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Sep 27 2011

Urge to kill…fading…fading…fading

Steven Pinker has a new book coming out next week, and I’m very much looking forward to it. It is titled The Better Angels Of Our Nature: How Violence Has Declined, and its premise is that humans have been becoming increasingly less violent over time. I’m very sympathetic to this view: I think cooperation, not conflict, has been the hallmark of human evolution.

There’s an overview of Pinker’s argument at Edge.

Believe it or not—and I know most people do not—violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it’s a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

It’s full of charts — all kinds of graphs illustrating correlations and changing rates of war fatalities, homicide, slavery, etc. He identifies five causes of violence: exploitation, dominance, revenge, and ideology (I know, that’s four…I guess he left one out). He also identifies four forces that counter violence: the state as a mediator of justice, trade, an expanding circle of empathy, and reason.

I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an “escalator of reason.” As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

It would be so nice to read a book that’s optimistic about humanity’s future. I’m definitely getting a copy.

(Also on Sb)

116 comments

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  1. 1
    greame

    It would be so nice to read a book that’s optimistic about humanity’s future. I’m definitely getting a copy.

    An Optimist’s Tour of the Future is a pretty good one!

  2. 2
    H.H.

    The religious take it for granted that society is in “decline,” when by all metrics this is not so. What they mean is that society is becoming more secular and relying less upon religion for their morality. And that is entirely a good thing.

  3. 3
    Kevin

    I was actually thinking about this the other day.

    While it’s true that some metrics of violence have declined (especially the use of the death penalty by civilized countries), I don’t think we can congratulate ourselves all that much.

    Go ahead and do a Google search of any random year with the modifier “war”. The 20th century doesn’t appear to be any more peaceful than the 19th or the 18th.

    Someone always seems to be willing to kill someone else in the name of ideology or riches (or both).

  4. 4
    Glen Davidson

    Violence shifts and morphs, and presumably it can always be used if it is seen as advantageous.

    WWII wasn’t really all that long ago, in historical terms, and it was certainly one of the most violent wars of all time–in absolute terms the most violent. And all it would take is a good nuclear exchange to eclipse that conflict. Naturally, we wouldn’t be talking about this afterward, while beforehand it might seem reasonable enough.

    The main issue is probably whether it pays well enough. The great thing about nuclear wars is that quite arguably they wouldn’t pay, even for the “first-striker.” Increasing capabilities of surveillance, coupled with decreasing group loyalties in at least the First World tends to make violence less profitable and more risky.

    Unfortunately, the trade-off seems to be that we have reduced opportunities to escape societal surveillance and society’s strength against the individual and small groups.

    Glen Davidson

  5. 5
    eric

    He also identifies four forces that counter violence: the state as a mediator of justice, trade, an expanding circle of empathy, and reason.

    I would classify ‘free flow of information’ as another big force. There are fewer train robberies today because no horse or car can outrun the radio.

    I classify this as separate from ‘reason’ because its entirely possible to have free flow of information yet completely unreasonable social systems of justice or law.

    Glen Davidson:

    WWII wasn’t really all that long ago, in historical terms, and it was certainly one of the most violent wars of all time–in absolute terms the most violent. And all it would take is a good nuclear exchange to eclipse that conflict.

    You’re right about a nuclear exchange, but in terms of per capita deaths (in participating countries), WWII wasn’t that exceptional. German, Japanese, and Russian war deaths were less than ~0.3% of their respective populations for the entire 20th century, to include both WWI and WWII.

    Of course in terms of total gallons of blood shed, the 20th was the bloodiest on record. But that’s merely because of geometric population increase. I feel safe in saying that even if the 21st is a relatively peaceful century, it’ll still top the 20th – lesson: ‘total gallons’ is a very poor measure of relative social violence.

  6. 6
    Anthony K

    He identifies five causes of violence: exploitation, dominance, revenge, and ideology

    Grr, people who can’t correctly count the number of items in their own lists make me so angry I could just strangle a manatee in the n—wait, that’s five!

  7. 7
    CJO

    I think that’s all true of the recent past, but it doesn’t make me any more optimistic about the future of humanity, because I think “exploitation, dominance, revenge, and ideology” are all going to start making a comeback; and that “the state as a mediator of justice, trade, an expanding circle of empathy, and reason” are all predicated on relative prosperity, which depends on our current, unsustainable energy economy.

  8. 8
    Anthony K

    lesson: ‘total gallons’ is a very poor measure of relative social violence.

    That’s right: learn to use metric measurements like litres like civilised human beings do.

  9. 9
    Alverant

    To paraphrase Kryten from “Red Dwarf”, I know he only listed 4 causes instead of 5, but ideology is such a big cause that it should be counted twice.

  10. 10
    Mark Kernes

    Um … did someone forget that we’ve got two world wars going on, and only recently got out of a third (if in fact we are out of it)? Add that to the various “rebel” forces trying to unseat dictators in Africa and the Middle East, and I think the best Pinker can say is that violence has declined somewhat in this country.

  11. 11
    Dhorvath, OM

    For a brief overview one could do worse than Pinker’s TED talk on violence.
    Myth of Violence

  12. 12
    Sour Tomato Sand

    Yay! More Pinker! I don’t always agree with him (I disagreed with a number of things in The Blank Slate), his books are always an interesting read. I remember reading this argument in The Blank Slate, as well; seems like he’s expanded that chapter into a whole book now. I believe he did a TED talk on the topic too.

    But you know, I really do wish he were a bit more vocal in the atheist community. As a psych major I find the general absence of psychologists, cognitive or otherwise, in the atheist community to be rather startling. Especially considering psychology can be used so well to understand why people are religious to begin with.

  13. 13
    Ze Madmax

    Mark Kernes @ 10

    As bad as things may seem, keep in mind that the total casualties for both of our current “world wars” doesn’t come remotely close to the 60 million casualties of WW2.
    Also, while there are civil wars, uprisings and other social upheavals in many points in the world, it’s overall far more peaceful than it was, say, in the 1970s, when on top of Africa and the Middle East you had major violence perpetrated against populations in Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), Latin America (where a majority of governments were oppressive dictatorships) and Europe (Soviet oppression, ideological terrorists like the Red Army Faction).

    Thus, I’d say that once you look past the labels (Iraq and Afghanistan are world wars? Really?), the idea of history becoming less violent actually makes a good deal of sense (and that’s without considering things like domestic violence and child abuse)

  14. 14
    Robert

    @5, eric

    Are you sure about that 0.3% figure? According to:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties_of_the_Soviet_Union

    Russia lost 13.5% of its total population during WWII (and over 30% of its men of military age…), I’ve read other reports (can’t remember sources, sorry) that claim that wars have been getting deadlier and deadlier as time progresses. Back in the middle ages, armies would be chasing each other, on foot, for years, leaving the surrounding countryside relatively untouched. Modern technology has changed a lot since…

    I wouldn’t be surprised if non-war related deaths/violence has declined a lot over time though.

  15. 15
    eric

    Mark Kernes:

    Add that to the various “rebel” forces trying to unseat dictators in Africa and the Middle East, and I think the best Pinker can say is that violence has declined somewhat in this country.

