Is violence decreasing in our world?
Recent book shakes up conventional wisdom

By Danile Martens

When I shared with a local peace and justice group what I was learning about the decline of violence from Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, the reactions ranged from incomprehension to skepticism to outright contradiction.

That about sums up my reaction when I heard about the book. Thirty audio-book CDs later, it seems difficult, pointless really, to dispute Pinker’s research and claims. I have had a paradigm shift in thinking that I am still unraveling.

To understand the disconnect between conventional wisdom and Pinker’s claim — that as a species we are experiencing a consistent and steady decline in violence — we have to first understand his primary assertion. He holds that the percentage of violent deaths have declined from a high of 14 percent of all deaths in prehistoric and hunter-gatherer societies to less than 1 percent in the 20th century. Though the raw numbers of violent acts has increased.

But Pinker’s research and claims are not limited to violent deaths. According to his data, all forms of violence are decreasing, including interstate and civil warfare, inter-ethnic violence, homicide, rape, slavery, violence toward women and children, and abuse of animals. It is a huge undertaking to cover this much territory, and though the book was always interesting (Pinker is an engaging writer with a fascinating subject), I was somewhat overwhelmed by the data. However, by means of a large volume of statistical evidence, Pinker undermined my scarcely considered assumption that the world is growing more violent and dangerous.

Pinker does not just lay out the case that violence is decreasing. He uses the data to suggest some reasons why this might be so. According to Pinker’s interpretation of the data, the state, with its laws to control violence, is the primary deterrent to violence, especially where its validity is generally accepted.

Other violence-diminishing changes, such as the advent of the printing press with the accompanying spread of reading material, especially fiction, as well as the development of travel technology, help us see the world from another’s viewpoint. An additional important violence modulator is the exercise of self-control in many facets of life, even to the seemingly meaningless practices of etiquette.

The increased availability of material resources to people also reduces one of the three primary motivations for violence: material gain. (The other two are honor and pre-emption of expected violence – meaning someone raids before the opposite party has a chance.) A related phenomenon, according to Pinker, was the development of a system of lending and charging interest, which enabled the acquisition of wealth by other means than raiding or conquering territory.

Violence is perpetrated for the most part by a certain demographic: males between the ages of 15 and 30 years are responsible for some 90% of violent acts other than infanticide. Societies that find ways to employ this energy through contests of physical prowess or demanding work, and where marriage and family re-channel male energy (which actually reduces testosterone levels in men), fare better than societies that accommodate male free agents through these crucial years.

Though we will always have the capacity for violence, Pinker discusses something he calls the escalator of reason that explains this gradual decrease in violence and increase in civility. Reason, he says, takes us ever onward once we submit to its rule. People are becoming less violent as a whole because they are rational creatures who are capable of learning and improving, and each step of learning pulls us into the next logical one. He feels it is the inevitable work of reason to reform humanity. That work, he believes, is going on apace. Personally I think this corresponds to a kind of faith that he decries in other forms.

Some unanswered questions that remain for me are the following:

1. If reduction of violence is in part due to the supplying of material goods to a wider circle of people, what will happen when a burgeoning population on a finite planet collides with climate change and increased competition for resources?

2. Have we replaced violence toward our own and related species with violence to the planet? In other words, are we kinder to one another because we are providing for ourselves out of planetary capital, like fossil fuels and agricultural mining?

3. Pinker defines violence as physical harm done as a result of direct physical response to conflict, and in the case of war, the accompanying famine and disease. He does not consider that injustice, displacement, and deprivation are forms of violence. Have we made progress on these fronts?

4. Finally, he is reluctant to acknowledge or give credence to non-rational factors for the decrease in violence among people. Would the nonviolent resistance movement have taken us as far as it has in the absence of faith in a benevolent force in the world?

Nevertheless, I am left with the revolutionary and hopeful thought that we appear to be making headway in the struggle for peace.

Danile Martens is a long-time Community for Peace and Nonviolence member and attends Kern Road Mennonite Church.