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Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.



I think he makes some great points about the statistics of kingdoms and failed states ruled by warlords from a few centuries ago.

I do find it hard to believe that Hunter Gatherers had anywhere near our rates of killing.

It is also hard to see the European and American rates as seperate from the colonies. THe million or so killed in Vietnam, East Timor, and the billions dieing in extreme poverty because of an exploitative trade system we have developed.

None the less a sign of hope that we might be improving as a species rather than speeding towards our own extinction.

red7, if it weren't for your 3rd paragraph there i'd think you were seriously challenged in some way. this guy is so full of it it's seeping out of his eyeballs.

he's so nervous, also, that it's hard to listen to. but i prevailed, and concluded thusly: he sounds like heath ledger as the joker. i kept looking for the purple suit.

oh, you want actual arguments rather than simple ad hominum? please, tempt me. :)

no, on second thought, don't. this is one that's truly beneath me.

The third paragraph was the whole point.

he sounds like heath ledger as the joker. i kept looking for the purple suit.

Maybe you're letting his presentation style color your interpretation of the information? After all, if someone in a purple suit and makeup says (haltingly, while tiny gasps of indrawn breath are amplified by microphone) that the Earth revolves around the Sun, does that make the fact incorrect?

Yes, the presenter uses generalizations and simplifications, clumping humans together as a whole when we are in large part a patchwork of smaller societies and groupings instead of a fully connected whole. Furthermore he obviously sees things in a very modern, Western, urban way: he seems to assume that we as a species are all just down the street from our neighbours, we know where they are, we know where they went to school, we can find where they live on a map, we can contact them. Whereas in many current and past societies, there is a great deal more isolation between individuals, families, communities, races, creeds, etc. This holds true to some degree even in modern Western societies (20% of people can't find the USA on a map, never mind "the Iraq, everywhere like, such as.")

I do think there is something of value to be taken from his presentation, however. In some ways humanity can and should be thought of as a whole, even if that is only literally true by virtue of genetic similarity and raw statistics. And there's nothing wrong with presenting that perspective in an encouraging way.

He is right in that the world is not as full of death and carnage as many of us think. That's nothing to do with a particular subject: people are like that about a lot of things, only seeing the extremes and things that they hear anecdotally.

And you can't argue that modern industrialized societies aren't far more peaceful than more "basic" ones, or that life in the past tends to get romanticized, with our stereotypes of quiet Middle Ages villages full of simple people, tribes of natives at peace with nature... Bullshit! That's our culture talking! It's not the truth!

I think there is value in trying to dispel those falsehoods, even if the presentation is somewhat lacking.

or that life in the past tends to get romanticized

doesn't tend to get romanticized. Why did I start that sentence with a negative, dammit?

Sure we live in uninteresting times right now. Because it's also the longest period of abundance of resources so far in our history. Even if they do solve energy, food, water and climate problems upcoming over the next couple centuries, simple physical laws should tell the simplest of minds it cannot last forever. And at that time, when whatever states exist first hit the hard wall of reality, the very first time, as opposed to the dream we're all living right now, then business will return to usual. Except this time the nations are far bigger, the weapons far more powerful and the people far more used to privilege and unused to hardship. If we even survive it, and with the ability to maintain a history and educate, future generations will pour scorn on us like we wouldn't even pour on the worst eras before us.

The Hobbesian idea of the state enforcing peace out of people because otherwise they will be fighting each other is self-contradictory. Because if people are fighting each other how can they come to an agreement to have a state in the first place? And if they can agree with each other, then why would they need a state which is supposed to enforce their agreements?

Because if people are fighting each other how can they come to an agreement to have a state in the first place?

Exactly. I agree with your logic. However, humans have an inherent mammalian respect for alpha-male authority, therefore to some degree the authority merely needs to exist for people to adhere to its commands. So, things are not quite that simple.

And if they can agree with each other, then why would they need a state which is supposed to enforce their agreements?

To, um, enforce their agreements? A State is also needed in order to maintain internal consistency (see: the US Civil War). Hopefully someday the State as we know it will be replaced by something more efficient and decentralized, and less prone to corruption. (No, that thing is not "the Market". Not even close.)

'However, humans have an inherent mammalian respect for alpha-male authority, therefore to some degree the authority merely needs to exist for people to adhere to its commands. So, things are not quite that simple.'

Ah. So a state did not come into being because people could not agree with each other. They came into being precisely because people could agree with each other. Even if the agreement was to submit willingly to an authority figure.

Which means before you can have a state you need people who can agree with each other first. Which means you need to find a better reason why people can come into agreement with each other. The existence of states fails as this explanation precisely for the reasons I mentioned above.

Even if the agreement was to submit willingly to an authority figure.

You use a different meaning of the word "agree". But I will not argue semantics.

My point was that authority (ie., the State) is not necessarily created by some conscious act of the People, but imposed on them by the first alpha-male that is able, and they were biologically inclined (not to mention forcefully coerced) to submit. Explicit consent is thin on the ground in this case. The amount of violence that exists between the State and the People prior to the establishment of democracy should be evidence enough of that.