    He can probably say a lot more than that. Remember that in tribal societies, it wasn’t unusual for most or all able-bodied males to take part in conflicts. In contrast, the entire U.S. armed forces today is less than 0.1% of our population. If they all died (an inconceivable loss), we still wouldn’t approach the per capita death tolls suffered by earlier societies.

    But we’re talking about a book none of us has read yet. So that’s just my guess, that he will have a strong argument. we’ll have to wait and see to be sure.

  16. 16
    mikeg

    Cue:

    If evilution is true, why do people still kill?

  17. 17
    reasonisbeauty

    Pinker is absolutely correct. Archaeology has shown that the chances of receiving an injury that can be seen in the skeletal remains at the hands of another human has, with some lumps in the curve, decreased over time. As we have moved away from small groups who raided one another to larger and more complex political units the chances of dying at the hands of your fellow humans has decreased steadily. Ongoing small scale raiding between small groups produces casualty rates over time that far exceed casualty rates in larger political entities. Modern warfare can be spectacularly destructive and deadly (and we should absolutely work to avoid it whenever possible), but for the average person the chances of dying from it is much less than they were in the past, even for those on the losing side.

  18. 18
    heavymetalyogi

    I’m so glad that he extended this into a full book. I’ve been referencing people to ‘A History of Violence’ for the past four years every time that they say that the world is getting worse.

  19. 19
    Paul Simmons

    Anyone who thinks the 20th century was bad should read about the 8th century. The An Shi rebellion apparently killed over 36 million people. A little more than half the death toll of WWII, at a time when the world population was perhaps 10% of what it was in the mid-20th century. Based on those two data points alone, it seems that violence is decreasing. (Check out the Wikipedia article on ‘List of Wars By Death Toll’ – unless you are a dedicated student of Chinese history, you probably haven’t heard of about half to the top ten. And, as bad as China was during the 20th century, the 8th, 13th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were all worse. And that’s saying a lot.)

  20. 20
    kaonashi

    @Brownian:

    Grr, people who can’t correctly count the number of items in their own lists make me so angry I could just strangle a manatee in the n—wait, that’s five!

    Our four weapons of war are exploitation, dominance, revenge, ideology and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope.

  21. 21
    ChasCPeterson

    Violence may well be decreasing, but at least we’re still winning the war on the environment.

  22. 22
    tfkreference

    brownian, there are three types of people: those who are good at math and those who aren’t.

  23. 23
    James Hammond

    “Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules.”

    Interesting. I wonder if Pinker is deliberately echoing Jonathan Haidt’s “Moral Foundations Theory” to show conservative moral values as violent relics.

  24. 24
    Jens Randrup

    I’ll be optimistic when the world’s human population growth gets negative. Till then, its all bad news.

  25. 25
    matt

    and your book is not coming out until June 2012 PZ?

  26. 26
    joed

    tell it to the pakis/afghans/iraqis(one million plus of them)/palestinians/libyans/somalis/egyptians/tunisians/wall st. protesters/etc.
    the u s/nato/israel are making life violent and painful for millions of people and some idiot writes a book about how he is feeling great that there is less violence. what a fuckin’ asshole.

  27. 27
    Indeterminate Me

    1) It is interesting to see the resistance folks have to empirical-data-based conclusions that contradict their ideological beliefs. In fact, the data reveals violence has been on a long term relative decline in acceptance as a means to resolve conflict, particularly state violence.

    This completely contradicts our perceptions and cultural training and personal biases (as well as the universal phenomenon of nostalgia), so we find it hard to believe – or, we don’t want to believe it, because it makes ideological certainties more difficult to maintain.

    I do disagree with one set of predictions Pinker makes:

    “As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally… Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism…

    Pinker clearly doesn’t spend much time on the Internet. Networked societies, at least at present, are moving in the direction of increased tribalism, of a new and dangerous kind – tribalism based on like-mindedness.
    Folks can now live their entire lives as insulated from diverse culture and ideas as they did in the pre-industrial age, hanging out in Balkanized online tribes where internal dissent and inquiry are rarely tolerated. (“If you don’t like it, go find another community” is the mantra. This is toxic to critical thought and peer review, and tends to lead to group-think circle-jerks rather than more abstract and universal thinking.)

    We don’t even get our “news” and information from the same sources – each idea-tribe has its own manufactured reality, with its own TV networks and its own blogs and its own meetups and its own forums, and there is little if any cross-talk. Worse, there is a growing intellectual movement that argues that there is no reality, no objective facts, rather it is all culturally relative and relevant and equally valid, so, “to each their own”, and it is somehow wrong to challenge beliefs.

    And, online, the loudest, most certain, least reflective voices dominate and crowd out the more thoughtful, inquiring minds in each tribe.

    The future, judging from online discussion, where more and more people spend more and more of their time, more closely resembles Yeats apocalyptic vision:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Well, at least we killing each other less and less over skin color and religion and political ideology. I just hope online “flame wars” remain a metaphor, and not a future trend.

  28. 28
    ibyea

    @joed
    Way to miss the point!

  29. 29
    Matt Penfold

    @joed
    Way to miss the point!

    Joed specialises in missing the point. He is very good at it. Logical argument, supported by evidence, he is not so good at. Neither at understanding or making them.

  30. 30
    Zabinatrix

    Indeterminate Me

    Folks can now live their entire lives as insulated from diverse culture and ideas as they did in the pre-industrial age, hanging out in Balkanized online tribes where internal dissent and inquiry are rarely tolerated.”

    I don’t know if I agree with the idea that this is happening to any large degree, but I’ll grant you that it’s possible. Out of curiosity though – have we seen any evidence that this actually causes real world problems?

    The reason I ask is that I’ve seen so many blame everything on the internet lately. I’m sorry if this gets long, but I feel I need to relate one example that I read recently after the horrible terrorist deeds in Norway.

    It was some sort of opinion piece in the disreputable but popular Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. The text started with the author talking about how right wing extremism was just a joke when he started out as a journalist in the 60′s. He was saying that you could interview a KKK leader or a Nazi and it would just be a funny thing, because they had no power and couldn’t really do anything.

    Then he says that things are different now, because of the dangers of the internet. He went on for a while about how dangerous individuals can now spend their time with like-minded people on the internet and how this obviously can lead to situations like the bomb deeds and massacre in Norway.

    Now his particular examples were rather stunning to me. First he talks about the KKK and the Nazis, two organizations who are known for gathering massive amounts of loyal followers to do truly despicable things long, long before the internet. Then he talks about Breivik who as far as I know worked alone or with very little help from others.

    I’m not saying that better examples don’t exist – but those were the ones used in that text and they really do paint the exact opposite picture to me. Clearly there was no problem for the KKK or the Nazis to gather like-minded people without modern communications. While today I feel like it would have been hard for Breivik to manage to gather any large following without coming under scrutiny or vocal opposition.

  31. 31
    Amphiox

    unless you are a dedicated student of Chinese history, you probably haven’t heard of about half to the top ten. And, as bad as China was during the 20th century, the 8th, 13th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were all worse

    Remember that Mao and the Communists won power in China in no small way because they were able to demonstrate that they treated the bulk of the Chinese people more humanely than the Warlords and Emperors who preceded them.

