Anyone who scans newspaper headlines, or spends a few hours inching down Delhi’s infamous Ring Road surrounded by angry, squalling vehicles, may have trouble believing the hypothesis of Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature: that we humans are becoming less violent as a species.
Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and bestselling author of books on linguistics, visual cognition and evolutionary psychology, has plenty of statistics to back him, citing, for example, that our hunter-gatherer forbears had a 15-60 per cent chance of being killed, while the average American or European had a 1 per cent chance of perishing violently in the 20th century, which saw two world wars and several genocides.
Pinker attributes this, in part, to the proscribing of behaviours that were previously considered normal, such as medieval cat burning, slavery, domestic violence, or even his own torturing a rat to death in a laboratory about 40 years ago. He explains that organised states have rescued us from our brutish natural state, à la Hobbes, and have had a pacifying or civilising effect. He also acknowledges the influence of the age of Enlightenment and Reason, and published works that facilitated empathy, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
There are those who think this is an inordinately rosy view, such as Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, who said that Pinker only tended to dwell on data that ‘fit into his schema’. Philosopher John Gray was a harsher critic, calling the theory ‘nonsense’ in a ringing denunciation titled ‘Delusions of Peace’. But Pinker has never shied away from debate. He is known to have squared off with paleo-biologists, linguists and feminists, among others. We hazard a few questions:
Q Along with the quantum of violence, has the nature of violence changed, given the kind of news and entertainment we consume?
A Violent entertainment has always been around, since Homer and Shakespeare. It used to be, in olden times, that going on the highway from one town to another involved taking your life into your hands because there could be brigands, cutthroats, thieves, that could kill you. With the increase in law and order, there’s much more of a feeling of safety.
Q Are we more fearful than we were earlier as a result of, say, threat perceptions reinforced by the media?
A There’s a whole psychology of risk and fear that drives our impression of how safe the world is, though in earlier times there was also the fear of various malevolent spirits lurking around the world that might possess you or take away your baby… so I don’t know if we’re actually more fearful now than we used to be.
Q Do modern-day depersonalising technologies of killing, like drones, have an impact on our willingness to act on violent impulses?
A I have a graph showing people killed per year of war, which shows that there was an increase in the deadliness of war up until about 1945, after which it went down. In the last 65 years, even though our weapons have gotten better and better, the rate at which they’re used has been going down. I think the tendency to use them is more important than how deadly they are.
The [cause of the] initial increase wasn’t even weaponry, but the better organisation of armies—conscription, training, technologies of transportation, like trains, that could bring soldiers to battlefields as quickly as they were killed, and so led to a renewable supply of cannon fodder.