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Three articles by Steven Pinker, Russell Blackford and John Gray

HAS VIOLENCE BEEN VANQUISHED?

by Steven Pinker
As surely as you are reading this, you will have recently read about some shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It's impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, "What is the world coming to?" But a better question may be, "How bad was the world in the past?"

Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

This claim, I know, invites scepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. There will always be enough violent deaths to fill the evening news, so people's impressions of violence will be disconnected from its actual likelihood. Read more

STEVEN PINKER'S DELUSIONS OF PEACE

by John Gray
"Today we take it for granted that war happens in smaller, poorer and more backward countries," Steven Pinker writes in his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes.

The celebrated Harvard professor of psychology is discussing what he calls "the Long Peace": the period since the end of the second world war in which "the great powers, and developed states in general, have stopped waging war on one another." As a result of "this blessed state of affairs," he notes, "two entire categories of war - the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to keep them - no longer exist."

Now and then there have been minor conflicts. "To be sure, [the super-powers] occasionally fought each other's smaller allies and stoked proxy wars among their client states." But these episodes do not diminish Pinker's enthusiasm about the Long Peace. Chronic warfare is only to be expected in backward parts of the world. "Tribal, civil, private, slave-raiding, imperial, and colonial wars have inflamed the territories of the developing world for millennia." In more civilised zones, war has all but disappeared.
Read more

WE ARE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT: STEVEN PINKER AND THE DECLINE OF VIOLENCE

by Russell Blackford

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, is a huge bug-crusher of a book. Counting its notes, bibliography, and everything else, it comes to 800 large-format pages, crammed with information, theorizing, and informal reflections.

The author has pulled together data from numerous statistical sources to back up his claim that violence has tended to decline through human history. He then tries to explain this, and overall it's an impressive synthesis.

Based on Pinker's figures - adduced from all those data sets - a composite graph of human violence, plotted over time, would show ups as well as downs. However, the overall downward tendency has been persistent and has taken place at every level: the family, the neighbourhood, society more broadly, and the interactions of nations and states.

Read more

TAGGED: BEHAVIOR, BOOKS


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