  32. 32
    joed

    @ Matt Penfold

    I kinda’ get the point but Pinker is writing from his gated community or some other out of the way place and he seems to miss the point that at this moment brown skinned people throughtout the world are in the midst of violence to the death. the violence is caused by u s/nato/israel.
    pinker is surely correct in his numbers but the guy they executed in georgia last week is dead dead dead.
    any lessening of violence is negated by the terror and violence of the moment. of course if you are violent free at the moment then you can talk of the great strides humanity has made. but that is bull shit and you know it.

  33. 33
    Amphiox

    We have also, as time progressed, come up with more and more (some could even say ritualized) proxies with which to sate our violent urges – proxies that have the benefit of not leaving everyone dead at the end.

    So instead of gladitorial combat, we have football (or hockey).

    And at least in democracies, power struggles are settled by character assassination instead of the real thing.

  34. 34
    Amphiox

    pinker is surely correct in his numbers but the guy they executed in georgia last week is dead dead dead.

    True, but at least the state didn’t execute his entire family along with him, or stick his corpse up on a pike in the village square, or torture him to death on reality TV, all of which were commonplace in the past for those convicted of similar crimes.

  35. 35
    Matt Penfold

    Joed,

    Please show, using example from the book (which you will have read) why his thesis is wrong. You will need to explicity deal with the evidence he offers in the book.

    CLaims you have not read the book are not acceptable, since your dismissial of the arguments within the book strongly imply that you have.

  36. 36
    Matt Penfold

    Joed,

    I would also add you are (willfully I think) misunderstanding Pinker. He is not claiming we are not violent today, but that we are less violent that we used to be.

  37. 37
    reasonisbeauty

    Joed-

    the violence is caused by u s/nato/israel.

    Wow. Not to say that these entities are not responsible for their fair share of violence, but to name them as the cause

    Perhaps a deeper look might be useful, say, looking at violence over long time spans to see what conditions produced the most violent times in our history, and trying to understand what actually causes increases and decreases in its rates.

    Someone should write a book.

  38. 38
    joed

    Matt,

    i said pinker is probably correct in his numbers.
    i say being less violent does not make the violence today better or correct or in any way moral.
    many palestinians today will say pinker is full of crap and obviously he is not in the west bank or gaza.

    amphiox,
    the manner of exacution is not of issue. the georgia guy is no longer living. he died a violent death and to say there is less violence in the world doesnt negate his violent death and the violent deaths at any given moment.
    pinker is obviously safe and secure in his nest otherwise he would have writen a different kind of book.

  39. 39
    Greg Peterson

    Probably worth noting for fellow Minnesotans that Pinker is slated to be in town at the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis on October 15. The exact time seems not to have been set yet, but checking back at this site closer to the event should give you the info:

    http://www.raintaxi.com/bookfest/2011Authors.shtml

  40. 40
    consciousness razor

    pinker is surely correct in his numbers but the guy they executed in georgia last week is dead dead dead.
    any lessening of violence is negated by the terror and violence of the moment. of course if you are violent free at the moment then you can talk of the great strides humanity has made. but that is bull shit and you know it.

    If Pinker’s numbers and arguments are correct, then it isn’t bullshit. Your anecdotes and strawmen definitely are bullshit, though. He isn’t claiming lots of people aren’t killed or treated violently anymore, just that (among other things) relative to the size of our population, violence has declined over the long run. He’s no stranger to criticism, and in this case, I think he does a good job of making his points clearly, responding to counter-arguments, and outlining the reasons people have such misconceptions about violence.

    ——

    I saw him give a talk about this, probably some time last year. It was a good lecture, but there was indeed a lot of information to take in, lots and lots of charts. It would definitely help to have the book, just to sift through all the data in one place and have a chance at absorbing a good chunk of it. If I recall correctly, he doesn’t just talk about murders or deaths in warfare, but many different forms of violence.

  41. 41
    consciousness razor

    i say being less violent does not make the violence today better or correct or in any way moral.

    Another strawman. Why would Pinker, or any sensible person, claim this?

  42. 42
    joed

    @consciousness razor

    i say being less violent does not make the violence today better or correct or in any way moral.

    Another strawman. Why would Pinker, or any sensible person, claim this?

    if pinker is not saying less violence is better then what is he saying?

    i am saying less violence is simply less violence. it is not better thean more violence. it is the same.
    and when the violence happens to you or a loved one they you might understand.
    the rape of any woman is the rape of all women.
    does that help.

  43. 43
    consciousness razor

    if pinker is not saying less violence is better then what is he saying?

    i am saying less violence is simply less violence. it is not better thean more violence. it is the same.

    If it’s different, then it’s not the same. You wouldn’t prefer that societies tend to be less violent?

    and when the violence happens to you or a loved one they you might understand.
    the rape of any woman is the rape of all women.
    does that help.

    It has happened to me and to loved ones, and I do understand pretty well how awful any amount of violence is. The point you’re not getting is that he isn’t an apologist for violence. He isn’t saying violence is okay if it’s less common. He’s only saying there’s less of it relative to the population. People tend to think the modern world is much more full of wars, violent crimes, etc., than it was at earlier points in history. If Pinker’s right, that is not the case. If Pinker’s right, it’s also not the case that a small proportion of the population suffering from violence is just peachy, because he isn’t claiming that at all.

  44. 44
    bananacat

    I think the reduced violence is at least partly due to better security. There are far fewer geographic areas where people are desperately poor and at risk of starvation. There’s less need to fight over resources, and more help available for those who need it. In the past, famine affected everyone in an area, so even those with good intentions couldn’t help the starving because they were also starving. Now we are more globalized and can receive aid from other places that have a surplus. And of course having more control over fertility means we can limit how thin our resources are spread.

  45. 45
    joed

    consciousness razor,

    …”He’s only saying there’s less of it relative to the population.”

    ok, now i think i see. pinker is simply saying there is less violence. he is not saying less violence is better.
    i guess i assumed pinker is claiming less violence is better/more moral.
    guess that’s what i get for assuming.

  46. 46
    Enkidum

    joed, it’s probably pointless arguing with you, but I’m going to pretend for a minute….

    Look, presumably you would agree that a completely non-violent world would be better than the one we have now?

    And presumably you would also agree that it is definitely impossible to snap our fingers and move to a completely non-violent world?

    Thus the only thing you can do is reduce the rate of violence, and move towards a non-violent world. You may never get there, but moving in that direction is a good thing. Surely you would agree that it’s a good thing to make the world less violence?

    And this reduction in violence has been going on, more or less continuously, since we came down from the trees.

    This doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, declare it a done deal, or forget about all the horror that is currently being inflicted on millions. But the direction we are moving in – at least where violence is concerned – is a good one.

    That, insofar as I can remember a talk I watched maybe three years ago, is Pinker’s thesis in a nutshell.

  47. 47
    kijibaji

    Michael Tomasello’s current research explores the importance of cooperation for evolution. Here’s the book version of his research:

    http://www.amazon.com/Why-Cooperate-Boston-Review-Books/dp/0262013592/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317164788&sr=1-1

  48. 48
    Enkidum

    @joed 46

    “i guess i assumed pinker is claiming less violence is better/more moral.”

    Well, if he’s not saying that, I am. It is grotesquely immoral to assume that only perfection counts as praiseworthy. Reducing violence is actually more important than ending it, since the latter is a fantasy.

    Morality has to have some point of contact with the real world. The fact that the main cause of death for male youths is no longer violence is a good thing. If you think otherwise, well, honestly, fuck you.

