September 18, 2011


Steven Pinker: the optimistic voice of science: In his landmark new book, the Harvard professor argues we are much less violent than our ancestors. It could lead to much academic bloodletting (Andrew Anthony, 9/17/11, The Observer)

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, the celebrated evolutionary psychologist and bestselling author argues that we - the human race - are becoming progressively less violent. To the consumer of 24-hour news, steeped in images of conflict and war, that may sound plain wrong. But Pinker supports his case with a wealth of data.

Drawing on the work of the archaeologist Lawrence Keeley, Pinker recently concluded that the chance of our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors meeting a bloody end was somewhere between 15% and 60%. In the 20th century, which included two world wars and the mass killers Stalin and Hitler, the likelihood of a European or American dying a violent death was less than 1%.

Pinker shows that, with notable exceptions, the long-term trend for murder and violence has been going down since humans first developed agriculture 10,000 years ago. And it has dropped steeply since the Middle Ages. It may come as a surprise to fans of Inspector Morse but Oxford in the 1300s, Pinker tells us, was 110 times more murderous than it is today. With a nod to the German sociologist Norbert Elias, Pinker calls this movement away from killing the "civilising process".

That life gets ever more sedate as the Anglosphere imposes its ethos universally is a given, the interesting question is will this sap mankind of our vitality. And, for a Darwinist like Pinker, the obvious question is why Culture is so powerful that Nature can't withstand it.

Posted by at September 18, 2011 11:11 AM

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