include feminisation and cosmopolitanism.
Since violence is largely a male pastime, the increasing respect for the interests and values of women has led society away from the glorification of violence. A more cosmopolitan culture – resulting from growing literacy, mobility and the mass media – can prompt people to understand the perspective of those unlike themselves and expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.
Finally, Pinker says, an intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs, “the escalator of reason”, can force people to recognise the futility of violence and reframe it as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won. Less than a century ago, many Europeans were positively looking forward to what became the first world war – it is unthinkable that anyone besides a deranged eccentric would look forward to war today.
The Better Angels of Our Nature is written in Pinker’s distinctively entertaining and clear personal style, which will be recognised and welcomed by many who enjoyed previous books such as The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works.
At 830 pages, the book might be too long. Although Pinker says he needed the length to make his argument and convince the sceptics, I found some passages repetitive. Readers of a squeamish disposition might feel that he has included too many detailed accounts of murder and excruciating torture through the ages, in his effort to illustrate how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence.
Overall, however, this is a marvellous synthesis of science, history and storytelling, demonstrating how fortunate the vast majority of us are today to experience serious violence only through the mass media.
Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor
Photography with the FT, featuring Stephen Pinker, see FT magazine
The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, by Steven Pinker, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 830 pages