  49. 49
    joed

    of course the ongoing recolonization of africa makes nonsense of the claim that justice and trade are reducing violence in the world. actually just the opposite is happening. there is much less justice now than 20 years ago and trade has become theft of resources from the poor and week to the rich and strong. haiti/somolia/libya/sudan/eriteria/etc

  50. 50
    Paul

    One of the good things about being a humanist as oppossed to a christian is that we can have a real genuine hope that tomorrow will be, or could better than today, and we have a real proven working model for how to achieve this, i.e throught the use of reason and education. The christian model offers neither the hope nor the methods.

    Paul.

  51. 51
    joed

    Enkidum,

    obviously you are safe and comfy in your little part of the world. and life is getting better for you all the time. from a white privileged position that is.

  52. 52
    ibyea

    @joed
    What the freak are you talking about when you say recolonization of Africa? No such thing is taking place. As for Libya, guess who started the violence and was going to massacre the population of Benghazi. It sure wasn’t NATO or any of the protesters.

  53. 53
    claimthehighground

    As Tom Lehrer once said, “Some people don’t like other people. And I can’t stand people like that!”

  54. 54
    claimthehighground

    Or as Walt Kelly said.”We have met the enemy, and they are us.”

  55. 55
    DLC

    No Beer and No TeeVee make Homer something something.

    Go Crazy?

    Don’t Mind if I Do!

  56. 56
    Enkidum

    joed, I agree that the world is not perfect. However I fail to see how you can argue, on anything other than purely emotional grounds, that in some ways it’s been improving, or at least not getting worse.

    Is Rwanda today better or worse than it was in the mid-90′s? (Hint: there’s only one possible answer that doesn’t make you an asshole.)

    The sphere of humanity that has the chance of a lengthy and reasonably happy life has expanded, both in absolute size and relative proportion of the species. And this isn’t restricted to white people, or even to rich people (although it is pretty much restricted to rich nations).

    I like the way you avoided answering any of the points I made above. You’re a tool.

  57. 57
    joed

    Enkidum,

    actually, life expectancy in the us is getting shorter.
    woman and child death at pregnancy/delivery is increasing and the police are killing more people than ever before.
    the us “justice” system is anything but “just” to most people involved. and torture is seen as appropriate by most folks.
    rwanda may have calmed down, i don’t know but much of north africa is being recolonised by the west.
    the white privilege enjoyed by the west does not allow for a healthy relationship with the great majority of the human population.
    for example, if black americans make up about 13% of the pop. why are over 50% of people in prison black-anmericans. my answer is, it’s the system that is unjust and not the black americans. why did michigan stop executing people.
    anyway, there may be less violence in the world but that doesn’t really apply to iraqis/afghans/pakis/libyans/etc. and white privilege is not healthy and creats a lot of violence in other than white communities.

  58. 58
    J Dubb

    This sounds good, until you think about the nukes. The existential dread of nuclear war has gone away, but not the bombs. They’re still ready to go. They will get used some day.

  59. 59
    Hazuki

    Sorry, this is bullshit. Violence is being “outsourced.” Individual people may be less likely to do violence, but that just means the institutions that do do it harder and in more concentrated ways. I count abusive trade and labor practices as violence, by the way, and we’ve seen a HUGE spike in those recently.

    And at the rate things are going, there will be a big spike in actual physical violence soon as the world economy collapses. People get violent when they’re both scared and trapped.

  60. 60
    ibyea

    @hazuki
    As the overview above says: “The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue.” So I don’t think Pinker is denying that violence couldn’t get worse.

  61. 61
    mercurial

    “…Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.”

    Yeah right. Where is the evidence of this? I see no such evidence in the modern world. The tribal-based Israeli/Palestinian conflict has gotten worse and worse after 50 years of futile attempts at “reasoning” with them by the international community. Can the author point to one reputable study that concludes reasoning works to pacify rabid tribalists? I’d like to see it.

  62. 62
    SallyStrange

    “If you don’t like it, go find another community” is the mantra

    Yeah, and wasn’t it recently applied to you?

    You have to admit, it’s heaps better than, “If you don’t like it, we’ll kill you.”

  63. 63
    Anat

    @Hazuki, #60

    Since Pinker’s numbers are about proportion of people who die violent deaths it doesn’t matter if the deaths are caused by individuals or institutions. Overall, a smaller proportion of people die in violence than did in the past. Yes, the rates in developing societies are still higher than in developed ones, but are already lower than in tribal societies.

  64. 64
    Frances Macomber

    One glaring flaw that I see is that he left out class warfare. Isn’t taking away the benefits of society from one group in order to preserve the wealth of another warfare whilst the privileged retain their own? How is that not violent? Does it not cause physical harm?
    *clutching beads*
    How does one justify the subjugation of an multiple classes of people by saying that “violence” has declined? That’s right, he didn’t. Being among the privileged allows one to overlook those that are of a lesser constitution. Got it.

  65. 65
    Frances Macomber

    I apologize for immediately following up, but I must ask, how many have died for lack of funds? Violence? Yes.

  66. 66
    reasonisbeauty

    @65

    How does one justify the subjugation of an multiple classes of people by saying that “violence” has declined? That’s right, he didn’t. Being among the privileged allows one to overlook those that are of a lesser constitution. Got it.

    You must have very long arms, cuz this is a hell of a reach. No single book can cover all aspects of any complex subject. Do you really think that Pinker is trying to justify oppression, slavery, class warfare by addressing the decline of the rates of violence over time? I don’t claim to know Pinker’s politics, but I think he would be horrified if this is what you take away from this book.

  67. 67
    brucegee1962

    joed,

    I think the idea is that if we say (as many Christians do), “Eh, the world is a terrible place, it’s getting worse and worse, and soon it will come to an end,” then the natural response is just to throw up our hands and become selfish, because, why not?

    On the other hand, if we believe that the world is improving, and the efforts of well-meaning people are actually accomplishing something, then we’re more likely to feel that we have no excuse for sitting around not working for the cause.

    I hear what you’re saying, though. Here’s how the same thing was said by Charles Dickens in Hard Times, in one of my favorite passages:

    “‘Then Mr M’Choakumchild said he would try me again. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was — for I couldn’t think of a better one — that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.’

    ‘Of course it was.’

    ‘Then Mr M’Choakumchild said he would try me once more. And he said, Here are the stutterings — ’

    ‘Statistics,’ said Louisa.

    ‘Yes, Miss Louisa — they always remind me of stutterings, and that’s another of my mistakes — of accidents upon the sea. And I find (Mr M’Choakumchild said) that in a given time a hundred thousand persons went to sea on long voyages, and only five hundred of them were drowned or burnt to death. What is the percentage? And I said, Miss;’ here Sissy fairly sobbed as confessing with extreme contrition to her greatest error; ‘I said it was nothing.’

    ‘Nothing, Sissy?’

    ‘Nothing, Miss — to the relations and friends of the people who were killed. I shall never learn,’ said Sissy.”

  68. 68
    luoanlai

    @62 mercurial

    Northern Ireland?

  69. 69
    Matt Penfold

    i said pinker is probably correct in his numbers.
    i say being less violent does not make the violence today better or correct or in any way moral.
    many palestinians today will say pinker is full of crap and obviously he is not in the west bank or gaza.

