Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: True or mixed?

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,601
Florania
In spite of repeated reports of violence on the news, violence is relatively low by historical standard in most of the world.
Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined depicts how violence has declined so rapidly from
the ancient to the contemporary time.
Steven Pinker is not a professional historian nor a philosopher by training; then, he is a well-known cognitive scientist and
linguist.
His investigation includes: Reason, self-control, morality and taboo, empathy, dominance, and more.
Since it is a library loan, I read relatively rapidly.
He uses the percentage of casualty in proportion to the whole population as the standard for violence; since the world
population in World War I and World War II was much larger than previously, the proportion loss was smaller.
The "Rights Revolution" and the "Humanitarian Revolution" meant abolition of slavery, cruelty, improved rights for women and
children, equality of ethnic groups, and much more.
He also discusses about femininization
At the same time, violence has declined significantly as well.
How adequate is Steven Pinker's book?
Has violence been declining?
Why did "Rights Revolution" come relatively late?
 
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sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
4,961
Sydney
I'm not sure if Homicide has declined , the first part of 20th century is rather blood drenched
maybe , this is just a pause until greater efforts
 
Jan 2009
1,267
I'm not sure if Homicide has declined , the first part of 20th century is rather blood drenched
It has been a while since I read that book, but I found the arguments presented therein convincing. It is not the absolute number of deaths that we should look at, but the chance that an individual gets killed, i.e. scaling by population. And once you do that, the chance of a violent death (murder or war) goes down by a big factor.
 

fascinating

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,371
I haven't read the book, but I believe that the decline in cruelty and violence, within nations, over the past several hundreds of years is due to greater accountability ie the general populace has become more educated and more able to exert its power. In the past, when the poor majority had no political power, the rich and powerful were able to impose cruelty and violence without sanction; in fact, many of them came to view their acts of violence and cruelty as glorifying their magnificence. The change in political systems in which the law-makers (now more ordinary people and not the topmost elite eg Kings) realised that they, or their relatives/friends, might suffer such punishments that they might impose, caused them to begin to show some restraint.

Between nations, acts of violence are still regarded as morally acceptable, and with the new technologies of killing that came into use in the 20th century, record numbers of people suffered violent deaths. But there is some indication of the need for some restraint in recent times. One reason for this is the nuclear weapon; the significance of this is that people now realise that, however much they are able to destroy the enemy, the weapons are so fearsome that they might be taken down in the same way.
 
Jan 2015
929
England
It has been a while since I read that book, but I found the arguments presented therein convincing. It is not the absolute number of deaths that we should look at, but the chance that an individual gets killed, i.e. scaling by population. And once you do that, the chance of a violent death (murder or war) goes down by a big factor.
Sure, but a UN report a few years ago demonstrated that even when adjusted for population size, the 20th century was deadlier than the previous five centuries put together.
 

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,601
Florania
Can we explain why Humanitarian Revolution and Rights Revolution happened in the West? Don't say Christianity; Christianity was (or still is) one
of the major forces that hinder progresses; enlightenment and secularism have more to do with such progresses.
 

fascinating

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,371
Can we explain why Humanitarian Revolution and Rights Revolution happened in the West? Don't say Christianity; Christianity was (or still is) one
of the major forces that hinder progresses; enlightenment and secularism have more to do with such progresses.
It's odd though, isn't it, that the humanitarian revolution happened in the part of the world that was avowedly Christian. But you are right, it cannot be put down to Christianity, which became the state religion in the Roman Empire but there was no advance then in humanitariansm.

You are asking a huge question (or, more correctly, your simple question would require a huge answer). The pattern of the history of civilisation has been, in my opinion, a story of richer people taking power and oppressing others, that is, taking nearly all property and rights for themselves, and leaving most people with few rights and not enough wealth. Ancient Greece still stands out as a place where things were rather different, the people (who were citizens) had some rights and could, in certain cities, exercise some political control. (It's hard to see why this happened in Greece, among all parts of the World, but a geography of a mountainous land with widely-separated towns (each able to develop politically with little interference from others), plus an open sea whereby commerce fostered the exchange of many ideas between far-reaching cultures, acted to prevent, at first, individuals taking too much power, so that the common people could at least have some right to have a say.)

The whole idea of "rights" was taken on by the Romans (eg "Latin Rights", later "Roman citizen") though of course their system became just another oppressive autocracy. When this system failed, uncivilised (ie people who did not live in cities) tribes, which were mostly small enough to sustain some effective maintenance of individual rights, took over. When they settled and formed independent nations, they were all autocracies but (by chance?) in one (England) the autocrat gave a charter of individual rights - this was the charter of the liberties that Henry 1 gave at his coronation in 1100. Thus there was the idea that the King had made promises that he should keep. There was the Magna Carta of 1215 that reinforced the rights of the people (though at the time it was about enforcing the rights of the barons).

All of this is merely the foundation, the most important thing was that, over the following centuries, Europe developed, through the voyages of discovery, invention of printing, new discovery of ancient learning, and increased commerce, such that a middle class arose that could be vociferous in demanding its rights. The disputes of religion became a driving force for earnest political demands. The consciousness of the rights of people in the Ancient world could well have given some political motivation.

Why did such things not happen in other parts of the world? I believe that Europe's geography, with the presence of the Meditteranean giving relatively easy access to other civilisations, fostered the exchange of ideas and development. Christianity was in fact an important part because the demand for religious books fostered the printing industry which was a major cause of the spread of learning.

Arguably.
 
Feb 2018
233
US
One of the worst books I've read in a long while. He blatantly distorts evidence and clearly hoped that nobody would actually read the footnotes. Honestly where to even begin. His figures on the worst episodes of death and destruction are hopelessly wrong, and these form the cornerstone of his argument: no, the An Lushan revolt was not nearly that bloody, nor were the Mongol conquests. To come to this conclusion you'd have to not have even read a single book on the Tang, since every academic study on the subject I've seen notes how this (and other census drops) represented a loss in centralized control, not a population disaster. Not to mention trying to claim the European conquest of the Americas was one of the worst wars (while lasting for hundreds of years) while ignoring the Spanish influenza in the 20th century, since most of the casualties in the former were from disease and not war. Then there's the using of medieval children's books as evidence that they were violence happy, relying excessively on limited and dubious medieval crime data. Worst of all, he seems to think that you can just look at big headline events and not analyzing the overall violence per year (or some other metric) in each time period, which is not very realistic. Of course when you do that the twentieth century looks a lot worse...

His point may be right (who can say) but the evidence he supplies is so lacking and cherry picked. No wonder no academics even bothered to review it.