In this, his most ambitious book to date, Steven Pinker describes, and attempts to explain, a curious historical phenomenon: the decline in all kinds of violence among human beings, from pre-civilized times to the present.
The first thing one wants to ask is: Has there actually been such a decline? Given the tremendous wars and political massacres of the 20th century, can it really be the case that man is less of a wolf to man in our own times than in Charlemagne’s, or Agamemnon’s?
Beginning with homicide, Pinker takes a broad statistical view, with humanity at large as the divisor in his calculations. What, he asks, were a person’s chances of dying at the hands of another person, rather than from natural causes, in any given era, over any given broad geographical area? This approach, though it would offer little comfort to survivors of Verdun or Auschwitz, is the only way to take the measure of homicidal violence in the generality.
The first thing it shows is a huge drop in one’s probability of being killed by someone else as humanity passed from pre-state — that is, hunter-gatherer or early agricultural — societies to those organized in cities and nations. Archeological sites and studies of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples tell the tale. In a pre-state tribe, your chance of a violent death averaged 15 percent. By contrast, even in pre-Columbian Mexico, a rather crude state structure, your chance was a mere 5 percent. Some similar figure applied to the first Eurasian civilizations.
What Thomas Hobbes called Leviathan — organized state power — was therefore the first agent to damp down the violent-death rate, even as it allowed great increases in population. If you go from the early civilizations to recent centuries, the numbers drop further. Even under modernity at its worst, in the 17th century and the first half of the 20th, the overall rate of death during Europe’s wars was no more than 2 or 3 percent. Homicide rates in the largest American cities today match those in the least violent pre-state societies.
It was civil-homicide rates that first caught Pinker’s attention. The seed that grew into this book, he tells us, was a graph produced by political scientist Ted Robert Gurr in 1981. Gurr had combed English records going back to the early 13th century in order to plot the change in homicide rates over time. The results were striking. By the 20th century, homicide in England had fallen by 95 percent from the earlier figure. Similar data sets have since been compiled for other European countries. They show the same decline, from high double digits per 100,000 people per year around a.d. 1300 to low single digits today. (The averages for pre-state societies are in high-ish triple digits.) Following the pioneering German political scientist Norbert Elias (1897–1990), Pinker claims this decline as part of the “Civilizing Process” that came with the consolidation of modern states — Leviathan 2.0, as it were — and the spread of literacy and “gentle commerce.”
Overlaid on the later stages of the Civilizing Process was, Pinker tells us, a “Humanitarian Revolution” in which cruelty, slavery, and the more horrid kinds of judicial punishment came to be seen as unacceptable. He tracks this Humanitarian Revolution back to the abolition of human sacrifice in Eurasia during the last centuries b.c., but argues that it got truly airborne only in the 17th-century Age of Reason and the following Enlightenment. “By 1776 the American revolutionaries had defined ‘despotism’ down to the level of taxing tea and quartering soldiers.”
An acceleration principle then kicked in, with downward steps in interstate violence during the “long peace” (since 1945) and the “new peace” (from 1989). Civil violence declined in parallel during these same periods, in a multitude of phenomena from capital punishment to spanking, from racial persecution to boxing. I was amused to learn that early episodes of Sesame Street are now deemed unsuitable for children, as they show such dangerous activities as the riding of tricycles without helmets.
Pinker, whose statistical sense is very keen, points out that some of these movements have long since passed the point of diminishing returns. When a child is hit by a moving automobile nowadays, the driver is usually a parent chauffeuring her own kids to school for fear they might be kidnapped.