    Nor, as far as I am aware from interviews I have seen with Pinker does he think violence is anymore acceptable, in whc ih case I fail to see what you are arguing against.

    Either you are trolling, or you are very stupid. Or both.

  70. 70
    John Morales

    Robert @13:

    Back in the middle ages, armies would be chasing each other, on foot, for years, leaving the surrounding countryside relatively untouched.

    Um. You might want to read up on the impetus behind the “peace of Westphalia”.

    (Armies lived off the land, and devastated the countryside)

  71. 71
    John Morales

    PS Or even go earlier to the Concordat of Worms.

  72. 72
    MichelleZB

    No-one’s mentioned this yet:

    I think it’s worth noting that the authors of Sex at Dawn refute some of Pinker’s claims (at least the ones he made in his TED talk) in their book. Sex at Dawn isn’t the most scientifically rigorous book ever, but they do call into question some of Pinker’s information. For instance, some anthropological studies or reports that show violence in contemporary tribal societies are shown to have questionable methodologies, etc.

    Anyway, the authors of Sex at Dawn claim that violence within many ancient tribal cultures was less prevalent than Pinker claims.

    Worth a look. Don’t have the book here with me to get the specific info for you.

  73. 73
    joed

    @65 Frances Macomber

    yes!
    seems pinker has all the correct numbers but is writing from a white privilege advantage.
    brown-skin people in much of the world, including the
    u s, are not seeing less violence than 12 years ago.
    privilege is easy to overlook when i reap the benefits.
    for many palestinians it is 911 every day. certainly the readers/contributors of this blog remember how they felt on 911. well, many people worldwide feel the same everyday. class warfare is being waged and the bad guys are winning easily
    also, technically, it can be called white-male-privilege-in a socio-economic class system. or something like that.

  74. 74
    Gunboat Diplomat

    Some of Pinkers arguments have already been criticised by Christopher Ryan in “Sex at Dawn”:

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-dawn/201103/steven-pinkers-stinker-the-origins-war

    I really recommend you have a look. Its based on a 2007 presentation Pinker made which was frankly shit.

  75. 75
    joed

    Matt Penfold @71

    i am not trolling. i am sincere. i am no stupidier than the next person.
    i am simply trying to say, as best that my semi-educated self can, that it sounds like pinker is coming from a privileged safe place. he seems to not see the palestinian/haitian violence of the moment. his numbers may be correct but that doesn’t help much–does it!
    many people feel 911 each and every day. they are of lower class and are brown-skinned and pinker is not one of them, he is a privileged-probably white-male and that make all the difference in the world.
    honest matt that is all i am saying.

  76. 76
    Matt Penfold

    i am not trolling. i am sincere.

    Well that is a pity. It makes things worse.

    i am no stupidier than the next person.

    The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, most people when writing English have managed to grasp the concept of capitalisation. You have not.

    i am simply trying to say, as best that my semi-educated self can, that it sounds like pinker is coming from a privileged safe place. he seems to not see the palestinian/haitian violence of the moment. his numbers may be correct but that doesn’t help much–does it!

    Your argument makes no sense. Pinker is not arguing that there is no violence today, or that what violence there is does not need to be addressed. He is making a quite specific argument, that once population size is taken into account the world is a less violent place today than it ever has been. You actually seem to accept he is right. This is more evidence you are stupid, since it takes a fair bit of stupidity to agree with someone’s argument and still claim it is wrong.

    many people feel 911 each and every day. they are of lower class and are brown-skinned and pinker is not one of them, he is a privileged-probably white-male and that make all the difference in the world.

    Skin colour is not an issue here. Pinker is looking at the entire world, not specific areas. It is both stupid and dishonest of you to to attempt to claim otherwise. THat there is variation in the levels of violence in the world depending on region is pretty obvious, and not something I expect Pinker would deny. So quit prentending he has. It makes you a liar.

    honest matt that is all i am saying.

    Pathetic.

  77. 77
    joed

    @78 Matt Penfold

    wow! gosh matt, calm down.
    i am saying that color is just about everything to white privileged males and pinker is sounding more and more like that. the little info here about his book says he is insulated from lower class violence. if he lived a week or two in gaza(or detroit) he would get a taste of the day to day violence of class warefare and have a good chance of feeling other violences too. i bet he would write a very different book after a week in gaza or somalia or many many places on Earth.
    i know you wont deny the existence of white male privilege through out the world!

  78. 78
    Sour Tomato Sand

    Gunboat Diplomat, #76:

    So the argument in the link you provided, was basically “YOU FORGOT THE BONOBOS!!”

    Yeah, so what? They’re one species that are less violent (not completely docile as suggested by the link you posted). Furthermore, the relative lack of violence among bonobos is typically attributed to the fact that their society is dominated by females, not to anything genetic, so their genetic similarity to humans does not apply. Chimpanzees (which are just as genetically similar) have a male-dominated society and are extremely violent. As are orangutans. As are humans.

    The link also mentions that Pinker doesn’t make a distinction between nomadic hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists, and goes on to say that our ancestors were mostly nomadic. I am baffled as to why he would think that mean they were LESS violent when nomadic cultures tend to be the most honor-based cultures (due to the nature of property in those cultures).

    Even if it WERE true that nomads were less violent, what is the point in bringing it up? Pinker never states that levels of violence and warfare are a steadily-decreasing gradient from homo erectus to modern times. Pinker does not state that there was a decrease in violence associated with horticulture; he states that there has been a decrease in violence since the advent of the modern state. The point of comparing the Yanomami, etc. to developed nations is to contrast the violence in pre- or non-state and state societies. This should have been obvious because that’s what the damn caption on the chart he provides says.

  79. 79
    Matt Penfold

    Joed,

    Please learn to capitilise. I am not going to bother trying to read your crap until you do. It is rather arrogant of you to insist we try reading your bullshit when you cannot be bothered to use capitals.

    Or just fuck off. Your choice.

  80. 80
    eCAHNomics

    Seems more likely Pinker has lost his mind.

    I thought 20C was the most violent of all.

  81. 81
    Enkidum

    @gunboat diplomat 76

    Thanks for that link. THAT is what this thread needed – some actual fact-based arguments from the doubters. I’ll say two things:

    1) Christopher Ryan gets accused of his own cherry-picking of data, and as someone who is arguing very much the opposite of Pinker’s thesis, it’s not surprising that he would be virulently against this. However, that doesn’t invalidate his points. (Although I do believe that in the TED talk, Pinker specifically DOES mention the various death camps and genocides of the 20th century, doesn’t he?)

    2) Regardless of Ryan, Pinker is a notorious cherry-picker of data. E.g. in The Language Instinct (a great book which is one of the reasons I’m in cognitive psych today) his three-sentence dismissal of neural network models is embarrassingly badly done – he just selects an example where a neural network model failed to learn something, quotes it, and presents that as his overview of the field. Sadly, this tendency is something he inherited from his graduate supervisor, Noam Chomsky (I’m not talking about Chomsky’s political work, but his linguistics, which for the past 40 years has been largely uncontaminated by evidence, although he still may be right).

