A Little Good News: Pinker Says We Are Living In the Most Peaceable Era in Human Existence

It’s easy to feel the weight of the world some days – stock markets plunging, euro zone struggling, mid-East warring, politics mired in seemingly intransigent partisan demagoguery – but how’s this for good news: we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence.  This according to Harvard psych prof Steven Pinker, who writing in today’s Wall Street Journal argues that our era, “in light of the historical and statistical facts, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful co-existence.

He points to six benchmarks in human history that stood as significant drop-off points for violence trend lines: the move from tribal, pre-state cultures to state cultures, the civilizing of those states, the Humanitarian Revolution about the time of the Enlightenment when we saw the “widespread abolition of judicial torture,” the end of major interstate war since World War II, the new peace that followed, and finally the “rights revolutions” of the postwar era.

As hard as it may be to take Pinker’s thesis at face value, one of the stats he provides give a good starting point for conversion to belief. “On average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states.”  Fifteen percent. That would be about 2 out of every 13 people you know.

So what’s the reason for this decline in violence?  Pinker points to three things: the existence of the state, commerce (we are not about to declare war on China – “morality aside, they make too much of our stuff and we owe them too much money”), and cosmopolitanism (“the expansion parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media.”).

Has human nature changed a lot since the war was fought with clubs and stones? Maybe not so much, but the structures of culture have, and if Pinker’s conclusions about the state’s role in the decline of violence are correct, then at the very least people have realized that “zero-sum plunder” is much less profitable long-term than “positive-sum” trade.

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Sept. 11, 2012