I found it niggling that the statistic he quoted regarding the decline of persons killed per conflict per year is essentially meaningless without context, because if conflicts have simply gotten smaller but more numerous then it might ostensibly even out. On the whole though, an interesting talk and an important message, even if the reasoning was at times a bit muddy for me.

I disagree with Steven Pinker on a lot of topics - not hard as he's a cognitive scientist who often steps out of bounds.

However in general I think he is correct on this point.

The objections raised here in the comments are precisely the ones that illustrate why the premise seems so counter-intuitive.

The premise is that man on man (or person on person) violence resulting in death has declined through history to near the lowest point ever. And he is concerned with rates per 100,000 not absolute numbers. Now you may argue that this is setting up a straw man - there is no way a hunter gatherer community could kill a million others people. But the chance of death at the hand of another is the point he is making. How safe is the average person in current society as opposed to those in previous ages.

Would you feel safer walking down a Hong Kong street at night, or wandering through a Middle Ages town at midday? I'd pick HK any day thank you.

He is not addressing hunger or 'expolitative trade systems' (RedSeven nicely illustrates Pinker's point about the growing sphere of empathy there) - but man on man violence.

I watched a recent BBC documentary ( ) where the presenter visited Ethopia to see the site where Lucy the Homo Afarensis was discovered. As the presenter walked with a local tribesman to the site she asked him why was he carrying a machine gun. His reply was that the neighbouring tribe had been attacking them.

I think I'll believe the paleoenthologists over the wishful thinking illustrated here.

someone needs to rephrase the question for the logically challenged.

oh, ok, i'd love to.

growing up today as a member of a world population of 7,000,000,000, what are the chances that, whatever a person dies of, and whenever death occurs in terms of age, that death will be brought about by some action taken by other human beings, compared to the chances of same in a "hunter gatherer" society (assuming for amusement we actually posessed reliable statistics on the latter)?

if i thought "man on man violence" were the worst thing that could happen to a person (which i don't), and i had a time machine i would still take my chances with the hunter/gatherers- if, that is, dying of "natural causes" was some kind of feather in my cap, which is what pinsker seems to think.

as for medieval times, you just gotta stay away from the cities. kind of like today. but at least the pollution wouldn't follow you.

things are not getting better. we are on the brink of destruction and the main concern of the powerful is who'se gonna take care of them when they get cancer, instead of how do we stop producing it.

brought to you by "feeling a little grumpy today?"

Another item this guy misses is that military medicine has improved. Last I really looked at Iraq causality data, we were on track for there to be more total people being hurt in Iraq, its just that deaths are cut by like 70% or something crazy like that.

Vs, say in hunter gather times, one arrow in a shoulder can lead to a death by infection.

It doesn't mean we are trying to kill each other less.

That is an excellent point, RedSeven. Death is not the ultimate tally of human suffering. And it is harder to statistically account for how many people ended up having to spend most of their lives maimed.

Death is not the ultimate tally of human suffering.

thank you. an exact and pithy full rebuttal to pinker's lameness.

it was really interesting, btw, watching how that idea got filtered and purified through the posts of different people down the thread, to be sprung in all it's pithy glory by frenetic. well done!

As pessimistic as I can sometimes be, I think you guys should go back and watch this TED talk before you dump on Pinker's general conclusions. Unlike Pinker, Hans Rosling dumps lots of data that belies your overly dark assessment of things in the world.

i dunno, tim. as someone who loves and understands statistics, it must be very exciting for you to see a guy who turns it into a magic show, breathlessley committed to his vision, entertaining. but those qualities don't turn the statistics into proof of the presenters vision about how child mortality, gnp and life expectancy statistics prove we're living in "the best of all possible worlds". your move, pangloss. :)

or to paraphrase frank zappa while ripping off frenetic:

death is not the ultimate tally of human suffering.

gnp is not the ultimate tally of human happiness.

life expectancy is not the ultimate tally of human achievement.

But they do tend to undercut the proposition that "things are not getting better. we are on the brink of destruction" ... and no one who's read my posts for as long as you've been reading mine can call me Dr. Pangloss without their tongue being glued to their cheek.

well, usually, but i thought maybe you were getting in touch with your inner pangloss..."undercutting the doomsayers" wouldn't be your usual approach, no.

btw, what the hell is the smiley face thing if not an announcement regarding the positioning of the tongue vis-a-vis the cheek?

should i switch to the winky smiley face a la syngas?

What smiley-face?

the one after the pangloss question that was supposed to alert you to the fact etc. etc.

Sometimes one has to cut against the grain of one's usual approach.

It certainly seems that both sets of statistics show a positive trend. What seems completely unproven is whether such trends are caused by some change in human behavior or advancements and cost reductions in technology. Particularly, medicine, food production, and sanitation.


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