    @joed

    About the most charitable interpretation that I can make of your comments is something like… “Yes, absolute and relative levels of violence are decreasing, but the decrease has happened almost exclusively in the West, and is predicated upon increasing rates of violence in the rest of the world.” Which is almost coherent. Wrong, but at least coherent, and it’s not stupidly wrong, at any rate. Unfortunately that’s not actually what you’ve said, but maybe it’s what you’re aiming at? I dunno.

    As for your white privilege thing, well, it’s clear that one of the least violent modern societies is Japan, which is hardly an oasis of white privilege (though it certainly is racist as all hell).

  82. 82
    Enkidum

    @eCAHNomics 82

    Seems more likely Pinker has lost his mind.

    I thought 20C was the most violent of all.

    Well, your thoughts are irrelevant. Data matters. And Pinker presents that (you can find it in his TED talk). If you wish to play with the grownups, please look at it, otherwise keep your damn mouth shut.

    (Note: this doesn’t mean you have to agree with Pinker. But if you want to state your disagreement, you’d better give some reasons.)

  83. 83
    Sour Tomato Sand

    Enkidum, #84:

    I think the most salient point to be made about Pinker’s idea here is “So what?”

    What he’s saying may be true, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why it matters.

  84. 84
    Anat

    joed:

    brown-skin people in much of the world, including the
    u s, are not seeing less violence than 12 years ago.

    Pinker is not talking about a scale of 12 years, he is talking about scales of centuries.

  85. 85
    Anat

    @eCAHNomics 82

    Seems more likely Pinker has lost his mind.

    I thought 20C was the most violent of all.

    The 20th century had a few short stretches of high violence but those are balanced out by the rest. Just to realize what Pinker is talking about, tribal societies go through frequent cycles of warfare which tend to involve everyone. In some of these societies roughly every other male dies by violence. Not even the worst inner cities in the west have such rates. But even relatively peaceful tribal societies have 10% of males dying violently.

  86. 86
    joed

    brown skinned people throughout the world are seeing more violence.
    privileged white males are delivering this violence.
    pinker must be white male and privileged otherwise he would written about some other subject.
    pretty logical huh!

  87. 87
    joed

    @85 Sour Tomato Sand

    i agree totally. how does pinker apply to palestine or haiti or many many other peoples!
    thank you

  88. 88
    Jeff Johnson

    “He identifies five causes of violence: exploitation, dominance, revenge, and ideology (I know, that’s four…I guess he left one out).”

    To be fair, and assuming you mean “religion” as the one he left out, religion falls under the category of ideology. There are of course non-religious ideologies that can be causes of violence. For example communism, capitalism, and fascism. Or we could say that people elevate these ideologies to religious levels of absolutist faith.

    It is the totalitarian urge to establish universal ideological purity that leads to violence. Religion is one specie of ideology that can cause violence, and religion does not cause this of necessity, nor is religious belief sufficient to explain violence.

    Religious belief is sufficient to imply confusion about reality, but this confusion doesn’t always lead to violence. It is the urge to compel others to share your confusion that leads to violence.

  89. 89
    Enkidum

    brown skinned people throughout the world are seeing more violence.
    privileged white males are delivering this violence.
    pinker must be white male and privileged otherwise he would written about some other subject.
    pretty logical huh!

    He’s not only white, he’s a JEW! A particularly clever one, too.

    No, it’s not logical at all. Nor is it particularly accurate. Please explain, using occasional capital letters if at all possible, the way that whitey is delivering violence to countries like Brazil, India, China (which between them make up almost half the world’s population), not to mention Japan, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam (today, not twenty years ago), Indonesia (same)… christ, the list goes on and on. And if you include the white West, you’re talking about the significant majority of the planet, now living in relative peace. Seriously, you don’t think this is an accomplishment worth acknowledging? And do you really think your boring dichotomy of white vs brown has any chance of capturing the complexity of these situations? (Hell, you forgot to include yellow in there, which is somewhat of a problem for you, as since the 70′s most of East Asia has actually been improving steadily, and most of the violence there today is being inflicted by Asians on other Asians. Although you could, with at least some justification, argue that the violence there today is the legacy of colonialism, but then you still have the issue of the steady decrease in violence.)

    Yes, there are a lot of terrible, terrible things going on today. Millions live in terror with the constant threat of violence. But the point is that a few thousand years ago, pretty much everyone was living in a shithole. Now it’s actually the minority of the human race. Our species has managed to do at least that much for itself. There’s plenty of chances for it to go wrong, but isn’t it worth noting that it’s at least partly right?

    Honestly, I think you need to take some time and read a little modern history. It’s a lot more complex than you think. If you really believe that what is going on in Pakistan today is the exclusive fault of (presumably) the States, you need to educate yourself a little more. I would recommend the books Taliban by Ahmed Rashid (oooh, a brown person, a Paki even) and The Politics of Heroin by… uh… shit, forget the name. You’ll find plenty of ammunition against white people in both books, but you’ll also find some much needed facts, context, and possibly some understanding of the situation.

  90. 90
    Matt Penfold

    Joed,

    Use capitals you fuckwit.

  91. 91
    Matt Penfold

    Joed,

    To give you an example here is your last comment corrected:

    I agree totally. How does Pinker apply to Palestine or Haiti or many many other peoples!
    thank you

    This is stuff five years learn. That you cannot understand it tells us your intellect is seriously impaired. That is sad, but not our fault and we do not deserve to be subjected to your illiterate ravings.

  92. 92
    Sour Tomato Sand

    Joed, 89:

    Fuck off. That wasn’t the point I was making at all. Fuck your white-vs-not-white ideology, fuck your baseless assertions, and fuck your lack of understanding of world events.

    What I was saying was that, even if it’s true that violence has declined over time, I’m not sure what anyone is supposed to do with that. Observing the effect doesn’t tell us about the cause, and there are so many variables at play here that it is probably impossible to tease out exactly what contributes to an increase in violence and what contributes to a decrease in violence. But then, I haven’t read the book; maybe he has some good arguments in there.

    Also, fuck you for using Haiti and Palestine as your go-to examples of violent society.

  93. 93
    Matt Penfold

    Joed seems to be obsessed, possibly linked to his intellectual impairment.

    There is indeed a discussion to be had about the role of the West in violent situations around the world. However a discussion of Pinker’s ideas is not the place for that discussion.

    Joed’s carers should take some responsibility I think, and stop him posting here. It is fair neither to him, since it exposes him to ridicule and nor is it fair to us.

  94. 94
    calliopejane

    Is there a way to filter out a particular commenter who clogs threads with useless crap?

    It’s obvious to whom I’m referring in this thread, of course. As soon as I realized that when joed hears “less violence is a good thing” he apparently thinks that what’s being called good is the “violence” part rather than the “less” part, I understood that he lacks the language skills and/or the cognitive abilities to make any useful contribution to a complex rational discussion. So I start skipping him, having no interest in his non-sequiturs, straw men, and “reasoning” on 4-year-old’s level. I would be nice if I could just block it out entirely.

    Although I suppose it won’t help the concomitant problem that what could be interesting intellectual discussion, instead becomes arguing basic points of logic and language with an idiot. One moron dumbs down the entire room.

  95. 95
    Enkidum

    Sour Tomato Sand:

    Well, I did listen to the lecture a few years back, but a lot of it has become blurred in my mind with conversations about the same subject since then. So here’s my take on it…

    Violence has decreased massively. A lot of this has to do with simply increasing the availability of basic goods – if less people have to worry about food, shelter, and so forth, less people are desperate enough to fight. Obviously, if this is a cause of the reduction, then we should expect to see increases in violence in areas where basic resources are becoming particularly scarce – look around the globe and you should find enough examples.

    But there’s more to it than that. Another thing which does seem to be highly correlated with the reduction in violence is the cost of raising children. Where children are cheap, so is life, generally speaking. Where they require massive investments, you aren’t willing to risk that investment. There’s of course the question of whether correlation=causation in this example, but I think there’s at least an argument to be made that it does. (And if this is true, it suggests that the common arguments about education levels going along with peace and prosperity may have less to do with the education and more to do with its cost!)

    Obviously there’s a lot more at play here, and what I’ve said about is hyper-simplistic. But here’s the thing. If we agree that violence has plummeted, then, as you say, the obvious question is: “why?”. Whatever the answers to that question (which will be long, complex, and at best incomplete), we can then look to see if (a) we can implement policies that will further decrease violence around the globe, and (b) we can identify potential deteriorations and try to stop them before they happen.

    I honestly have no idea if a serious scientific study of this issue would lead to anything we can actually act on in this way. I hope to Dog it will, but maybe the fundamental factors are out of our control. Does that make any sense?

  96. 96
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    Apologies for veering off-topic, but the talk has turned in part to linguistics, my area of (relative) expertise, and I don’t often get the feeling that I’m more well-informed than the other posters here.

    So….

    2) Regardless of Ryan, Pinker is a notorious cherry-picker of data. E.g. in The Language Instinct (a great book which is one of the reasons I’m in cognitive psych today) his three-sentence dismissal of neural network models is embarrassingly badly done – he just selects an example where a neural network model failed to learn something, quotes it, and presents that as his overview of the field.

    The Language Instinct is an extremely well-written, entertaining pile of shit. OK, that’s not quite fair–he includes a lot of interesting nuggets of information about language, and his takedown of the language mavens is classic, but the central argument, that language is an instinct, that most of our grammatical knowledge is hard-wired into our brains, and that the brain itself is composed of a bunch of largely unrelated modules, is not supported by the evidence he gives (or, in many cases, fails to give). There’s a good counter-argument here by Tomasello; Geoffrey Sampson also presents a good takedown in Educating Eve (though I’m not convinced by his counter-proposal). This site provides a slew of links to anti-Chomsky and Pinker arguments (sadly it hasn’t been updated since 2004, but the arguments are still valid).

    Sadly, this tendency is something he inherited from his graduate supervisor, Noam Chomsky (I’m not talking about Chomsky’s political work, but his linguistics, which for the past 40 years has been largely uncontaminated by evidence,

    heh, can I steal that?

    although he still may be almost definitely is not right).

    FTFY.

    Also, someone upthread asked about his politics–I think he leans libertarian.

    None of this of course has any bearing on his argument about the decline of violence (though I tend to be suspicious of any argument Pinker makes).

  97. 97
    Enkidum

    (Apologies for veering even further off topic)

    Maroon – Thanks for the info. I really like Tomasello’s stuff, although I don’t know it that well. I spoke to him briefly at a lecture he gave, back when I was still fairly convinced by the Chomsky/Pinker line of thought, and he gave a very humble takedown of what I was arguing which may have been a big part of my conversion away from genetically-specified massive modularity. He seems much more interested in actually testing his claims, and I think also is willing to acknowledge how hard that is and how limited the evidence for either side really is.

    Just to keep things gossipy, my PhD supervisor was supervised by George Miller, and he described the Miller/Chomsky breakup as occurring because Miller realized that Chomsky had no interest in data. And I’ve heard much the same thing from other people who knew him back in the day. If you re-read his classic papers, even his takedown of Skinner, you realize just how blatantly unfair the man is.

  98. 98
    What a Maroon, el papa ateo

    To get even more gossipy and off topic, one of my professors when I was an undergrad was one of Chomsky’s original grad students who broke with him in the ’60s (my ‘nym should give you a hint who I’m talking about). He never said anything directly about Chomsky, but his alternative views were a lot more convincing (and more importantly, it was as an undergrad that I first saw Lakoff speak, and read Langacker and Fauconnier–I didn’t realize it at the time, but that set me down the path to Cognitive Linguistics).

    My favorite dismissal of Pinker came from one of my dissertation committee members, who referred me to a Pinker article written in the mid-’80s, “back when he was doing real science” (not sure if those were his exact words, but it is the gist).

  99. 99
    JPS, FCD

    [A]s Walt Kelly said, . . .

    See here for the actual words Walt put into Pogo’s mouth. [/Pogo pedant and grammar nazi]

  100. 100
    JPS, FCD

    Alternatively, see here.

  101. 101
    JPS, FCD

    Alternatively, see here. This is a color version.

  102. 102
    myeck waters

    I’m waiting for the 3D version.

  103. 103
    David Marjanović, OM

    Back in the middle ages, armies would be chasing each other, on foot, for years, leaving the surrounding countryside relatively untouched.

    How about plundering the countryside, with the occasional rape and burnination?

    That was usual in China, too. That’s why soldiers were considered the very bottom of society, and why, as mentioned in comment 32, Mao had such success when he managed to convince his Red Army (as it was still called at the time) not to do such things – to instead “swim like a fish in the water”.

    There are Great Revolutionary Paintings where enthusiastic peasants offer Mao and his army a basket of apples, and he smilingly refuses.

    To go back to Europe… the German language in particular: Heer “army/horde of warriors”, verheeren “to devastate a stretch of land”, verheerend “catastrophic”.

    the manner of exacution [sic] is not of issue.

    That you even say this is evidence of progress.

    i am saying less violence is simply less violence. it is not better thean more violence. it is the same.

    Stupidest thing I’ve read in weeks.

    What the freak are you talking about when you say recolonization of Africa? No such thing is taking place.

    What I hope he’s talking about is the fact that decolonization never went all that far. Pretty much all heads of state have been involved in huge corruption scandals with French presidents, Cold Warriors, and oil corporations from all over the world, complete with proxy wars for resources and oil/diamond/gold/rare-earth revenues that are exported without ever touching most of the population.

    rwanda may have calmed down, i don’t know

    *headdesk*
    *headdesk*
    *headdesk*

    but much of north africa is being recolonised by the west.

    I tried for 10 minutes to find a way in which this could be anything other than Gaddafi propaganda – hypocritical Gaddafi propaganda, because Gaddafi had become one of the hypocritical West’s best friends when the revolution started.

    It goes without saying that I failed. joed, grasp this: you’re stupid enough to fall for Gaddafi propaganda. That’s unsettling.

    I count abusive trade and labor practices as violence, by the way, and we’ve seen a HUGE spike in those recently.

    Actual slavery is greatly restricted, though, and poverty is slowly on the retreat even in China.

    Can the author point to one reputable study that concludes reasoning works to pacify rabid tribalists?

    You missed the fact that it takes centuries for reasoning to penetrate the entire culture. That’s how long it took in Europe.

    How does one justify the subjugation of an multiple classes of people by saying that “violence” has declined? That’s right, he didn’t. Being among the privileged allows one to overlook those that are of a lesser constitution. Got it.

    WTF? What makes you think Pinker wants to justify anything?

    And there’s less oppression now than ever before, except in the US where the Reptilians are trying to get the country back to pre-Clinton levels.

    i am no stupidier [sic] than the next person.

    I’m sorry, you are.

    For example, most people when writing English have managed to grasp the concept of capitalisation. You have not.

    Come on now. That’s laziness, not stupidity.

    The only reason I capitalize is that I touch-type. Remembering not to press the Shift key would take longer than just typing on.

    Joed [sic],

    Please learn to capitilise [sic]. I am not going to bother trying to read your crap until you do. It is rather arrogant of you to insist we try reading your bullshit when you cannot be bothered to use capitals.

    That’s silly. This isn’t German where capitalisation can disambiguate meanings.* If you want to complain, why not pick his dearth of commas? That makes a difference.

    * Ausländer, die deutschen Boden verkaufen = foreigners who sell German soil.
    Ausländer, die Deutschen Boden verkaufen = foreigners who sell soil to Germans.
    Helft den armen Vögeln! = Help the poor birds!
    Helft den Armen vögeln! = Help the poor to boink each other!

    brown skinned people throughout the world are seeing more violence.

    …than when?

  104. 104
    Bruno Fournier

    This is absurd. Obviously, the 20th century was by far and away the most violent in human history. Also, are we really going to claim that there hasn’t been a shift from quantity to quality with the fact that there are now 7 billion people on earth? Evolutionary biologists are usually some of the worst at understanding HUMAN history, i.e. society, hence such monstrosities as Social Darwinism and the Holocaust. Go study Hegel and Marx, and then we can talk.

  105. 105
    Sour Tomato Sand

    Bruno, #106:

    Care to expand on what you mean by a shift towards “quality”?

    Also, please explain how you came to discover that Hitler had a degree in evolutionary biology.

  106. 106
    Matt Penfold

    This is absurd. Obviously, the 20th century was by far and away the most violent in human history

    Please provide the evidence to support that claim. Note that Pinker is not basing his argument on absolute numbers, but on numbers relative the population at the time. You will need to show that no time in the last 150,000 years or so that modern humans have been around has been more violent than the last century.

    Actually given the timescale involved, talking of centuries is a little silly don’t you think ? 100 years is not much compared to 150,000 years.

    Also, are we really going to claim that there hasn’t been a shift from quantity to quality with the fact that there are now 7 billion people on earth

    This is just nonsensical, and so is being ignored.

    Evolutionary biologists are usually some of the worst at understanding HUMAN history, i.e. society, hence such monstrosities as Social Darwinism and the Holocaust

    Please provide evidence.

    Go study Hegel and Marx, and then we can talk.

    No, stick to scientific evidence please.

  107. 107
    pelamun

    That was usual in China, too. That’s why soldiers were considered the very bottom of society, and why, as mentioned in comment 32, Mao had such success when he managed to convince his Red Army (as it was still called at the time) not to do such things – to instead “swim like a fish in the water”.

    I couldn’t find the Mao quote, but with Chinese chengyu, it is always important to look at them in context. 如魚得水 (“like a fish who got water”, not “swim like a fish in the water”) is from “Three Kingdoms” describing the devastation of the post-Han era, with plenty of pillaging going on, and many warlords jockeying for the great prize, the Imperial throne. Liu Bei, was one of them, and one time he tried to enlist the help of one of the brightest minds of his time in China, a master-strategist and scholar by the name of Zhuge Liang (there is a story where Liu Bei has to ask Zhuge Liang three times at his grass hut to become his adviser, made fun of here). After he had finally convinced the man to become his adviser, the advice was so useful that he said “as I have Kongming (Zhuge Liang’s “nickname”), I feel like a fish who got water.” This chengyu is used more in a sense that you have found an environment suited to your unique needs, or that you get along very well with someone. So I don’t think that Mao used that idiom in the way you described it, as he knew his classics.

  108. 108
    Reverend Miller

    That’s strange! I have the same homocidal urges to strangle those conservative bastards that I’ve had for years.

  109. 109
    Ianw

    Maybe I’m more realistic than optimistic. PZMyers is the Victor Meldrew of science. One Foot In The Grave. See “The Beast in the Cage” on youtube.

  110. 110
    Frances Macomber

    Whoa, hold on now. My under-explained point was about the war against the poor in the U.S. That’s it. If you feel good quoting (a bad post) me if it fits you, feel free. Understand that I have the right of disclaimer.

  111. 111
    Frances Macomber

    Fuck it. This is nothing more than arguing on the internet. I’m off to pretend to fly a WW2 aircraft against others doing the same. It amounts to about the same as wanking here: it only requires more skill in a specific genre of nerdism. Just like, um, here.

  112. 112
    Easterngal

    @pelamun

    It wasn’t 如鱼得水,it was 军民鱼水情, i.e. the army and the civilians are as close as the fish and water (with the underlying implication that the water provides for the fish etc).

  113. 113
    Godless Heathen

    @#12:

    But you know, I really do wish he were a bit more vocal in the atheist community. As a psych major I find the general absence of psychologists, cognitive or otherwise, in the atheist community to be rather startling. Especially considering psychology can be used so well to understand why people are religious to begin with.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    (I don’t know what others have said because as soon as I read this comment, I skipped down to post. Plus, I’m late to the game.)

  114. 114
    pelamun

    @114: thank you. There seem to be variants such as (軍民)魚水情深, which make it quite clear.

  115. 115
    David Marjanović, OM

    Thanks to pelamun and Easterngal. Mao knew his classics – I just don’t! :-)

    This is absurd. Obviously,

    The four words to kill all science, and in the darkness bind it.

    If our intuition were reliable, we wouldn’t need science. But that’s not the case. If the highly counterintuitive theory of relativity were wrong, GPS would be several hundred meters off…

    Also, are we really going to claim that there hasn’t been a shift from quantity to quality with the fact that there are now 7 billion people on earth?

    I’ve heard of the Marxist concept of “when quantity turns into quality”, but what exactly do you mean by it?

    Evolutionary biologists are usually some of the worst at understanding HUMAN history, i.e. society, hence such monstrosities as Social Darwinism and the Holocaust.

    …neither of which was perpetrated by evolutionary biologists.

    Shame on you.

    Go study Hegel and Marx, and then we can talk.

    Those are idealistic philosophers, not scientists. I don’t care what’s inside my head, I care about the reality outside it.

  116. 116
    GravityIsJustATheory

    One small point I’d like to make for the benefit of Joel et al:

    The proportion of people being killed by other people (as opposed to he absolute number) is relevant in that it indicates the likelyhood that any random person (or, if we apply the Veil of Ignorance, you) being killed in an act of violence.

    Assuming this research is correct, then it means that a randomly selected human on earth is, statistically, less likely to be murdered than had they lived decades or centuries ago.

    Of course some areas are much worse than others, but in general, things are much better than they used to be, and not just in the West. (A randomly selected African or Indian is presumably far less likely to be killed now than when the Europeans were carving up their countries; Europeans are far less likely to be killed than in the Dark Ages/Roman Conquest/Wars of Religion/Mongol Invasion/etc; a Chinese citizen is far less likely to be killed than if they had lived during any one of the events that make up much of the list of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_and_anthropogenic_disasters_by_death_toll ; etc).

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